Nikon 1 V1 Gordon Laing, December 2011
 
 

Nikon V1 verdict

The Nikon V1 and J1 are two of the most unique and exciting cameras I've tested this year. They boast quicker autofocus, tracking and continuous shooting than any camera in their price bracket. They'll continuously autofocus while filming HD video and even let you grab a bunch of high resolution stills at the same time. As such they'll be adored by action and portrait photographers alike, especially when shooting or filming kids. Nikon's also had fun repackaging these core capabilities into a number of fun modes which take a different approach to photography.

And yet the Nikon V1 and J1 are also arguably the most misunderstood cameras of recent times, based purely on early comments over their basic specifications. When Nikon finally announced its first mirror-less interchangeable lens camera (ILC), it was almost inevitable many were disappointed when they discovered the new CX-format sensor was not only smaller than the APS-C chips in Sony's NEX ILCs and Nikon's own DX-format DSLRs, but even smaller than Micro Four Thirds. Couple this with the fact the new J1 and V1 cameras were also neither smaller nor cheaper than existing ILCs and many declared the system dead on arrival.

To write-off the Nikon 1 system purely on these traditional attributes though is doing it (and yourself) a huge disservice. Yes, in the absence of Nikon rewriting the laws of physics, the noise performance of the J1 and V1 is, as you'd expect, roughly between a point-and-shoot and one of the larger sensor ILCs. No surprises there, so if you're only interested in having the best image quality in the smallest possible body, then turn away now and simply buy a Sony NEX. But what the J1 and V1 give you is speed. The speed to capture fast and sustained bursts of action with tracking autofocus, when most rivals lock their focusing at their top speeds and stop recording after a handful of frames. The speed to capture high res stills and HD video at the same time. Basically, the speed to capture moments which elude almost every other camera.

   
   


I'll give you some examples, starting with action photography. The holy trinity here is having a high number of frames per second, a decent burst depth that lets you keep shooting and continuous autofocus to track the subject in motion. A pro sports DSLR, like a Canon 1D Mark IV will deliver all of that, but in a camera that's large, heavy and very expensive. Sony's come closest to delivering this combination in the consumer space with its SLT cameras, but the burst depth at the top speeds is typically limited to less than 15 images, there's no live feedback between shots and the SLTs themselves, while small, are hardly pocket-sized.

The cheaper Nikon J1 will essentially match the burst depth of the best Sony SLTs in a mirror-less camera that's noticeably smaller, while the higher-end V1 will comfortably exceed the burst depth. Neither of the Nikon 1 cameras will deliver an actual live image between frames, but super-fast processing gives the illusion of one, and at 10fps it's quite possible for to you to follow the action. Now to be fair, Sony's SLTs have much larger and higher resolution sensors, delivering superior image quality - not to mention built-in stabilisation, tilting screens and bigger grips - but in the absence of a mode which crops the sensor to deliver better continuous performance, the Nikon 1 cameras enjoy the edge in speed and depth.

   
 
   
   
   
   
 
   

Are you willing to trade resolution and noise performance for speed and buffer depth? It certainly allowed me to grab some key moments of mountain biking, skateboarding, rafting and jet-boating which I'd only previously managed with a pro sports DSLR. And for portraits of subjects who can't keep still, it's invaluable. The combination of fast and continuous AF with quick bursts let you capture the perfect moments when photographing kids who can't keep still. Indeed rather than asking them to keep still during my tests, I positively encouraged them to run around while I snapped away with the Nikon 1 cameras, and I came back with a high percentage of keepers. Again the 10 Megapixel CX-format images may not match the quality of APS-C sensors, but if they allow you to grab the perfect moment, then it's a sacrifice many will be willing to make. If you'd like more detailed information on the continuous performance in different modes including RAW and buffer-flushing timings, please check out my Nikon V1 Continuous Shooting section.

The continuous shooting is undeniably impressive, but the killer feature for many will be the ability to capture high resolution images while filming HD video. Until now, most cameras either allowed you to only capture stills at the video resolution (which is only 2 Megapixels even for Full HD), or unceremoniously interrupted the recording. Now the Nikon 1 cameras let you grab 15-20 stills at 8.3 Megapixels (cropped 16:9) without interrupting 1080i video. There's a ton of caveats you should know about which I've detailed in my Nikon V1 Movie Mode section, but the bottom line is you'll never have to choose between photos and video again when capturing key moments which can't easily be repeated. I successfully used this capability when filming action sports, but probably the most compelling example was at kids birthday parties when it came to blowing out the candle. The Nikon 1 cameras allowed me to come home with video and stills of this single moment and there was only one lens for the subject to look into.

By now you'll be realising who these cameras are best for. Parents will love them as they'll simply enjoy a much higher success rate at parties, portrait sessions and sporting events, while also recording both video and stills at key events. Action photographers who can't afford a pro sports DSLR (or don't want to lug one around) will also love the speed of the cameras, coupled with their size, weight and price.

I should also mention the lenses. Many were disappointed when the basic 10-30mm kit lens didn't turn out to be significantly smaller than equivalent models on other systems despite the smaller sensor, but you only have to look at the 30-110mm telephoto to appreciate the Nikon 1 system. This 81-297mm equivalent lens folds down to a smaller size than the 18-55mm (27-83mm equivalent) on the Sony NEX system. This means the Nikon 1 enjoys one of the smallest and lightest twin lens kits on the market. Even better, both the kit lenses have smoother zoom rings than many rivals, allowing you to adjust them without catching on video.

So far so good, but Nikon can't perform miracles and there's a number of downsides to the 1 system, or at least important caveats to mention. First is obviously image quality. You can see a full report in my Nikon V1 quality pages, but the bottom line is they can't compete with APS-C or even the best Micro Four Thirds sensors when it comes to noise or dynamic range at high ISOs. But to be fair, the quality is pretty usable up to 800 ISO and the results are much better than the tiny sensors in most point-and-shoot cameras. But again if you demand the best image quality and shoot mostly static subjects, you'll be better off with a camera sporting a bigger sensor.

Secondly the phase-change AF system may be extremely quick, but it's only available under reasonable lighting conditions. Under dimmer light, the Nikon 1 cameras switch to a contrast-based system which is no quicker than other models. So if you're shooting in very low light but still want reasonably fast AF then a traditional DSLR with a nice bright prime lens will serve you better.

Third, there's a number of slightly unusual or annoying decisions. It's nice to have a built-in Intervalometer for automated time-lapse capture, but surely most enthusiasts would find exposure bracketing and a live histogram more useful, while beginners might have enjoyed having some special effects like the popular miniature mode. These are arguably more important features to include before considering esoteric options like interval shooting. The menu system and user interface is surprisingly dry too, and surely something that's icon-driven or at least offers context-sensitive help would be more appropriate for the target market.

Fourth, in an age where touch-screens and articulated mounts are becoming increasingly common, it's shame not to find either on the Nikon V1 and J1. Having a touch-screen would also have given Nikon a key advantage over the competition as currently only it and Sony's SLTs boast phase-change AF - imagine having their AF speed and lack of searching when touch-pulling focus on video.

Fifth, as a new system there's obviously a limited selection of lenses at the time of writing. Nikon's covered most bases with the initial four options, but there's nothing really wide, bright or suited for macro work. The smaller sensor also isn't conducive to achieving a very shallow depth of field. Nikon counters that with the FT-1 adapter which lets you use F-mount DSLR lenses, but it ain't cheap at $270 USD and it remains to be seen how well it works. That said I do look forward to testing the DX 35mm f1.8 and 50mm f1.4G lenses transformed into perfect portrait focal lengths with the 2.7x crop.

You'll also note I haven't mentioned the 'unique' shooting modes of the Nikon 1 cameras yet, and that's because I rarely ended up using them for day to day shots. In particular, the Motion Snapshot mode, which serves-up a second of slow motion video before a still photo, ended up delivering more embarrassing laughs than cute or classy memories. Maybe that says more about me and my friends than the mode though, so you may enjoy more mileage.

Smart Photo Selector was more useful, grabbing 20 shots in a quick burst before automatically presenting the best five. In use this really did seem to work and certainly solves the problem of sifting through hundreds of almost identical images from a shoot, but the traditionalist in me preferred the manual selection process. Again without my baggage you may find it the perfect way to exploit the camera's speed without becoming bogged-down with images.

Sticking with the modes for a moment, I wasn't actually bothered by the lack of a mode dial featuring the usual PASM and full auto options, nor the minimal control system and lack of function button. All the modes and settings are easily accessible from the menu system and to me the operation and adjustment felt more intuitive than Sony's NEX system. A bigger problem was the fact the mode dial itself could be accidentally turned too easily when removing either model from a bag or pocket. An even bigger problem is that the Scene Auto mode seems content to regularly select shutter speeds as slow as 1/60 when it detects a face, which is way too slow to capture kids without motion blur. So unless Nikon addresses this with a firmware update, you're best-off using Program Shift or Shutter Priority with a speed of 1/125 or quicker to minimise motion blur on kid's portraits.

So far everything I've said applies equally to the Nikon V1 and J1 though, so what about the aspects which make the former unique? The V1's viewfinder certainly delivers a great-looking image, but I found the delay when it auto-switched was too long for spontaneous photography and I invariably found myself just using the screen instead. Some kind of switch or option to set either it or the screen as the default display would greatly improve the situation.

   
   
   

Moving-on, it's hard to evaluate the V1's accessory port / shoe without any accessories available at the time of writing, but I did find it infuriating not to have a standard hotshoe. The V1 has a 3.5mm mic input which is certainly a nice addition over the J1 and allowed me to connect my Rode mics, but I had nowhere to mount them on the camera itself. Sure, Nikon offers an adapter which lets you fit accessories with standard hotshoe feet, but really the shoe should have been standard to start with. The desire for a proprietary port is also no excuse as both Panasonic and Olympus implement their ports just under a standard hotshoe, giving them the best of both worlds.

This also makes the Mechanical shutter option that's unique to the V1 a little moot. It may support faster flash sync speeds than the J1's electronic shutter, but you'll need to buy Nikon's proprietary flashgun for it rather than having access to the existing range of Speedlights. I actually preferred having the built-in flash of the J1 over the chance to buy a Speedlight accessory for the otherwise flash-less V1. And while the V1's mechanical shutter will better avoid the rolling shutter effect (while additionally providing nice audible and tactile feedback), I only found a couple of frames over thousands on the J1 which suffered from the artefact.

The V1's higher resolution screen sounds like an easy technical win over the J1, but what few people realise is they're actually different shapes: 4:3 on the V1 and 3:2 on the J1, meaning images fill the screen of the cheaper model, but are letter-boxed on the premium one. This essentially eliminates most of the resolution advantage from the V1's panel when viewing or composing images.

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The larger buffer of the V1 was however very welcome, allowing you to shoot for several seconds even at 10fps. There were certainly some frustrating times when the J1's buffer would fill, and while it empties pretty quickly (especially with a UHS-1 card), the V1 always felt ready for action. The V1's longer battery life was also appreciated for extended shooting, particularly when capturing long time-lapse sequences without an AC adapter.

The build quality was also significantly better on the V1, with its magnesium alloy shell feeling as tough and solid as a mid to semi-pro DSLR, albeit without any mentions of weather sealing (although both models shrugged-off a lot of spray when shooting white rafter rafts sailing past).

Hand the V1 and J1 to a traditional DSLR user, especially a higher-end one, and they'll invariably prefer the former, although personally speaking over time I found the V1 a bit large and heavy for what I wanted from an ILC. Of course this is all relative: it's still much smaller and lighter than a semi-pro DSLR, but for this form factor I personally look for something which I can easily throw into a bag or even squeeze into a pocket. In this instance, the J1 felt and even looked more appropriate for the job - or at least for the jobs I had in mind for it. The J1 may be much more plasticky than the V1, but I ended up taking it out much more often in preference.

Which brings me to my comparisons before the final verdict.

 

Compared to Nikon J1


 
 
     
 
Nikon's J1 is of course the closest rival to the V1. It's a smaller, cheaper and less sophisticated version, but still features the core capabilities which make the Nikon 1 system special along with at least one major advantage.

I'll start with what both cameras have in common: the same 10 Megapixel sensor and lens mount, the same HD and slow motion movie modes, the same four shooting modes including the innovative Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector, the same hybrid AF system which automatically switches between phase-change and contrast-based systems, the same high speed continuous options up to 60fps, and the same ability to capture high resolution stills with 1080i video simultaneously.

In its favour, the higher-end V1 sports a tougher magnesium alloy body, a built-in viewfinder, an accessory port for extras like a flashgun or GPS receiver, a 3.5mm external microphone input, a larger buffer allowing you to capture around twice as many shots in a burst, a mechanical shutter option which supports a faster flash sync speed of 1/250 (along with providing audible and tactile feedback and avoiding rolling shutter artefacts), a battery which lasts roughly twice as long, and a higher resolution screen.

That's quite a few advantages, but in its favour the J1 is smaller and lighter while boasting a built-in flash and a much lower price tag. Some of the V1's advantages may not perform as well as you'd expect either. For example the viewfinder is slow to switch-on, the accessory shoe won't mount third-party mics without an extra adapter and unlike the J1, the screen doesn't match the shape of the native images. Finally as a more serious camera, the V1 is available in black or white, while the J1 is additionally available in silver, red and pink; the lenses are also available in different colours.

The V1 will appeal to enthusiasts who demand the extra build and features, but the J1 offers the key selling points of the Nikon 1 system in a smaller, lighter and more affordable package which also includes a popup flash. If you like the speed and unique capabilities of the Nikon 1 system but can live without a viewfinder, accessory port and tough build quality, then the J1 represents far better value. Indeed after six weeks of solid testing, I personally ended up preferring it to the V1.

For more details see my upcoming Nikon J1 review.

 

Compared to Sony Alpha NEX-7

 
 
 
     

Sony's Alpha NEX-7 is the most obvious rival to the Nikon 1 V1: both are Interchangeable Lens Cameras which are aimed at enthusiasts with features like a built-in electronic viewfinder. So how do they differ?

Most obviously the NEX-7 has a much larger and higher resolution sensor. The surface area is over three times greater, and it sports almost two and a half times as many pixels: 24.3 vs 10.1 Megapixels. Thanks to the larger surface area, the NEX-7 photosites are also about 50% larger in area, so it should enjoy a sensitivity advantage too.

Both cameras can shoot Full HD video, but the NEX-7 offers higher 1080 progressive frame rates of 60 or 50p compared to 30p on the V1; note 1080/60p can be recorded by the V1, but only in the Motion Snapshot mode.

Both cameras offer 3in screens with 920k dots and electronic viewfinders, but the latter on the Sony is more detailed with over 2 million dots compared to 1.44 million on the V1. The screen on the NEX-7 also tilts vertically whereas it's fixed on the V1. Both cameras also feature some means to mount an external flashgun, but the NEX-7 additionally offers a popup flash whereas the V1 does not.

As for unique shooting modes, the NEX-7 offers 2D and 3D panorama generation and a selection of options which stack multiple images taken in a burst to reduce noise or shake.

In terms of their bodies, the NEX-7 is 7mm wider than the Nikon V1, but 6mm shorter and while the thickest portions are roughly the same, the Sony is 10mm thinner at their respective narrowest points. The NEX-7 is also 33g lighter for the body plus card and battery, and there's more controls for manual control, not to mention a proper grip to grab hold of.

So far it's sounding like a slam-dunk for the NEX-7, but the Nikon V1 enjoys a number of advantages of its own. The Sony's pretty quick with 10fps shooting, but that's with the focus locked; the Nikon V1 can match this speed with the benefit of autofocus, or accelerate to 60fps with the focus locked. Sony may have its panorama mode, but the Nikon V1 takes the biscuit for its innovative Motion Snapshot and Smart photo Selector modes, explained in the main section above. Nikon also claims its hybrid autofocus system is the quickest in the world, and the ability to use phase-change focusing while filming has the potential to deliver better continuous AF for movies.

The main advantages of the Nikon V1 are therefore based on maximising your chances of capturing the perfect moment, with the bonus of supplementing it with additional shots or video before and after. On top of this you get the super-fast AF and continuous shooting, and crucially it also comes in much cheaper - around one third less with their respective kit lenses.

Enthusiasts who demand a bigger sensor and greater manual control will however be happy to pay the extra for the NEX-7, even if it isn't as quick or clever at capturing the ideal shot. See my Sony NEX-7 preview for more details.

 

Compared to Olympus E-P3

 
 
 
     

The E-P3 is the flagship Micro Four Thirds camera from Olympus. It's packed with features and controls for enthusiasts and while none of the current Olympus PENs have a built-in viewfinder, there is an optional model for the E-P3, so it arguably is the most relevant rival to the Nikon V1 in this range.

Like the Sony NEX-7 above, the most obvious thing in the E-P3's favour is a bigger sensor; it may not be as large as the APS-C sensor in the NEX-7, and only sport half the number of Megapixels, but it still has twice the surface area of the Nikon CX sensor and a slightly higher resolution too. Note Micro Four Thirds does however employ a squarer 4:3 aspect ratio, so if you prefer the wider 3:2 shape, you'll need to crop the top and bottom, at which point the total pixels between the E-P3 and V1 are roughly the same - but there's still a big difference in surface area.

As importantly, the sensor in the E-P3 is stabilised, meaning you enjoy anti-shake facilities with any lens you attach, including primes and third party models.

In terms of their bodies, the E-P3 is 9mm wider, but 7mm shorter and 9mm thinner (reducing to 2mm thinner at the V1's thinnest point); the E-P3 is also a little lighter at 369g including battery and card, but of course sliding on the optional viewfinder will increase its size and weight. There's also more of a grip on the E-P3.

The E-P3 also boasts a touch-sensitive screen, a popup flash and a standard flash hotshoe in addition to an accessory port. Its controls will also appeal to enthusiasts will dual wheels for adjustments, along with a traditional mode dial.

Once again it's not one-sided. Both cameras can record 1080/60i video, but the V1 also offers a 30p progressive option, along with the potential for better continuous autofocusing with its phase-change capabilities. Olympus previously claimed the E-P3 enjoyed the quickest AF system in the world, but now Nikon is making the same claim.

The E-P3 may feature a touch-screen, but the panel on the V1 is higher resolution at 920k vs 610k dots; note the viewfinders for both cameras feature the same 1.44 million dot resolution. The V1 enjoys the convenience of a built-in viewfinder, although you could argue the removable option on the E-P3 is more flexible, and it can also literally angle by 90 degrees.

Continuous shooting is where the Nikon v1 really trumps the E-P3, offering 10fps with AF or 60fps with locked focus compared to a paltry 3fps on the E-P3. Then there's Nikon's clever shooting modes which maximise your chances of capturing the perfect moment while also adding bonus frames or video.

Interestingly both cameras share roughly the same price for their respective kits, although the E-P3 kit doesn't include the viewfinder which will cost you about one third extra. Adding this makes the E-P3 comfortably pricier than the V1, although the bigger sensor, built-in stabilisation and better controls for enthusiasts will still see it selected by many.

See our Olympus E-P3 review for more details.

 

Compared to Panasonic Lumix GX1 (coming soon)

 

 

Nikon V1 final verdict

The Nikon V1 is one of the fastest cameras I've tested at any price point and in any category. Quick AF, confident tracking, fast burst shooting and the ability to capture both stills and HD video simultaneously add up to a camera that can simply capture moments that are hard or even impossible to grab with another camera.

   
   
 
   
   

Yes the sensor is smaller than APS-C and Micro Four Thirds, so it's no surprise to find the V1's image quality coming in below these formats, although conversely it is superior to the tiny sensors in a typical point-and-shoot model. So as I said earlier, if you're after the best image quality in the smallest possible body then it's hard to beat Sony's NEX range. But again the V1 isn't about ultimate image quality - it's about being able to capture a moment which eludes most cameras, and this it does with a degree of confidence and consistency which quickly becomes addictive.

Parents of young-uns and Soccer Moms, listen-up. It's triumphant at sporting events, kids parties or simply maximising your chance of a great portrait with a tricky subject which can't keep still (although you may need to select a faster shutter speed than the fully auto mode suggests to avoid motion blur). Action junkies will also love having the speed and focusing of something approaching a pro sports DSLR in a considerably more affordable and portable package. And if you've ever been torn whether to shoot stills or video at a one-off event, the V1 gives you both at the same time.

Of course many of the technologies behind the Nikon 1 system have been seen before: Fujifilm briefly dabbled with on-sensor phase-change AF, Casio pioneered high-speed bursts and super slow motion video, while Sony has arguably made some of the best hybrid solutions to date with its SLT range. But none have quite come together as well as the Nikon 1 if you're after a compact, fast and confident system which can also capture high res stills with HD video simultaneously.

Probably the worst part of the V1 though is it feels uncomfortably pitched. Nikon's fully aware that enthusiasts desire a certain feature-set, and the V1 certainly ticks many boxes with its tough build, decent battery life, built-in viewfinder and accessory port, but as detailed earlier, some of these are mired by their implementation and there's the simple fact they've resulted in a fairly large, heavy and expensive ILC. The enthusiasts who'll want these features will also expect to find exposure bracketing, a live histogram and a customisable function key, none of which are available on the V1. It also doesn't seem unreasonable to expect a built-in flash, but they won't get one of these either.

This results in a frustrating situation where there's so much to like about the V1, but you can't help looking at the things which haven't worked so well, and ultimately the relatively high price. Viewed in isolation, the sheer speed of the V1 outweighs many of its downsides and results in an overall recommendation, but when you consider the competition there is a better choice in my view: the J1.

 

Nikon's J1 is the unsung hero of the new system, the model which many overlooked due to its 'lower' specification, but for me it's the real winner here. It delivers all the best parts of the Nikon 1 system - the fast AF, confident tracking, quick burst shooting and simultaneous stills with HD video - but packages them into a smaller, lighter and crucially cheaper camera. Of all the V1's benefits, the only ones I really envied over time were its deeper buffer and mic input, although again the latter is hobbled on the V1 by not having a standard hotshoe mount. Then there's the built-in flash of the J1, which for casual snaps and fill-ins is much more useful than being forced to buy an optional accessory.

Had the V1 featured a built-in flash, standard hotshoe, customisable function key, bracketing and some means to set the screen or viewfinder to be the default display, then it could have been a different story. But as it stands I found the V1's 'benefits' over the J1 to become less compelling over time until I ended up preferring the smaller form factor of the cheaper model. And once you've added things like the optional Speedlight or F-mount lens adapter to the V1, it's really becoming quite an expensive proposition. To truly satisfy enthusiasts and justify its price tag, the V1 simply needs further refinement; but to be fair it is quite literally Version 1.

Of course much of this is personal and those who really want a viewfinder or tough build will end up preferring the V1. But I urge any potential Nikon 1 buyers to think very carefully about how they'll use the cameras long-term. Like most reviewers and enthusiasts, I started off preferring the V1, but thanks to an extended testing period where I shot thousands of frames with both models over six weeks, it was the J1 which ended up being my preferred choice.

Overall if you only take one thing away from this review it's that the Nikon 1 system really is something special even with these first models. Don't get bogged-down by the sensor size and instead revel in the speed. It's the fastest mirror-less ILC to date and if this suits your subject you'll love it. In fact it's hard not to become evangelical and I commend Nikon for doing something different and truly compelling. Of the two models, you may find the V1 despite its foibles and price tag the preferred option, but again the J1 gets my choice, especially in the twin lens kit with the tiny 30-110mm telephoto zoom. Grab those rebates now before the world realises how good it is.

 



Good points
Fast AF and confident tracking in good lighting.
Fast burst shooting, including 10fps with AF.
Able to capture high-res stills while filming HD video.
Built-in viewfinder, mic input and accessory port.


Bad points
Viewfinder slow to activate and no manual override.
Switches to slower AF system under dim conditions.
No exposure bracketing, live histogram or effects.
No built-in flash. Proprietary accessory shoe limits options.
Shutter often too slow in Portrait mode to avoid blurring.




Scores

(relative to 2011 ILCs)

Build quality:
Image quality:
Handling:
Specification:
Value:

Overall:

19 / 20
15 / 20
19 / 20
16 / 20
15 / 20

84%


 

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