A Mirrorless for the DSLR Shooter

I recently received a Nikon 1 V3 with grip and EVF kit along with a couple of lenses from Nikon Canada for review.  While mirrorless adoption is growing, the Nikon 1 lineup has not garnered a ton of support in the marketplace and the initial J series did nothing to help.  I had tried the V1 when it was first released and liked it.  I called it the 688 because its outline vaguely resembled that of a Los Angeles class submarine.  This had nothing to do with the quality of the unit, but it was iconic in its smoothness and simplicity.  At the time, lens choice was not optimal and it felt like there was infighting at Nikon about what lineup would cannibalize what other lineup's revenue.  Nikon just announced the J5 and I hope to see one when available, but I just watched a video with Moose Peterson in South Africa and noted that his second body was a V3 so I thought it was worth another look.

I mentioned that I liked the V1.  But like many of the initial mirrorless cameras, it was filled with compromises.  For me at least, an eye level viewfinder is not optional.  A camera must have one.  Holding a camera up at partial arm's length trying to compose using an LCD screen when the light is bright and subject distant is an exercise in frustration.  I won't do it.  I loved the initial RX100 but wouldn't but one because it lacked a viewfinder.  I've tried myriad other cameras, all very good, but no viewfinder, no sale.  Now in truth, I do have mirrorless cameras, and they have viewfinders, but they are both classic rangefinder designs, a Leica M and Leica M9.  They are both wonderful but are none of featherweight, unobtrusive or possessing of wide ranging zooms at non-mortgage sized prices.


The V3 doesn't have a viewfinder either, but Nikon has intelligently done a kit that includes a grip and an electronic viewfinder (EVF).  Most EVFs leave me cold, or at least with a headache but the little Nikon one is very easy on the eye.  Of course the V3 has the requisite articulated touch screen LCD (because they have to do so for marketing reasons), but the camera really shines when using the EVF.  I even left the touch screen on, despite past experiences with nose activations because I am left eye dominant and it all just works.

The V3 is nicely laid out.  There's the standard Nikon rocker on the right rear and it is pretty easy to use.  The touchscreen is actually quite usable.  There's a nicely executed button/wheel for exposure compensation and while it was not clearly labeled, once I found it, it becomes incredibly easy to use and does not require moving the camera from the eye.  Very handy shooting in the marsh in overly harsh light.

The battery goes into the base and is rechargeable.  It's a known quantity, the EN-EL20a.   Nikon says about 310 images per charge.  The grip moves the shutter button forward and gives you an additional programmable button.  I really like how the grip makes this very small camera even more manageable.  Unfortunately, you do need to remove the grip to remove the battery to charge it up.  Not a big deal but you know.  Images are stored on a Micro SD card.  I'm using a SanDisk Extreme Plus 32gb card in this test.  No issues are found.  Some buyers may be unhappy with the tiny card format, but Micro SD cards come with a regular SD holder so you can still jack the card directly into your computer if it has an SD slot.  My other cameras use both SD and Compact Flash cards so I use multi slot card readers from Delkin into USB3 and all works wonderfully.

Before I get deeply into the specs and field experience, I should note that the V3 does shoot video.  Not a lot of framerate options, but 1080/60p looks terrific.

The V3 has the traditional PASM options, and the menus self adjust to the mode you have chosen.  Important for me was the RAW option in all modes.  I found the menus to be very simple to follow, but they do not exactly duplicate the touch screen functions, so expect to use both to maximize your return on value.

Given that the V3 is the top end of the Nikon 1 lineup, you might expect more granular levels of control than you actually find.  For example, in Auto-ISO, there are presets for the high end ISO, rather than being able to select your own high point.

The little flash is of the articulated arm type, what I call the Transformer unfolding, and it does what you expect, add some directional harsh and underpowered light.  There is a shoe of course, but if you are using the EVF, there's no place to plug in an alternative flash.  Nikon has both the SB-N5 and SB-N7 series of speed lights, but all the websites refer only to the V1 and V2 from a compatibility perspective.  I expect that these flashes work with the V3, but the lack of attention being paid on the web pages to be current with the current products is further testament that not all of Nikon is properly focused on the Nikon 1 family.  It's too bad.

I always check for firmware updates.  Nikon USA indicates no firmware updates for the V3, but sadly Nikon Canada did not mention the camera at all.

Specification Overview

Ok let's get to the techno specs.  The V3 has Nikon's latest iteration of their 1" CX sensor.  While this sensor is smaller than APS-C, and micro 4/3s, it is the same size as the killer sensor in the Sony RX100 series of cameras.  For those who love to know the full frame equivalent multiplier, in this case it is 2.7x.  This sensor is rated at 18.4MP which is a very high pixel density on a sensor of this size.  One would then expect that things would start to fall apart at higher ISOs.  I will leave it to the reader to make that determination upon viewing the ISO Sample Gallery.  ISO range is 160-12800 which allows for a wide variety of shooting situations and helpful because some of the lenses are not screaming fast optically.

Apertures are controlled electronically.  Shutter speeds range from 1/16000th of a second down to 30 seconds.  Bulb is available, but only if you use Nikon's ML-L3 remote control.  Flash sync is 1/250 and leverages Nikon iTTL.

The V3 kicks butt in burst mode.  It can shoot with AF on every frame at single shot, 6fps, 10fps and 20fps.  If you are ok with focus lock on the first frame, you can get 30fps and 60fps as well.

Bigger Nikon DSLRs give you a choice of 12bit or 14bit NEF RAW files.  The V3 is limited to 12bit NEF RAW.

When making exposures, in addition to the usual PASM modes, there is an Advanced Movie mode, the expected Scene modes, and the usual bucket of JPEG oriented Picture Controls.  Exposure compensation is available with a +-3EV range in ⅓ EV increments.  Metering is available in matrix, centre-weighted average and spot mode.

The autofocus system is screaming fast.  In single point mode, you can select from a variety of points totalling 171 with 105 of them supporting phase detection in addition to contrast detection.  In Auto AF mode, 41 points are used to determine focus.  There is also a subject tracking mode and face detection.  Focus deliverables include Single, Continuous, Auto Select, Full Time Servo and Manual focus.

The little flash has a GN of 5 and uses Nikon iTTL for flash exposure management.  You can also force both slow and second curtain sync. plus the expected red eye reduction functions.  The same compensation range of +-3EV in ⅓ EV increments is available for flash compensation.

Auto white balance works great, but there are individual settings for daylight, shade, cloud, fluorescent, tungsten, flash and manual preset.

Looking at the video capabilities, the camera records to the industry standard MOV format.  Frame rates include 1080/60p, 1080/30p, 720/60p and 720/30p.  But you can push to 120fps that playback at 30fps.  There is also motion snapshot, sort of like a cinemagraph, as well as a fixed 4s movie mode.

In the Field

The field is where push comes to shove.  We've all seen cameras that look great on paper or even in a store  but the real test is shooting in the real world.  Although the camera came with the 10mm-30mm lens in the kit, I shot predominantly with the 10mm-100mm zoom.  With the 2.7x crop factor, this equates to a 27mm to 270mm on a full frame.  Sadly I did not get my hands on the 70mm-300m, but author / photographer Thomas Starr has written many posts and posted lots of images from this lens on Photography Life, and I could probably see the two lenses being all that most people need.  The lens unlocks from transit position and this also turns the camera on.  Lock the lens and the camera turns off.  Handy.  

As mentioned earlier, I live by viewfinders so I put the EVF on when I got the camera and never took it off.  Beside the special shoe for the EVF, that also takes the dedicated flashes or GPS unit, there is a popup flash.  It's one of those extending arm things and puts out enough light for a bit of fill flash closeup but like all on camera flashes looks pretty flat when it is the dominant source.  On the other side of the shoe is the mode dial, the shutter release, the on/off rocker and the start/stop video button.  There is a vertically mounted rotary wheel on the front of the body and a second rotary wheel at the right rear of the top deck under a function button.  The button is set to defaultly activate the exposure compensation and the wheel then is used for adjustment.  It's a great layout and keeps the camera to your eye.

When you mount the grip, it gives you another programmable function button and a forward shutter release surrounded by a control wheel that duplicates the functionality of the one on the front of the body.  This is good because the grip makes getting to the body mounted wheel awkward.  I have normal sized hands and really liked the stability that the little grip brought to me.  As noted before, you need to remove the grip to get at the battery but it's not a big deal.  Unlike other grips, this one does not make the camera taller and that helps keep the weight down and the camera more unobtrusive.

The LCD is bright and easy to see, even in the sun.  It is touch capable, and is the first touch screen that I have not been able to engage with my nose.  The tilting screen is handy for low level and overhead shots and is bright enough in most conditions.  Happily the LCD is large and not impeded by a plethora of buttons.  There are only four, down the left edge.  Play, Menu, Display and Trash.  Nice and easy.  The screen does not flip all the way around for selfies, and for this I thank Nikon for not completely losing their mind.

The V3 has Wifi built in and you can control the camera, sort of, from your smartphone.  If that sounds a bit underwhelmed, it's because it is.  The V3 generates its own open WiFi network and you attach to it from your smartphone and then load the Nikon Wireless Mobile Utility application.  To say that the WMU is simple is to understate.  You can remotely take photos or view photos or upload photos via your smartphone's carrier connection to photo sharing sites.  There is no ability to change settings on the camera to accommodate changing conditions, to add exposure compensation or to change the shooting mode. Basically you get Program mode, AF-S, single shot.  Other vendors provide more flexibility and functionality.  So while it's very nice to have WiFi in the camera, the usefulness is diminished by a very limited app.

I like how quick it is to change lenses, even though my primary use case would be the body plus the 10-100 as my walk around lens.  It's not blazing fast optically but more than suitable for general use.  It's also extremely sharp as is evident from the sample images you'll see in this article.

When looking at a small portable camera, I am looking more and more at the video capability.  I won't be shooting something epic on the V3, given my lack of ability for epic, but I will shoot short clips for interspersing into presentations and general memory retention.  The V3 does a nice simple job at video.  Frame rate choices are quite limited compared to competitors, but the 1080/60p gives a decent frame rate to allow for a bit of slow motion and it's progressive at least, instead of interlaced.  There are certainly alternatives with higher frame rates, but this will get the job done for most amateurs like myself.  The resolution is as noted 1080p, so each frame is 1920x1080 pixels and so you would refer to this as a 2K camera.  The coming J5 is said to have 4K but at a very low frame rate and at this point, I have nothing capable of even playing back full 4K so I am not missing anything.  The camera has a built in microphone, and like all built in microphones, it's ok for a sync track but it picks up every touch of the camera and is very sensitive to external noise.  On the left side, there is a ⅛ " microphone jack for an external microphone which is good, but you are going to need to put the camera in some kind of frame with a couple of cold shoes for microphones and LED lights because that proprietary shoe cannot hold any standard footed items and it's already occupied on my model by the EVF.  There is no headphone jack for monitoring your audio.  While this seems like an obvious requirement, most vendors forget about the headphone jack entirely, not just Nikon.  Of course, if you use an off board recorder with decent preamps, you won't care anyway.

I don't shoot JPEGs most anytime so Creative modes have no value to me, but for those who like the idea, the V3 has plenty of options including creative styles, built in HDR, built in panorama, and selective colour.  

One of the things I really liked about the Sony RX-100 family was how good a job Sony's Superior Auto did for pure point and shoot work.  Nikon has a fully automatic mode denoted by a green A on the dial.  It does the job, but is no better than any other vendor's full auto, and doesn't match the intelligence of Sony's Superior Auto mode.

Nikon is deservedly respected for the quality of their lenses.  I have to give them a lot of credit for making the 1 series lenses of high optical and build quality.  Many mirrorless lenses feel like they were turned out of a 3D plastic printer, not so the 1 series.  For the evaluation, in addition to the 10mm - 100mm, I also received the 10mm - 30mm.  It's smaller but I find it's 28-80 type range insufficient in a walk around lens.  If you want to go longer, Nikon does a fabulous 70-300 that I mentioned earlier, and also offers a 6.7mm-13mm wide angle zoom.  Colleague Thomas Stirr owns that lens and says it is excellent.  A 4mm would be very cool though.  The 10-100 is a variable maximum aperture from f/4 to f5.6 over the zoom range and includes both aspherical elements and extra low dispersion glass.  It also incorporates Nikon's proven vibration reduction.  If you need faster glass, there is a 32mm f/1.2 that includes Nikon's Nano coating and silent wave motor.  With a full frame equivalent of 86mm, I can see a use for a this level of shallow depth of field but remember that because of sensor size differences, that CX format f/1.2 provides depth of field similar to f/3.2 on a full frame 85mm.  There are also powered zoom variants for video use.  The powered zooms (PD) are larger and bulkier and you can hear the motors on the internal microphone.  Check the comments to see that Thomas has not experienced excessive motor noise with the 10-100PD zoom.

With most of the 1 Series lenses, Nikon includes a lens hood.  They don't with the 10-100, you buy it separately.  Nikon is certainly not alone in this customer unfriendly behaviour but they could standardize that all 1 Series lenses just have the hood in the box and stop being petty about plastic parts.

It takes a bit to get used to the menus and the touch screen.  Not every setting is available from the menus, so it becomes a combination of touch, function button and menus to get to everything.  It's not horrible, and the menus are at least context sensitive (altering themselves depending on shooting mode).  

I think I may have mentioned how light this camera is, even with the needed (by me at least) grip and EVF.  It's not so small that it fits in a shirt pocket but it fits just fine in a bellows pocket on my anorak or duster.  The strap is a little narrow thing and were it my own, I would probably change that out.  The key in a compact camera for my use case is size and weight.  If the camera is too large or heavy, I wouldn't bother with it and would take either a Leica or a full frame Canon.  The Nikon 1 V3 fits that niche perfectly without being a pain to carry but still delivering excellent image quality.  I'm a bit surprised by how much I like the unit.  It is not without its challenges.  I find the estimated shot count on a single charge to be optimistic at best.  I got 130 RAW images over the course of three hours from full charge to full dead.  The 10mm-100mm is a great walk around lens but Nikon needs to work with Adobe to get a correction module done for it.  The nature of the exposure sensor is that you really do need to expose to the right because lifting shadows as one would on an APS-C or full frame sensor takes you directly to Noiseland.  With glass this good, Nikon needs to put a bit more work into the sensor.  Or do as they have done in other bodies, buy the 1 inch sensor from Sony because that one is better in the shadows.  Depending on how you work, the EVF is not optional.  Everyone who looked through it liked it very much, but working from the rear LCD, especially in bright light is a complete non-starter.

The gallery attached to this post includes images shot over the course of a couple of weeks, but the last six all came from a Birds of Prey day organized by local photography outing provider DayTripper Photo.  DayTripper has a partnership with the Ontario Falconry Centre and Sam always makes for a special day.  Today's trip involved several raptors, including a Great Horned Owl, multiple Harris Hawks, two Bald Eagles, a Siberian Goshawk, two Gyrfalcons, a Peregrine falcon, two Red-tailed Hawks and an American Kestrel.  The presence of the owl also brought about visits from some local birds including a Cooper's Hawk and a pair of Turkey Vultures, along with a particularly vocal murder of crows.  The little Nikon made a nice backup camera to my primary and the 10mm-100mm gave me decent enough range, although I would have much preferred to have had the 70mm-300mm because even when you can get close, it's not THAT close.  

The Nikon 1 V3 ranks with the best of the mirrorless I have tested.  While the sensor and shadow performance is not as good in my opinion as the Olympus OM-D E-M1, you cannot fault the lenses, although I want Nikon to build something wider than 10mm, what they do deliver are classic Nikon, sharp and with the level of contrast and colour fidelity we have come to expect.  If you are looking for a lighter alternative for available light shooting to your DSLR, particularly if you own Nikon lenses, take a close look at the Nikon 1 V3, it's really very good.