Preliminary Review of the Nikon 1

I have recently had opportunity to get hands on with the two new Nikon 1 cameras.  I also had opportunity to take the V1 into the field and thought it might be interesting to share my experiences.   The Nikon 1 cameras were announced this fall, and fit into the category often referred to as "bridge cameras".  I'm not a fan of buzzwords but these devices do fit between fast and relatively inexpensive point and shoot digital cameras and the ostensibly more complex DSLR ranges.  Other cameras in this group include the viewfinder equipped but non-interchangeable lens models like the Canon G12 and Nikon 7100 as well as the micro four thirds mirror-less offerings from Lumix, Samsung and Olympus.

The primary differentiator from a technical perspective in the bridge cameras is sensor size.  As most all serious and mostly serious photographer's know, the megapixel race is very much an oxymoron, as high megapixels alone do not a better image make.  We see plenty of high MP point and shoots whose sensors are smaller than the fingernail on your little finger.  Even in the DSLR world we encounter the arguments between crop sensor and full frame.  So let's try to move beyond that in this review.

Simply, the sensors in the Nikon 1 family are larger than the viewfinder point and shoots and smaller than the sensors in the micro four-thirds offerings.  Nikon has been pragmatic in megapixel count in what they refer to as the CX sensor with a rating of 12 megapixels.  As anyone who has done much printing knows, this is going to deliver very good prints up to 16x20 all things being equal.  The crop factor on the sensor is about 2.7x so greater than the micro four-thirds factor of 2x.  The example I used for most of the review is the V1 with the 10mm f2.8 "pancake" style prime lens.  Thus this would look like about a 27mm on a full frame 35mm.  Field practice says this is pretty much bang on correct.

I liked the faster aperture on this lens, but think that the advertised two lens kit combining the 10-30mm and the 30-110mm would be more practical for most users, even given their relative slow f3.5-5.6 and f3.8-5.6 apertures respectively.

While I had opportunity to handle both the J1 and the V1, I chose to focus my time on the V1 for two primary reasons.  First, it has a viewfinder and I am past the point of fatigue of trying to compose images on glaring LCD back displays and second, it feels like a proper Nikon.  And by proper Nikon, I mean like an old F2 Photomic, heavy and solid.  Indeed the first thing I thought of when I saw the V1 was its mnemonic trigger to a 688 class attack submarine, where the viewfinder hump reminds of the conning tower.  You can feel the solidity of the body and despite its small size and my medium-large hands, I never felt like I was juggling a slippery blob of plastic.

Autofocus is fast and very precise, with plenty of AF markers appearing in the viewfinder.  I worked to use the camera as a general buyer might, not as I would look at a camera, and I was able to get to making nice images very quickly.  The shutter release is relatively crisp and is not at all spongy./p pThere are two primary still modes, what I call normal, and what Nikon calls Smart Photo Selector.  I was shooting geese taking a break during fall migration and despite reflections, moving geese, wind, blowing rushes and for me at least, I couldn't see any significant difference.   Motion snapshot is very different and actually pretty cool.  It's a sad fact that although most digital cameras do some kind of video, most users NEVER even try it.  If you've ever seen the magical newspaper in the Harry Potter films, you've got an idea of what motion snapshot looks like.  If another company has done this, well I missed it, but I really like the idea and the implementation that Nikon has delivered.  And as noted, the camera does record Full HD 1080p video, with the capability to also capture stills while capturing video.  This is user oriented by having a separate start/stop button for video, independent of the shutter release.  You do have to select video as the capture format via the dial on the back to do videos, but the simultaneous still shooting is as easy as you could hope it to be.

The lenses on the Nikon 1 are interchangeable and use the same style counter-clockwise bayonet as found on Nikon DSLRs, but looking similar is not being the same, so any hopes or dreams of using your autofocus Nikkor lenses from your DSLR bag on the Nikon 1 isn't happening.  Lens choices are limited as this is a very new release.  As I write this, customers can select from the following;

10mm /2.8

10-30mm f3.5 - 5.6

10-110mm f3.8 - 5.6

10-100mm f4.5 - 5.6

Lens barrels are available in Black, White, Silver and Red for all but the 10-100 which is black only.  Enthusiasts can get the 10mm and 10-30mm in pink as well.  I've been hands-on with the black 10mm and the white 10-30mm and the finishes are excellent, smooth, shiny and hard.  Since by now you are wondering, the J1 is available in all five colours, while the V1 follows the Henry Ford school of colour theory.

The V1 comes with a Nikon EN-EL15 battery and charger.  It took just over 2.5 hours to bring a battery to full power from legs in the air dead.  There are accessories available including a quick charger and AC adapter for power.  The V1 has a removable cover that allows for the use of common mount accessories including a stereo microphone, a GPS tagger and a flash.  Also coming is the FT1 adapter that will permit the mounting of select Nikkor-F mount old manual lenses.  I think of the old and beloved 105mm f2.5 mounted to the front of a V1 and dream.

On the left side of the camera is a pop-open door that reveals a USB/composite video connector and a Mini-HDMI connector.  The USB jack is of the 4 pin mini variety which will be a minor pain when you lose the cable and need to buy a replacement.  Space is an issue, but micro USB would have been a nicer and more readily available choice.  The HDMI cable is not included in the box.  Looking down on the top, you see the removable and easily lost multi-function cover, the conning tower hump of the electronic viewfinder, a recessed on/off switch, the shutter release and the video start stop.  The right side is free of doors and buttons and the bottom has the battery/memory card doorway and a standard ¼-20 tripod mount.  Looking from the front is the lens (obviously) with the lens release button on your right, a finger rail on your left, L/R microphones and an IR receiver.  Viewing the back the electronic viewfinder is centre top with the very bright and sharp LCD display immediately below.  Upper right holds the F function button and the zoom / point selection rocker.  What is less clear is that the rocker is where you adjust aperture in A (aperture priority) mode or shutter speed in S (shutter priority) mode.  It actually works very well and is really usable but could benefit from better labelling.  Middle right has a rubbery thumb pad on the left and the primary mode selector dial on the right.  Modes are as noted above, Motion Snapshot, Smart Selector, Program Auto and Video.  The detents on the wheel are positive, but I would really like some kind of lock to prevent inadvertent setting changes.  Bottom right has the now common rocker wheel surrounded by four buttons.  The buttons are clockwise from upper left DISP, controlling information on the displays, Play, to view content, Trash, and MENU.  Placed at the centre of the buttons is the now common rotary wheel / rocker switch.  Starting top and going clockwise on the V1 the rocker positions are AE-L/AF-L then exposure compensation, then AF (type) then self timer.  These are different from the generic options on other cameras and are I think nice recognition of the buying audience intent.  My only frustration with the wheel / rocker is similar to my thoughts on the wheel/rocker on the Fuji X100.  It is easily mishandled, is overly sensitive and does not provide sufficient tactile response.  It was the first part of the overall UI experience that made me a bit nuts.  Centered in the wheel is the expected OK button.

Activating the menus is simple but it's definitely a case of RTFM, as the menu options are different depending upon the capture mode.  An associate was cursing the inability to set ISO anywhere, not realizing that it is only settable when in normal or motion snapshot modes.  I do admit that one button push, plus scrolls, presses and clicks just to set ISO is a pain to me as well.  I do give Nikon credit for creating multiple auto ISO modes that limit the ISO auto-adjust ranges.  In my testing, after forcing high and low ISOs I found the Auto ISO 100-400 group to suit every shot as I was outside and without flash.

Not having a flash, or more specifically, the 1 Flash that works on the V1 (yes that snippet is accurate in both contexts), was a bit of a drag, and unlike the ostrich head flash on the J1, the flash for the V1 is quite sizeable.  Hopefully those flashes will be available shortly along with the other lenses.

The camera captures in JPEG at three quality levels and in three sizes.  It also captures in Nikon's RAW format NEF in three size levels.  Since I ALWAYS shoot in RAW, many of the shots I took in my test were captured in the best RAW format.  I switched partway through to RAW + JPEG Fine and I'm happy I did.  This is because although the RAW format is NEF, the current Adobe Raw converter v6.5 doesn't support this camera.  I expect it will be a couple of months before an Adobe RAW interpreter for Nikon 1 NEF format appears.  For me, this is a major pain in the ass.  I despise JPEG's make it up as it goes along compression.  Nikon does include View NX2 software as well as a simple movie maker with the camera.  I installed View NX2 on the MacBook Air I am writing this review on and was able to look at the NEF images after being disappointed to see that neither Lightroom nor Aperture had any idea what to do with them.  View NX2 allows for conversion from NEF to either JPEG or TIFF but my experience was very negative since every attempt to convert NEF to 16bit TIFF failed completely.

Comparing shots at ISO 100 and ISO 400 (photo on the right) shows that the camera holds together nicely and even images at ISO 800 are good.  The small size of the sensor becomes evident at ISO 1600 and noise is very visible at ISO 3200 (photo on the left). i have to give Nikon credit though.  I have also shot a Lumix GF-1 that has a bigger sensor but whose low light performance is not as good as that of the Nikon.  Nikon worked hard to optimize low light handling in its DSLRs and they appear to have done a really nice job in the V1.

The J1 and V1 models are available now with the J1 with 10-30mm zoom going for about $650 in Canada and the V1 with 10/2.8 going for $950.  YMMV when it comes to pricing.

I give the V1 3.5 stars out of 5.  Point and shoot ability suffers without any integral flash, menus are not particularly intuitive and it is in my opinion priced high by $200.  I'd say the same "price too high" thing about the J1 and by the same amount.  The J1 was not used at all extensively in this test, but I did not like the plasticky feel of it at all.  Lens quality is great for the purpose and exposure control is really nice.


ADDED November 14, 2011

Digital Camera Raw Update released through Apple software update this past weekend includes converters for the Nikon 1 line including the J1 and the V1 and provides support to Aperture and iPhoto.  Adobe has not yet released an update to ACR or the DNG converter but they are usually pretty quick once one update set is out.