The Nikon V1

Nikon 1 V1

This is the first in a series of posts about the Nikon V1. See the bottom of this post for links to more articles about the V1.

Like a lot of people, I was disappointed when the Nikon 1-series was announced. The cause of my deflation was the size of the new camera’s sensor; the new “CX” format seemed to be a clear step in the wrong direction.

Given the heat in the small mirrorless camera space, I figured that I’d just wait for the next thing to come along. I’d already bought and returned the camera in this space the Internet seemed to rave over: the Fuji X100. While its viewfinder was great–and a good viewfinder is now a requirement for any new small camera I purchase–the autofocus leaned just too far on the “miss” side of hit-and-miss for me, the father of a three-year-old. Not to mention that I do want my “small” camera to be at least reasonably capable on a mountain bike ride.

Still, I read reviews of the Nikon 1–the larger, more capable V1 in particular–that said a few intriguing things. First was that the image quality was better than one would think such a small sensor capable of. Second, that the autofocus and metering were top-notch (see above for why that’s high on my list). Those things, plus some other things like a bevy of interesting accessories (a small GPS module; a tiny Speedlight; an adapter to mount Nikkor lenses), a solid build and a good viewfinder, had me thinking this might be worth checking out.

So I ordered one. I got the V1 kit with the standard lens, a 10-30mm unit with a typical slow speed. The kit I ordered also included the lens I was really interested in, the 10mm f/2.8 pancake. I’m going to break my impressions of the camera down and make several posts about it, mostly so this doesn’t become a book-length post that I never finish or publish.

Some items that may or may not be interesting in the way of context, other than what I’ve already laid out, in no specific order:

  • I’m a Nikon shooter. My main camera is a D700 with some great Nikkor glass that I adore. I’ve shot Nikon since college, but started with Minolta and had a 2-year-long dalliance with Canon, when I was disillusioned with Nikon’s slow pace making good digital cameras. So, I’m a Nikon guy, but my allegiance is not unshakable, nor is it paid-for; I buy everything I play with.

  • My current small camera is a Panasonic GF1, and the only lens I have for it is the wonderful 20mm f/1.7 pancake. It’s a great setup, save for the fact that I end up shooting it with the camera out in front of me, which I hate. I have the optional viewfinder, but it’s just not good enough, now that there are better options on the market. After buying this camera, I swore I’d not buy another without a good viewfinder.

  • Mountain biking affords plenty of action opportunities, but even more nature shots. I want my small camera to react quickly but to also be capable of capturing a beautiful vista with high-quality. I’ve recently taken to printing my photos again, so I’m interested in resolution for that purpose. That said, I’ve made some great prints of images from my 8 MP Canon camera and also from my GF1, so I’m perfectly happy with lower resolution as long as the pixels are quality pixels.

  • I want a camera that I can carry everywhere, or at least almost everywhere. That’s why I don’t just use my D700 for everything.

  • Low-light performance is important, but if I can get good ISO 1600, I’m set. I can probably live with good 800 and passable 1600, based on my time with the Panasonic. Noise-reduction software is good enough that I’m willing to lean on it if necessary. Of course, I’d love to have it all….

Alright, enough of that. On to some first impressions:

The V1 feels good in the hand, right out of the box. It’s small, but not crazy small. It fits my hands well enough, although a grip of some sort would be welcome; I had the same feeling about the GF1. Still, the V1 feels good. It uses a surprisingly big battery; I’d guess it’s ¼ or more of the camera’s interior space, and it lends considerably to the weight of the whole package. It’s supposed to provide 400-or-so shots-per-charge, which I’ve found to be reasonable, if not on the low side. (I’ve done better than that on average over more than a week of shooting.)

The lenses are tiny. Most reviews I’ve read make the point that they’re not that much smaller than Micro Four-Thirds lenses, but they seem smaller and lighter to me in general. I only have the 20mm Panny in the M43 mount, and it’s a small lens for sure. But the Nikkors seem both lighter and smaller in the hand. They’re plastic, but have metal mounts, and are not at all cheap feeling. The zoom has VR as well, but really needs it, being a slow lens.

The viewfinder is good. I’d say that its quality is up there with the best in the field, although I’ve only tried most of the competition for a short time in the store. The Sony NEX accessory viewfinder has more resolution, but doesn’t really have much of an overall edge. The Olympus PEN E-P3’s external unit is probably better quality, but it is huge and doesn’t have the eye sensor that switches to the viewfinder automatically when you pull the camera to the eye like the Nikon, so I’m hesitant to call it better overall. The Fuji X100’s killer OVF/EVF combo is the clear market leader here. I’d say that the important point is that it feels natural to pick the V1 up to my eye and shoot, which I can’t say about a lot of small cameras I’ve used, and that’s a huge, huge selling point for me. This camera feels natural in the hands and at the eye.

The autofocus and metering are as excellent as I’d read. The V1 has no problem keeping up with my three-year-old, who never seems to stop moving and definitely doesn’t when she knows I want a picture of her. I haven’t gotten out for any action shots of bikes yet, though. I’d say that in good light, the V1 doesn’t seems that far behind my D700, and that’s saying a lot. It’s clearly better at autofocusing in good light than any other small camera I’ve tried, including the current Panasonic, Olympus and Sony models. Once the light gets dim, I’d say it’s still better than those, but not by nearly as much. Overall, I get an excellent rate of “keepers” from the V1’s AF system, based on the subject being in focus.

One major annoyance that is immediately apparent is that you can’t turn off image review after shooting a picture. I’m really, really hoping for a firmware update that fixes this, because it does hamper tracking a moving subject while shooting.

I’ve ruled out several small cameras before the V1, for various reasons, including: the Fuji X100 and its smaller sibling the X10; the Panasonic G3; the Sony NEX-5; the Olympus PEN E-P3. I’ve been looking forward to the Sony NEX-7, which I think might be the only contender left at the moment, based purely on previews on the Internet since no store near me has one, nor does anyone I know. I’m intrigued by the huge sensor and available quality optics, like the 24mm Zeiss. I’m put off by reports of lackluster AF and the overall size of the package with a lens attached. But I need to get my hands on one to make a real decision.

I’ve been shooting a lot with the V1 in the last week. I’ll post images and more thoughts in the coming days. Let me know if there’s some aspect of the camera or system you’re particularly interested in.

More Posts on the V1