Nikon's first compact system camera has courted controversy, but can it come out with lens held high?
When Nikon announced its first compact system cameras, the V1 and J1, the first reaction was "At last!" followed swiftly by "They've done what?!"
The controversy was over the sensor size and, in the eyes of the loyal Nikonites, a lack of "seriousness".
The Nikon 1 series uses an ickle 13.2x8.8mm sensor, which is considerably smaller than those used by Micro Four Thirds cameras (17.3x13mm) from Olympus and Panasonic, and tiny compared to the APS-C sensors (23.5x15.6mm) used by Sony NEX and Samsung NX models.
Nikon 1 V1 – small form, big sensor
And as every proper photographer knows, size is everything. Isn't it? Well, that's a rather simple way of seeing things. Yes, bigger sensors gather more light and theoretically should always capture a more detailed image with less noise. Bigger sensors also allow for a shallower depth of field, so you can throw backgrounds or foregrounds out of focus for some silky-smooth bokeh.
But the same was true of large-/medium-format film versus 35mm, and that didn't stop hordes of pioneering picture-takers such as Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson from picking the smaller format for the advantages it offered.
The advantage Nikon offers from its compact sensor is speed.
The Nikon V1 is capable of staggering 60fps shooting at its full 10.1-megapixel resolution, and autofocus speed that would make a professional proud.
That super-high-speed shooting is the basis for Nikon's headline mode: Smart Photo Selector. When selected, this imperceptibly takes a hyper-fast burst of 20 shots when you press the shutter button. The internal algorithms select what the camera considers are the "best" five pics and stores them to your SD card so you can pick your absolute favourite later (or keep the whole sequence, if they work nicely as a group).
Sharing top billing in Nikon's new show is the Motion Snapshot mode. It's essentially a movie mode which takes a very short clip in slow-motion and applies some music pre-selected from a list.
Nikon 1 V1 – skinny snapper
Of course, the other benefit of a smaller sensor is the overall system size, and the Nikon V1 does boast a svelte body. It's not really much smaller than the Olympus PEN E-PM1, though. But that's okay, because the lenses must be loads smaller, eh? Yes and no.
The standard 10-30mm (equivalent to 27-81mm) lens is collapsible, like the Olympus 14-42mm, but doesn't feel that much smaller. It doesn't make for a pocketable package, that's for sure. The 10mm (27mm equivalent) f2.8 pancake is tiny, but not very versatile.
The surprise package is the collapsible 30-110mm (81-297mm equivalent) which is a teensy powerhouse – when collapsed, it's barely bigger than the 10-30mm, and the lens hood is reversible to keep the size to a minimum when not needed.
So, size prejudice aside, the other thing the Nikon faithful sharpened their pitchforks about was the compact-like styling and layout. There's no pro-level control over ISO or EV like you'll find on the Nikon P7100, and no handy jog dial for tweaking aperture size and shutter speed.
Ergonomically, this is very much a Coolpix compact camera with a lens mount. How you feel about that depends on whether you're upgrading from a compact or downsizing from an SLR, or how much you fiddle with your settings.
Nikon 1 V1 – viewfinder and flash
The most noticeable difference between the V1 and J1 – aside from an eye-watering price jump – is the electronic viewfinder. It's almost, almost worth the premium, offering a sharper, brighter image than the VF-2 add-on for the Olympus PENs and enough definition for fairly accurate manual focusing. There's also a sensor that switches to the eye viewfinder when you put your eye up to it, which is a neat time-saving touch.
The other major change from the J1 is that you lose the pop-up flash, but gain a hot shoe for an external flash or microphone. Sadly, we found the cover for the hot shoe worked loose and fell off regularly, eventually to be lost somewhere on a Shanghai street. Nikon tells us it'll be working on a fix, but in the meantime may be ordering in a lot of spares.
Smaller changes are that the 3in rear LCD is sharper (921k-pixel rather than 460k) and the strap lugs are of the traditional swivelling variety, presumably for fitting a wider range of alternative straps (or just to look more serious). The battery is also more hardcore and uses a different charger.
Nikon 1 V1 – smart or silly?
Smart Photo Selector seems like a natural evolution from face detection and smile detection, offering even better odds of getting the right shot. Without knowing what the 15 ditched shots looked like, it's hard to know how well the algorithms work, but we rarely found a people sequence with anyone's eyes closed.
Argue as much as you like about this kind of tech making us lazier as photographers, but there's no denying it'll improve your hit rate. Remember, in the past photo-fuddy-duddies railed against autofocus, autoexposure, digital cameras…
On the other hand, Motion Snapshot is much more of a gimmick. It's enjoyable, but you'll rarely use it after the first few times and the musical accompaniments are super-cheesy. It's also tricky to capture the exact moment you're aiming for. The HD video quality, though, is pretty good.
Nikon 1 V1 review verdict
But what you really want to know is this: what are the photos like? Or maybe: how does it compare to Micro Four Thirds?
Surprisingly well. Image quality compared to the Olympus PEN E-P3 is very good, and all the way up to ISO 3200 the noise is well controlled and the colours vibrant. Trust us, if you were expecting that small sensor's images to be the downfall of this system, you'd be wrong. It can't compete with the Sony NEX series, but it definitely gives the MFT crowd a run for their money.
Of course, there's no denying the lack of fine control over depth of field, and the upper limit of ISO 3200 will be an issue for nightcrawlers.
What really causes a problem for the Nikon V1, though, is the Nikon J1. Considerably cheaper and sporting a pop-up flash, its performance is pretty much identical – if you can live without that electronic eye viewfinder, you can save yourself close to $400.