Nikon has launched its own 'Nikon 1' interchangeable lens compact camera system, using a mid-sized sensor that's smaller than those typically used in micro four-thirds and APS cameras, but bigger than the small-format sensors used in regular compacts. The cameras have also been loaded with a few interesting new shooting modes, like Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector, which apparently make for a 'brand new photographic experience'. The first Nikon 1 camera we've managed to get hold of is the V1, a high-end model complete with electronic viewfinder and flash hot-shoe.
HandlingThe Nikon V1 is something of a contradictory camera. Although it's bigger and heavier than a regular compact, it doesn't have a grip handle—just a raised vertical bar on the front of the camera that you can barely rest a couple of fingers on. As a result, although the camera is well made and certainly feels sturdy to handle, grip could still be improved.
Nikon has clearly tried to do something radically different with the V1—after all, the firm wouldn't want to encroach too much into the territory of its D3100 entry-level SLR. We do have to wonder, though, if we really need a 'brand new photographic experience' and whether this new approach to handling could just end up alienating experienced users who'll no longer find their usual points of reference.
So while the V1 has all the functions you'd expect from an expert-level camera—including PSAM modes—these are hidden away in the menus among all the other settings, even though there's a mode-selection dial that clearly has room on to squeeze them in. In fact, there are only actually four settings on the mode-selection dial: the video mode, photo mode (in which PSAM are found) plus Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector— the camera's star new features.
The Smart Photo Selector function takes a burst of 20 pictures, starting before and finishing after the moment you actually press the shutter-release button. Next, the camera automatically chooses 15 pictures to delete and keeps what it considers to be the five best shots. The face-recognition function is, for example, used to eliminate pictures on which the subjects have their eyes closed.
Although Nikon promises that 'you'll 'never miss those picture perfect moments again', the final images selected by the camera aren't necessarily those taken at the moment of the shutter release, but could be taken up to half a second before or a few tenths of a second after you actually shoot. While experienced photographers may not be so keen on having the 'picture perfect moment' decided for them, this function is really aimed at consumer users rather than advanced photographers, and it can certainly help inexperienced snappers get the best shot first time. We therefore think it's a pretty handy addition. The problem for camera reviewers like us, though, is that there's no way of retrieving the deleted photos to check how effective the automatic selection system is.
The Motion Snapshot function (see above) also takes a burst of photos, but this time saves the results as a two-second Full HD video—without sound, of course. The colleagues we showed this function to had quite mixed reactions: some of them found it quite fun—reminiscent of the animated portraits in Harry Potter—but most people couldn't really see the point. Plus, digital photo fames and screensaver systems aren't usually designed to handle this kind of file, and launching playback for a video just two seconds long isn't always practical.
While the appeal of these modes is debatable, they seem to be the star features that Nikon is keen on promoting in its new cameras. As a result, the advanced settings have been relegated to the depths of the menus. Graphically, the menus have been nicely designed, but are based on the usual Nikon concept of packing in seemingly endless options all lined up in a bit of a random order. The menu is shorter than in the firm's SLRs but longer than some compact camera menus, and for a camera that's aimed at relatively inexperienced users, we think Nikon could have made it clearer and more straight-forward.
We found a few of the controls quite strange too. For example, by default, the F button allows you to set the shutter-release mode to Mechanical, Electronic or Electronic (Hi). Even after having had the camera presented to us by Nikon's reps, we still had to do a bit of digging to find out what the real difference was between the two electronic shutter modes. In fact, in the general menu, we found out that the 'Electronic (Hi)' mode sets the camera to a high-speed burst that can be user-adjusted from 10 to 60 frames per second, while the 'Electronic' mode puts the camera into a slower burst. Obviously!?!
Don't get us wrong—we've got nothing against change or the addition of new functions while others are played down. Plus, we're the first to say that the PSAM modes on cameras like the Sony HX9V and the Canon SX230 are of more of a token gesture than a practical addition for most users, or that features like sweep panorama and night shot (without tripod) have revolutionised amateur photography. what's more, the possibilities of high-speed shooting still hold plenty of potential. However, does that automatically mean that traditional, expert, manual photography has to fall by the wayside as a consequence? Especially since the 'consumer camera' argument doesn't really wash when users are faced with three shutter-release modes—a function that's largely only used and understood by advanced users.
Thankfully, the V1 also has a few excellent surprises in store, starting with the screen. On top of its sharp VGA resolution and wide viewing angles, the display is incredibly well calibrated. The gamma (accuracy of the grey scale) falls between 2.2 and 2.4 over the whole of the grey scale, the colour temperature reaches around 7000 K, contrast is near 1400:1 and, above all, colour fidelity is spot on—the average deltaE is 2.4, which is very good for a desktop monitor and excellent for a digital camera screen.
The viewfinder is very similar to the Olympus VF-1 sold as an optional extra for Pen cameras. With SVGA resolution, the display is sharp and the magnification proved good enough not to throw our sensor off course. We measured a gamma of between 2 and 2.2 (which is excellent), colour temperature of around 8000 K (blue tones visibly dominate), contrast that's a little on the low side and colour fidelity that's decent enough (deltaE 3.5). Plus, as the three primary colours are displayed simultaneously, this electronic viewfinder isn't prone to rainbow effects. This gives the V1 a huge advantage over bridge cameras and makes it the only interchangeable lens compact to have an electronic viewfinder as standard without pushing the price up to the stratospheric levels of the Sony NEX-7.
Another good thing about the Nikon V1 is its battery, as it's the same EN-EL15 that comes with the firm's D7000 SLR. With a capacity of 15 Wh, it's twice as powerful as Casio's batteries—currently the most powerful available in a compact camera—as well as the batteries that come in many interchangeable lens models.
One rather unusual let-down in the V1 is that although it's larger than the entry-level J1 and the Panasonic GF3, for example, Nikon hasn't found room for a built-in flash. There's a hot-shoe for hooking up an external flash, but this isn't compatible with Nikon's existing range of external flashes, and so only the new SB-N5 will fit the bill. This new flash has a handy swivel design, but with a guide number of just 8.5 it won't be much use for indirect lighting. What's even worse, though, is that unlike the external flashes that equip Sony's NEX and Samsung's NX cameras, the SB-N5 is sold as an optional extra and isn't even supplied as standard with the camera! Rather than buying a whole new flash, we would have liked to try out the V1 with the very good Nikon SB-400 flash unit, but unfortunately this wasn't compatible with the camera's hot-shoe.
All in all, the V1 is something of a frustrating camera for experienced photographers: it offers direct access to exotic functions while standard settings are relegated to the depths of the menus—and that's when they haven't been ditched completely. Plus, it's a pretty bulky camera, and its controls and menus aren't always that user-friendly, especially for beginners. That's why we gave the V1 a score of just three stars in this section, in spite of its excellent screen, high-quality build and a viewfinder that's unique in this kind of camera.
ResponsivenessThe V1 is currently the only interchangeable lens compact with a phase correlation autofocus system. That should make this camera's autofocus as fast as an SLR or Sony's Alpha SLTs—a feature that Nikon has been talking up as if to compare the GF3 to a moped and the V1 to a Lockheed Blackbird.
After all that, the results are a little disappointing. The V1 autofocus is certainly fast, but it's not a huge amount faster than other cameras. In fact, we found that the Sony NEX-5N autofocus worked just a little bit faster (even though it only uses contrast detection), and so the Alpha 77 is obviously faster again.
Otherwise, the V1 isn't slow, but it's not an extraordinarily fast camera either, with a start-up time of just over a second and a photo-to-photo turnaround time of 1.7 seconds. All in all, the V1 is relatively responsive (especially compared with other compacts with small-format sensors), but it's nothing revolutionary in the world of interchangeable lens compacts and decent SLRs.
Picture QualityThe V1 has an all-new sensor developed by Nikon that we've never seen before. It's an unusual size, in that it's bigger than the sensors typically used in compact cameras but smaller than micro four-thirds and other large-format sensors. However, by keeping the resolution down to just 10 Megapixels, the sensor's pixel density of 8.6 Mpx/cm² is closer to that of a large-format sensor, with 7 Mpx/cm² for the Panasonic G3, 6.5 Mpx/cm² for the Alpha 77 and 23 Mpx/cm² for the Canon G12.
The electronics therefore give pretty good results. While smoothing does start to appear at 800 ISO, this is kept under control with pictures that stay generally sharp and accurate up to the maximum sensitivity setting of 3200 ISO. The drop in contrast above 800 ISO is a bit more problematic, though, and dark shades have a noticeable green tinge at 3200 ISO. We don't think the results are quite as good as the Panasonic G3 (with an older-generation micro four-thirds sensor) but some users may prefer the V1's pictures: the G3's pictures are more consistent but also more grainy, something the V1 really keeps to a minimum.
The 10-30 mm lens (equivalent to 27-81 mm) is good, staying reasonably sharp at all focal lengths. Although it's typically a bit less sharp around the edges of the frame—especially at wide-angle settings—and we've seen lenses that are much sharper on the whole, it's still a decent enough piece of kit.
Note, however, that the V1 we tested did tend to over-expose shots, especially at low aperture settings like f/8 or more. What we found particularly annoying was that this manifested itself as partial saturation: the green and blue channels saturated before the red channel, giving light greys a turquoise tinge. This isn't an effect we noticed in real-life situations, but it showed up on several of the test shots taken in our camera lab, varying in relation to the exposure and white balance. The two photos above were taken with identical settings but the camera's automatic white balance has made two slightly different choices: this is particularly visible in the lighter shades on the grey scale test card and on the background of the map.
VideoIn line with current market standards, the V1 films Full HD video. You can choose between an interlaced mode at 60 fields per second and a progressive scan mode at 30 frames per second. Videos are smooth, fuzzy noise is kept under control even in low light, and overall quality is decent—even if the dynamic range is a bit limited (light tones look a bit washed out). The continuous autofocus is on the better side of average too.
Sound is subject to an audible hissing in the background, which is particularly noticeable in quiet scenes. That said, the stereo effect can clearly be heard, voices are perfectly clear and sound is reproduced reasonably accurately. All in all, then, the sound is pretty good, and all the more so since there's a socket for connecting an external microphone.
Note that you can take a full-resolution 16:9-format still picture while filming video.
- Better picture quality than regular compact cameras
- Good general responsiveness, fast autofocus
- Nice innovative features (Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector)
- Good build and finish, feels robust, high-capacity battery
- Screen and viewfinder are accurate and pleasant to use
- Some strange design choices (direct access shortcuts, handling etc.)
- No flash supplied / Not compatible with Nikon SLR flashes
- Gimmicky functions take precedence over traditional advanced photography settings
- Bulkier than the Panasonic GF3 + 14-42 mm X lens
The Nikon V1 is an original concept camera that's radically different from other interchangeable lens compacts. Unfortunately, gimmicky functions take precedence over the kind of standard settings you'd expect to see in an advanced camera. The idea is certainly nice but, in practice, we think a few things need to be taken back to the drawing board. However, if you can cope with the camera's sometimes strange design and handling, then you'll get better-quality pictures than with a regular compact cameras.