Nikon 1 V1 – Review

The Nikon 1 system of cameras and lenses marks quite a radical leap of change for Nikon. Having used the F-mount on their SLR’s for 55 years, spanning both the film and digital age, the Nikon 1 marks many firsts for the brand.

On paper, many things about the Nikon 1 system are simply mind blowing. To me though, on the flip side of the coin, many specs defy logic. And I suspect that I’m not the only one who sees it that way. As a result, it has taken a lot of global criticism since it’s launch, but I’ll speak more about its negative attributes later.

First impressions

The first thing that one notices about the V1 is its weight, size, and build. It feels great in your hands. It is large by mirrorless standards, but that is not a bad thing. It evokes a feeling of confidence with its chunky shape and is also extremely well built, with dials and buttons that feel solid. The body also feels very weighty which adds to its general feeling of solidity. This confidence carries through to the lens. All of the lenses – with the exception of the 10-100mm and the 10mm f/2.8 – have one ring for zooming. There is no focus ring as manual focusing is controlled electronically with the rear control dial. The lenses that do have zoom rings have a high quality rubber grip around them with smooth rotation.

Another thing that I noticed straight away is the smoothness of the LCD. When changing direction quickly, the motion conveyed on the screen is extremely responsive and has a very smooth feel. It doesn’t jitter and skip like many other cameras do in ‘live view’ mode. There is no doubt in my mind that this is as a result of its very powerful next generation processor.

Things I liked

The electronic viewfinder is of a very high quality. It has a high resolution which makes the process of composing through it very pleasurable. Many electronic viewfinders do not have a resolution high enough to make the checking of fine details possible. The 1 V1 has a viewfinder comparable to the viewfinder used in the Sony Alpha 65/77 and NEX 7, which is the best that I’ve seen.

Autofocus on the V1 is extremely fast and very accurate. The face detect feature works extremely well and it is a reliable way of shooting portraits.

I find that the most impressive feature of the 1 V1 is its frame rate. Though there are several cameras out there that can shoot with a frame rate similar to what the V1 can achieve, the differences lie in the fact that the V1 is not only faster (at 60 frames a second), but can shoot those images at full resolution; where other cameras shoot at a very reduced resolution. To put this into perspective: the 1 V1 can shoot full resolution pictures at a frame rate twice as fast as what a full HD video camera can record. If one were to use a memory card large enough and fast enough, one could record 10 megapixel video at a speedy 10 frames a second (standard video being only 24 frames a second) just by taking photos. No commercially available television can take advantage of resolution that high. Again, this can be attributed to the extremely powerful processor, which – I am fairly certain – will find its way into the next generation pro-level cameras that will end up replacing the likes of the Nikon D700, D3s and D3x. Unfortunately, that is the extent of the things that impressed me with the 1 V1. It all goes downhill from here…

Things I didn’t like

For a camera that is designed for enthusiasts and beginners, it should be rather easy to use. However, it is frustratingly annoying to work with in terms of its control-ability. All of the manual settings have to be controlled through the menu system. It has all of the full manual and semi-manual modes that a camera of its type should have, such as: aperture priority, shutter priority, and full manual. The problem comes in when you wish to change those modes, which means having to search for them in the menu which is needlessly time consuming. The same goes for changing ISO, white balance, and even the power output of the flash. The body of the camera has a very minimalist design which means that there is a lot of unused space which could be better utilized by including dials, switches, and buttons for changing the aforementioned settings. Unfortunately, for some reason, the Nikon designers decided not to make use of this space. They opted for aesthetics instead of usability. I am a big fan of form following function which makes the above a big negative for me.

Another omitted feature that makes using the V1 more challenging is the lack of a standard hot shoe mount. This means that one cannot use Nikon’s brilliant range of speedlight flashes and that one is unable to connect the camera to wireless triggers for using speedlights off-camera, or studio lights. The V1 can be used with the SB-N5 speedlight flash which is the only speedlight that fits the V1’s unique hot shoe. The SB-5N does tilt and swivel, allowing for bounce lighting, but because it is so small and weak, it requires shooting; not only with high ISO’s, but also with large apertures – with the flash on full power – to be able to get bright enough images. If the surface off of which you are bouncing the light is distant (for instance: a high ceiling) then the flash will be practically useless. One thing about the SB-N5 that I do like, however, is that it is a very ‘cute’ flash seeing as it is the world’s smallest angle-able flash. Unfortunately, ‘cute’ does not produce good photos. It would be great if it were an entry-level choice with the option of using other, more powerful Nikon flashes from the SLR line up, but Nikon chose not to go this route. Apparently, Nikon are planning an adapter to convert the V1’s unique shoe to a standard hot shoe, but until that is released, the flash available for the V1 cannot be used for serious shooting. It does not even have the ability to be used wirelessly off camera. In order to get the test shots I wanted whilst using the V1, I had to use video lights so that I had access to controllable lighting.

The most complained about feature of the Nikon 1 system – and one which I agree to have been a bad decision made by the designers – is its 2.7 times crop factor. Yes, this allows for very small cameras, but as Sony’s NEX and Samsung’s NX range of mirrorless cameras have proven, an APS-C sized sensor can be squeezed into a small camera. There are two consequences of going for such a small format which Nikon have called CX: The low light image quality of a camera with such a small sensor will always struggle against cameras with larger formats. This shows on the V1 with images starting to display high amounts of noise, even at 800 ISO (keeping in mind its lack of versatile lighting control; thereby making it harder to keep the ISO low). Another disadvantage is depth of field, or lack thereof with regard to trying to get as little as possible. The smaller the format of a camera, the more depth of field its images will have. Even when used with large aperture prime lenses, such as the 10mm 2.8, depth of field is still deep. This means that it is impossible to throw the background out of focus, even when shooting portraits.

Conclusion

The Nikon 1 system had the potential to be a great rival to the established mirrorless cameras that have been out for a few years, but due to some questionable decisions made by the designers, it will be lagging behind in critical areas. Yes, it has some brilliant features, such as: fast autofocusing and extremely fast frame rates. Unfortunately, these positives are not good enough to outweigh the Nikon’s negatives. The hot shoe and control issues could be fixed on future models, but Nikon have committed to a CX format and are now stuck with it and this is the biggest area in which Nikon have failed. In short: would I recommend the Nikon 1? The answer is no. Of all of the advanced cameras that I have tested in the past year, the Nikon 1 V1 is the camera with which I most disliked shooting.

Author Bio

Armani Quintas

Originally from Nelspruit, a photographer and camera salesman based in Johannesburg. Studied visual communication at The Open Window School of Visual Communication