Nikon 1: Two Bodies + Four Lenses + Accessories = One Confused Product

The Nikon V1 (image courtesy of nikonrumors.com)
The Nikon V1 (image courtesy of nikonrumors.com)

After what seems like years’ worth of indecision and speculation, Nikon finally got around to releasing its mirrorless “1” series of cameras. This makes them the second-to-last entrant into the mirrorless interchangeable lens compact segment, having been beaten there by Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Ricoh, and Pentax; Canon remains the last stubborn holdout.*

The line consists of the J1 and V1 cameras, both of which have utilitarian designs (very basic, right down to the lack of even a rudimentary grip) differentiated mostly by the V1’s EVF (electronic viewfinder). Both cameras have the same hybrid focusing system that switches between phase and contrast detect autofocus depending on the shooting situation, the same 3″ LCD, and the same 10 megapixel sensor. The four lenses announced with the camera are the 10mm f/2.8, 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6, 30-110mm f/3.8-f/5, and 10-100mm f/4.5-5.5 (each with a 2.7x crop factor).

Nikon promises improved video performance, and at least on paper, the 1 series outperforms the different Dx-Dxxxx cameras currently available. The CX-format CMOS sensor captures Full HD movies at 1080p/30fps, but switches to 1080i for a frame rate of 60fps; no word yet on resolution at the higher available speeds of 400 and 1200fps. Given Nikon’s inexperience with video (at least vis-a-vis competitors like Canon and Sony), the results — as with their higher-end cameras — should be acceptable, but far from the revolutionary leap the company has touted.

Why, then, is this product a bit of a puzzlement? The sensor is smaller than those used on most other ILC’s — smaller than the Micro 4/3 chips used by Olympus and Pentax, smaller than the APS-C used not only in entry-level and prosumer SLRs but also in Sony’s NEX series, smaller than Samsung’s NX sensor. It’s bigger than the sensors found in your typical point-and-shoot, but really, that isn’t saying much. And since sensor size is directly related to pixel pitch (10mp on this sensor is 10 million much smaller pixels than you’ll find on, say, your typical Canon EOS), you’re looking at poorer depth of field, and low light performance that’s going to have to rely very heavily on noise reduction algorithms to get decent results. It’s telling that the sample low-light images taken with this camera weren’t taken in very low-light situations (it was dark out, but the subjects were in areas that were reasonably well lit), and even at that there’s a just-noticeable loss of image quality.

Then there’s the cost factor. The V1 kit (with 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6) is slated to retail at $899, with the J1 scheduled to sell for $649. That puts the former in the same ballpark — pricewise, anyway — as a D5100, and the latter at about the same price as the D3100… both with larger sensors that will afford better low-light performance and DOF, and both with the ability to use most Nikon F-mount lenses without an adapter. Granted, for some people size might be an issue; for some of them, however, a system with a proven track record (and more lens options) may seem a more attractive option. Casual shooters — who would appear to be this camera’s target market — may find it just enough of a step up from their camera phones or point-and-shoots, while those accustomed to the image quality from even a low-end SLR may well be disappointed (and from the talk on the web, a good many of them already are).

Specs and full press release (courtesy of Nikon USA) here.

Sample images from Nikon Europe’s Flickr page here.

*You could also arguably lump Fuji and Leica in with Canon. However,  rangefinders — already compact, mirrorless cameras — are Leica’s mainstay, so you could argue that they were there before everyone else; all that’s missing is the EVF. Fuji, in the meantime, hasn’t produced a credible “mirrored” (SLR) camera since the Nikon-mount S series was allowed to fade away, so in a sense, they get a pass. My money’s still on them making it to market with some kind of compact system camera before Canon does.

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