Hands on With the Nikon 1

People following this blog may notice a recent obsession with mirrorless cameras, excited by their new features, in the search for something small yet high quality to carry around. Well, expect this theme to continue, as I go hands on with the new Nikon 1, their sudden but not entirely unexpected entry into the mirrrorless field. I will add one thing here straight off the bat- it would be foolish in my view for anyone to discount this camera out of hand for those wishing to upgrade from a compact. Likewise, it is far from certain that this is Nikon’s last word on the mirrorless scene. Although they have effectively discounted anything quite the same as Micro 4/3 by going smaller than it, I’d be very surprised if they weren’t prepping a NEX-like APS-C version that would (probably with an adapter) work well with F-mount lenses, offering fast AF at least with the AF-S ones. So bearing this all in mind and remembering the target market- upgraders from a compact, lets see how she handles!

J1 Red

The J1- Competition for compacts?

First of all, this is one small camera, about the size of a compact. In the case of the J1, it is also pretty light, though I found the magnesium-alloy V1 to be a bit heavy. Well, magnesium is there to give more strength to the body and for some people it will feel more substantial, more like an old-school rangefinder, despite the modern, minimalist, almost industrial styling. The V1 is the enthusiast model, a bit strange seeing as the camera is purportedly being aimed at compact users, but I suppose we are lucky to have it, as with its built-in EVF yet small size, it is one of the very few mirrorless cameras ready for semi-serious photography right out of the box, without needing a bulky add-on as do the Olympus and smaller Panasonic models. Now, some will say, seeing the size and weight of these, ‘what is the point of the smaller sensor’? Well, I think in terms of the size of lenses, in this realm, less (bulk) is more. Yet, with a body you have to hand-hold and operate effectively, there is a point where the controls would get so small and the feel so insubstantial that you reach the point of diminishing returns. In short, there would be no point in making the body even smaller, though I would hope for smaller and brighter lenses.

It feels decent to hold and the capabilities of the electronics within it really shine. Hearing the uzi-like whirr as it shoots in 60fps and then offers you a perfectly sharp choice make this a great snapshot camera whoever is using it and even on a longer lens, the autofocus dances around the screen as you move the position in a way I’ve never encountered before, including my DSLR. The D300 with its ‘good’ AF hunts with my 70-300 VR2 in less than perfect light, especially when not using the central bank of cross sensors and then it often refuses to even pick up anything. Even a short lens takes time to get in position, wasting valuable microseconds of the moment I was looking at. Here, this process still noticeably takes time, but much less of it. I should add that, like any AF system, it required something contrasty to lock onto. It still is no substitute for prearranged MF, though for most people and many situations AF is, of course, necessary.

Then we have the lenses. Much has been made about how dark they are, how big and heavy the longer ones are, too. What is the point of a sensor half the size of Micro 4/3, if you end up with in many cases actually bigger lenses? Well, first of all, we have to address a certain myth here. This being that a larger sensor and smaller lens will necessarily end up with a better final image. Now, I know no-one is saying a smaller lens will take a better photo, but in asking for this compromise for convenience, it has to be remembered that it is just that, a compromise and one not so different from accepting a smaller sensor. Smaller sensors are inherently cheaper to make and in this case, allow for the deployment of much higher technology in the processing and AF departments, with less area to cater for. Oversized for their format though they may seem, we will have to see from image testing if the Nikon lenses are better, for their cost, than those from other companies. I know, for a start, that the kit lenses for the Sony NEX and Olympus Pens get terrible reviews. By contrast, the larger and more expensive (especially now it has to be ordered separately) Panasonic 14-45mm gets very good reports. Could it be that the search for smaller lenses is turning up underperforming ones? None of this is for free. If the Nikon lenses are the same size, darker, but still optically much better, it may be worth it, at least for the moment. This system is crying out for smaller, brighter lenses, no doubt about it. Yet if the ones it has are very good, and Nikon’s track record with kit lenses make this entirely feasible, then at least we will be seeing some good images right from the get go without any need for users to research, mix and match to get even a decent normal zoom , as on the other systems. This issue is clearest with the absurdly large and heavy 10-100mm, which is as big, yet darker than it’s DX 18-200 counterpart, or the Sony NEX equivalent! So, while I’m not all that happy with the lenses’ size or brightness, making a light wide zoom isn’t all that easy and for the moment this camera shares the mirrorless problem of lenses that are too big for their bodies. Hopefully and if it takes off, others will come.

V1 LCD

V1 LCD- hard to see here, but very sharp and vibrant.

The next thing is the on-camera operation. Now here we are definitely in compact territory. It is a clean, simple menu, but even to switch between A/S/P/Auto modes, you have to use a camera menu. More many photographers, simply not good enough. But here, again, we should pause for thought. The aperture setting originated with film cameras, where there would be an enormous difference between, say, f/2.8 and f/8 (about as high as you should go on such a small sensor without risking diffraction, anyway). Yet, on the Nikon 1, unless you are really close to something, I doubt it will really make all that much discernible difference. There simply isn’t all that much control over DOF, especially with the dark lenses available now. Add to this the fact that a lot of compact users, who are the intended market, wouldn’t even know what this is, and you have a good reason to delegate it to other functions. Usually, there are the obligatory ‘scene modes’ in this place and more recently, ‘Art’ modes, offering B&W, toy camera and a host of others, some of them very interesting. Yet Nikon here goes further, offering both high quality 1080P video at 60i, though there are compacts offering this too, and a kind of moving picture mixing a second of slow-motion footage with a photo. I’m not sure this will catch on, or just be a novelty, but it is interesting to see a blending of Full HD video and a photo in one. It reminds us that digital cameras are becoming more and more electronic imaging devices, constructing the final result from captured data, and less optical mechanical devices, in the traditional vein. I’m not sure about it in this instance, but this kind of thing, especially with photos being shared through the internet more than being printed, may be the ‘photo’ of the future, capturing the mood of the occasion in a way a still photo would find harder. Anyway, as with so much else about this camera, interesting and innovative, even if not photographically essential.

Along with the fast AF, made possible by phase-detect modules being on the sensor itself working along with the usual contrast detect (reliance on the latter alone making for slower AF on most mirrorless systems, though of course it’s gradually getting better), we have a new form of electronic shutter. It can take photos as fast as 1/16000 second, and up to 60fps. Applying this to larger formats with their bright lenses and large sensors, this could be a real game- changer, but even in the realm of upgrades from compacts, it can bring a new types of convenience. This seems to me to be the trump card of this camera, what with its current inability to have significantly smaller dimensions than the competition (if indeed, that could desirably be done at this phase, considering ergonomics and quality lens design). Which brings us conveniently to the marketing question- is it worth paying so much for this? People will vote with their wallets, but I’d say a very clear ‘no’! The price will have to come down a lot, even by as much as half to make it attractive to the likes of me. Consumers who generally buy compacts also probably won’t pay so much for what comes across as so little, however hard Nikon tries to make it attractive. I’m not saying such fast AF and processing isn’t worth what they are asking, just that it’s not something I see many people, consumer or enthusiast, being willing to splash out on, especially seeing as it is a new system with a weak selection of lenses. Having said that, this may be part of Nikon’s plan, lowering the price after a time after they’ve increase the perceived value of the product. Even if they become class leaders, their features of 1080p capture and relatively fast AF are becoming ubiquitous, so I don’t see people spending a high premium just for that. In fact, for the moment the pricing is attracting a lot of internet hostility, much as the PS3’s launch did, so whilst Nikon may see all publicity as a good thing, I think they should be wary of consumer backlashes, tempting people to buy something as a lifestyle accessory and then making it unaffordable. Either way, I expect the price to fall in a pretty dramatic fashion in the coming months.

J1 in white. Just another fashion accessory for girls?

So now we have to ask, who exactly is this being aimed at? As Nikon says, people wanting something better than a conventional compact and prosumers, or even perhaps pros, wanting something significantly smaller and lighter. This is of course the conventional wisdom of mirrorless solutions, but I see Nikon going far beyond this, at least with their advertising campaign and ability to garner so much attention to the device, despite it’s seeming limitations. Even more so than any before it, it is positioned as a consumer electronics device even more than as a camera, appealing to a broader market than photo enthusiasts and perhaps aiming to create new ones, just as the iPod found new MP3 listeners, or the Nintendo DS found new gamers. It is not being marketed as a ‘camera’, but more as a fusion electronic imaging device emphasising video as much as photography, even having the two mixed together. Not only is there the ‘motion snapshot’ mode, but also the ability to take a full-resolution photo while taking a video. The 60fps capture mode is also video-like, automatically taking picks from a video stream in full resolution. I see Nikon as trying to do with this format what Apple did with the iPod, or more recently iPhone and to a lesser extent, iPad, positioning their device as a non-geek lifestyle accessory that will enhance their visual communications. Now this could be BS or a very profound statement of the position of digital cameras in our culture right now. Time will tell if this is a big hit for Nikon, or just a resounding flop.

My bet? Until they can bring down the price and get a small, light wide-ranging zoom on the thing (27-150 equivalent, or so), this just won’t be much of a better option than a compact for much of their target audience. Relatively high prices for what you get vs a DSLR and an unrealistic expectation that people will change lenses (a PITA even for pros, who often gravitate towards Nikon’s 24-120mm on full frame despite the better IQ of their 24-70mm) are really holding back mirrorless cameras, despite their advantages. A more realistic target, especially with the V1, would be the LX5/G12 scene by offering size and convenience and much better quality. As an LX5 user, I’m actually very interested in how it shapes up and the availability of more lenses for it, small wide zooms and even exotic primes in the f/0.9 range. Marketing can do amazing things, though and I’m sure the IQ will be more than enough for the target audience, so their benefit from flexible usage will more than make up for any relative deficit there. I’m pretty sure it will be successful, as actually are all the mirrorless lines, just maybe not quite as much as Nikon hopes.

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