Test Driving the new Nikon V1
I have seen the future and it lies somewhere within the new Nikon V1. This is a very exciting time in the world of photography as we are seeing rapid advances in image processing combined with the reduction of camera sizes. The new ILC (Interchangeable Lens Cameras), from Nikon (V1/J1), Sony (NEX Series), Olympus (Pen), ... are rapidly changing the face of photography. We are seeing a movement up from typical point and shoots with regards to capabilities and IQ and a down sizing in form factor from the giant SLRs of old.
As many of you know, I switched a year ago from my Nikon D2X bodies and gigantic lenses to a Sony NEX-5 setup with two small kit lenses. I made this move partly out of necessity and partly because I saw the impracticality of carrying big bodies and big lenses as I travelled by kayak and bike. After more than 13,000 images shot with my little NEX system, I don't ever see going back to large bodies other than for very specific situations. That is not to say that these systems don't have issues, which they do, running the gamut from a lack of high quality lenses to no view-finders and a minimal amount of on camera customization and smaller sensors, something that we can argue all day about without coming to a consensus.
That was however a year ago, and not today. In the span of a year, we have seen a huge amount of growth in the ILC camera market. Sony has replaced the NEX-5 with the NEX-5N and the soon to be delivered NEX-7, all with the addition of an EVF and more flexibility in how the systems can be customized, not to mention the move to a 16 and 24 megapixel sensor. The release of the Fuji X100 and the new X10 along with leaked pictures of the next Fuji have shown that innovation is continuing at a rapid pace. Both Olympus and Panasonic are moving forward with Canon still sitting on the sidelines. Which all brings us to the new Nikon 1 system offerings.
When announced months ago, the system was largely trashed by the media and the blogging world for a lack of innovation and a horribly small sensor compared to the direction in which the M 4/3's camp, Sony, and Fuji were moving. All of these companies were trying to get a larger sensor in a smaller body, a direction that pleased enthusiasts all over, especially those convinced that the only way a camera could produce a good image was if it had a 'Full Frame' sensor. Well, Nikon chose a different path, and now that these cameras are in the stores and in the hands of real users, the feedback is rapidly starting to change. Perhaps these little cameras with their little sensors, have a place in the hands of photographers after all?
I first became really intrigued by the V1 system after reading Rob Gailbraith's review of the unit. I have been a longtime follower of Rob's and trust his opinion greatly. He is a pro interested in the tools that allow him to do his trade. Like all professionals, rarely is there one tool that does everything well, thus we all usually have multiple tools, and for him, the V1 fit a certain niche. Then came the review by Kirk Tuck, not only a great review, but a blog that I absolutely love reading each and every day. Kirk started by posting his thoughts and his images that were simply blowing me away. The final straw came after Steve Huff posted his review, titled "The Camera I Expected to Hate", which again had mostly great things to say about this new system offering from Nikon.
The combination of these three reviews had me very much intrigued about the 1 system and what Nikon had been up to for the last 4 years, the amount of time they claim to have spent developing the new line of 1 cameras. As a long time Nikon pro user, it pained me to get rid of my Nikon gear, so the thought of being able to migrate back to the world of Nikon really excited me. Nikon never does anything fast, and it was clear with the 1 system that they had taken their time and really attempted to create something new and innovative. They were clearly looking to create an ILC ecosystem that had all of the parts and pieces needed by the enthusiast to put together a complete kit that could cover their needs.
The cornerstone of the system is the Nikon V1 body with 4 lenses and a series of accessories. For a full review you should check out Steve Huff's site as he really spent a good deal of time with the body and lenses. I have not had the chance to spend more than an hour with the system, but I am very impressed by this little unit. The first thing you notice when you pick up the camera is the heft and build of the V1. This is in stark contrast to the plastic and lightweight feel of my Sony NEX. This camera feels solid and built to last, almost as if it were built from a solid block of metal. The feel and balance in your hands is really something to hold and very organic in nature. In a word, it really has a sublime feel to it.
Next up is the quality of the 4 lenses, the 10mm, 10-30mm, and the 30-110 and the video optimized 10-100. The lenses all feel solid and well built with a minimum of play when zoomed out. I love that each of them has a retract lock, making for safe storage of the lenses when the camera is turned off. The V1, with the professionally built 10-100 mounted is definitely a hefty combination. This lens has been optimized for video and uses a rocker switch on the end of the lens to zoom in and out. The feel of this lens was really amazing. I spent over an hour playing with the camera and all 4 lenses. They were all well built and mounted very nicely to the V1 I was testing.
The really amazing part for me was the speed with wich this little camera worked. Using the beautiful EVF, a first for me, was like finding nirvana in the small camera world. My biggest issue with my Sony NEX has been the need to shoot at arms length using the rear LCD. While there are times when I love shooting that way, most noticeably from a low angle, the rest of the time I despise it. I feel that it keeps me completely disconnected from the image that I am trying to capture. Somehow, looking through a view finder creates an intimate connection between my eye and the scene at large, making it much easier for me to capture what my 'brain' is seeing. With the V1 I was suddenly able to look through a stunning electronic viewfinder and not only see what I was shooting, but I could also see all of the controls that I might want to manipulate.
The bright and very responsive EVF allowed me to see my shutter speed or aperture adjustments along with any type of EV compensation or other camera adjustment I might be making. One of the dings on the 1 series is the lack of professional adjustment buttons that you might find on larger SLR's or on the new Sony NEX-7 camera. I have to say this is true, but.... I found that within the hour, I was able to keep my eye on the EVF and manipulate everything that I wanted without looking away. This included changing basic settings; moving the focus point around; adjusting EV compensation; switching from an electronic shutter to a manual shutter; etc. I am sure that there are adjustments that I could not get to without looking away, but for the most part, I was amazed at what I could do and with the overal ergonomics of the system.
Lastly, the speed of auto focus and shooting was nothing other than mind blowing. I was inside, set the ISO to 3200 so I could get some reasonable shutter speed and just fired. This thing just kept shooting, with no lag at all, and I was shooting RAW!! For someone trying to shoot rapidly moving objects like pets or kids, and I would imagine some sports (not the pro type but family sports), this is an amazing little camera. I can tell you that with my NEX-5 the buffer fills up so quickly that rapid shooting is all but impossible. I know that with the NEX-5n Sony has fixed some of this, but I have not yet had the opportunity to really test out a 5n.
The speed of shooting and the rapid auto focus is what makes this camera a real game changer. Combine that with what reviewers are saying about the metering, which is to say it is almost always spot on, and you have a small compact camera, with a bright EVF, that can shoot RAW files at amazing rates and never slow down. It is really a great day for people looking to just take great pictures without having to lug around a 2 pound DSLR and 5 pounds of lenses. Needless to say I am quite excited about what Nikon has created and what this means for the future of Nikon's pro line of cameras.
With any system, it is never all good, and that is true of the V1. While I loved much about the camera, there are a few things that I was disappointed in. Some of these I am sure Nikon can fix with firmware updates, while others will have to wait for the next iteration of the camera. The things that I did not like are:
- No articulating rear screen. A year ago I would never have believed that this could be any type of issue for me, but a year of shooting my NEX with it's beautiful little hinged screen has changed my shooting habits. For ME, I shoot a lot from very low angles and this is where a articulating screen really comes in handy. I have heard people say that the V1 screen is so nice that it can be seen from all angles, which may be true, but when you are shooting at ground level, it is nice to not have to lie on the ground. This is an issue that may or may not be fixed in future models
- The EVF has a slight delay when the camera is brought up to the eye. Funny enough but the new Sony A77 had the same issue when it first came out and the problem was largely resolved through a firmware update so I am optimistic that this will become a non-issue in the near future.
- The camera wants to always replay the last image shot through the EVF. This is not an issue as long as you are holding down the shutter, but as soon as you let up on the shutter, you are forced to endure a period where you are looking at the last image shot and not the scene in front of you. This became quickly annoying as I would shoot a frame or two and go to recompose only to find that I had to wait for the EVF to come back alive. I am optimistic that this will be fixed in a firmware update.
- It would be nice to add flexibility in how the buttons on the back of the camera are used. Specifically the rocker switch located on the upper right side of the camera. If this switch can simply become user customizable then a big step will have been taken to making the camera more user customizeable.
- I wish that the movement of the focus indicator was separate from the back rocker switch. I would have personally preferred a dedicated rocker for movement of the focus indicator, but I also recognize that there is no real-estate to make this change, so this is something I just have to live with.
My list of negatives is not long, but for me they may be enough to keep me from switching over. The lack of the articulating screen is really the one that I have to think long and hard about, as that capability has really helped me out with a very specific style of shooting that I perform. Other than that, everything else can be fixed. The fact that Nikon has created an entire new system, one that will have additional primes and accessories added in the near future, makes it a very appealing to me. Nikon has always known photography, and they have always known photographers. While they are never the fastest to market, when they do arrive, it is generally a well thought out product, at least in the line of professional bodies.
So this brings us to the final point, who is this camera for? It is clearly not a professional body, but then again, it is not a typical P&S either. Is it for the enthusiast or advanced amateur, or possibly the pro looking for the perfect small camera system to supplement their larger DSLR's? I don't know the answer, but what I do know is a year with the NEX system combined with the ever changing world of photography has told me that the day of needing a large DSLR with large lenses to capture stunning and USEABLE images is over.
Having the ability to carry a small camera with a small group of lenses as I travel the world is what interests me. I want to use my tools to tell stories and for me that means having a camera on me at all times, taking pictures and sharing them with others. The new series of ILC cameras is incredibly exciting and offers up a world of promise for both professional and amateur photographers alike. Kudos to Nikon for taking the time to create a system that matches their vision of this new breed of photography. Time will tell if the 1 system is successful as there is stiff competition from the likes of Sony, Olympus, and Fuji. With that said, I am personally very excited about this camera and look forward to spending some more time with it evaluating the IQ and the overall usability.
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