Nikon 1. Counterintuitive. Crazy. And a whole lot of fun.

Nikon V1 Camera with Kit Lens. Sweet.

I got some money for my birthday on Thurs. and it was still around when I decided to drop in and see what was new at Precision Camera, my local, grown up candy shop.  I was thinking I'd take a look at the Canon SX40 because Ben and I have had fun with the super zoom cameras from Canon in the past and it's a lot of camera for $400.  My camera guy, Ian, and I played with the SX40 for a few minutes and then I asked him, "What's new?"  And that set of the chain reaction that led to the insertion of VSL into yet another camera system.  

When the Nikon 1 Series was announced I thought it looked pretty cool but I didn't take time to understand any of it, and the howl from the denizens on the web forums threatened to kill the whole system before it even hatched.  It is amazing to me how entrenched people get with their current systems and the level of disbelief they have that technology can march onward.  People are shaking their heads at the "small" sensor while gushing over cameras like the Panasonic LX5 and the Canon G12 which have much smaller sensors.....

Ian sauntered over to the case that holds the Nikon goodies and pulled out the V1.  He asked, innocently, "Have you played with one of these yet?" and he put the camera in my hand.  Can I say, "love at first sight?"

I have average sized hands and this camera fit perfectly.  The thumb rest on the back and the finger grip on the front are as close to perfect for me as I can imagine.  If you have gorilla hands you may have a different experience.  While I love the control covered carcass of the G series mini-pro cameras from Canon I was pleasantly surprise how much I loved the minimalist control protrusions on the V1.

But let's back up for a second and I'll describe the V1 for those who haven't kept up with new introductions lately.  Nikon supposedly has been working on this camera system since 2007.  It's got a smaller imaging chip than the micro four thirds cameras and the chip has a 2.7X crop factor compared to full frame 35mm.  There are two bodies available but the cheaper one doesn't allow for an EVF so I pretend that it doesn't even exist.  The body I am interested in is the V1.  It has a built in EVF with a 1.4 million pixel res screen in the eyepiece.  The camera can be set up like the old Minoltas and Sony's so that the screen on the rear is live until you bring the camera up to your eye and then it switches to the electronic viewfinder.  Nice, but the first thing I did was to use the display control to turn off the rear screen all the time.

The camera is small but not too small which makes it easy to carry but nice to hold.  You'll hate this camera if you like all your major controls front and center.  Just about everything on the camera is menu driven.  And it's the Jekyll and Hyde opposite of the EP-3.  The menus is barebones.  Where you can fine tune and finesse just about every setting imaginable in the Olympus the Nikon is almost delightfully straightforward and uncluttered.  You can't fine tune many of the settings but maybe that's because it's intended to be a raw shooter.

You can look at the picture of the product at the top of the page and you'll find it to appear very rudimentary.  I like it.  But I like Mid 20th Century Russian Industrial too.  I think, once you hold it in your hand and shoot it you'll find it's a cross between "collective functionality" and the kind of simplified interface that makes Apple products so usable.  If you are the kind of guy who likes to replace the motherboard in your PC just so you can say you built it yourself then.....nope, this one might be something different.  To me, clean, spare and functional are attributes.
When Ian and I were playing around with the camera in the store we shot photos of the inside of a camera bag.  Silly test, but at ISO 3200 we saw very, very little noise and lots of non-smushy detail.  There was a little bit of evidence of noise reduction taking the edges off eyelashes and what not but not much.  On par with a Canon 7D at that setting.  Maybe a little better.  

I beat Ian out of a 4 gigabyte card because I wanted to go out and shoot immediately.  The battery had a 40% charge fresh from the box so I saddled up, asked my full service camera guy to put the strap on the camera and set the date and time and, a grand lighter, I was out the door and headed for downtown.  I thought I'd head to Cafe Medici and read the owner's manual.  Something I do with every camera I buy.

OMG!!!!  Nikon managed to do the IMPOSSIBLE.  The manual is only about 60 pages long and yet manages to cover everything I needed to know with good, clear explanations.  Amazing, since even the most rudimentary cameras these days come with books that rival War and Peace  for length.  I was back out the door one cappuccino and ten minutes later.  
I'd write more stuff but I just spent three hours and 200 files with the camera.  Look above.  It's a shot right out of the camera in Jpeg.  Click on it because I uploaded some big files.  You'll see lots of detail and lots of dynamic range.  I know the sensor is small and I won't be able to put lots and lots of stuff out of focus but I also know that I can lean over a bridge, shoot in total automatic, and come away with a shot I like.
What are the "gotcha's" that I've found so far?

1.  I don't like the fact that they use a brand new mechanical interface for the flash.  I'll have to use their dedicated flash and figure out how to use it to trigger studio flashes if I want to use it that way.  They haven't shipped flashes yet so I'll see what that's all about when they get here.

2. "Wake from sleep" takes far too long.  When you turn on the camera from the "off" position it leaps into action and is as ready as a teenager.  But when you've let the camera go to sleep it wakes up like a grumpy old man.  Figure on several seconds and some pressure on the shutter button before it says hello and asks for Sanka.

3.  Shot to shot recovery is too slow in the single shot setting.  You click, it shoots, then it pauses and then it shows you the shoot and then waits for you to put a little pressure on the button before it comes back to pre-shoot readiness.  Fine for still life and things that don't move much but not so good for my kind of shooting.  Switch to continuous and gain immediate shot to shot responsiveness and a 45 shot buffer.
 What do I like about the camera?

Can you say, "Image Quality?"  Forget all the crap you hear on the techno sites and just look at the images.  They're gorgeous.  I don't remember which ones I uploaded at full size but if you click around I'm sure you'll have no trouble finding them.  I think the out of camera jpegs are very, very good.  Maybe the color is different than Jpegs from Olympus Pen cameras but it's not necessarily worse color and the sharpness and resolution are second to none in the tiny class.

The other major thing I like is the use of the big, D7000 style battery.  It's rated for 500 images.  I'm tired of tiny batteries that cough up the spirit after only 200 or so images.  

Do I like the camera better than my EP3?  No.  But I do like it just as much.  The EP3 is very elegant and so beautifully designed.  The V1 seems more industrial.  Will I get rid of the Olympus stuff to replace it with Nikon stuff?  Naw.  I still like using all my legacy lenses and Leica lenses on the Olys.  And I still love their color.  What do I like about the Nikon? I love the crisp feel of the files, the perfect meter, the fast autofocus and the incredible ten frames per second I can get at the full 10 meg image res.

There's a lot more to this camera and I've barely scratched the surface of it's capabilities in video (can you  imagine 400 fps video played back at 30 fps for incredible slow motion?).  The camera is small, discreet, focuses faster than my Canon 5Dmk2 (the whipping boy of modern focus...) and fun to handle.

I've only had my hands on it for five hours and I'm still learning.  But I've learned on thing: If most people who've never handled a camera hate it.......it might be really good.  More.  Much more to come.


Another fun review by one of the VSL readers: http://www.b-vong.com/journal/nikon-j1-review-by-a-girl/


Travis said...

Beautiful files indeed. Thanks for the useful comments grounded in the reality of actually taking pictures.

andrewt said...

Glad you're back Kirk! I know there has been a lot of talk about the Nikon 1s, but the images I've seen online, including yours, have been amazing in very interesting ways. Look interesting indeed.

And BTW I love these shots.

Vu Le, DDS said...

Thanks for being the curious contrarian. I've always enjoyed what you write, whether I agree with it or not. Thanks for bringing us on your adventures. PS found 4 pristine PEN F lenses, can't wait to take them on a test drive of my own.

Michael Ferron said...

Gotta figure out how to put mine in single shot. Damn thing is so fast and silent I end up taking 5 identical photos before I knew what hit me. I won't get into the vs Oly stuff but the integrated EVF is a plus for Nikon. The build is super. For me best yet in a small camera.

If leica was starting out new today this is what I would expect them to produce. A premature 2 thumbs up from me.

Unknown said...

The only review site I read now is yours. :) I stopped going to the big sites because they all say the same thing and there isn't any objectivity in their tests, no real world opinions. I got tired of the high ISO noise comparison and resolution charts. It's bad enough having one photography friend that does lens tests; he doesn't shoot for fun anymore, just to collect data.

I've been intrigued by this camera system and I'm glad you wrote your thoughts about it in an objective way. I keep changing my "which digital camera should I get if I ditch film" list and this might be near the top (although the Panasonic GH-2 is up there too). I have no idea how much I'd use a digital camera for still images, I've been wanting to try video with my old 35mm K-mount Pentax lenses. Maybe someone will make lens adapters for this new Nikon system.

The images look fantastic and I haven't even looked for the large files you uploaded.

I'm glad you're back to writing, I'll make sure to comment more.

D said...

I can say something about this, since it's about gear.

The thing that is interesting---maybe exciting?---about these new Nikons, and M43, and other smaller cameras, is that they are getting better and better. It won't be long until what they give up compared to DSLRs will be insignificant for general use. (Excepting such things as wildlife, bird, sports, and other more specialized pursuits, of course, but further improvements in focus speed may allow them to do in a pinch.)

A 60 page manual? Spartan and simple controls? A menu which does not include choices for Supercalifragilistic Uber Moonlight mode? You mean I wouldn't have to spend a month wrestling a new camera just to learn how to use it? Now this is REAL progress.

atmtx said...


Great new toy and Happy Birthday!

As you may know, I wrote a blog post on the Nikon 1 about a month ago titled:
Nikon Creates a Tablet (Nikon 1) but is it an iPad?

It maybe too early to tell and you may not have an iPad but I'm anxious to hear how the camera does after a few weeks of use.

Govis said...

Nice try, Tuckster, I know you're curled up in a fetal position gnashing your teeth about how unacceptably small your new toy camera's sensor is.


Frank Grygier said...

I am happy to hear that you found the perfect gift for your birthday. I read in today's paper that someone named Cow Patty is placing decorative cow droppings behind the cow parade bovines. Eleven in all. Nikon will succeed with this new camera system because of the brand recognition. When you tell your friends you just bought the latest Nikon camera all will be right with the world.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Silly Govis, That's what people said when we started playing with the Pen stuff three years ago. If I have sensor envy I can always pull out a 1DS mk2 or a Canon 5Dmk2. But I'm having a hard time trying to make the Canon stuff shoot at 30 fps. And I can't seem to engage the EVF's....

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Frank, it's about time someone augmented the cow art.

Now, about the Nikon. Just to mess with everyone I've been wearing the Nikon over one shoulder and the Olympus over the other (But when I want to take really, really good photos I still reach for the Hasselblad...).


Darth Solarion said...

I admit I was one of the few that derided the camera when it first out. But seeing the pictures you produce reminded me of the time when I thought a point & shoot was good enough. Beautiful pictures.

BTW, do you ever plan to give the Ricoh GXR M mount module a try?

typingtalker said...

" ... I can lean over a bridge, shoot in total automatic, and come away with a shot I like."

The engineers that design these things know quite a lot about focus and exposure and I'm happy to let them do some of my work.

With this camera, Nikon is selling pictures, not specs. Which is as it should be.

Naomi said...

I like small cameras, but the problem is the lack of DSLR in small sizes until the advent of the 4/3 system, and now competing ones. All are getting better, and who knows, the bigger DSLRs may be going the way of the dodo. However, for many of us, having both is for the best - nothing like a change of clothing to make life interesting - and having a few cameras is the same. Besides cameras, I like paint brushes and fountain pens and different types of paper. Cameras and lenses are the same thing. Problem is to have self-control and not run out and get everything!

Bronislaus Janulis / Framewright said...

Thanks for the review of an intriguing camera. How does the EVF compare?


Bill Kongable said...

Thanks for another great column, but it stokes my gear envy bug, Again

mshafik said...

Now that's an interesting development in your camera-mania, nice to read about the V1, I'll be waiting -hopefully- to see how it does in the studio, it doesn't have an external flash, does it? I think if it does, you could use it to trigger your studio flashes, just lower the power and bounce it to the ceiling.

Brad Burnham said...

I love the third to las image. It is very striking.

cidereye said...

I must admit I too dismissed this camera when it was launched but as you said Kirk, Look at the files! I did and I am very impressed .... wow!

If Nikon can get people to use these as you say they will have a real winner on their hands for sure.

MJI said...

Interesting post, Kirk! Admittedly I haven't had much interest in the mirrorless cameras as something to buy, but I do follow developments out of interest. It's interesting that Nikon seem to have taken their time and produced a very good product indeed.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Kirk! Admittedly I haven't had much interest in the mirrorless cameras as something to buy, but I do follow developments out of interest. It's interesting that Nikon seem to have taken their time and produced a very good product indeed.

Skip Hunt said...

I've been intrigued by this camera but wasn't sure what to make of it. Your fles are pretty sweet and I too dig the crispness. Might have to check this one out in person. Thanks for the great review!

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

I wanted to use the V1 at a fund raiser last night but the downside of new gear is that the bits and pieces always seem to land later. I have the camera and lenses I needed but not the little flash. And I needed the little flash. It's on the way but last night I had to default to the Canon 1DSMK2, a 580EX2 and a Zeiss 35mm f2. Roughly ten times the weight of the V1 with lens and flash......

martinduerrphotography.blogspot.com said...

Perfect review! Would like to see more of such reviews out in the photographic world, but too many pixel peepers out there.


JJ Semple said...

Kirk, I wrote a similar review with examples.

I love this camera; it's foolproof for dummies like me, long time analog shooters who are overwhelmed by the plethora of controls, gadgets, and features on digital cameras.

I like the simplicity, the IQ, the metering, the focusing. A tiltable (up & down) EVF for shooting from the waist would be nice though.

In spite of its qualities, I returned it. I'm waiting for a NEX 7. $$$. If it doesn't hack it, I will get another V1. Probably will anyway, especially if they come out with a V2. Just hope the outcry doesn't discourage buyers, and ultimately Nikon.

I like it much better that my E-PL1, but the m4/3 have so many more lens possibilities. PEN 110, Minolta, Canon, etc.

Seems strange that people would disparage it without even testing it. Well, if they did get one, they'd find something negative to say. Their minds are made up.

stefano60 said...

thank you for the review; for some reason, i was intrigued by this camera as soon as i found out it existed, and was quite surprised to see so much negativity, posted mainly by people who had not even seen one, never mind taken pictures with it.
there must be a lot of really smart people out there who are able to judge a camera just by the way it looks or the technical specifications on paper; i am not that gifted, i really need to have one in my hands for a few days before i can make up MY mind.
glad to see that i am not alone in my way of looking at things, and to have found a few objective reviews.
at the end of the day, it is really all about image quality - and, for a small camera, its ease of use.
i just ordered one, and ordered also an adapter to mount my M lenses on it ... i cannot wait to try the combination! this could be a nice complement to my M8.

PuryearPhoto said...

From another Austin commercial photographer I can say I agree with you completely. I almost never buy a camera without fully investigating but this camera felt great immediately. All the controls are where they should be. The image quality seems really good. All the other cameras in this range feel plasticy! Maybe Nikon is following Apple in creating devices that are machined to be like holding a jewel in your hand. Remember when all the old MP3 players were made of plastic until Apple came out with the iPod? I still love my U2 red and black iPod even though it now seems "retro". There is more to the user experience than simply being a camera. I have had my V1 for only 5 days but I can say it is an inspiring camera to use.