The rise of the "one inch" sensor cameras.

Added: New links for the "research impaired" (DP Review readers) at the bottom.

Amazing that, for once, Nikon could be accused of getting to market too far ahead of everyone else. I'm talking about their initial foray into the "one inch" sensor camera market. Four years ago Nikon surprised most of us by introducing the V1 camera and a small collection of lenses. I snapped one up because it was so interesting. I also bought three of the lenses. At the time the sensor was 10 megapixels but that didn't stop me from shooting some journalistic-type jobs with it, including a project photographing Dell's CEO, Michael Dell, at a visit to Austin Easter Seals; which I wrote about here on the blog.

The camera was very good and very fast. The icing on the cake was that even back then that little mirrorless camera (at about $1,000) focused, and locked focus, much faster than the current mirrorless, full frame cameras from Sony. The images looked really good, too....as long as you didn't go too high on the ISO scale. But Nikon wasn't able, and hasn't been able, to get much traction with the system. They were on the wrong side of the razor. And they made a critical mistake in having a step down camera (the J1) that DID NOT have an EVF or any way to add an EVF. The market really wasn't ready for the idea of the smaller sensor camera at a price that was higher than Nikon's competent APS-C consumer cameras. They just didn't figure out how to give the targeted users a compelling reason to acquire this particular tool set.

Nikon blazed new territory and, for that, I am somewhat proud of Nikon. But now I have a sense that the one inch sensor's time has come and that the cameras being designed around variants of this size sensor are about to take their place in the camera hierarchy as competitors to the current crop of micro four thirds machines.

Why do I say this? Hmmm. Sony and Panasonic tied me down and forced me to say this in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars and truck loads of free gear!!!? Well, would you believe, instead, that I've had such good experiences with the two different models of "one inch" sensor-equipped cameras that I am quickly coming to embrace them as everyday photography tools? I wish the former reason were true but I'm afraid it's really the second...

In the past week I've done two assignments with the small chip cameras and had, what I consider, excellent outcomes. In one instance, which I shared here on the blog, I photographed actor, Jimmy Moore, for a marketing promotion for Zach Theatre. The camera in question was the Panasonic fz 1000 which is currently available for a whopping $695. All you get for your money is a Leica designed lens that is very sharp and gives you 25mm to 400mm (equivalents) along with a 2.36 million pixel EVF, as many frames per second as you want, solid and beautiful 20 megapixel raw files and pretty darn flawless 4K video. Oh, I forgot to mention the really, really good image stabilization.

This is the kind of job we might have used our full frame cameras on before but if you think about the nuts and bolts of shooting people on white backgrounds (who will eventually be cut out from the background) the smaller sensor just makes sense. At f8.0 the entire person is in focus so the clipping path becomes easier to make. If the quality didn't match up it wouldn't matter about the efficacy of the clipping paths but the reality is that, at ISO 125, shooting raw and metering accurately, the files were impeccable. So that's one application. And, interestingly enough, the smaller, cheaper camera (relative to my D750 or D810) does such a good job with face detection AF that I use it and never suffer from inaccurate focus. Tell me you always nail AF with your big DSLR and I'll laugh along with you....

In the same week I pushed a Sony RX10 into service to photograph a prototype techie machine on a white background. As I explained in yesterday's post the impetus was to be able to use a camera with a sharp lens and more depth of field than even my m4:3 cameras, at the same angle of view, without any apparent loss of image quality. I am confident that we succeeded. In fact, that job may well have led to a much bigger video project; which might also be perfectly within the technical abilities of the smaller sensor-ed cameras.

In a similarity race with the Panasonic the Sony RX10 includes a faster lens, designed by Zeiss and just about everything I described about the fz 1000 above. And, in a head to head competition, both were equally proficient and, in fact, cut down on my post production time in each case.

I said, in my blog yesterday, that it would crazy to go out and buy yet another one inch camera but that's exactly what I intend to do. I am convinced that there are many assignments that would actually benefit from getting beyond our knee jerk prejudice for bigger cameras. The older Sony with the new XAVC codec and the newer model with its 4K capability and high video frame rate (great for slow motion effects) are not only good still cameras but are really first class video cameras. In concert with the fz 1000s we can be out shooting video with multiple, high quality "B" cameras ---- limited only by how many tripods I own....

While the imaging sensors have gotten better and better with the bigger cameras it's equally true that the sensors have improved in the one inch cameras as well, and, obviously, designing high quality lenses for the smaller sensors is easier and more cost effective than designing lenses with similar angles of view for larger sensor cameras.

I have a little side bet going with myself. One of my personalities (the risk taking artist) thinks we can do just about every job with one of the "one inch" cameras. Another one of my personalities (the linear, insecure engineer) thinks we should be safe and careful and always shoot with something "professional." While the day to day personality (capricious and insouciant business guy) says, "oh what the hell? let's give it a try!!! In response, my personality who is "accounting guy" fainted and hit his head on the desk again... At any rate the bet is whether or not we can pull of half of our video productions and still photography assignments with a combination of the three best one inch superzoom cameras on the market. It's a fun contest and the winner gets nothing but the glory of being proven right.

I just can't get over how great the files keep looking from these all-on-one super cameras. And if Nikon gets one right I'll try that one too.

I'm thinking this is the year that one inch sensor cameras become mainstream and get pressed into an enormous variety of paying jobs. Of course, I've been wrong before so I'm hedging my bet by keeping the big cameras of various formats around the studio. After all, the first lesson of "wing walking" is to grab hold of the strut in front of you before you let go of the one behind you....

Here's some affiliate advertising if you are antsy to get started shooting smaller

Buy one instead of yet another lens...

Added on Sunday for all the people with no institutional memory for the writings and research here at VSL: We were early adopters of one inch cameras buying the V1 from Nikon the month it appeared, the Sony RX10 two years ago, etc. Here are some links re: our engagement with the Nikon Series 1: 


Chaps my ass to read on DP Review, in the Nikon Series 1 forum, that I am "a late arrival" to the one inch sensor camera club..... lazy jerks.

One of the original Craftsy Photo Classes and 
still one of the best! 

I met Lance a couple of weeks ago in Denver
and found him to be really fun and knowledgeable 
this class reflects what he teaches in hands-on
workshops in Ireland and Iceland, as well as 
cool places around the U.S.

How to make what we shoot into a cohesive
train of visual thought.


Robert Hudyna said...

The Nikon V1 was introduced at a high price point and there were few sales, the reviews were uncomplimentary and the camera did not sell. A year later Nikon cleared their supply chain at rock-bottom pricing. That's when I bought one.

The Nikon V1 is a pleasure to use, the color of the images is amazing, the AF is instantaneous. The 10Mp images are more than enough for my needs.

I also bought the 10-100mm zoom, at clearance pricing, and that is optimized for HD video. Low cost and good performance.

A great go-anywhere camera with compact size and best value for the money.

Phil Stiles said...

Don't forget the amazing Sony RX100 series. The most quality you can carry in a shirt pocket.

Gato said...

My new/used FZ1000 arrived Thursday, ordered after I saw your theater photos last week. I had been wavering on this for months and you finally pushed me over the edge.

Tonight I'm looking at files from the first very informal portrait trial, and wow does this thing deliver. Face detect nails focus on the eyes virtually every time, and does it almost instantly. The lens delivers nice fine detail in the eyes and lashes with detailed-but-not-too-harsh skin texture.

So far my only complaints are to wish it focused closer and that they had given us f11 - not so much I want to shoot at 11, but so I'd have a little room to fine tune flash exposure shooting at f8.

Right now I'm packing for the first real session tomorrow. Boy, does that Domke bag look empty. I may have to throw in an extra flash or something to fill out the space. If this thing delivers tomorrow it may be my "holy grail" for location people photography -- excellent image quality, no need to change lenses during a session, and fast sync for mixing flash and daylight.

Ian Kirk said...

A great article about 1 " sensor cameras which I totally agree with.

I have a bag full of Nikon 1 cameras and Nikon 1 lenses and love them to bits.

Nikon could make a killer set up if they really wanted too but they seem terrified of cannibalising DSLR sales.

Keep up the great work, I always enjoy your blog... even if you delete me from time to time....

Carlo Santin said...

I have been using a Sony RX100 for a personal film project. I am filming one second a day for an entire year to create a personal documentary for that year, a video scrapbook. But I realized the other day that because I always have the camera with me in anticipation of filming that one second I need each day, that I have also been using it a lot for stills. I also realized that I can do a lot with that little camera. Ive been doing portraits with it and when I go out for walks I am shooting whatever I see, so much so that I think my days of relying on traditional cameras with interchangeable lenses might be coming to an end. I think I can say the same for my time with film. I have gotten so used to the little Sony that I am happy with it for most applications...throw in something like the RX10 and I think that might be it for me. I have used my DSLR and lenses very very sparingly in the last few months and have not felt any desire to use them...I dont miss them and I am a little surprised at this. I think I am developing a serious crush on these 1 inch sensor cameras. The micro four thirds cameras never really caught on with me like this. Great cameras and systems that never really spoke to me the way the 1 inch sensors are right now...and I also shoot with a V1 that I picked up dirt cheap last year and the wonderful 18.5mm (50mm equiv) lens, just terrific files from that combo.

amolitor said...

I have this memory, perhaps hallucinatory, that the Nikon 1 system had a feature whereby it would start shooting 60fps into a rolling buffer when you touched the shutter button. Then a full press just committed the right frame to the SD card (or whatever)

This yielded 0, or in theory even negative, shutter lag.

I assumed that all cameras would work this way by the time a year had passed because, duh. But no.

Did I dream the whole thing?

Anonymous said...

The Nikon 1 series has to be one of the most maligned camera series ever produced; mainly due to BAD, BAD marketing on Nikon's part. There's a lot to like about them if you look carefully and think clearly instead of the just the usual "knee jerk" reaction. When I went looking for a "street camera" to replace my Olympus XZ-1, I emailed Thom Hogan who panned the V3 terribly. But, I went to the store and actually handled one. Yes it has it's foibles, idiosyncrasies and frustrations (maybe more than it needs to) but its small, unobtrusive, fast, quiet, the lenses are sharp at any aperture and can blast off 20fps in RAW if needed. I can pack a V3 with three lenses that cover 15-800mm in a little bag 7.5x7.5x5 inches, and with some careful processing print 13x19s from the RAW files. The V3 and 10-100mm lens (27-270mm equiv.) instantly became my street cam from day 1. Love it ...warts and all. And the 1" sensor (which could be better) is more than "good enough" for the job.

John W

Jeroen Pulles said...

From what I see on Flickr, the images from the latest J5 incarnation of the Nikon 1 look at least as good as the other one-inchers. But that's the model without EVF, so probably not your cup of tea.

Craig Yuill said...

I bought a V1 about 3 years ago as a hybrid stills/video camera for a family vacation. Later, it became my main wildlife/birding camera because it turned my 300mm lenses effectively into 800mm lenses, thanks to the 2.7x cropping factor. Even though the V1's older Aptina sensor doesn't quite hold a candle to the newer Sony sensors, I have been able to get good photographs and video clips from the V1. But I wish the V1 could record 1080 60p video, and I wish the VR system was MUCH better for video. Many video clips that I have taken look quite shaky, especially those taken when I was walking. I have been thinking about acquiring an Olympus E-M5 II just for the superior video IS. (I believe your beloved FZ1000 and RX-10 have IS just about as effective as the E-M5 II.)

Sadly, there are indications Nikon might "do a Samsung", and pull the plug on the Nikon 1 System. They don't seem to know what to do with it. That would be a shame, as I think the system could be outstanding if Nikon made a greater commitment to creating a useful and comprehensive lens line and improving the interface and capabilities of their cameras, especially the higher-end ones. Nikon could also charge much more reasonable prices for 1 System camera bodies.

Mark Davidson said...

Just shot an event yesterday that I usually shoot with my Canons. It is an all-day tribal dance event that gets reeeeeeally tiring by about 4PM. I set up strobes around the dance floor and usually use a 5Dmkiii with a 70-200 f2.8 at ISO 1600 shooting at f7.1 and 1/160 sec. I carry a Canon with the 24-105.

Yesterday I brought those cameras and my FZ-1000. Carrying the 70-200 and the FZ I quickly found the FZ faster and more flexible. I was shooting at f4 at 1/800 sec (yay leaf shutter) at ISO 400. 1 sec review in the EVF confirmed my exposure. Focus was ALWAYS right. I used the Godox AD-360s this year and retired my White Lightnings and Vagabonds. The Godox allow me to adjust and even switch off lights as needed. The 1/800 sec shutter eliminated any ghosting that I occasionally got with the Canons and their 1/160 sync. Having 400mm effective FL is joy. Having every other FL down to 25mm is heaven.

At the end of the day my yield: Canon 70-200, 67 exposures, Canon 24-105 46 exposures, FZ-1000 693 exposures. I used one battery that still showed full after 6 hours. The strobes were set at mostly 1/4 and 1/8 power and showed no drop in battery levels after a full day of shooting.

All my gear packed into four bags. The largest one being the case for the four 12' Manfrottos.

The keeper rate was exceptional. The detail delightful, the color rich and the client ecstatic.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks Mark! Another real world "data point" from a fellow photographer. Much camera choice today is prejudice about what was required to make good images years ago. Technology keeps changing the mix. It's cool to keep up.

Noons said...

If Nikon ever made a V-series camera like the AW1, with a BIG evf and provided it with a decent set of lenses for both under and over water (macro, very wide, 35mm equivalent, short tele) I'd sooooo get one!...
Used a Nikonos as my main camera for many years as a kid, under and over water. Still miss it. Sadly, it's something that is missing in their line-up. The AW1 is impossible to use via the rear screen for my tired old eyes... I need an (adjustable) evf!

Jim Hughes said...

I own both the Nikon V1 and the Sony RX100. They're fun, portable, and I've taken many of my favorite photos with them.

Nigel Hodges said...

I bought a Nikon V2 with 10 - 100VR (non PD) zoom about twelve months ago as I no longer want to carry a DSLR around - far too bulky and heavy! I also needed a camera that would focus quickly when I'm photographing steam trains or wandering around city streets - this small camera fits the bill (and it has an evf)! I hope the Nikon 1 system continues too.

Anonymous said...

Don't let the DP Review people get under your skin. Most are just I.T. wage slaves taking a break from their desperate lives to be pompous "experts"