First Impressions: Using the Nikon V1

Barney Britton | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Oct 23, 2011

Using the Nikon V1

Since their launch, the Nikon V1 and its little brother the J1 have generated a lot of discussion amongst our readers, not all of it positive. As a photographer as well as camera reviewer, I am intrigued by this new system for many reasons. It took Nikon three weeks to get us a V1 after we got our first glimpse of non-working samples in New York, but as soon as it arrived I grabbed it and started shooting. A full review of the V1 is underway, but considering the amount of interest that the new system generated among our readers, I wanted to share some early impressions with you. This 3-page article is categorized as 'opinion' and ahead of a full review with the associated studio testing and our usual in-depth analysis, it should be read accordingly. 

Despite the comparatively small size of its sensor, the V1 is amongst the bulkiest compact interchangeable lens system cameras that I've used. It is no surprise that the V1 is bigger than the genuinely compact Pentax Q, but what is very obvious when the camera is directly compared to its competition is how much chunkier it feels compared to larger-format competitors like the Olympus E-PL3 / E-PM1 and Sony NEX-C3.

Like these cameras, the V1 is designed to be easy to use, whatever your level of photographic experience. However, whereas its competitors have opted for large sensors and lots of features (including, increasingly, touch-sensitive LCD screens) Nikon has made a concerted effort to keep the V1 as simple as possible, both in terms of ergonomics and (in some respects) specification.  

Guess which of these cameras (L-R: the Sony NEX-C3, Nikon V1 and Olympus E-PM1) has the smallest sensor? The answer of course is the 10MP V1, despite its larger overall dimensions. The 16MP C3 has an APS-C sized sensor and the E-PM1 is based around a 12MP Micro Four Thirds sensor.

The lack of a 'traditional' exposure mode dial and conventional control dials might seem a little strange, but the audience that Nikon is aiming this camera at may not expect to see either, and in general use with the V1 I don't really miss them. One thing I really like about the V1 compared to some of its competitors (like the Olympus PEN-series and the lower-end Sony NEX models) is its excellent built-in EVF. In use, the V1's EVF isn't as nice as the ultra high-resolution unit in the latest Sony NEX-7 and SLT-A65/77 but it isn't too far behind and with a resolution of 1.44 million dots it is pleasantly crisp and detailed.

If you want to take manual control over exposure you’ll have to select one of the PASM modes from within the main shooting menu, at which point exposure settings are changed using the tiny ‘zoom’ jog switch on the camera’s rear. Again, it took a little time for me to get used to it, but after a short while it became second nature. After I'd stopped trying to zoom the lens by pulling on the zoom toggle, that is...

Less effective is the V1’s manual focus mode, which uses the rear control dial to rack focussing back and forth. To make it easier to see what's in focus and what's not - at least in theory - the zoom switch on the V1's rear acts as a focus area magnification toggle. The trouble is that the screen image gets lower and lower in resolution as you zoom in, making it very hard to focus accurately. To be honest, after trying repeatedly to use manual focus, and failing to reliably get sharp results, I think this is more of a token gesture than a serious feature. 

The long thin control at the top right of this view is a 'zoom' toggle that acts as a magnification control in playback mode and an exposure value shifter in PASM shooting.  The 'F' button to the left of the zoom toggle isn't customizable. In still image shooting it brings up a menu which allows you to switch between mechanical and electronic shutter.

The mode dial beneath is is where you select from Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, Still Image and Movie modes. Very simple, but easy to rotate by accident. 

The V1 does have a control dial, but during shooting its only purpose is to control shutter speed if you're shooting in manual exposure mode or adjust focus in manual focus mode. 

The V1's design doesn't really encourage much manual control over shooting settings, but that's not a bad thing, per se, and perfectly in keeping with Nikon's intentions for this model. Manual exposure control is there if you want it, and the V1 handles very nicely in aperture and shutter priority modes if you're that way inclined, but there's no danger of a beginner being swamped with confusing control and customization options. 

One of the V1's most interesting functions is Smart Photo Selector, which sits above the green 'still image' icon on the exposure mode dial. In this mode, the V1 shoots twenty images at 30fps in electronic shutter mode, then analyses them and saves four or five (max 5) of what it considers to be the 'best'. If your subject is blurred, out of frame or blinking, that frame won't make the cut. The process takes just over two seconds, and works really well. This isn't the sort of mode that I tend to reach for very often, but I'm very impressed by how well it works in the V1, and - crucially - how efficient it is. It only takes a couple of seconds from the time the shutter is released to the selected images being saved to the memory card. 

Although there is plenty more shooting and testing to with the V1 before we publish our definitive 'take' on the camera, a couple of things have annoyed me during my initial shooting. Firstly, the exposure mode dial on the V1's rear, which rotates far too freely.

The J1 has this problem as well - in my shooting I've lost count of the number of times I've accidentally rotated the dial when shifting my grip on the camera, and ended up in one of the other exposure modes. This is especially annoying when you end up in movie mode, because it's easy not to realise what has happened. In movie mode you see, pressing the shutter release button captures an image, but at reduced resolution (8MP) and only in the 16:9 aspect ratio. If you slip into this mode by accident and you're not paying attention you could end up going home with quite a few images in the 'letterbox' format. 

Secondly, with its kit zoom and 10mm pancake lens options the V1 powers up quickly in roughly 1 second, and only takes a fraction of a second longer to power down. When the camera goes to sleep though, it takes almost two seconds to 'wake up' before you can take a photograph, and a long half press of the shutter button is required to rouse it. Shot to shot time in single frame advance mode isn't great either at around two seconds on average, including AF re-aquisition. This isn't bad performance by the standards of a high-end compact, but it isn't great compared to some of the V1's mirrorless interchangeable lens competitors. 

Turn to page 2 for first impressions of image quality and the V1's AF tracking performance

First Impressions: Image Quality

We've only just started critical analysis of the V1's files, but my first impressions are generally quite positive. Considering the size of its sensor, the V1 gets pretty close to the pixel-level image quality of cameras like the Olympus E-PL3 and Panasonic GF2, although it is clearly no match for the 16MP sensor in the Sony NEX-C3 and NEX-5N, which offer both higher resolution and superior high ISO performance.

When I spoke to Nikon's engineers at the system's launch, I was told that the V1 and J1 do perform some in-camera optical corrections, but that the 1-system's optics perform so well that very little correction is required. Sure enough, comparing JPEGs to their accompanying Raw files, where any fringing is visible at all, it is more intense in the Raws than in the JPEGs. This is exactly what we'd expect given that Nikon's current DSLR and compact cameras all correct CA and fringing in-camera. However, while sharpness is high and my samples so far show little in the way of chromatic abberations, there is some distortion on show, especially from the video-optimized 10-100mm zoom.  

Taken at f/6.3 at an effective focal length of 108mm, this image is sharp almost from front to back, thanks to the generous depth of field afforded by the 1-system's small sensor (and correspondingly short focal length lenses). A tough test for any camera, but the V1's metering has done very well here, capturing the drama of the sunset without delivering a dramatically underexposed image. 
At ISO 400, there's a little bit of 'grit' sneaking into midtones but images are impressively noise free in most situations and detail capture is high. The V1's tiny sensor definitely isn't at its best at ISO 6400 ('Hi1') though, although image quality at this setting is perfectly acceptable if you don't need to make large prints. The V1's AWB system has done very well here. 

One thing that is very noticeable in images from the V1 is how much depth-of-field there is, even 'wide open' on the 10-30mm and 10-100mm zooms. This is no surprise at all, and a natural consequence of the 1 system being built around such a comparatively small sensor. It does mean, however, that in everyday shooting on all of the current 1-system lenses (none of which is faster than f/2.8) you will enjoy (or endure) greater depth of field than you might expect from a larger-sensor camera and equivalent optics. 

 JPEG ISO 100, f/4.8, 1/100sec  100% Crop
Raw processed 'to taste' 100% Crop 

As I'd expect, it is possible to get a lot more out of the V1's 10MP sensor if you're prepared to shoot Raw and commit to some post-capture adjustment. These images show the difference between default JPEG rendering and a Raw file processed quickly 'to taste' in Adobe Camera RAW (in this case a beta version of ACR 6.6). The V1's JPEGs are very good, but the difference in detail rendition when compared to the processed Raw file speaks for itself.    

Continuous Shooting and AF Tracking

Nikon makes great claims for the V1's AF and continuous capture modes. Both it and the J1 offer a maximum frame rate of 60fps in electronic shutter mode (the J1 only offers electronic shutter, since it lacks a mechanical one), and up to 10fps with focus tracking engaged. The V1 is a better tool for fast action photography though (especially panning shots) since its mechanical shutter avoids the characteristic ‘leaning tower’-type distortion caused by the well-known rolling shutter effect.

After using the V1's continuous AF tracking mode, I'm confident that Nikon's claims for the new system aren't hyperbole. In AF-S mode, the V1 uses a conventional contrast-detection AF system. Switch to continuous AF though, and the V1 moves up a gear. In this mode, assuming that the light level is high enough, the V1 switches to a 73-point focal-plane phase-detection AF system, which offers noticeably faster AF responsiveness and - from what I've seen so far - truly impressive continuous AF tracking performance. 

Frame 1Frame 10
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The intended audience of the V1 is unlikely to take it to any major sporting events, but this doesn’t mean that its innovative hybrid AF system is pointless. The V1 is the first mirrorless camera that I'd be confident about using to capture moving subjects, and potentially this means anything from boisterous children and pets to school sports days and weekend soccer games. The naturally deeper depth of field provided by the V1’s 1-inch sensor format and correspondingly short focal length lenses helps, and obviously there's more testing to be done but having seen its continuous focus tracking in action I'm genuinely impressed with the technology.

Turn to page 3 for a hands-on look at the new Nikkor 1 10-100mm 4/4.5 - 5.6 video lens

Using the 1 Nikkor 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 VR PD ZOOM

Alongside the J1, V1 and three 'conventional' lenses, Nikon also launched a video-optimized superzoom, the 1 Nikkor 10-100mm F/4.5 - 5.6 VR PD ZOOM. The 1 Nikkor 10-100mm is an impressive lump of glass. When mounted on the J1 or V1 the combination is too unbalanced to be used one-handed, but the lens is designed to be supported by the left hand, with your thumb or index finger resting on the power zoom control. Held like this, the camera and lens combination handles slightly oddly, but isn't uncomfortable.

Power zoom is very useful for videography, since it avoids the risk of shaking or twisting the camera when zooming its lens during video shooting. Controlling zoom using a small movement of your finger from a fixed hold position is much more stable, which is precisely why this method is common on dedicated video cameras.

Small and discrete it ain't... the 10-100mm zoom is a beast. When you turn the camera on, the front portion extends (seen here) but does not move when zooming.  Zoom is controlled using this small rocker switch. Zooming can be performed at three speeds, controllable by how far you push the switch towards the W or T detents. The lock switch stops the lens from retracting when the camera is powered down (decreasing power-up time).

The 10-100mm offers three zoom speeds, selected according to how far you push or pull on the zoom lever. A firm movement to the extent of the switch’s travel will zoom the lens quickly, and more gentle manipulation part of the way allows you to zoom more slowly and precisely. Variable-speed zooming is also available during movie shooting, although all movements are slower to ensure that the lens’s zoom motor isn’t audible on the soundtrack of video footage.

Once I'd got over to the 10-100mm’s considerable bulk, I found it to be a pleasure to use. The 27-270mm effective focal length range allows for lots of flexibility in both stills and video capture, and its built-in optical vibration reduction system is very effective. For still shooting, I found that I could get away with shutter speeds between 3-4 stops slower than I'd have expected with an unstablized optic, and video footage is impressively stable.

The only issue that I ran into with the vibration reduction system is a stubborn tendency to attempt to ‘correct’ lateral camera movement when initiating a panning movement. This is a particular problem  when filming at long focal lengths. The VR system introduces a noticeable lateral ‘jolt’ in the footage when you initiate a panning movement or change panning speed. You can see the effect in the video clip below. 

Watch this space...

A full review is underway, but my initial impressions of the V1 are mixed. Given its size, I'm impressed by the image quality produced by its CX format sensor, but puzzled that neither the V1 nor the J1 have ended up as particularly ‘small’ cameras. I get the feeling actually that Nikon hasn't quite worked out how to 'sell' the J1 and V1 to consumers yet, but it is clear that their phase-detection AF tracking modes have the potential to be hugely useful to the 'soccer moms' of this world and I am genuinely impressed by the technology and the effectiveness of its implementation. 

Despite its lukewarm reception among enthusiasts, in part a result of its price, I have found a lot to like about the V1 in the short time I've been using it. I still have some niggling concerns about some of Nikon's design choices though, and plenty of other questions which I hope will be answered in our forthcoming full review. We’re working hard to put this intriging camera through our remaining studio and real world testing procedures as soon as possible, so watch this space.