Why make a small-sensor mirrorless camera?
There have long been rumors that Nikon would make a mirrorless camera with a roughly 2.7x crop, causing a degree of confusion about why it would base a system around a sensor so much smaller than its rivals. We can certainly see why it would make sense for Nikon. In this opinion piece we try to look at why the company might have made this decision. We are not saying whether we think it is the right or wrong move, just proposing what the company might have been thinking.
A lot of the company's recent success comes from its DSLR business. It also has a great many customers with significant investments in its F-mount system, who are unlikely to appreciate any sign that Nikon is anything less that 100% committed to the F-mount for high-end photography. If you accept that Nikon has to produce a competitor in the mirrorless market, you would also have to conclude that it would want to do so in a way that wouldn't risk jeopardizing its DSLR sales.
Bridging the middle ground
Producing a relatively small sensor mirrorless system provides a middle ground between compact cameras and DSLRs - precisely the kind of need that Panasonic, Sony and Olympus have been explicitly targeting. It's a market of people who would never buy a DSLR and (if they behave anything like entry-level DSLR buyers), probably won't buy other lenses either. Nikon is certainly making clear that it's aiming at Facebook shooters - people who enjoy photography but don't necessarily consider themselves to be photographers.
|The 1" sensor allows the Nikon 1 system to fill a gap in the company's lineup without risking damaging its own DSLR sales.|
Even with a sensor significantly smaller than the ones used by those other brands, a 1" sensor camera is still likely to offer better image quality than a high-end compact such as the P7100 can give, so representing an upgrade.
To put it in context, the Nikon 1 system's sensor is 4 times bigger than the one in most compact cameras and 2.5x bigger than the 1/1.7" type used in expensive enthusiast compacts. However, it is half the size of the sensor in a Micro Four Thirds camera and one third the size of the APS-C format used in most DSLRs. This is likely to mean more noise and less control over depth-of-field but the smaller, lighter lens elements should make it easier to make it to focus quickly.
|The Nikon 1's 'CX' format sensor sits between the conventional compact camera sizes and those used in DSLRs and Mirrorless cameras.|
Such a system should also have a distinct size (and potentially price) advantage over the larger sensor mirrorless systems (though the V1 and J1 are not as small, nor anywhere near as cheap as you might think they could be). Given the strength of the company's brand perception in some markets, this could work well for Nikon, even if the smaller sensor is likely to mean lower image quality at high ISO than its larger sensor competitors.
"What do you mean, this one has a smaller sensor?"
If bringing multiple sensor sizes into the mirrorless market ends up seeding customer confusion about mirrorless cameras' capabilities (especially in markets where such systems haven't yet become a success), this would only serve to benefit Nikon's DSLR sales.