Nikon 1 V1 with 10-30mm, SB-N5 compact Speedlight, 10-100mm video-optimized powerzoom, 10mm and 30-110mm lenses

Over the course of the last year or two, mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera systems have gone from being interesting portents of things to come to distinctly mainstream products. And with the likes of the Sony, Olympus, Panasonic and Samsung all building up their systems into very credible alternatives to DSLR outfits, Nikon has now decided the time has come to show its hand. The result is the 'Nikon 1' system, initially two cameras and four lenses (plus a smattering of accessories) built around a new sensor format that the company calls 'CX'. At 13.2 x 8.8mm in size, the 1 system's brand-new Nikon-designed CMOS sensor is about a third of the area of the DX sensor used in the company's mainstream SLRs.

Nikon's Masahiro Suzuki, General Manager, R&D Department, Development HQ, says there were three factors in choosing the sensor size: image quality, responsiveness and ease of use (specifically in terms of portability). He says the sensor was both designed and engineered by Nikon and stressed it is 'not built by Sony.'

Initial attention has focused on the relatively small size of this sensor compared to other mirrorless systems, and this is a pity as it risks overlooking the impressive technology Nikon has designed into it. Not only is it capable of extraordinary shooting speeds (full resolution images can be captured at an astonishing 60 frames per second), it also incorporates a 'Hybrid' autofocus system that employs both Phase and Contrast Detection focus methods. The result is, according to Nikon, the fastest autofocus of any camera the company has ever made - including its professional flagship DSLR, the D3S. Not only that, the 1 system cameras can shoot at 10 frames per second while maintaining focus on a moving subject.

The system can choose from 135 points when utilizing contrast-detection AF and 73 when using phase-detection AF, and will automatically select what it thinks is the most appropriate method.

We have seen on-sensor phase-detection systems before but Suzuki says the Nikon 1's system is 'much more advanced than the Fuji sensor.' Indeed, he says the system is the fastest of any Nikon camera 'in terms of speed and responsiveness.'

The camera's shooting speed is supported by an all-new image processor, branded as EXPEED 3. This allows the camera to achieve a remarkable data throughput of 600 MP/sec, which Nikon claims is the 'fastest in the world'. A slide at the press launch event graphically made this point - in terms of sheer data processing speed, the Nikon 1 system cameras outpace the D3S by a considerable margin.

A slide from Nikon UK's launch presentation, illustrating the high-speed data throughput of the 1 system compared to other cameras on the market, including Nikon's own flagship D3X. 

This being 2011, the sensor also has serious video capabilities. It's capable of recording Full HD movies (1920 x 1080 resolution) at 60i or 30p, and full-resolution stills can be captured at a press of the shutter button without interrupting recording. This is the first camera we can think of that gives the user the choice of how the video output is packaged (60i and 30p are essentially the same data presented differently), depending on whether you want to just view the footage or edit it. The phase-detection AF system means the cameras can also track a moving subject during video shooting. All-in-all the 1 system represents an impressive convergance of stills and video capabilities into a single camera.

Who's it for?

Perhaps the most important point to understand about the 1 system is the type of customer Nikon is aiming for. It's most certainly not designed as a second camera for SLR users, but rather as an entirely different type of system that users intimidated by the size and perceived complexity of SLRs can upgrade to when they outgrow their compacts. Nikon says that its customer surveys worldwide reveal that such users value small size, ease of use, and operational speed as much as outright image quality - and the 1 system aims to strike a specific balance between these demands.

The DSLR market is still growing, says Suzuki, but equally the mirrorless market it growing as well. 'We learned from our mirrorless competitors' he says, about how to distinguish the '1' system from F-mount. He considers the Nikon 1 to be different from the existing offerings, instead describing it as 'a new class of camera.'

In fact, the company has even coined a new acronym to match: A-CIL, for 'Advanced Camera with Interchangeable Lenses'. We're not sure quite how far this idea holds up in reality, but the point is clear. The 1 system is supposed to sit between compact cameras and SLRs, and not directly compete with either. And, if the company's market research is correct, there's every chance this market sector's expectations are very different from those of the enthusiast photographers who are currently scratching their heads and expressing their dissatisfaction about the new product.

This targeting, plus the sensor's high speed capabilities, results in a very different look to the camera's interface, exemplified by its mode dial. Gone are the scene and PASM modes familiar to SLR users (although these can still be selected through the menu), replaced by four positions which represent different applications of high speed stills and movie recording. The 'Motion Snapshot' mode combines a slow-motion movie with a simultaneously-recorded still image, while the 'Smart Photo Selector' mode takes 20 full-resolution images from a single shutter-button press (including some captured before the button is fully depressed), then analyses them,saving what it judges to be the best five (even recommending the very best of the bunch). There's just a single position to cover all aspects of conventional stills shooting, plus one more for movies. 

Nikon 1 V1 vs J1 - What's the difference?

The two cameras Nikon has initially launched are very similar in size, and share the same sensor and many key specifications. But dig a little deeper and there are a fair few differences between them, helping underline the different types of users Nikon is hoping to reach:

  • V1 has a built-in high resolution electronic viewfinder
  • J1 has built-in pop-up flash, while V1 has an accessory port in place of the pop-up flash, initially compatible with a tiny slide-on flash unit and GPS device, but with more accessories proposed to follow.
  • V1 has higher resolution LCD (921,000 dots, rather than the 460,000 on the J1)
  • J1 has only an electronic shutter, whereas the V1 has a mechanical shutter too. In principle this should afford better image quality to the V1 under certain conditions. It also helps the V1 achieve a flash sync speed of 1/250th seconds, rather than the J1's 1/60th limit.
  • Cameras have slightly different control layouts (flash mode button on J1 replaces focus mode button on V1)
  • Body materials are different - V1 is an aluminium/magnesium alloy, J1 is a simpler aluminium alloy

Mr Suzuki explains that both models are aimed at compact camera upgraders, with the difference being down to shooting style. The J is aimed at users who want a compact camera experience (LCD only), while the V is aimed at the higher-level user - a delineation Nikon has made through the addition of the EVF. This also explains the single control dial on the J; making the operation less complex.

For now, the company will focus on compact camera users as the target for its mirrorless cameras. Luxury ILCs (such as Sony's NEX-7) represent a very small niche. Nikon, he says sees 'much greater potential' at the lower end of the market.