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