Nikon 1 System Hands-On Preview

September 23, 2011 | Zoltan Arva-Toth | Compact System Camera | Comment | |
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Having already posted a number of hands-on photos of the Nikon 1 V1 and Nikon 1 J1 cameras and their accessories, it’s now time to share with you our first impressions of the system, based on our limited but intensive use of both cameras and a couple of lenses at the launch event.

Before jumping on the CSC bandwagon, Nikon had a lot of decisions to make. The first of these was whether they needed to launch a new system at all. Back in 2008 when Micro Four Thirds made its debut, Nikon said they would „watch how the new system performs in the marketplace and adjust their plans accordingly”. Well, the new system has been extremely well received, especially in the Far East including Japan where Canon’s and Nikon’s combined share of the interchangeable-lens camera market has reportedly shrunk by an estimated 35% due to the onslaught of CSCs. Thus the answer to the first question was a resounding ‘yes’. Secondly, Nikon had to decide whether to go with DX sized sensors, which would have placed them in direct competition with Sony’s formidable NEX system and risked cannibalisation of their own DSLR sales; or introduce an entirely new sensor size that allows faster signal processing and fills a gap between compact camera sensors and Four Thirds sized imagers but might be perceived as inferior to other offerings. Nikon took the second route and developed a sensor that measures 13.2x8.8mm (to put this in perspective, the 2/3” type sensors used in many older „bridge” cameras as well as the brand new Fuji X10 have a size of 8.8x6.6mm, or exactly half the area of the new Nikon sensor). Thirdly, Nikon had to decide on the target group. Again, the company had to make sure they are not targeting the same people with two different product lines, so they turned their attention to those compact camera owners who found DSLRs intimidating but wanted something faster than their current cameras so they could shoot their kids and pets without having to worry about blurry photos and missed moments.

The new Nikon 1 system is the result of this decision-making process. It currently comprises two cameras, four lenses and a handful of accessories. Yesterday we had an opportunity to try out both cameras and the 10mm f/2.8, 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lenses. The cameras are made of metal – aluminium to be precise, with the Nikon 1 V1 also boasting magnesium-alloy reinforced parts –, which lends an air of quality and sophistication to them, along with (or in spite of, depending on where you stand) the minimalist design that has already sparked some heated debates among our readers and the photographic community at large. Nikon calls them Advanced Cameras with Interchangeable Lenses (A-CILs), and they do indeed sport a number of advanced features such as raw image capture, manual and semi-manual exposure modes and an intriguing hybrid auto focus system.



The control layout of the Nikon 1 J1 compact system camera

Most of these are found under the hood though – the control layout of both the Nikon 1 J1 and the Nikon 1 V1 looks more like that of a highly automated, you-just-push-the-shutter-and-I’ll-take-care-of-everything-else compact camera. Most notably the standard PASM shooting modes, though found in both cameras, are missing from the mode dial. Similarly, there is no direct-button access to ISO sensitivity, even though you can set it manually from the menu. Nikon says the design of these cameras – including the user interface – is the result of extensive market research, and we have no reason to doubt this. However, we still think it a questionable design decision to include hard buttons for seldom-used functions like the self-timer (and, in the case of the Nikon 1 J1, flash mode too), but none for ISO sensitivity control.

The functions that are accessible via the mode dial are quite interesting though. There might be just one position for regular stills shooting, but there’s also a Smart Photo Selector and a Motion Snapshot mode, both of which might prove invaluable to the target consumer while opening up new possibilities for serious users too. The Smart Photo Selector allows the camera to capture no less than 20 photos at a single press of the shutter release, including some that were taken before fully depressing the button. The camera analyses the individual pictures in the series and discards 15 of them, keeping only the five that it thinks are best in terms of sharpness and composition. In Motion Snapshot mode, the camera records a brief high-definition movie – whose buffering starts at a half-press of the shutter release, so again includes events that had happened before the button was fully depressed – and also takes a still photograph. The movie and the still image are then combined in-camera for a slow-motion clip with background music.

The Nikon 1 J1 and the Nikon 1 V1 are also capable of recording Full HD videos with continuous auto focus. You can start filming by depressing the dedicated movie record button found on the top plate, next to the shutter release. During movie capture, the user can snap a full-res photo at any time by pressing the shutter release button.

Key differences between the J1 and V1 include size (the V1 is significantly bigger and thicker, partly because it uses the same EN-EL15 battery as the Nikon D7000 while the J1 has its own, smaller power source), display resolution (921,000 dots on the V1; 460,000 dots on the J1), the presence of an eye-level EVF and an accessory port on the V1, and a pop-up flash on the J1. Additionally, the V1 gives you the choice of using a mechanical shutter (rated at 100,000 exposures) or electronic gating, while the J1 has an electronic shutter only.



The Nikon 1 J1 lacks the accessory port of the V1 model but comes with an integrated pop-up flash

In use, we have found both cameras to be extremely fast, especially on the auto focus front. The 10mm, 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses all locked focus on the subject immediately, even when alternating between close-up and faraway subjects. Both the Nikon 1 V1 and the Nikon 1 J1 feature a hybrid auto focus system that uses both the contrast detection and phase-difference detection methods, though not at the same time. It’s always the camera that decides which method to use; we haven’t found a menu item that would allow the user to pick one over the other. We similarly struggled to find out how to manually select an AF point, though this might have more to do with the limited time we had with the cameras than anything else.

Both cameras can take full-res photos at up to 60 (yes, sixty) frames per second, although if you want continuous focus tracking you apparently have to content yourself with 10fps (which is still an insanely high figure for stills photography). The length of a burst is limited by the size of the buffer though, with the J1 being able to capture 12-13 shots and the V1 being capable of taking up to 34 frames in a single burst. We won’t comment on buffer clearance speeds here, as the cards provided for yesterday’s brief test were far from being the fastest available today.

Neither camera’s LCD screen was easy to see outdoors in strong daylight, so the eye-level electronic viewfinder of the Nikon 1 V1 was a real boon. It’s a smooth, fluid, high-resolution EVF with very natural-looking colours and tonality but a somewhat low magnification and apparent size. Make no mistake, the finder isn’t small - but could be a bit bigger in our view.

Using the cameras on full auto is a breeze, but once you want to take control over the picture-taking process, you’ll quickly realise that the user interface isn’t all that intuitive. We’ve already mentioned the missing ISO button and the lack of PASM positions on the mode dial – but even after you’ve found your preferred shooting mode in the menu, it’s still not easy to find out how to control the primary shooting variable (e.g. aperture in A mode). Rotating the scroll wheel made no difference, and it took us some time to figure out that changing the aperture is done by way of the same rocker switch that controls zoom/magnification in Playback.

Both of these cameras are extremely well suited to discreet, unobtrusive photography. With the electronic shutter, they are both essentially silent (once you disable the focus confirmation beep, that is), and the mechanical shutter – only available on the Nikon 1 V1 – is also pretty quiet. Both cameras are capable of extremely fast shutter speeds, although the flash sync speed is a slow 1/60th when using the electronic shutter. The V1, however, can sync with the optional SB-N5 flash at a speed of 1/250th second when using its mechanical shutter.



The Nikon 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 and 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 lenses

The lenses feel well made, with the zooms sporting a collapsible-barrel design. The 10mm (~28mm equivalent) pancake and the 10-30mm (~28-80mm eq.) standard zoom are not that different in size to their Micro Four Thirds counterparts (in fact they are quite possibly bigger, though I didn’t have any Olympus or Panasonic lenses at hand to make a direct comparison) but the 30-110mm (~80-300mm eq.) telephoto zoom lens is remarkably compact. It is a clever design touch that unlocking the attached lens powers on the camera without the user having to press the on/off button on the body.

At the launch event, Nikon organised a greyhound racing demonstration for the assembled press, allowing us to put the cameras’ focus tracking ability to the test. Some of the dogs were capable of running at speeds of up to 60 km/h – a tough test for any AF system, especially at close distances. Despite the challenging circumstances, the cameras’ keeper rates were surprisingly high. Below you can find a few photos taken at this event using the Nikon 1 V1. Given that not all of the cameras provided were running final firmware, Nikon has asked us not to post these photos at full resolution, and to refrain from commenting on aspects of image quality like noise, dynamic range, colour or resolution. However, they may still serve as an indication of what you can expect from the camera in terms of its ability to capture really fast-moving subjects, at least outdoors in good light.

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