Nikon 1 V1 Review

October 17, 2011 | Zoltan Arva-Toth |


The Nikon 1 V1 is a compact system camera featuring a 10-megapixel "CX" format sensor and the all-new Nikon 1 lens mount. Boasting continuous shooting speeds of up to 60 frames per second at full resolution, Full HD video capture, an ultra-fast hybrid auto-focus system, Smart Photo Selector and a unique Motion Snapshot Mode, the Nikon V1 also offers more conventional shooting modes like Programmed Auto, Aperture and Shutter Priority, as well as Metered Manual. Also on board is an eye-level electronic viewfinder with a resolution of 1.44 million dots, a sharp 3" rear display and an accessory port for attaching a flashgun, GPS unit or one of a number of not-yet-available accessories. Photographers can choose between using an electronic or a mechanical shutter. Priced at £829 / $899 with a 10-30mm lens or £979 / $1,149 in a double-lens kit, the Nikon 1 V1 is scheduled to go on sale later this month.

Ease of Use

Made of aluminium with magnesium alloy reinforced parts, the Nikon 1 V1 is heavier than you would think based on its size alone. It also feels better made than the official product shots would have you believe. It simply feels good in your hands. With an essentially grip-less design, the Nikon V1 is very much a two-handed affair that requires you to hold the camera's weight in the left hand, clutching the lens, and use your right hand for balance and operating the controls. This is actually a good thing as it forces you to pay attention to holding the camera properly, which in turn goes a long way toward avoiding shake-induced blur in your photos.

The camera's clean, minimalist front plate is dominated by the all-new Nikon 1 lens mount. Instead of being a scaled-down version of the good old F mount, it's a completely new design that provides 100% electronic communication between the attached lens and the camera body, courtesy of a dozen contacts. Just like on the manufacturer's F-mount SLR cameras, there is a white dot for easy lens alignment, although it has moved from the 2 o'clock position (when viewed front on) to the top of the mount. The lenses themselves feature a short silver ridge on the lens barrel, which needs to be in alignment with said dot in order for you to be able to attach the lens to the camera. While this may require a bit of getting used to, it actually makes changing lenses quicker and easier.

With no lens attached, you can see the sensor sitting right behind the plane of the bayonet mount. Like the mount itself, the sensor is brand new. Measuring 13.2x8.8mm this "CX" format imaging chip has double the surface area of the biggest imagers used in compact and bridge cameras like the Fujifilm X10 and S100FS, but only about half the area of a standard Four Thirds sensor. In linear terms, a Four Thirds chip has a 1.36x longer diagonal than the Nikon CX imager. Given that Four Thirds has a 2x focal length multiplier, the CX "crop factor" works out to about 2.72, meaning that a 10mm lens has approximately the same angle of view as a 27.2mm lens on an FX or 35mm film camera. The Nikon 1 Nikkor 10-30mm standard zoom is thus equivalent to a 27.2-81.6mm (or, practically speaking, 28-80mm) FX lens in terms of its angle-of-view range.

The rest of the faceplate is almost empty, featuring only the lens release, a receiver for the optional ML-L3 infrared remote control, an AF assist/self-timer lamp and a raised vertical bar in lieu of a hand-grip that's more of a decoration than a functional part of the camera.

There are two ways of powering on the Nikon 1 V1. You can either use the on/off button sitting next to the shutter release or, if you have a collapsible-barrel zoom lens attached, you can simply press the unlocking button on the lens barrel and turn the zoom ring to unlock the lens, an act that causes the camera to switch on automatically. This is an ingenious solution as you need to unlock the lens for shooting anyway. Start-up takes just over a second - nothing to write home about but still decent and entirely adequate.

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Front Rear

You can frame your shots using either the rear screen or the EVF. The former is a three-inch, 921,000-dot display that boasts wide viewing angles, great definition and accurate colours but only so-so visibility in strong daylight. That's where the EVF comes in. The Nikon V1 has a smooth, fluid and high-resolution electronic viewfinder with natural-looking colours, but a somewhat low magnification. Make no mistake, the finder isn't small - especially if you compare it to the OVF of a typical entry-level DSLR - but its apparent size is definitely smaller than that of the Panasonic G3, whose EVF boasts the same 1.44-million-dot resolution but a noticeably higher magnification. The Nikon V1 has an eye proximity sensor that allows the camera to automatically switch from the rear screen to the EVF when you raise it to your eye, but this doesn't happen instantly. There's a lag of about 0.5-1 second, which doesn't interfere much with general shooting but can be frustrating when trying to grab a quick shot of something. The EVF has a dioptre adjustment knob on the right-hand side of the viewfinder housing, when viewed from behind.

The control layout is rather peculiar. The Nikon 1 V1 has a small, rear-mounted mode dial that lacks most of the shooting modes that are usually found on similar dials - most notably P, A, S and M - even though it has enough room to accommodate them. These modes are available on the V1 but you have to dive into the rather long-winded and not entirely logical menu to find them. The V1's mode dial has only four settings, Photo, Video, Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector. The four-way controller also has four functions mapped onto its Up, Right, Down and Left buttons; including AE/AF-Lock, exposure compensation, AF mode and self-timer, respectively. Although this isn't a bad choice of functions, the fact that there is no ISO button will doubtlessly cause a lot of photographers interested in buying the Nikon V1 to be unhappy.

There's a button labelled "F" but alas, this isn't a programmable function button. In Photo mode, it allows you to quickly choose between the mechanical and electronic shutter, which isn't exactly the most frequently performed operation; while in Video mode, it lets you toggle between regular and slow-motion recording. There are two more important controls on the back of the camera, including a scroll wheel around the four-way pad and a rocker switch marked with a loupe icon. The scroll wheel is used to set the shutter speed in Manual and Shutter Priority modes (once you've found them in the menu, that is), while the rocker switch controls the aperture. The reason why it's got a loupe icon next to it is that this control is used to zoom in on an image to check for critical focus in Playback mode. Last but not least, there are four small buttons around the navigation pad, flush against the rear panel of the camera, including Display Mode, Playback, Menu and Erase.

So what are those shooting modes on the mode dial all about? The Photo or Still Image mode, marked with a green camera icon, is where you will want to be most of the time. With the mode dial set to this position, you can pick your desired exposure mode from the menu. The Nikon V1's Scene Auto Selector is a smart auto mode in which the camera analyses the scene in front of its lens and picks what it thinks is the right mode for that particular scene. You can also choose one of the conventional PASM modes, which give you full menu access and the ability to manually set the aperture, shutter speed, or both (Program AE Shift is available in P mode). ISO and white balance can also be manually selected, but only from the menu, as already mentioned.

Of course there's AWB and auto ISO as well, with the latter coming in three flavours (Auto 100-400, 100-800 or 100-3200) allowing you to specify how high you want the camera to go when the light gets low. You can also choose from three AF Area modes, including Auto Area, in which the camera takes control of what it focusses on (this isn't a great mode to have as your default as the camera obviously can't read your mind and may focus on something else than your actual subject); Single Point, in which you can pick one of 135 AF points by first hitting OK and then moving the active AF point around the frame using the four-way pad; and Subject Tracking, in which you pick your subject, press OK and allow the camera to track that subject as it moves around, as long as it doesn't leave the frame of course.

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Top Side

The Nikon 1 V1 has an intriguing hybrid auto-focus system that combines contrast- and phase-difference detection in a similar fashion as the Fujifilm F300EXR did. This allows the Nikon 1 V1 to focus extremely quickly in good light, even on a moving subject. The company claims the Nikon 1 system cameras are the fastest-focusing machines in the world, and this matches our experience - as long as there's enough light. When light levels drop, the camera switches to contrast-detect AF which, though faster than on most cameras, isn't nearly as fast as the other method. It's always the camera that decides which AF method to use - the user has no influence on this.

Generally speaking, the V1 will usually only resort to contrast detection when light levels are low. In good light, we were able to take sharp photos of bikers, various fast-running dogs, kids playing sports etc. The Nikon V1 certainly does not disappoint here. Manual focusing is also possible, although the Nikon 1 lenses do not have focus rings. If you want to focus manually, you first have to hit the AF button, choose MF, press OK and then use the scroll wheel to adjust focus. To assist you with this, the Nikon V1 magnifies the central part of the image and displays a rudimentary focus scale along the right side of the frame - but those are the only focusing aids you get. There's no peaking function available.

As noted earlier, you can choose from two different shutter types when shooting stills, mechanical or electronic. The mechanical shutter is the way to go if you shoot with flash (note that the Nikon 1 V1 does not have an on-board flash and cannot accommodate the regular Nikon Speedlights either, but is compatible with the new, tiny SB-N5 that slots into the accessory port left of the viewfinder hump, if viewed from behind), as it can sync at shutter speeds as fast as 1/250th of a second. With the mechanical shutter selected, the Nikon V1 can shoot as fast as about 4 frames per second, with auto-focus. In continuous shooting mode, the EVF freezes for a split second after each shot, but with some practice, you will be able to track your subject unless it moves in a completely erratic fashion. The shutter is not very loud but you can hear the sound of the motor that's used to cock it.

In most shooting situations, you will probably want to use the electronic shutter as it's completely silent (the focus confirmation beep can be disabled from the menu), allows the use of shutter speeds as fast as 1/16,000th of a second and, with the Electronic Hi setting selected, lets you shoot full-resolution stills at 60 frames per second. Note however that while this is a major achievement, it's limited by a buffer that can only hold 30 raw files. Additionally, the use of this mode precludes AF tracking - you have to lower the frame rate to 10fps if you want that -, and the viewfinder goes blank while the pictures are being taken. About the only application we can think of where shooting full-resolution stills at 60fps could really come in handy is AE bracketing for HDR imaging. At this rate, a series of 5 bracketed shots could be taken in less than 0.1 second, rendering small movements that can otherwise pose alignment problems - like leaves being blown in the wind - a non-issue. Alas, the Nikon V1 does not offer such a feature - in fact it does not offer autoexposure bracketing at all.

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V1 + J1 V1 + Lenses

Moving on to the video mode, the Nikon 1 V1 has some pleasant surprises here. First and foremost, the camera can be set to shoot Full HD footage, and you even get to choose from 1080p @ 30fps or 1080i @ 60fps, depending on whether you prefer to work with progressive or interlaced video. If you don't need Full HD, there's also 720p @ 60fps, which is really smooth and still counts as high definition. Secondly, you get full manual control over exposure in video mode. This is an option; you don't have to shoot in M mode but you can if that's what you need. Thirdly, you get fast, continuous AF in video mode, and it works well, especially in good light. Movies are compressed using the H.264 codec and stored as MOV files. There are separate shutter release buttons for stills and video, and thanks to this - as well as the massive processing power of the Nikon V1 - you can take multiple full-resolution stills even while recording HD video. This works in the other way round too - you can capture a movie clip even when the mode dial is in the Still Image position, simply by pressing the red movie shutter release. We've found that in this case the camera will invariably record the video at 720p/60fps.

In addition to being capable of shooting regular movies in HD quality, the Nikon 1 V1 can also shoot video at 400fps for slow-motion playback. The resolution is lower and the aspect ratio is an ultra-widescreen 2.67:1, but the quality is adequate for YouTube, Vimeo and the like. These videos are played back at 30fps, which is more than 13x slower than the capture speed of 400fps, allowing you to get creative and show the world an array of interesting phenomena that happen too quickly to observe in real time. The Nikon V1 goes even further by offering a 1200fps video mode, but the resolution and overall quality is too poor for that to be genuinely useful.

The third icon on the mode dial stands for Smart Photo Selector. This feature 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. This feature can be genuinely useful when photographing fast action and fleeting moments. Finally, there's a so-called Motion Snapshot mode in which 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 saved in separate files but the camera can combine them into a single slow-motion clip with background music. It's fun but we can't really envision people using this shooting mode on a regular basis. (If you view the video on a computer, it will play back at normal speed, without sound, so this mode is really only interesting if you view the clip in-camera or hook the camera up to an HDTV via an HDMI cable.)

The Nikon V1 stores photos and videos on SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards, and supports the fastest UHS-I speed class. The camera runs on the same EN-EL15 Lithium-ion battery that powers the Nikon D7000 digital SLR camera, and is consequently capable of producing considerably more shots on a single charge than its little brother, the Nikon 1 J1. The use of this battery also explains some of the extra bulk and weight. The camera's tripod socket is made of metal and is positioned in line with the lens' optical axis. This also means that changing batteries or cards is not possible while the V1 is mounted on a tripod, as the hinges of the battery/card compartment door are too close to the tripod mount.

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Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

So, how did we like using the Nikon 1 V1? On one hand, we liked it a lot. In good light, its auto-focus system is indeed faster than pretty much anything we've used so far, being able to track and lock focus on a range of truly fast-moving subjects, and yielding a lot of sharp images in situations where our keeper rates have never been very high. Additionally, its high-speed continuous shooting modes have allowed us to capture interesting moments that we'd have surely missed if we had used a slower camera. We also liked the smooth, high-resolution electronic viewfinder.

On the other hand, the Nikon V1 has its share of frustrating idiosyncrasies starting with the user interface that forces you to dive into the menu to access functions as basic as exposure mode, ISO speeds and white balance. While Nikon obviously cannot add extra buttons to a finished product, they could at least make the "F" button customisable via a firmware update. Also, while there is a dedicated button for exposure compensation - which is a good thing - I did not find a way to activate a live histogram, even though it would have made EC a lot more useful and easy to use. Again, this could probably be fixed in firmware.

Another thing we did not like was that the camera would always show the picture just taken for a few seconds onscreen, and we did not find a way to turn this instant postview function completely off (although you can at least cancel it via a half-press of the shutter release). Finally, while the camera is generally fast and responsive, it does take a few performance hits here and there: we've already mentioned that switching from the rear screen to the EVF is far from instantaneous, and we should also add that the camera takes way too long to wake up from sleep mode when it has been idle for a while.

All things considered, the Nikon 1 V1 is a small, high-performance system camera that could use a few tweaks to its user interface to better suit the needs of serious amateurs, but we are quite confident that the intended target market of casual users will like it as it is for its sheer speed and the fun features it offers.

Let us now see how the camera fared in the image quality department.