A New Format from Nikon
Thanks to my friends at Bennett’s Camera in New Orleans, I was able to ‘test-drive’ these two new Nikon offerings in the sub-DSLR camera category: the Nikon J1 and Nikon V1. Like all of my camera reviews, I’ll give you my best ‘gut reaction’ after taking the cameras out and shooting with them: what it was really like to use them. You won’t find any ‘bench test data’ here, only the feelings of someone who uses cameras every day to make a living. That said, let’s get started!
Only slightly bigger than point-n-shoot cameras but with real interchangeable lenses, I was intrigued by these new machines and how I might find them to use. Obviously, these cameras are Nikon’s answer to the Micro Four Thirds camera movement, like the Lumix line from Panasonic and the Pen brand from Olympus.
Because the cameras use an identical 10.1 MP CMOS sensor, I’ve shot all of my test images with the Nikon V1 camera for this article. Here are the main differences in the two models:
- J1 is slightly smaller than the bulkier V1 (both are still very small!)
- J1 has a built-in pop-up flash, while the V1 requires the separate SB-N5 flash unit;
- J1 is a plastic body while the V1 is a magnesium alloy;
- J1 has a 460K dot LCD back screen while the V1 is twice that at 920K
- J1 uses the back screen for everything, the V1 has a built-in electronic viewfinder
- J1 retails for $599.99, the V1 for $849.99
My first impression about these little cameras is purely aesthetic: these cameras are pretty! I mean this in the best possible sense: these are beautifully designed little machines. Nikon has done a great job with the body styling and as it turns out, the functionality.
The standard lens is a 10-30mm zoom. With a 2.7x magnification factor, your equivalent in a standard 35mm format would be about 28-80mm, a very nice basic zoom range. (Nikon also sells a telephoto lens for the cameras. It’s a 30-110mm zoom which translates into about a 80-300 mm lens for a very modest retail price of $249.99.)
I found the basic camera controls on the body to be well laid-out and easy to navigate. Pressing ‘Menu’ takes you into the settings for the camera, which were well organized and easily deciphered. Pressing ‘Display’ gives you choices about how much information you wanted displayed on the rear screen while shooting. As with all digital cameras, the ‘Right Arrow’ button is your review for the images you’ve shot. No complaints with any of this setup.
But now let’s talk about the ‘Mode’ dial, top right, which has four options: Motion Snapshot Mode (a symbol that looks like a feather to me), Smart Photo Selector Mode (a camera icon with a + and – sign next to it), Still Image Mode and finally Movie Mode.
Movie Mode and Still Image Mode were exactly what you would expect them to be: you select one of these when you want to shoot video and stills, respectively. But I found the other two Modes were just plain goofy.
You ever feel like sometimes camera designers come up with a Solution in search of a Problem? That pretty much describes how I feel about these other two shooting modes. I’ll grant that they do exactly what they say they do, it’s just that neither of the things they do are things I would ever need or want a camera to do! See for yourself:
Here’s what the Nikon manual says about Motion Snapshot Mode:
“Choose Motion Snapshot Mode to record brief movie vignettes with your photographs. Each time the shutter is released, the cameras records a still image and about a second of movie footage. When the resulting ‘Motion Snapshot’ is viewed on the camera, the movie will play back in slow motion over approximately 2.5 seconds, followed by the still image.”
Huh?! Why in the world would I want to do that? It almost sounds like a bit of a video game, doesn’t it? But to dedicate an entire dedicated shooting mode to this bit of fluff? This looks like a Solution in search of a Problem.
Now lets look at the other goofy shooting mode: Smart Photo Selector Mode.
This is another weird one. Basically, Nikon suggests you put the camera in this mode if the best picture is going to be fleeting and hard to get, like a quick facial expression. In Smart Photo Selector Mode, when you press the shutter halfway down, the camera starts recording images to a buffer. Then, when you actually take the picture, it records that image plus a few more to the buffer for good measure. It then picks the best shot for you(!). You have the option of reviewing the choices and changing the one that’s saved. But gosh: wouldn’t it just be a whole lot better to learn to capture that fleeting moment yourself by developing the shooting chops to do that? Like I said, a Solution in search of a Problem.
Still Image Mode and Movie Mode do exactly what their names imply, and do it just fine.
I shot some photos with the V1 using the basic Program exposure mode, then some more images using full Manual exposure mode. As I expected, the camera did a perfectly decent job in Program mode in coming up with a usable exposure.
Manual exposure shooting was a bit more of a challenge initially. Once you go into the Menu settings and choose Manual exposure, the ring around the Multi Selector button on the back of the camera becomes your aperture adjustment. You shutter speed is controlled by the little rectangular bar located at the top right corner of the camera’s back: you use your thumb to push this spring-loaded bar up or down to change shutter speed.
What I really did not like: while changing the manual exposure, the display on the camera back always remained perfectly exposed! In other words, the display is a video-generated auto exposure, even when you’re in Manual mode, so you can’t see at all what result you would get with a given exposure without actually shooting the frame and doing a review. This is awkward and irritating, to say the least.
Movie shooting with the Nikon V1 was a joy. It’s simple: click the Mode dial over to the ‘Movie’ icon, and press the RED button on the top of the camera, located just to the right of the main shutter release button. The camera will shoot 1920 x 1080 video at both 60 and 30 frames per second. But the best part is the autofocus! It’s really quite superb in this little package. I shot some video of my elderly pooch, Genevieve, and you’ll see the camera do a pretty great job of keeping up with her doggy movements. The display on the back will show you the autofocus in real time as you shoot your movie. I liked this feature, very, very much. Downside: no external mic jack, which means I can’t improve upon the internal stereo microphone with my Sennheiser MKE400 Shotgun Mic. Maybe not a big deal for many people, but a definite minus for me.
Overall impressions: these are nicely-designed, beautiful little cameras. I like the functionality of the V1 especially with its built-in viewfinder and magnesium alloy construction. My biggest concern, compared to the Micro Four Thirds models available from Olympus and Panasonic, is the sensor size: at only 10.1 MP and 13.2mm x 8.8mm, it’s at the small end for these formats. Image quality looks pretty nice, although I did not try to make prints off any of my shots. As a carry-along camera for the person that’s looking for a small form factor addition to his gear, you should definitely check these out.
Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog