Nikon J1 and V1 - Review

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With Olympus, Sony and Panasonic having introduced their mirrorless cameras long ago, everyone wondered, when, and even if, the big two, Canon and Nikon would enter the space. After much speculation, Nikon has finally broken the silence with the V1 and J1, two mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras that are part of the new Nikon 1 system.

Not adhering to the tradition micro four thirds standard, Nikon has chosen to develop their own 1-inch sensor dubbed the CX, which has also called for a redesign of not jus the lenses, but also the lens mount. We grab both the cameras and put them through their paces to see whether they live up to the hype that comes from being a flagship Nikon Product.

Note: Units reviewed here are the Black Nikon 1 V1 that came bundled with the 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens and a White Nikon V1 J1 that came bundled with the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 and the 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lenses. Both the lenses that came with the J1 also sport Nikon's proprietary Vibration Reduction technology. Since the cameras are identical, aside from a few key differences that we will note as we go along, we decided to do a joint review.

In the box
Camera (Nikon 1 V1 or Nikon 1 J1)
Camera Strap (Black for the V1, White for J1, unless you bought a J1 of a different color)
Paperwork (User manuals, warranty papers)
Battery (EN-EL15 for the V1 and EN-EL20 for the J1)
Battery Charger
Lenses (depending on what kit you purchase)

Build
The first thing we notice when we pull both the cameras out of their boxes is how similar they look to point-and-shoot cameras, especially the J1. Respecting the hierarchy of classification, the J1 is visibly thinner and smaller than its big brother, the V1.

The body of the J1 is constructed out of high grade plastic, but at the end of the day, it is still plastic. We wonder if it would survive an accidental five-foot drop - tempted, as we were to try, we couldn't since we had to return the review unit to Nikon. On the flip side, the guts and glory of the V1 are housed in a sturdy all-metal body that is not glossy, but matte. We feel a Leica influence here for sure.

Ergonomics
The V1 is bigger and thicker which means it can fit a bigger battery than the J1. Not that we're complaining, because, well, nothing there's nothing worse than running out of juice during an important shoot.

There is a minimal amount of buttons on both the cameras, with the Power, Shutter and a dedicated Video button being placed on top of the camera. The back features a small dial that allows switching between the limited shooting modes. There is a secondary dial that controls camera specific features along with a quartet of buttons.

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An interesting addition to the controls is the horizontal bar at the top right corner of the back panel. On the V1, it serves as a means to change the aperture or shutter speed. On the J1, it only serves as a means to zoom into the photograph while in preview mode. In our experience with the V1, this horizontal bar seemed rather counter intuitive for changing aperture or shutter speed values, as up till today, all cameras have utilized the spinning dial at the back to register changes to these settings. We often ended up spinning the back dial when wanting to change the aperture values, only to realize that we were fiddling with the wrong controller. This is something that will take a little getting used to.

The V1 also enjoys the addition of a 1440K Dot TFT LCD viewfinder (also known as an electronic viewfinder), a feature that visibly sets the V1 and J1 apart, as the latter does not have a viewfinder. The view automatically switches from the back LCD to the viewfinder thanks to a sensor placed next to the viewfinder.

Features
The feature set on both cameras is the same as you would expect from any high end point-and-shoot. One interesting point of difference is the Dual Shutter present in the V1. While both the V1 and J1 sport an electronic shutter that can shoot exposures with values ranging from 30 seconds to 1/16000th of a second, the V1 also comes with a mechanical shutter.

The two shutters serve very different purposes, bringing with them their own unique advantages and drawbacks. The mechanical shutter allows the flash-sync-speed to reach up to 1/250th of a second, but reduces the overall fastest shutter speed possible to 1/4000th of a second. The mechanical shutter also creates a sound every time it fires. The electronic shutter brings the flash sync speed down to a painful 1/60th of a second, but offers silent shooting, boosts the fastest shutter speed to 1/16000th of a second (yes, that is a BLAZING ONE-SIXTEEN-THOUSANDTH OF A SECOND!) and the ability to shoot 10 frames per second.

There is more shutter magic to be enjoyed on the Nikon 1 system and it comes in the form of crazy fast burst shooting modes. When the shutter is switched to Electronic (Hi), the V1 can shoot at 10,30 or 60 frames per second. However, there is a catch. Since the photos cannot be written to the memory card as fast as the are being shot, actual number of frames captures is about 34 frames when shooting at 10 fps and 30 frames when shooting at 30 and 60 fps.

For the J1, the frames captured are 13 frames at 10 fps and 12 frames at 30 and 60 fps. One drawback of being able to shoot so many frames in such short spans of time is that when the data has to be written to the memory cards, it takes quite a while and during the time, the camera might lock up due to unavailability of space. Regardless, nothing can tarnish the joy that comes from shooting at such mind numbing speeds.

An interesting difference between the two cameras is that the J1 sports a built in flash that pops up at the push of a button (and must be manually pushed back into the closed position). The V1 lacks an on-board flash. Instead, it gains an accessory port that can be used to attach an external flash unit or an external mic for video recording.

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Focus System
One of the most impressive feature sets of the Nikon 1 system is its contrast/phase detect focusing system. Conventional cameras (including DSLRs) use one or the other focusing mechanisms, but Nikon has managed to merge the two together, resulting in a system that is blazing fast to acquire focus, even in very low light.

Besides being quick to focus, the system can be tuned into one of three configurations; Single Point (with a total of 135 points to select from), Auto-Area (41 points to select from) and Subject tracking mode to track moving objects. We must mention here that the Nikon 1 system has the most focus points so far in a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system and they all work very effectively.

Lens System
Now we generally have never spoken about lenses in a review, but the mirrorless cameras are changing that up since these cameras aren't much without a lens. Currently, there are only four lenses available for the Nikon 1 system:

10mm f/2.8 pancake lens (pancake because these lenses are very thin)
10-110mm f/4.5-5.6 PD-Zoom
10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR
30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR

We got to test out all the above lenses, except for the 10-110mm super zoom. In our use, we found that before the lenses could be used, they had to be unlocked by pushing a button followed by turning them to the right. This caused the lenses to protrude about an inch to the front, which we found extremely worrisome. This design does not work well in the event there are any accidental bumps to the camera while walking around. The only way to avoid the accidental damage would be to lock the lens after every use, which is quite cumbersome in itself.

Another rather surprising omission on the lenses was a manual focus ring. For a camera system that aims at being more SLR-like, why would Nikon choose to omit such a defining feature?

Just to be clear, the lack of a focusing ring on the lenses does not mean that manual focus is not available on the camera. We found that switching the camera's focus mode to manual and the spinning the dial at the back allowed us to focus manually. This is another cumbersome feature that defines both the V1 and J1 more in the same family as point-and-shoots rather than DSLR replacements.

Imaging
Like we mentioned earlier, Nikon has developed a proprietary 10 megapixel sensor for the 1 system and dubbed it the CX format. The sensor measures 1-inch in diagonal, placing it comfortably halfway between the point-and-shoot and Four Thirds format. The sensor has a conversion factor or 2.7, meaning that a lens advertised as 10mm would actually yield a viewable area of10x2.7 = 27mm and so on.

To be fair, shooting with the Nikon 1 system (both the V1 and J1) was quite enjoyable. Of course that was the case once we stopped bothering about switching into any mode other than auto, as the process of doing so requires going into the menu system and tinkering with the settings. The cameras do feature a dial that allowed us to switch between stills, Smart Photo Selector, Motion Snapshot and Video modes, but Manual, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority options are omitted from this dial.

One drawback of having a small sensor is that in general, image quality takes a hit because the per-pixel size gets greatly reduced. With respect to that, the CX format sensor performs exceptionally well, delivering images with great clarity, well saturated colors and a rather pleasing level of contrast. Being able to shoot in RAW was a relief as by now we're wondering if there are any SLR like features in the two cameras.

One area where the sensor fails to perform is with regards to depth of field. Unfortunately, the small size of the sensor results in a larger-than-expected depth of field. This was apparent when we used the 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens and shot an object at f/2.8. There was background blur, but not as much as we would have seen from a similar lens shooting at the same aperture on a DSLR.

Video
The V1 and J1 both feature a dedicated video button next to the shutter button on top, however, video recording at full HD was only possible if the mode dial on the back was on Video. We're not even sure why there is a dedicated video button if we still need to switch over to the video mode before we can shoot. This is not to say that video cannot be recording when in Still Shot mode. The only problem with video while in Single Still mode is that the resolution of the video recorded is an unconventional 1072x720 at 60 frames per second and no, we did not have any control over this. The video recording size is also limited to 4GB.

The frustrations of design clearly flow into hampering the video recording experience. There is, however, a silver lining of sorts. While recording full HD video, we were able to shoot stills as well (albeit they were only 9 megapixel stills, without affecting the video recording in any way.

Verdict
We're having a hard time grasping what Nikon was aiming at achieving with the Nikon 1 system. Venturing into a realm that is looking at being a DSLR alternative while managing a compact size, Nikon got the 'compact' part somewhat right, but fell way short on the 'DSLR' part.

The lack of dedicated buttons to access quick features such as shooting modes (despite a physical dial being present!), inability to shoot video spontaneously despite a dedicated video button and not to mention, a complete lack of focus ring on the lenses makes the Nikon 1 system more like a glorified point-and-shoot rather than a DSLR competitor.

In favor of the Nikon 1 system, the bigger sensor does deliver some amazing looking images, along with offering a blazing fast auto-focus system. The V1 supports an accessory port, but accessories are currently limited to just an external flash and mic.

For more pictures of Nikon V1 and J1 visit our picture gallery.


Pros
Image quality
Excellent focus system

Cons
Complicated to use
Price

Rating
Performance: 3.5
Features: 3
Ease of use: 2.5
Ergonomics: 3.5
Wow Factor: 3.5
Value for Money: 2
Overall: 3

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