The Nikon 1 V1 presents the unique combination of a built-in viewfinder, compatibility with F-mount Nikkor lenses (thanks to an adapter) and a big 2.7x crop factor. We put the V1 to the test, focusing especially on its applications with Nikkor F-mount lenses. Take a look.
When Nikon entered the mirrorless interchangeable lens digital camera sweepstakes in October 2011, they chose the road less traveled, at least in terms of sensor size. Third generation cameras from Olympus and Panasonic were already on the market sporting Micro Four Thirds system sensors that were the same physical size as those found in Olympus DSLRs with their 2x crop factors. Samsung and Sony entries in the class featured APS-C sized sensors, producing the same 1.5x crop factor as a Sony DSLR.
In June, Pentax announced the "Q" model which carried a compact point-and-shoot camera-sized 1/2.3-inch sensor, but it wasn't due to reach U.S. markets until "early fall". With everyone in the market up to that point packing sensor sizes straight out of a DSLR, Nikon chose to go in the other direction, albeit not to the same degree as Pentax. More than a few eyebrows were raised as the new Nikon 1 system's two cameras carried a sensor with the Nikon designation "CX" along with a 2.7x crop factor. To be sure, Nikon held the resolution down to 10 megapixels which gave hope that the overall small sensor size might still deliver some decent high ISO noise performance, but skeptics noted that both Pentax and Nikon seem to be bypassing larger sized sensors that, generally, would provide the better noise performance that was one of the major selling points for this new class of camera.
Almost overlooked in all the hoopla surrounding the introduction of the Nikon 1 system was this single sentence, buried deep in the press release: "Additionally, the FT-1 F-mount adapter for legacy Nikkor lenses will be available in the future, so that photographers can utilize their collection of quality Nikkor lenses." The FT-1 F-mount adapter is now available and the acquisition of this piece along with my closet full of Nikkor F-mount glass and an upcoming annular eclipse of the sun in May 2012 were all it took to trigger my purchase of the V1 that is the subject of this review.
I did this site's review of the V1's entry-level brother, the J1, back in October 2011. Since the two cameras essentially share the same guts, we've included several references in the following text back to that article. Find the full Nikon 1 J1 review here.
While the V1 offers a slightly different feature set targeting more advanced users, the primary image capture hardware is the same as is ISO performance and image quality - the J1 review is a handy reference point since I won't be duplicating the studio shots or color palette options with the V1. Instead, we're going to target the differences between the J1 and V1, and in particular explore the performance opportunities provided users with F-mount lenses who add the FT-1 adapter to the Nikon 1 kit.
Here's a quick rundown on the similarities and differences between the J1 and V1: identical sensor sizes and resolution, identical continuous shooting rates at full resolution, ISO sensitivity ranges, still and movie capture options and EXPEED 3 processing engine with dual core processor. Both cameras feature fixed 3.0-inch diagonal LCD monitors, but the J1 has a 460,000 dot composition while the V1 doubles that to 921,000 dots. The J1 has a built-in flash and lacks a viewfinder; the V1 has a viewfinder, no built-in flash but offers an i-TTL (intelligent through the lens) hot shoe/multi-accessory port that accepts flash, GPS or external microphone accessories.
The V1 is fractionally larger in every dimension and weighs about 2 ounces more; it uses an EN-EL 15 battery while the J1 uses a less powerful EN-EL 20. Unfortunately, the batteries are not interchangeable. Both cameras can utilize SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media and are available in one or two lens kits. Nikon includes a camera strap, rechargeable battery and charger, USB and A/V cables, quick start guide, printed user's manual and CD-ROM software with each camera. Camera bodies can be had in white or black variants. Here's a close look at the black version.
They're very much alike in so many ways but just different enough to make one the clear choice for folks planning to mount legacy Nikkor lenses on a Nikon 1.
Build & Design
Like its brother the J1, the Nikon V1 body is predominantly a rectangle with rounded edges, excluding the hump on the camera top that houses the viewfinder. The body is magnesium alloy and in another slight deviation from the J1 recipe, offers a slight ridge in the lower right front that provides a tiny bit of a grip point. Overall, the body and Nikon 1 lenses appear well-built. The V1 body with the Nikon 1 10-30mm zoom lens measures about 4.4 x 3.0 x 3.2 inches and weighs about 17.6 ounces with battery and memory card onboard. The supplied camera strap adds about an ounce and Nikon also offers an accessory grip that adds about 2 ounces to the weight of the camera but is worth its weight in gold for the additional grip security it provides. Here's a look at the grip by itself and in place on the V1.
While it adds a bit of height, depth and weight to a camera that, by its very nature is trying to be small, compact and light, the grip it was a no-brainer add-on for both of our V1s. One drawback to the grip is that it must be removed from the camera in order access the battery or memory card slot, but removal and installation is quick via a knurled knob that screws onto the camera bottom. Nikon makes grips for both the J1 and V1, and while they may look identical at a quick glance the dimensions are slightly different to account for the size differential between the two cameras - the J1 model is designated GR-N2000 while the V1 grip is a GR-N1000. Cost is about $65 at reputable Internet vendors.
Ergonomics and Controls
Sharing a virtually identical shape and control layout with the J1, you would expect the V1 to handle in similar fashion and you would be right - up to a point. The addition of the viewfinder to the V1 changes the game, and even more so when combined with the optional grip. The V1 can be used with the monitor in typical compact digital fashion for image composition and capture, and there will undoubtedly be some users that do so. For those of you who are so inclined I found the V1 handled as if it were J1, which is to say the camera fit nicely into my hand, with the tip of my shooting finger falling naturally to the shutter button while the tip of my middle finger just rested atop that slight ridge on the camera front. In two-handed shooting, one must take care with the placement of the left index finger on the camera front so as not to obscure the focus assist lamp.
Slip on the optional grip and use the viewfinder for image composition and capture instead of the monitor and things improve dramatically. Up until six or seven years ago the words "reading glasses" were not part of my vocabulary but now digital cameras that provide only a monitor for image composition and capture require I wander around with a set of drugstore "1.5x readers" riding low on my nose. My DSLRs with their diopter adjustable viewfinders require no such accommodation and neither does the V1. Another benefit of the viewfinder/grip combination is that when capturing images with the viewfinder and grip my left hand moves naturally underneath the camera for support, DSLR-style, eliminating the potential conflict of fingers with the focus assist lamp. I'm also able to lock my elbows into my sides for additional support, providing a more stable hold than is possible with a J1 with the monitor held away from the face - the edge of the viewfinder sits near my eyebrow, providing another contact point for stability.
Equipping your V1 with the FT-1 adapter doesn't change much in the way of weight and balance initially; the Nikon 1 10-30mm zoom weighs in at about 4.6 ounces and extends a minimum about 2.5 inches forward from the camera body. The FT-1 adapter weighs in at 6 ounces and extends about 1.5 inches in front of the camera; the foot of the FT-1 is metal and threaded with the industry-standard 3/8 inch fitting to accept a tripod or ball head stud. The FT-1 will lighten your wallet to the tune of about $270 at reputable Internet vendors - when you consider that a single lens V1 kit goes for about $850 and the grip for about another $65 you're pushing right up near the $1200 level to optimize your V1's grip and expand its lens envelope.
Of course, the FT-1 by itself will not allow you to make image captures, so it's only after you've mounted some F mount glass that things start to get interesting. Currently, Nikon makes four Nikon 1 system lenses that cover the 27 to 297mm focal range in 35mm equivalents. Nikon also lists 65 current lenses that function with the FT-1, and without exception these lenses do not share the compact size and light weight of the system lenses. Nevertheless, some of the current generation Nikon lenses are surprisingly comfortable when hand held on the V1. Comfort level seems directly related to the barrel length of lens being used - shorter lenses handle better while longer lenses, particularly the big telephotos like my 400 and 600 really require tripod or monopod support (no different than with the DSLR). The 70-200 VRII zoom lens is about 8 inches long and weighs some 54 ounces yet is a very pleasant combination for hand holding and has the added benefit of having a lens foot that can attach to tripod or monopod. Here's a handheld shot of an egret down the street at 200mm (540mm in 35mm equivalents).
And here's a shot of the 600mm with both a D300S and the V1 on board - in the case of the D300S there's also a Nikon TC-14E II 1.4x tele converter, but you can clearly see that lens size rather than camera size is the driving force as to camera support once lens focal ranges start hitting 300mm or so, at least with the fast, long telephotos.
There are a number of Nikon zooms such as the 80-400, 55-300 and 70-300 that reach out to 300mm or more, but these are smaller lenses with variable apertures that lack the bulk and weight of the fast telephotos and thus are potential candidates for hand holding should the situation require. Once you factor in the V1 or J1 2.7x crop factor, suddenly that 80-400mm is providing you with a focal range of 216 to 1080mm in 35mm equivalents - well outside the 27 to almost 300mm focal range available with the system lenses. We'll discuss additional considerations when shooting with these long effective focal lengths in the performance section of the review.
While Nikon lists 65 current lenses that are compatible with the FT-1, the Nikon F-mount has been in use since 1959 with some variations on the basic specification, and there are way more than 65 Nikon lenses that can be used on a J1 or V1. For example, I have 24, 50, 85, and 105mm Nikkor AI and AI-S lenses dating back to the mid-1970s that I used on my film bodies. These lenses are not autofocus but they mount on the FT-1 and can be used in manual or aperture priority mode. While they are solidly built and heavier than the system lenses, they are also compact and quite comfortable use on the V1. They also have the advantage of being fast: the 50 is an f/1.4, the 85 is an f/2, the 105 is an f/2.5 and the 24 is an f/2.8.
On a J1/V1 the 2.7x crop factor provides focal lengths from about 65 to a bit over 280 mm while retaining those fast maximum apertures. If you were to point out that the existing Nikon 1 system lenses cover that same focal range you'd be entirely correct; the difference is the system lenses are all slower, with maximum apertures varying from f/2.8 for the 10mm prime to f/3.5 and f/3.8 for the zooms at wide-angle. Take the system zoom lenses out to their full telephoto setting and maximum aperture drops to f/5.6. Contrast this with that 50mm legacy lens shooting at 135mm focal length with an f/1.4 maximum aperture that is four stops faster, and it's clear that the old glass still has something to offer photographers who don't mind focusing the old-fashioned way. The old lenses are not stabilized like the system zoom lenses or many of the 65 lenses Nikon lists as compatible with the J1/V1, and the ability to stabilize takes back some of the speed advantage enjoyed by the faster older glass. But if you're shooting in low light and have the camera mounted on a tripod the legacy lenses will still do a good job. Here's a look at the V1 with the 85/2 on board, along with the 24, 50 and 105mm manual focus Nikkors.
Controls on the V1 are identical with the exception of the flash found on the J1, which pops up on the left top portion of the camera body and is accompanied by a manual deployment switch on the left top rear of the body. With no built-in flash, the V1 locates a hot shoe/multi-accessory port on the left top of the camera body, concealed beneath a plastic cover which will detach itself without asking permission at the earliest possible moment. A spot of gaffer's tape to keep this cover in place when not using the hot shoe is a prudent installation.
In addition to the covered hot shoe, the top of the V1 body holds the on/off, shutter and movie capture buttons. The back of the camera is dominated by the viewfinder and LCD monitor, with the balance of external controls arrayed vertically along the right rear: feature button, playback zoom/thumbnail control, mode dial, display, menu, playback and delete buttons along with a multi selector incorporating autofocus, self-timer, exposure compensation, and autofocus/auto exposure lock features.
Menus and Modes
While the V1 may be targeting a more advanced user, the ammunition being provided is relegated primarily to the viewfinder, higher resolution monitor and greater battery capacity - menus are identical to the J1, and while largely intuitive also require the user to resort to them change virtually every camera shooting setting, with the exception of exposure compensation, focus mode and the self-timer, which may be accessed externally via the multi selector.
Shooting modes are identical so I'll just transcribe this section from the J1 review:
While the J1 and V1 share identical 3.0 inch diagonal LCD monitors, the V1 resolution of 921,000 dots is twice that of the J1. Our J1 review unit produced a peak brightness of 447 nits and a contrast ratio of 843:1, a bit below the 500 nit threshold for brightness but well above the 500:1 contrast ratio values that are considered the starting points of better performing outdoor monitors. Our personal V1 units being used for this review did not undergo the same studio evaluation, but in the past it has been my experience that evaluating cameras with similar sized monitors but different resolutions tends to favor the larger resolution monitors in outdoor conditions. In practice, the V1 seemed at least as good as the J1, and perhaps a bit better, but the right set of outdoor conditions can make using any monitor a chore. Area of coverage of the V1 monitor is 100%, same as the J1.
Where the V1 leaves the J1 in the dust is the viewfinder - and not simply because it has a viewfinder while the J1 has none. The V1 viewfinder is large, bright and offers virtually 100% coverage - what you see through the viewfinder is what you capture on the sensor, and seeing well through the viewfinder is simply a matter of adjusting its performance to suit your eye via the diopter. Viewfinder composition is 1,440,000 dots.
The default setting for the V1 has the monitor activated, but when the viewfinder is raised to your eye the monitor is disabled and the viewfinder is activated, with the process being reversed when the camera moves away from your eye. However, if you carry the camera around your neck via the supplied strap, the viewfinder is apt to view the proximity to your body as being your eye and keep the viewfinder powered up. I tended to disable the monitor and carry the V1 in a vertical position when shooting in order to conserve battery life.
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