Ever since the first compact system camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-G1, was introduced back in 2008, photography enthusiasts have been falling over themselves to speculate on when one of the two big players, Nikon or Canon, would enter the market.
The wait is finally over. But does the Nikon 1 series live up to the hype?
Why buy a Compact System Camera?
Before the introduction of the Micro Four Thirds system, interchangeable lens camera was synonymous with SLR camera. If you wanted to be able to pick and choose your lenses depending on the circumstance, you got yourself an SLR because there were no other options. It was probably a Nikon or Canon Digital SLR too, because they had the biggest selection of OEM and third-party lenses and accessories.
Compact system cameras have shaken the industry up in recent years by offering many of the benefits of Digital SLRs, such as interchangeable lenses and great image quality, but in a smaller form factor. As compact system cameras have gained in popularity, Digital SLR sales have suffered.
Nikon 1: J1 and V1
Nikon have beaten Canon to market with a compact system camera range, which they’ve dubbed Nikon 1. There are two models available at launch, the consumer-focused J1 and the enthusiast-level V1.
The J1 is on sale for £549.99 as a kit with a basic zoom lens, and then V1 has a list price of £829.99 with the same bundled lens. That’s a significant difference in price, so how do the two cameras stack up?
|Nikon 1 J1||Nikon 1 V1|
|Image Sensor||10.1 Mp, 13.2 mm × 8.8 mm CMOS sensor||10.1 Mp, 13.2 mm × 8.8 mm CMOS sensor|
|Lens Mount||Nikon 1||Nikon 1|
|Electronic Viewfinder||No||Yes, 1440k-dot color LCD|
|HD Video||1080p Full HD, H.264||1080p Full HD, H.264|
|Continuous Shooting||Up to 60fps (full res)||Up to 60fps (full res)|
|Autofocus||Hybrid phase detection/ contrast detect||Hybrid phase detection/ contrast detect|
|LCD Screen||3″ 460k dot LCD||3″ 920k dot LCD|
|Shutter Type||Electronic||Mechanical & Electronic|
|Flash Sync||1/60s||1/250s (1/60s w/electronic shutter)|
|External Mic Input||No||Yes, 3.5mm jack|
The bulk of the price difference can largely be attributed to the high resolution Electronic Viewfinder in the V1, which is a welcome addition but one that we suspect many won’t be able to justify spending the extra cash on. Of course there are a few other differences too, but with the same image sensor in both cameras in most situations the image quality will be identical.
What’s in an Image Sensor? Nikon 1 image quality low-down…
In a digital camera the image sensor is the real brains behind converting what you see in real life into a stunning photograph. Generally speaking a larger image sensor will gather more light and produce higher quality photos, and needless to say the biggest and best sensors tend to land themselves into high-end Digital SLRs.
So, does the Nikon 1 range pack a sensor that’s a viable substitute for a Digital SLR? Certainly the marketing people would love you to believe so, but one area in which the new Nikon J1 and V1 models have taken some criticism is with their inclusion of rather small image sensors.
Nikon 1 Image Sensor Comparison:
Most Digital SLRs, especially consumer and prosumer models, contain an APS-C sized sensor – for Nikon models that equates to 23.6 x 15.6mm. Only Sony, with their NEX series of cameras, make compact system models with an APS-C sized image sensor.
Micro Four Thirds is a standard used by Panasonic and Olympus in their compact system cameras, and is noticeably smaller than a full size Digital SLR whilst also being noticeably larger than a compact camera.
The ‘compact’ area here is modelled on a 7.49 x 5.52mm sensor, as found in the Nikon P7100 and Canon Powershot G12, which is about as large a sensor as is common on a compact camera.
Small image sensors go a long way to explaining why even high-end compact camera models struggle with low-light performance, so as the Nikon 1 sensor sits firmly between a high-end compact and a Micro Four Thirds sensor, it’s no surprise that concerns have been raised.
Back off the Bokeh!
One side-effect of image sensor size is that the smaller the sensor gets, the harder it is to create shallow depth of field shots like this shot on the right.
If you never want this effect then this limitation won’t bother you, but if you are hoping to get true Digital SLR shallow depth of field results then the Nikon 1 series isn’t going to be for you.
Rather than a Digital SLR replacement, the Nikon 1 series is more akin to a compact camera with detachable lenses in this respect.
Is the Nikon 1 worth buying just for the Nikkor Lenses?
This has been a common question since the J1 and V1 were announced, and the answer boils down to ‘probably not’.
Lets qualify this a bit; the new Nikon 1 range uses a completely new lens mount that isn’t directly compatible with the Nikon F-Mount (the lens mount that Nikon have used for all their SLRs for many years).
You can use Nikon F-Mount lenses with the J1 and V1, but it requires an adaptor that is both impossible to buy at the moment (everywhere we can find is currently out of stock) and costly. Even if you do stump up the cash and find one of these illusive FT1 adaptors, the crop factor of the Nikon 1 range means that you’ll be getting 2.6x the stated focal length.
In addition the adaptor will only allow autofocus with newer AF-S lenses, so if you had hoped that buying into a Nikon system would allow you to use some old bargain lenses you’ll be limited to manual focus.
The upshot of all this? The vast majority of Nikon J1 and V1 users will only use lenses from the 1 Nikkor range, which is currently a range of just four lenses. That means that in terms of lenses, the Nikon range is certainly not any more comprehensive than any of the competing systems.
Our Verdict on the Nikon 1 Range:
The Nikon 1 range is a tough cookie; on the one hand it’s the first compact system camera from one of the big two manufacturers and has been in development for so long we feel obliged to like it, yet on the other hand it seems to lag behind the offerings from other manufacturers. In terms of price, lens selection, and image sensor the J1 and V1 are playing catch-up.
Is it a bad camera? No. Nikon don’t make anything that we’d call a ‘bad’ camera at the moment.
Are there better compact system cameras out there for the money? We’d be inclined to say yes…