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Review: Nikon's J1 and V1 cameras and 1 Nikkor lenses
Sunday, November 6, 2011 | by Rob Galbraith
If you're a working photographer using a Nikon digital SLR now, chances are the announcement of the J1 and V1 in September caught your attention briefly, you grumbled that the system wasn't built around a much bigger image sensor or wasn't more pro-oriented, and then you returned to wondering when the company will issue replacements for cameras like the D700 and D3S.

Admittedly, my reaction was along those lines as well. While I admired the boldness of Nikon's move to create a new-from-the-ground-up camera system, I didn't see it as doing much for my own photography. That is, until I tried out the cameras and accompanying lenses. After a few weeks of shooting with Nikon 1 system gear, almost exclusively in my off-duty role as parent to two active boys, I've gone from being nonplussed about to singing the praises of Nikon's newest wares.

The responsiveness of the camera and its capable autofocus, the good-looking pictures that come from its comparatively small sensor and the optical sweetness of the tiny 1 Nikkor lenses, these and other positive Nikon 1 attributes have left me impressed. It's not a perfect system by any means, but for certain types of photography, ones that favour portability without sacrificing too much performance, Nikon 1 rocks.

It's official: at long last, my weekend carry-about camera has arrived. And it's called the V1.

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In Motion: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 53mm, ISO 100, 1/30, f/16. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Introduction

The J1 and the V1 are Nikon's first entrants in the fast-growing mirrorless camera segment. The bodies are the heart of the company's newly-minted Nikon 1 system, which also incorporates four interchangeable lenses and a range of accessories. These are not me-too products by any means; Nikon set out to create a pair of cameras whose responsiveness belies their small footprint, and to mate them with equally small, sharp and fast focusing lenses. As part of accomplishing that, Nikon developed, with small-sensor specialist Aptina Imaging, an all-new 10.04 million image pixel CMOS sensor, with a unique-to-Nikon 2.7x crop factor, as well as the first new lens mount from Nikon in decades.

Pretty in Pink: The Nikon 1 system. Click to enlarge (Photo courtesy Nikon)

The J1 is aimed squarely at consumers who would like much of the performance and image quality of an SLR without any of the bulk or complexity that goes along with such a system, while the V1 is positioned slightly upmarket but is still essentially meant to be a really small interchangeable lens camera that stands apart from advanced point-and-shoots, like the company's own P7100, by being much more responsive and producing better quality photos too.

Before getting into the nitty gritty of the new system, it might be helpful to understand what it is that I've been looking for, and not finding until now, in a camera for play rather than work.

Getting perspective

Choosing a camera for casual photography starts with a list of criteria. For some, low light picture quality trumps all; for others, it simply has to be pocketable. What follows is my list, and it's derived from four things that are particular to me as a working photographer: I love to shoot sports, I hate to miss good moments, I'm always seeking to improve how I see and capture light (both ambient and flash) and I almost always have my cameras set to RAW.

I don't turn these characteristics off when I'm serving as family photographer and Dad to boys aged 8 and twelve. So, these facets of the 2011 edition of Rob Galbraith directly influence what I want from a camera that goes along when I'm not being paid to take pictures, such as outings around town, birthday parties, vacations or even to run errands with kids in tow.

The list:
  • It must be responsive. I want the camera to take a picture when I press the shutter button, not later when it feels like it or later when it has finished some other task it chose to do at that time.

  • It must be able to quickly autofocus on a moving subject. I don't need it to track like a pro digital SLR, though it'd be fine if it did. But my kids move around a lot - my younger boy Grady is perpetually in motion when he's outside - and the camera's AF system needs to be able to keep up.

  • It must be small. Not just a small body, but a small lens or lenses as well. Small enough that I won't leave it behind when headed out for a bike ride, strapping on inline skates or even popping into the grocery store. (Yes, the grocery store: one of my favourite photos of my older son Fergus was taken years ago when he climbed into the dairy case to get to his favourite yogurt.)

  • It must have a broad focal length range. A wide angle "pancake"-style lens won't cut it, at least not all the time and practically never when shooting kids activities. I want at least 28-200mm (35mm full frame equivalent), and I'd definitely prefer something that stretched into the 300-400mm territory. My assumption to date has been that this would all come in one permanently attached lens, but a set of interchangeable lenses would be fine too, even preferable.

  • It must deliver really good overall image quality. Pleasing colour is key, but I also expect reasonable low light results.

  • It must have a moderately powerful on-camera flash. Family activities don't necessarily happen within an hour of sunrise or sunset when the natural light is great, they often take place under harsh midday sun. This makes flash fill a necessity, or at least to my eye it does.

    Off-camera wireless flash features are also desirable, though not critical. This is because it's easy enough to pull in some pro lighting accessories to trigger a remote flash or two, even with cameras that don't officially support this ability.

  • It must be able to shoot RAW format image files. Not because I need pristine image quality in each and every personal photo I take. Rather, it's because I'm more likely to make exposure, white balance or other settings errors when I'm both participating in and photographing a family activity, and shooting RAW means I can undo more such mistakes than if the camera is set to JPEG.
The Nikon D7000 has ably served in the role of weekend camera for me since earlier this year, with some assistance from a Coolpix P7000 and a GoPro HD HERO. Four D7000 playtime examples are below, showing some of the action-oriented and low light photographs I've made of family and friends.

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Splish: Nikon D7000 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR at 16mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/8. Click to enlarge Splash: Nikon D7000 + AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR at 140mm, ISO 400, 1/2500, f/4.8. Click to enlarge
Leap: Nikon D7000 + AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR at 16mm, ISO 200, 1/500, f/9. Click to enlarge
Friends: Nikon D7000 + AF-S 85mm f/1.4G, ISO 4000, 1/250, f/1.4. Click to enlarge (All photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The D7000, in conjunction with lenses such as the AF-S 16-35mm f/4G ED VR and AF-S 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED VR, fulfills most of the criteria set out above, except for one: while it's small by digital SLR standards, the D7000 is gargantuan when placed next to a point-and-shoot, as are many of Nikon's FX and DX lenses when put against point-and-shoot lenses or even some other mirrorless makers' glass.

The D7000 has enabled me to capture real moments, however, in bright light and no light, and to get them in focus. It's also capable of exceptional picture quality. This camera is the finest non-pro digital SLR I've ever shot with, and an order of magnitude more responsive than any point-and-shoot. It's just too large to take everywhere, as are the lenses I'm most likely to use with it.

That's a bit about what I want from a personal photography camera. As you'll see, it directly influences my enthusiasm for Nikon's latest creations.

The Nikon 1 system

The Nikon 1 J1 and V1 are the centrepieces of the new Nikon 1 system. In addition to the two bodies, the system includes four 1 Nikkor lenses and various accessories including grips, cases, straps and, for the V1 specifically, a dedicated Speedlight, GPS unit and cold shoe adapter. Nikon has also developed an accessory that allows F-mount lenses to be attached to the J1 and V1; AF-S and AF-I lenses do so with the full functionality of each Nikkor lens type, including autofocus.

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Brothers: The Nikon 1 J1, left, and V1, right, with VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 attached. Click photos to enlarge (Photos courtesy Nikon)

The J1 and V1 share many core features. Both cameras are built around an all-new CMOS image sensor in an all-new 13.2 x 8.8mm size that Nikon has dubbed CX Format. They each rely on EXPEED 3 image and data processing (and are underpinned by some serious dual-core processing hardware), utilize a hybrid phase and contrast detect AF system and provide full resolution capture with focus tracking at up to 10fps (with limitations; generally, these are 5fps cameras). They both take the same 1 Nikkor lenses, and both feature an all-metal Nikon 1 lens mount.

Both can be set to capture NEF, JPEG and NEF+JPEG into a generous shooting buffer (this is true of the V1 especially), have an expanded sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400 in full step increments and can record 1920 x 1080-pixel video at both interlaced (59.94 fields/s) and progressive (29.94fps) rates, plus reduced-resolution progressive capture at 59.94fps, 400fps and 1200fps. Brief still photo bursts are possible too at up to 60fps.

A lot of what's under the hood in the two cameras is either similar or identical. What follows are some of the key feature differences which, as you'll see, favour the V1.

The J1:
  • Is slightly smaller in all dimensions than the V1, and slightly lighter too

  • Does not include a sensor package self-cleaning function, but does include a "dust shield," which is an optically-clear filter that sits several millimetres in front of the sensor and keeps debris from ever reaching the sensor area

  • Has a built-in pop-up flash with automatic (TTL) output control + flash exposure compensation (-3.0 to +1.0 in 1/3 step increments) and a full power recycle time of 1.3 seconds

  • Syncs with flash at 1/60 or below; Nikon's high shutter speed FP Sync is not supported

  • Has no hot shoe or PC sync socket

  • Can record continuous bursts of roughly 18-19 NEF frames at 5fps (the number of frames drops somewhat on NEF+JPEG, and increases a lot on JPEG only)

  • Its 3.0-inch (diagonal), 3:2 ratio rear LCD contains 460,000 dots (and is especially crisp, clear and colour accurate for a screen of this resolution)

  • One position of its four-way multi selector enables direct access to flash mode settings

  • Is powered by the 7.2V/1020mAh EN-EL20 battery with a CIPA charge life rating of 230 frames (with minimal flash use the camera will shoot many more frames than this on a single charge)

  • Takes the GR-N2000 grip

  • Does not accept some 1 system accessories, such as the Speedlight SB-N5 and GP-N100

  • Does not have an external mic input

  • Has a menu which enables the internal stereo mic to be turned off/on and the audio gain to be set automatically or manually (in three increments)

  • Has a single ML-L3-compatible remote trigger port on the front (there is no wired remote trigger port)

  • Comes in black, white, red, pink and silver
The V1, by comparison:
  • Is slightly larger and heavier than the J1, but has a nearly identical control layout and is still a really small camera (Nikon claims it's the smallest interchangeable lens camera with an electronic viewfinder on the market)

  • Has magnesium alloy body covers and beefier strap lugs than the J1 (though the lugs are too narrow to attach a regular SLR strap)

  • Has a reasonably sharp and clear 1,440,000-dot electronic viewfinder with diopter adjustment

  • The image sensor package includes a self-cleaning unit, but lack the J1's dust shield

  • Has no built-in flash

  • Lacks a hot shoe and PC sync socket, but its multi accessory port enables the external Speedlight SB-N5 and other 1 System accessories to be attached

  • Syncs with flash at 1/60 or below when the camera's electronic shutter is used. The V1 also features a mechanical shutter, which can be engaged to allow flash sync at up to 1/250; Nikon's high shutter speed FP Sync is not supported with either shutter type

  • Has significantly more internal RAM, which enables the V1 to record continuous bursts of roughly 44-45 NEF frames at 5fps (the number of frames drops somewhat on NEF+JPEG, and increases somewhat on JPEG only). It can shoot 30fps and 60fps bursts that are about three times longer than the J1 too (about 30 total frames for the V1 vs about 10 total frames for the J1). Both models are restricted to five second video clips at 400fps and 1200fps

  • Can, while in stills shooting mode, record video at 1072 x 720 pixels at 60fps, simply by pressing the video recording button on the top of the camera. The J1, by comparison, can capture video only when the camera's mode dial is actually set to video (in that mode the J1 and V1 offers the same resolution and frame rate options)

  • Its 3.0-inch (diagonal), 4:3 ratio rear LCD contains 921,000 dots (this component is similar to or the same as most Nikon digital SLRs, and is really good) and sits behind reinforced glass

  • One position of its four-way multi selector enables direct access to AF settings rather than flash settings (the other three positions are the same as the J1)

  • Is powered by the 7.0V/1900mAh EN-EL20 battery (the same as the D7000) with a charge life rating of 400 frames, or 350 frames when the SB-N5 is used (testing in accordance with CIPA guidelines)

  • A battery status screen in the V1, similar to Nikon digital SLRs, reports the current charge, in percentage, as well as a 0-4 rating of the battery's service life (0=good, 4=replace). The J1 does not report this information with its battery

  • Takes the GR-N1000 grip (and even without the grip attached, the V1 has a thin raised finger hold on the front of the camera that's not found on the J1)

  • Includes a 3.5mm external stereo mic input

  • Has a menu which enables the internal stereo mic, or an external mic, to be turned off/on and the audio gain to be set automatically or manually (in three increments)

  • Has two ML-L3-compatible remote trigger ports, one on the front and one on the back (there is no wired remote trigger port)

  • Comes in black and white
In addition, the following optional accessories are for the V1 exclusively:
  • Speedlight SB-N5 The Speedlight SB-N5 is rated to be about 1.5 stops more powerful than the J1's built-in flash and provides both automatic (TTL) and manual output control (full to 1/32 in full step increments). When set to TTL, the user can dial in flash exposure compensation (-3.0 to +1.0 in 1/3 step increments). The SB-N5's head can be tilted 90 and swiveled 180 left/right for bounce flash photography, but it does not zoom. It's also incredibly small for an external flash.
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Flashy: Views of the Speedlight SB-N5. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The SB-N5 mounts on the top of the camera, into the V1's multi accessory port. It draws power from the camera and requires no batteries of its own. It has a 1/4000 (t.5) full power flash duration specification, a full power recycle time of 2.1 seconds as well as thermal protection that will stop the flash from firing temporarily should it need to cool down. Nikon CLS wireless off-camera flash photography is not among its capabilities, nor is FP Sync.

A white LED lamp on the front of the SB-N5 will illuminate continuously for several seconds when the V1 is capturing a Motion Snapshot or a burst of pictures in Smart Photo Selector mode.
  • GPS Unit GP-N100 The GP-N100 connects to the V1's multi accessory port, is powered by the camera and is specified to be accurate to 33ft/10m. It tracks latitude, longitude, altitude and compass direction, plus it can read satellite UTC time information and use that to automatically set the clock within the camera.

    The unit itself is simple, with only a USB port and an LED on the device's exterior. The LED on the top of the unit blinks red when it's gathering satellite signals, then switches to green when it has locked on (a blinking green light means three satellites have been located, a solid green light means four or more). At 0.7oz/21g, it's also light as a feather.

    The GP-N100 supports Assisted GPS for faster acquisition of the unit's position initially. Supplementary data must be loaded into the GP-N100, using its companion Mac/Windows software, for Assisted GPS to take effect. The GP-N100 can determine its position in as little as three seconds from a "hot start" or about 40 seconds from a "cold start."

    On the rear LCD, a "GPS" icon shows up to indicate that the GP-N100 is active; the same icon appears above the histogram when playing back photos that have location data embedded. A GPS setup menu, similar to Nikon digital SLRs, displays the current position as reported by the device, allows the user to set the Auto Power Off value for the V1 when the GP-N100 is attached as well as choose whether or not to set the camera's clock based on UTC time.
Locked On Target: GPS Unit GP-N100. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
  • Multi Accessory Port Adapter AS-N1000 Like the SB-N5 and GP-N100, this accessory slots into the V1's multi accessory port and provides a perch for other accessories, ones that have a shoe mount. The main and perhaps only purpose served by the AS-N1000 is to allow for small external mics, ones with cold shoes, to be fitted to the V1.

    asn1000.jpg
    The AS-N1000 (shown at right) appears to have no electronic link to the camera and has been developed to give Nikon's ME-1 Stereo Microphone a place to sit. The actual audio connection to the V1 is via its 3.5mm stereo input jack and not through the AS-N1000.
The above accessories are shipping either now or within a few short weeks.

Lenses for the J1 and V1 All four of the announced 1 Nikkor lenses are officially available, though some may be restricted to purchase only as part of body + lens bundles, and the supply of the longer zooms is looking particularly tight at the moment.

ft1.jpg
All but the power zoom come in different colours to match the camera bodies.

The lenses are:
The Mount Adapter FT1 (shown at right) will allow for F-mount Nikkor lenses to be used on the J1 and V1 as well. They must have internal focus motors; any lens with an AF-S or AF-I designation is compatible, says Nikon. Mount Adapter FT1 is slated to ship in December. Update, November 8, 2011: new information suggests the release date of the FT1 may slip from next month to sometime in the first few months of 2012. Update, December 13, 2011: even newer information from Nikon suggests that the FT1 will likely be in stores in the U.S., and perhaps other countries too, before the end of December, as originally planned.


Walking Tall: Nikon 1 J1 + 10mm f/2.8, ISO 800, 1/40, f/2.8. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Next Page: Impressions of the Nikon 1 system
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