Anyone familiar with my photography knows I have a freelance relationship with Nikon. Let me state that up front. As long as I’m disclosing, let me provide another fact that may not be as obvious. I pay for my Nikon equipment just like you do. Yep. Nikon doesn’t give me free equipment despite contracting with me to produce advertising images. Their general policy is not to give free equipment to pros, even those with whom they work closely (Of course they loan the equipment I might be using on a specific assignment, but it gets returned). The rationale, as it was once explained to me, is that they want the pros they work with to choose to use Nikon because of the merits of the equipment, not because they’re being paid to use it. An interesting perspective.
As a digital enthusiast and photo educator I field questions constantly from students and other consumers, so I feel a responsibility to keep abreast with at least some of what’s out there that is non-Nikon. Since I do this on my own dime I can’t justify buying every camera that comes along, but now and then I do pick something up to get firsthand experience. As the niche of mirrorless digital cameras emerged I was intrigued because as a small guy, lugging tons of heavy DSLR equipment around is not my favorite thing even if the image files are great. One of the first mirrorless cameras that piqued my curiosity was the Sony NEX-5. The idea of a DX sensor (Sony would say APS-C sensor) in a tiny body, yielding the same quality as my D300 was too alluring to pass up. I got the NEX-5, shot it a couple of months, and then sold it. Why?
One reason was the design of the camera, particularly the menu system and external user controls. They were not up to snuff. One of the things about Nikon that really singles them out is outstanding ergonomics. The design of the camera controls, their placement, and the logical (for the most part) menus give me an interface that really delivers. I hear this echoed constantly by other Nikon photographers and among the select group of shooters who switch from Canon, or one of the other manufacturers, to Nikon. The quality of the image files from the NEX-5 were excellent. Shot side by side with my D300 they held their own toe to toe, but of course the NEX system was limited in the lenses available compared to the Nikon glass that could be used with the D300.
The second reason: I was hoping that Nikon would enter the same market niche and come out with an APS-C mirrorless compact of it’s own, imbued with those wonderful things that make a Nikon a Nikon. So I waited… and waited… and waited.
Then I heard of an upcoming Nikon announcement. Like many of you I expected the press release to tout the eagerly anticipated DSLR replacement for the long-in-the-tooth D700 or perhaps D3s. Instead, to my dismay came Nikon 1. Well, if not a DSLR then the long awaited Nikon APS-C mirrorless camera? As I read the specs describing a whole new sensor format my heart sank. It sounded like just another Coolpix variant and I was sorely disappointed. Then I went to PhotoPlus Expo, the major camera show held each fall in NYC. This was where the Nikon 1 system was making it’s first splash. I ventured to the Nikon booth and picked one up.
No review you read on the Internet can ever quite equal the tactile feedback of having an object in your hands. The Nikon 1 V1 was substantial. Significant weight for it’s size and a robust construction missing in most small cameras. It felt as well built as a higher end DSLR. The lens mount is serious quality despite the fact that the lenses are small and light. Looking inside gives an equally serious impression about build as does the exterior finish. It’s when you start using the camera that the cutting edge technology becomes evident. FAST startup. FAST focus. I mean very FAST focus. And the electronic viewfinder is smart, activated automatically when a proximity sensor detects the approach of your face as the camera comes to your eye. No manual switching from LCD to viewfinder. Sweet. The overall design is relatively simple. Many of the controls will be familiar to anyone who has used a compact digital camera. A few take on new spins for this particular model. A feature or two I wish were directly accessible are absent (ISO). But after shooting the V1 for a short while the ergonomics come quickly and it’s a clean interface. Even the design of the menu text on the large LCD is refreshing. There is a LOT of technology in this camera. Too much for the scope of this blog post, but suffice it to say that someone looking for a high quality small camera that also excels at video should seriously consider this system.
The lenses are small and light. Honestly, at first their petite physical dimensions made them hard to take seriously. It wasn’t until I began shooting and looking at image output on the computer that I gained new respect for their capability. They are sharp. The 10mm pancake is a fast 2.8. The variable aperture 10-30 and 30-110 are VR lenses. I really like manually zooming my lenses on this small system as opposed to the electronic zoom control ubiquitous in the compact camera market.
And the files off this new format sensor are something pretty special given it’s diminutive size. No, it doesn’t compete head on with the 16MP of the D7000 or the 24MP of theD3x. Let’s be realistic. OTOH, the entire 3 lens system covering focal lengths from 25mm to 275mm (35mm equivalent because of the 2.5x conversion factor for the Nikon 1 system) will fit in the palm of one hand. Wrap your head around this, factor in the quality of the output and you’ll begin to ask yourself some questions.
But I did more than ask myself questions. I bought one because I knew I needed to shoot it myself and because my Nikons often can pay their own way making great images. This was just before leaving to teach a Nikon Mentor Series trek in Las Vegas after which I was heading on for a couple of personal shooting days in one of my favorite landscape locations, Death Valley.
For the first time in a long time I LOVED carrying camera equipment around. Combined with the ease of a Black Widow belt system (from Spiderholster.com) and a small belt worn pouch which held the two lenses not being used, I was in seventh heaven. The totally delightful thing about using the V1 with the Black Widow was that when changing lenses the body was suspended from the Black Widow belt mount, leaving both hands free to do the deed. Soooo nice. I hiked out into the Death Valley sand dunes with a small very lightweight tripod. Another benefit of this size camera: a lightweight tripod provides excellent stabilization.
The more I used the system, changing lenses, enjoying the heft and finish of the body, the more I came to feel like I was using something Leica-like. It was unlike any other compact camera I’ve used.
And the image quality speaks for itself. Click on these thumbnails for larger views.
Here I’m hiking up he ridge of a 90-100 foot sand dune. This is no small task as anyone who has climbed sand dunes will attest. I was loving the fact that the V1 was on my waist and my lightweight tripod made a handy walking stick. Notice the precision of the framing. This is the full frame of the V1, composed as seen through the electronic viewfinder (which was a real treat in the bright dawn sunlight).
In the hotel lobby in Las Vegas there was a gorgeous holiday display using ornaments in large acrylic tubes, lit from below. Even though the lobby lighting was dim, with the V1 set to ISO 100, a 3 second NEF exposure at f/8 on the tripod soaked up the available light and brought the colors to life.
I am not suggesting that you’ll be making 40×60 prints that rival a full frame sensor. But for small to medium sized prints, and certainly for electronic display, the image files are superb. I’ll be very interested to see what photojournalists will begin to say about this system since many of it’s attributes should appeal to their style and needs.
So, look past Ashton prancing around with his new beard getting fired from a cannon. I think this camera has a LOT of potential and I think that any serious photographer looking for a light travel kit (that also excels at video) should give it real consideration. Happy Holidays!
Mark Alberhasky is a Nikon Mentor for the Mentor Series Worldwide Photo Treks.
Join him as he travels and share his enthusiasm for photography and learning.