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Nikon V3: Hands On Review

by Mark Alberhasky, May 2, 2014

V3Readers of my blog know that I find the Nikon System 1  V series a compelling addition to the Nikon family. The V1 broke new ground bringing mirrorless design and the CX format to the Nikon lineup. The V2 redesign improved ergonomics and output resolution to make the camera a more serious contender. Now we have the recently announced V3 and the next big step in System 1 evolution.

When Nikon called recently and asked if I was interested in shooting a story with the V3, my response time was almost as fast as System 1 autofocus: instantaneous. While I’d had the opportunity to talk with Nikon and offer feedback about improving the V series, the V3 announcement was my first look at what designers envisioned for the next System 1 flagship.

I have to confess I had mixed feelings when reading the V3 release. I really liked the V2 design: embedded electronic viewfinder (EVF), big finger grip, and mini-DSLR contour. The idea of making the viewfinder and finger grip add-on accessories didn’t appeal to me. Aesthetically it seemed the V3 was a step back from the sleek theme of the V2. That impression changed as soon as I had the V3 in my hands. The feel of the V3 is a serious step-up from the V2. The material on the surface of the accessory grip has just the right tackiness for a confident yet relaxed hold. The heft of the camera immediately communicates a durable build, something on which everyone who picked up the V3 during my travels commented. Despite my reservations about the style of the accessory EVF, once the camera was at my eye it performed as well as it’s predecessors. The real improvement in the V3 is in the more sophisticated placement and availability of external controls. Suffice it to say that any Nikon DSLR shooter will feel right at home with the top, front and rear wheels for changing important camera settings. Trips to LCD screen menus are for the most part optional or very infrequent. Besides front and rear command wheels identical to those found on full size Nikon DSLRs, the accessory grip duplicates the camera’s shutter release, placing the second button right where a DSLR user expects to find one, under the index finger tip. If they had wrapped an on/off switch around the accessory grip shutter button like a DSLR it would have been a home run. There is, however, an additional programmable function button on the accessory grip right next to the shutter release. It makes a total of three programmable external buttons for customizing the V3 settings. I set the accessory grip button to allow for on-the-fly adjustment of ISO and LOVED the result. With shutter speed and aperture controlled by front and back command wheels, the availability of ISO control under the index finger completes access to the three major parameters for creative photography. Even Nikon DSLR’s can’t boast controlling all three variables so ergonomically.

Design is a always a compromise, however, and the accessory grip and detachable EVF do have room for improvement. The grip screws onto the bottom of the camera, covering access to the battery compartment. Given the propensity of V-series cameras to go through batteries this is a minor annoyance, requiring grip removal to change batteries. The EVF also occupies the accessory port, monopolizing the port from other powered accessories like flash or GPS and creating a contour bulge isn’t very appealing visually. I felt I had to take care when stuffing the V3 in a camera bag, but the detachable EVF was unscathed during thousands of miles of travel.

The other major changes in the V3 are the tiltable, touch screen rear LCD, bump in CX sensor resolution to 18.4 MP and enhancement in autofocus technology increasing the number and makeup of focus points inside the body. These are all welcome improvements and the added resolution is definitely noted when comparing V1, V2 and V3 files. There is also a new form of high ISO noise reduction available at 6400 and higher. The camera captures 4 sequential high speed captures and merges them together, averaging away the random noise in each individual capture. This results in a significantly cleaner file, though the CX will never seriously challenge the high ISO output of a full frame sensor. Of course no knowledgeable photographer would ever expect that. The V series is meant to excel at what it does: provide amazing results in a very compact form factor and extend the usefulness of legendary Nikon lenses a DSLR shooter already owns.

I have always touted the V-series as the most sophisticated teleconverter in the world. As System 1 is based on the 1″ CX sensor, a crop factor of 2.7X transforms focal length into the realm of supertelephoto. This while preserving the native speed of the lens (an f/2.8 stays an f/2.8 unlike the drop off in light occurring with traditional optical teleconverters) and making use of the center portion of the lens optical path, the area of greatest sharpness. Unlike DSLR images, where lens studies always reveal some degree of corner softening, the System 1 crop of the central sweet spot can provide unrivaled edge to edge sharpness. There simply is no other camera in the world, by any manufacturer, who can match the output from System 1 in terms of focal length and lens speed. A 70-200mm f/2.8 becomes a 190-540mm f/2.8. Think about that… a hand-holdable 540mm f/2.8 supertelephoto… that you may already own! This alone is reason for every Nikon DSLR owner to have a V-series body in their camera bag.

Since discovering these advantages with the V1, I have modifided my travel kit considerably. I now pack a V body, several tiny System 1 lenses (which are quite excellent on their own by the way), an FT-1 adaptor for use of DSLR lenses, a Nikon 70-200 f/4 and a D800 body. Of course there are times when full frame D800 quality steals the show. But I’m going to let you in on a secret: the number of times I reach for the D800 is fewer than you’d suspect, and here’s why. For any still life that I can shoot as multiple images for creating a composite image (think panorama but with any aspect ratio I care to build), V3 output with a longer lens can be as spectacular as a single frame captured with the D800. Find that hard to believe? Just look at these screenshots of side by side images, shot in Jerusalem with the Nikon 70-200 f/4 on both the D800 and V3.

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The image on the left is a 100% D800 crop; the image on the right a 50% crop of composited V3 files covering the same subject area. Be sure to click on the image to see it at higher magnification. To my eye the V3 output is phenomenal. That’s not to to say that for many situations and subjects the D800 won’t be the superior camera. It will. It’s just to point out that the CX sensor, used with creative intent, is a remarkable addition to every photographer’s tool kit and that the V3 deserves serious consideration.

The other fringe benefit of owning a V3 comes during travel, when somewhere towards the middle or end of any trip, we just don’t want to carry a full DSLR kit one day. Suddenly the V3 and a couple of petite System 1 lenses allow you to still carry a serious camera and shoot creatively, capturing images that might have been missed had your camera equipment stayed in the hotel room.

Since I started with an image of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, let’s stick with that beautiful architectural subject for some other views captured with the V3…

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Here is a multiframe V3 panorama, shot with the 30-110mm f3.5-5.6 System 1 kit lens. The cloud coverage was heavy and I was about to start a tour with my family. I, of course, had noticed that gorgeous light was punching through occasional openings in the clouds and moving shafts of light across the otherwise flatly lit cityscape. I apologized to our guide (who had barely gotten his introduction out of his mouth) and told him I had to leave for 15 minutes. Running down the road to this vantage point on the Mount of Olives, facing west, I managed several shots before the clouds closed and the light show was over. Here is another of those seconds later as the light highlighted just the temple itself.

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We later traveled to Acco and in the late afternoon I came across these walls and windows. The arrangement and colors begged to be in my V3 viewfinder. Again shot with the 30-110mm f/3.5-5.6.

Two days after arriving home from Israel (insert jet lag here) I was on a plane heading further west for a Mentor Series trek to Monument Valley and Arches National Park. From what you’ve seen so far you might think the V3 only shines for telephoto use. You’d be wrong.

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Horseshoe Bend is spectacular and as you stand on the edge you realize it’s a good thing you brought a wide angle lens, the 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 System 1 wide angle. And for the record I wasn’t standing on the edge… I was lying on the edge with arms extended, using the tilting rear screen LCD to compose!

Arches National Park is well known for many spellbinding arches, but Delicate Arch is one of the park highlights. To keep to it high I traversed a short but hair-raising section of near vertical rock face to gain access to the deep bowl adjacent to the arch. Shooting up with the 6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 gave me just the perspective of arch and sky I wanted as a hiking trekker created scale. BTW, perpetual thanks to photographer and fellow mentor Bob Smith who rendered assistance as I made the traverse.

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Once back on top, the sun was dropping low in the sky and I saw an opportunity to do a handheld, two image exposure bracket for the dramatic sky and rich color and detail of the arch.  6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6

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Always a sucker for a cool panorama, this road compressed beautifully with telephoto as it slipped among tall, red-rock columns. Roads are usually dreaded landscape intrusions, but here helped make the shot.

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One afternoon as sun was dropping, moon was rising… in just the right place for a supertelephoto detail shot of Monument Valley rock. I love the layers of sun bleached red, shadow, and vivid color punctuated by the moon.

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If this reads like a biased review, it is. As a serious photographer I’m always exploring. As a Nikon photographer I’m excited about any technology that builds on the Nikon system and offers me more creative options. The V3 is the latest step forward in augmenting my DSLR equipment and it’s a step I encourage each of you to consider exploring yourself. Don’t just read specifications on a website. One way or another get a V3 in your hands (perhaps with an FT-1 adaptor), shoot it, and take a look at the results. In doing so you may find an answer that opens new doors for you too.

 

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.