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Nikon S1 Preview

by Mike Tomkins
Posted 01/07/2013

The fledgling Nikon 1-mount might only be a few months past its first birthday, but the company is hard at work on getting more 1-series cameras in the hands -- and camera bags -- of photographers. The Nikon S1 will attempt to bring new customers to the 1-mount by setting the bar to entry even lower, while shaving more off the body size to provide a more convincing argument for the cameras' size advantage over other mirrorless competitors.

The Nikon S1 will come in at US$50 below the list price of the J2, which until now was the most affordable current 1-series model, and a handy US$100 below list pricing for the simultaneously-announced Nikon J3. For that, you'll need to forgo a few features. The S1 will drop the mode dial found on other Nikon 1 cameras. Given that it didn't actually provide direct access to the Program, Priority, and Manual modes experienced photographers gravitate towards, that may be no bad thing. The S1 will also stay with the previous-generation 10.1 megapixel CX-format image sensor as found in the Nikon J2, rather than the higher-res sensor from the J3. It will, however, get that camera's newer EXPEED 3A image processor. The Nikon S1 will also have less buffer memory, leading to shorter burst depths, as well as limiting Motion Snapshot movies to a lower resolution. And finally, it will ship with a smaller, less expensive kit lens that isn't stabilized. In most respects, though, you'll get the feature set of the Nikon J2 in a smaller, less-expensive body.

Like the J3 alongside which it's being announced, the Nikon S1 also has significant restyling, bringing some feature changes since the J2. The two ports for the stereo microphone have been moved to the top deck, while the receiver for the infrared remote control, the playback zoom rocker, and the display / function buttons on the rear panel have been dropped altogether. The flash popup lever has also been removed, as the flash now has auto popup capability, although you can opt to raise it manually only if you prefer. There's also a new thumb grip, different strap lugs, and a function change for the Up arrow button on the four-way controller in record mode. Previously this was used for AE / AF lock; now it serves to replace the dedicated Function button.

Thanks to the new processor, full-resolution burst performance is now a whopping 15 frames per second, just as in the V2 and J3, rather than the 10 fps of the J2. What's incredible is that this speed is achieved with autofocus active. If you're willing to lock focus, you can increase the full-res burst speed to as high as 60 fps, just as in the earlier cameras. Regardless of the autofocus setting, the burst depth is some 15 frames. Although that's a bit lower than is possible with the more expensive models, but still enough for a full one-second of shooting with AF, or 1/4 second without. Shutter lag is equally impressive, with Nikon claiming a release time of just 80 milliseconds.

As in previous 1-series models, the swift burst shooting performance comes in large part thanks to a 73-point hybrid phase / contrast detection autofocus system, with phase detection pixels embedded in the main image sensor. As in the J2, sensitivity ranges from ISO 100 to 6,400 equivalents, a slightly greater range at the bottom end than the ISO 160 offered by the more expensive J3 and V2.

On the rear panel of the Nikon S1 is a three-inch LCD panel, which serves as the sole method of framing and reviewing images and movies. (Just as in the the J-series models, this is the most significant differentiator from the flagship V2, which includes a built-in electronic viewfinder.) While the display itself is the same as found in the J3, it now provides a new GUI for mode selection, since there's no mode dial. Example images underlay the on-screen mode dial, providing a visual clue as to the purpose of each exposure mode.

Further changes can be found elsewhere in the Nikon S1's firmware. It now offers a Slow View function, seen previously in the Nikon V2. This continuously buffers frames over a 1.3-second period while the shutter button is half-pressed. These images are then replayed in a continuous loop on the camera's display at one-fifth normal speed, letting you decide when is the best moment to hit the shutter button and save your final image. It's a clever use of the camera's speed, and a nice alternative to the existing Smart Photo Selector function, which on the S1 captures a burst of 15 photos and then selects what the camera feels to be the best five. Other modes held over from earlier models include the Auto, Creative, and Easy Panorama modes.

The Nikon S1's movie capabilities are basically ported over unchanged from the J2, with the exception of a lower resolution for Motion Snapshot movies, which are now recorded at 720p (1,280 x 720 pixels). It's possible to shoot movies at up to Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) resolution, with a frame rate of either 60 interlaced fields per second (1080i60) or 30 frames per second (1080p30), and H.264 compression is used. There are also still two slow-motion modes which allow 400 fps or 1,200 fps shooting, but with a strange 8:3 aspect ratio, and extremely low resolution.

Although it has no built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking capability, the Nikon 1 S1 is compatible with the same WU-1b Wi-Fi accessory as the latest Nikon DSLRs. This lets you transfer your images wirelessly to an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, from whence you can share pics on social networking sites. You can also use your phone or tablet to take photos with the camera remotely.

The Nikon S1 ships from February 2013, in a bundle with an 11-27.5mm 1-mount lens. Suggested retail pricing is around US$500. Available body colors will include white, black, red, pink, or khaki, and each will be sold with a color-matched kit lens.

Alongside the new body, Nikon has also unveiled a compatible underwater case. The WP-N2 case will work either with the S1 or the simultaneously-announced J3, plus a 10-30mm lens which you'd need to buy separately, and will let you use optical zoom with the case sealed. It's waterproof to a depth of 131 feet (40m), and can be used with the camera's underwater white balance setting to shoot pleasing stills and video. Pricing for the case is set at approximately US$750, and it will be available at the same time as the S1 body.