Nikon V1 Preview

by Mike Tomkins
Posted: September 21, 2011

After months of rumors, Nikon finally stepped into the ring with its first compact system cameras in September 2011, leaving traditional rival Canon as the only major, current maker of interchangeable-lens cameras not to offer a mirrorless model. The simultaneously-announced Nikon V1 and J1 models--which comprise the initial entries in what the company is calling the Nikon 1 System--together debut a brand-new lens mount, a new sensor and hybrid autofocus system, and another generation of its EXPEED image processing engine.

With its entry into the compact system camera market, Nikon has assumed the middle-ground between its rivals in the mirrorless space. The Nikon 1 System cameras aren't quite as small as the tiny Pentax Q, but compared to that camera they offer a significant step upwards in sensor size and shooting performance. Nikon's other main system camera competitors fall into two camps, with Olympus and Panasonic together offering a variety of Micro Four Thirds cameras, while Samsung and Sony each have mirrorless models based on the same APS-C sensor size that dominates the digital SLR market. Compared to these cameras, Nikon's new offerings have a rather more modest sensor size, but they're also just a little smaller.

Of course, as well as providing a possible benefit to the customer in terms of camera and lens size and weight, the choice of a smaller sensor than many of its rivals likely gives Nikon an edge in terms of cost, and also helps the company avoid cannibalizing lucrative sales of its SLR cameras.

Of the two Nikon 1 System cameras, the Nikon V1 has the higher specification, with a built-in electronic viewfinder, a better LCD panel, a mechanical shutter, stereo microphone jack, magnesium alloy body, and an accessory port that accepts either a proprietary flash strobe, or a GPS unit. It's this camera which we'll be discussing in this preview; information on its more affordable sibling, which lacks these features but adds a built-in popup flash, can be found in our Nikon J1 review.

Price and availability. The Nikon V1 started shipping in the US market from October 2011. The V1 is sold in a kit including a 10-30mm zoom lens, and suggested retail pricing is set at around US$900. Unlike its more consumer-friendly sibling, the Nikon V1 is sold only in a black body color in the US, though white is available in some regions.

Optics. Nikon's new 1 System cameras debut a new mount dubbed the 1-mount, designed to accommodate a CX-format image sensor and the reduced backfocus distance of a mirrorless design. As noted, the Nikon V1 will ship in a kit with a 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 stabilized zoom lens. This lens will yield 35mm-equivalent focal lengths ranging from 27 to 81mm.

Three other 1-mount lenses have been announced alongside the Nikon V1: two stabilized zooms, and a pancake prime. Starting with the prime, the NIKKOR 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens offers a 27mm equivalent focal length, at a price of approximately US$250. For the zooms, the NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens will provide focal lengths from 81-297mm equivalents, and carries a pricetag of approximately US$250, while the NIKKOR VR 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 lens will offer an even wider 27-270mm equivalent range, at a price of around US$750.

The latter will be Nikon's first power-zoom lens model. Power zooms are something that's come back into fashion of late, thanks to the rise of video capture in interchangeable-lens cameras. (Pentax pioneered interchangeable power zoom lenses in the film days, but they never caught on at the time.) Mechanical zooms make it harder to adjust the focal length without shaking the camera during video capture, where a power zoom can make it relatively easier to do so. Panasonic recently announced a selection of power zoom lenses for its mirrorless cameras, and Nikon becomes the second system camera manufacturer to identify (and answer) videographers' needs in this area.

In addition to the dedicated 1-mount optics, a Nikon FT-1 F-mount adaptor is to be offered for the V1, allowing the camera to accept F-mount lenses. The FT-1 adaptor features a tripod mount on its base, protecting the 1-mount from supporting the weight of heavier F-mount lenses, and includes support for autofocus when using AF-S NIKKOR lenses. Vibration reduction is also supported with VR lenses. Suggested retail price of the FT-1 adaptor is US$270.

Sensor. The Nikon V1 is based around a new CX-format image sensor with an effective resolution of 10.1 megapixels. Said to have been developed in-house, the sensor has a 2.7x focal length crop, for a diagonal of approximately 16mm. That equates to a 1"-type chip, using the arcane video camera tube size system typically referred to in compact camera spec sheets, although it actually has somewhere in the region of a 0.62-inch diagonal.

It's quite a lot larger than the 1/2.3" chip selected for Pentax's Q mount, which has a diagonal of just 7.7mm and a 5.6x focal length crop. By contrast, though, the Micro Four Thirds and APS-C compact system cameras from competitors such as Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung all have significantly larger sensors. Micro Four Thirds chips have a 21.6mm diagonal and a 2.0x crop, while APS-C models have a diagonal of slightly over 28mm, and a crop in the region of 1.5x.

The Nikon V1 vibrates the sensor's low-pass filter to remove dust each time the camera is turned on or off. Note that operating the camera interrupts this process, and that sensor cleaning may be temporarily disabled if the camera is turned on and off several times in succession.

Processor. Nikon couples its new CX-format imager with a new generation of its EXPEED image processing engine. The Nikon V1 features a dual-core EXPEED 3 processor, which is said to have been optimized for noise performance, speed (in terms of general operation, burst rate, and focusing), as well as battery life.

Sensitivity. The standard ISO-equivalent sensitivity range for the Nikon V1 is ISO 100 to 3,200, and a Hi-1 position allows this to be extended to a maximum of ISO 6,400 equivalent.

Performance. Burst shooting is possible at a full ten frames per second with autofocus enabled, extremely swift by compact system camera standards. While Sony's NEX-7 can manage the same rate, it does so only with the focus and exposure locked from the first frame. By contrast, if focus is locked from the first frame in the Nikon V1, it's capable of a whopping 60 frames per second.

Note that these speeds do rely on use of an electronic shutter, however. With the V1's mechanical shutter in use, the burst shooting rate falls to approximately five frames per second. At maximum resolution, buffer depth with a mechanical shutter is rated at 42 frames in RAW+JPEG Fine mode, 44 frames in RAW mode, and 58 frames in JPEG mode. (Note also that all figures are those supplied by Nikon; we got 35 frames in our tests, which is still excellent.)

Autofocus. As you can tell from the burst shooting speed possible with autofocus active, the Nikon V1's AF system is swift indeed. The speed of the AF system comes thanks to the fact that, unlike competing mirrorless cameras which rely solely on contrast detection to determine focus, the Nikon V1 has a hybrid system that combines both phase-detection and contrast-detection capability. The operating mode is chosen automatically as appropriate to the shooting conditions, and a generous array of 73 phase detection AF points are available.

Since there's no way to hook a separate autofocus sensor into the optical path in a mirrorless camera, Nikon has adopted a similar strategy to that used by Fujifilm in certain of its compact camera models last year. The phase detection autofocus points are placed on the image sensor itself, although it isn't currently clear how the focus points are spaced with regards to the surrounding photodiodes.

To help with focusing on nearby subjects in low ambient lighting conditions, the V1 includes an AF assist lamp.

Electronic viewfinder. One of the main differentiators between the Nikon V1 and J1 is the former's built-in electronic viewfinder. The V1's EVF is built around a 0.47-inch diagonal, TFT LCD panel with a total resolution of 1,440,000 dots. Coverage is 100% both horizontally and vertically, according to Nikon, and the eyepoint is specified as 17mm from the center of the eyepiece lens. A -3 to +1m-1 diopter correction is available, and the V1's electronic viewfinder includes a proximity sensor, allowing the camera to automatically switch between the EVF and LCD panel as appropriate.

LCD. As well as the electronic viewfinder, the Nikon V1 includes a three-inch LCD panel. Total resolution of the V1's LCD is approximately 307,000 pixels, or 921,000 dots, with separate red, green and blue dots at each pixel location.

Exposure. The Nikon V1 also includes an electronically-controlled vertical travel focal plane mechanical shutter, another important differentiator from the J1, which relies solely on an electronic shutter. (The V1 can, however, optionally be limited to using solely the electronic shutter, if desired to obtain a higher shutter speed.) The fastest shutter speed available with the V1's mechanical shutter is 1/4,000 second, while it can achieve 1/16,000 second when using an electronic shutter.

Three metering modes are available in the V1: either matrix, center-weighted (4.5mm circle at the center of the frame), or spot (2mm circle at the selected focus area). +/- 3.0 EV of exposure compensation is available, in 1/3 EV steps.

Flash. Another significant difference between the Nikon V1 and its more compact sibling is to be found in their provision for flash. Perhaps surprisingly, given that it's the larger of the pair, the V1 lacks a built-in flash strobe, something offered by the J1. (With that said, Nikon is targeting the V1 at enthusiasts, who tend to look down on underpowered, popup flash strobes, so the omission is maybe not so surprising as it might first seem.)

Instead, the Nikon V1 provides for an optional, proprietary SB-N5 external flash strobe which mates into its Multi-Accessory Port, just to the left of the electronic viewfinder (as seen from the rear). A small cover must first be removed before the accessory port can be accessed, and obviously only one accessory can be used at any given time, so use of flash precludes simultaneous use of any other accessory.

The SB-N5 Speedlight flash strobe has a guide number of 8.5 meters (27.9 feet) at ISO 100, making it around 70% more powerful than the built-in flash on its sibling. It supports both i-TTL flash exposure metering and manual exposure control, has a bounce head and a locking shoe, doesn't require a separate power supply, and includes an illuminator that can provide six-second bursts of light during Smart Photo Selector or Motion Snapshot-mode capture. Pricing for this accessory is set at around US$150.

X-sync is at 1/60 second when using the electronic shutter, and 1/250 second with a mechanical shutter. (The J1, by contrast, is limited to 1/60th second X-sync at all times, since it lacks a physical shutter mechanism.)

Accessories. Only one other accessory has thus far been announced which can take advantage of the Nikon V1's Multi-Accessory Port: the GP-N100 GPS unit. Priced at approximately US$150, this accessory allows automatic geotagging of images with latitude, longitude, altitude, and UTC timestamp, as they're captured. The GP-N100 GPS unit can download ephemeris data via USB from an attached computer, allowing for faster location fixes until the data expires, at which point the download process must be repeated. A two-color LED on the GP-N100 is used to provide status information, and the accessory can also be used to automatically update the camera's internal clock, should it stray from the correct time.

While Nikon has yet to announce any other accessories for the V1, several prototype / mockup devices were shown at the camera's New York launch event. These included an external microphone, external LCD viewfinder, grip with video light, bracketed video light, and a projector accessory. We'd caution readers that there's no guarantee all of these accessories will make it to market, however.

The Nikon V1 is also compatible with Nikon's optional ML-L3 infrared remote control unit, standard 3.5mm stereo microphones including Nikon's Stereo Microphone ME-1, several different AC adapter models, and the TA-N100 tripod adapter (which increases separation between the lens mount and tripod plate).

Movies. As well as still imaging, the Nikon V1 also offers high-definition Full HD movie capture capability. The V1 can record at up to 1080p resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels), with a rate of either 30 progressive-scan frames per second or 60 interlaced fields per second, derived from 60 frames-per-second sensor output. MPEG-4 / H.264 AVC compression is used, and the V1 can also shoot 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) clips at 60 frames per second.

Unlike some competitors, the Nikon V1 doesn't offer standard-definition movie capture at typical shooting rates. However, if the resolution is dropped to 640 x 240 pixels, the recording rate can be increased to 400 frames per second, which plays back at 30 frames per second to slow the action down by a little over 13x. At 320 x 120 pixel resolution, the recording rate increases still further to 1,200 frames per second, for a 40x slo-mo. The maximum capture length in either slow-motion mode is five seconds, for a maximum clip length of 66 seconds at 640 x 240 resolution, or 200 seconds at 320 x 120.

There's also an unusual Motion Snapshot mode, which creates a brief slow-motion clip in high definition, and follows the clip with a still frame from the action, all automatically set to a built-in music selection. The clip starts buffering when the shutter button is half-pressed in the Motion Snapshot mode, with buffering continuing for as long as 90 seconds. When the shutter button is fully pressed, the still frame is captured, and the V1 then selects and saves a two-second video clip centered around this moment. The video file is then appended with several seconds of the still frame captured at the moment the shutter button was fully pressed, with the musical accompaniment continuing throughout. Four background music choices are available: Beauty, Waves, Relaxation, and Tenderness.

Power. The Nikon V1 draws power from a proprietary EN-EL15 lithium ion battery pack. Battery life is rated to CIPA testing standards at around 400 shots without the optional flash accessory, or 350 shots with 50% flash usage. Nikon also rates the V1 as capable of 120 minutes of 1080i video capture on a charge. An MH-25 wall charger is included in the product bundle.

The V1 can also receive power from the Nikon EH-5, EH-5a, or EH-5b AC adapters courtesy of the EP-5b power connector, which uses a dummy battery to mate the adapter to the camera.

Storage. Given its impressive burst speed, the Nikon V1 benefits from use of a really fast flash card. It supports Secure Digital cards, including not only the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types, but also the latest high-speed UHS-I cards. Nikon recommends use of at least a Class 6 card during movie capture.

Images are stored in either 12-bit NEF RAW or JPEG compressed formats, and both types can be written simultaneously. Movies are saved using H.264 / MPEG-4 AVC compression, in a .MOV container, and include AAC audio.

Connectivity. The Nikon V1 includes both USB 2.0 High Speed data connectivity, and a choice of both standard-definition and high-definition video outputs. The standard-def output supports both NTSC and PAL standards, and the appropriate cable is included in the product bundle, as is a USB cable. The high-def output requires an optional HDMI cable with Type-C mini connector.

Other connections include the Multi-Accessory Port, and the 3.5mm stereo microphone jack, as mentioned previously.


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