Nikon V3 Field Test Part I

At last, a Nikon 1 squarely aimed at serious enthusiasts!

By Jason Schneider | Posted: 07/21/2014

The Nikon V3 represents the third generation of Nikon 1-series mirrorless compact system cameras, all based on the 13.2 x 8.8mm, 3:2 aspect ratio CX format, which yields a 2.7x focal length crop. The fact that CX-format CMOS sensors are smaller than their APS-C or Micro Four Thirds rivals has enabled Nikon to deliver an enticing series of beautifully-designed, compact interchangeable-lens cameras with fetchingly petite lenses.

While previous Nikon 1-series cameras such as the Nikon V2 attracted a substantial, broad-spectrum audience, really serious shooters and pros demurred, gravitating toward larger-format compact system cameras offered by Canon, Fujifilm, Olympus, Panasonic, Samsung and Sony. Now, Nikon has decided to take the bull by the horns and give serious shooters a Nikon 1-series camera more worthy of their techno-lust and picture-taking needs. The result is the Nikon 1 V3, which I believe could well become the first Nikon 1-series model to gain a cult following.

While the V3 is relatively larger than Nikon's 1 J- and S-series cameras, it's the smallest model in the 1 V-series to date, and it's drop dead gorgeous. The V3's signature rounded-end styling pays homage to classic compact rangefinder cameras of the past. The subtle retro look is enhanced by the traditional top placement of the main Mode dial and Shutter release, and the inclusion of a milled Sub-Command dial on the front. It’s reasonably light, at just 14.4 ounces with standard 10-30mm short zoom, but it feels very solid, extremely well balanced and comfortable to hold with the standard built-in mini-grip.

Of course it’s what’s inside that counts, and that’s where Nikon has really done its homework. Its CMOS sensor is a slightly higher-resolution 18.4-megapixel type, up from 14.2-megapixel in the V2, but more importantly it's coupled to an upgraded EXPEED 4A Image Processor. The latter helps to deliver notably improved overall speed and responsiveness, and better high ISO performance compared to other rivals at this sensor size, with sensitivities up to ISO 12,800 equivalent on offer. There's also Movie e-VR Stabilization for smooth, shake-free video capture, Full HD video recording at 60 frames per second (or 120 fps slo-mo at 720p!), and a full-res 20 fps burst rate for 40 frames with full-time AF.

For the record, the V3 has a cool new 3.0-inch, 1,037-dot tilting, touch-screen LCD, built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, and an upgraded Hybrid AF system employing an array of 105 phase-detection and 171 contrast-detection autofocus points designed to provide fast, precise AF performance for stills and video over a wide variety of lighting conditions and subject contrast ranges.

Note: The standard Nikon 1 V3 kit includes an electronic viewfinder accessory and a second larger grip with a third function button that were not available at the time of my Field Tests. Hence, I was unable to evaluate these.

Operationally one of the coolest features of this camera is the big, high-resoultion touch screen. It can perform virtually any function by touch if you want, but the V3 also gives you the option of turning off the touch feature, and operating the camera in a more traditional way by pressing buttons or using the function controls. The double-hinged LCD swings out from the camera body, and can then be aimed upwards for low-angle viewing, or tilted down when shooting overhead. That’s when being able to touch it to focus on any subject and then take the picture becomes a real plus. The viewing image is bright, high-contrast, and detailed with vibrant, accurate color, but like most LCDs it can be difficult to see in brilliant sunshine, which is why the electronic viewfinder is an important accessory. (And why I'm saddened that I couldn't test it.)

When the LCD’s touch capability is turned on, you can touch soft buttons on the display to adjust settings. For example, tapping the ISO sensitivity indication at the bottom of the screen pulls up a touch menu from which you can adjust the sensitivity. Another tap can then move the autofocus area and take a picture, all in one go. Press the Feature button on the back near the lower right-hand corner of the screen, and another display appears on the LCD that lets you set the autofocus mode, metering pattern, color reproduction palette, white balance and ISO sensitivity directly by touch.

And if you don't want to take a picture at the same time as selecting a focus area, it's easy to change that. A cute little icon at screen left shows a forefinger pointing to the monitor, and this allows you to select the focus area without taking a picture, start AF tracking, or simply disable the touch-to-focus function altogether. There's also an on-off control for the touch-screen setting in the Setup menu.

The rest of the control systems are equally straightforward and intuitive. The large overhanging main mode dial has the usual Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual settings, plus a green Auto mode. This puts the camera on autopilot and also enables you to touch activate the Live Image Control setting, which lets you set and control Active D-Lighting, Background Softening, Motion Control, and Brightness Control, either by touch or by turning the Multi-selector dial on the back of the camera or the Sub-command dial on the front.

The remaining settings on the main mode dial are Creative Mode for selecting special effects; Advanced Movie Mode for choosing an exposure mode, adjusting shutter speed or aperture, and recording movies in slow or fast motion, etc.; Motion Snapshot Mode, which records a 1.6 sec video plus a still image; and Best Moment Capture Mode that lets you scroll through pick the best picture from a 40-shot sequence held in temporary storage or let the camera pick the best shot by going to Smart Photo Selector.

The Wi-Fi menu is very simple and straightforward, providing a “connect” button that works when you turn on the receiving/sending device, and a choice of two Wi-Fi connection types (Pushbutton WPS and Pin-entry WPS), plus a Reset settings option.

A four-way toggle switch inboard of the Multi-Selector dial provides direct access to autofocus mode, drive/self-timer modes, exposure compensation, and flash modes. You can also lock in the AF and exposure settings while you recompose by holding in the AE-L/AF-L button right next to the Main command dial. And you can call up specifically assigned functions by pressing in the Fn1 button (which I assigned to metering mode) or Fn2 button (which I assigned to ISO settings). And if you're looking at our photos of the camera wondering which is the Fn2 button, it's actually the Main command dial itself -- a clever use of the limited space available on such a compact body!

Noise is minimal and very film-like at lower sensitivities. (1/125 sec. @ f/3.8, ISO 560)

Pressing the Menu button opens a vertical array of six menus, which you select and navigate using the four-way toggle control. The choices are Playback Shooting, Movies, Image processing, Setup, and Wi-Fi. Some interesting options include the ability to edit movies in-camera, and combine four-second movies to create an edited movie -- albeit one with a fixed four-second clip length. There are also tools for Auto Distortion Control and High ISO Noise Reduction, which I turned on. And movie fans can adjust Microphone Sensitivity or enable Wind Noise Reduction in the Movie Sound Options menu.

There's even a Silent Photography function that replaces the mechanical shutter with an electronic one, reducing noise. And when Nikon says Silent Photography they aren’t kidding! The shutter release is so silent you’re never quite sure you took the shot until you display it on the LCD.

I found that a little disconcerting, and turned this feature back off, which is the default. The regular shutter release is sufficiently quiet for all but the stealthiest purposes -- so long as you turn off the AF confirmation beep. (Unless you actually need complete silence, you'll do better with a mechanical shutter anyway, as it won't be prone to image distortions from rolling shutter effect.)

In general, I am very impressed with the comprehensive yet intuitive control layout of the V3. I must commend Nikon for creating a dual touch-plus-conventional control system that has convinced this touch-control skeptic that it can provide worthwhile advantages and conveniences over a touch-free design.

When it comes to shooting pictures, the Nikon V3 is a joy to use. While the results won't blow a professional DSLR out of the water, they'll certainly give competitive compact system cameras with similar sensor size a run for the money. In terms of sharpness, detail, and saturated, accurate color, images shot at low sensitivities in the 160-400 range are excellent for a 1-inch sensor camera. Image quality is barely diminished at ISO 400 and even at ISO 800, noise is fairly film-like, allowing a reasonable 13 x 19-inch print size. By ISO 1600, there's a noticeable degradation, but for prints up to 11 x 14, results are still reasonably clean and crisp.

Some noise is certainly noticeable at 1:1 in this ISO 1600 image, but there's still plenty of detail, too. (1/200 sec. @ f/1.2, ISO 1600)

At ISO 3200 and 6400, there's quite a bit more noise and finer details are lost to noise reduction, but the V3 does noticeably better than previous Nikon 1-series cameras. I think it compares favorably with the performance of competitive compact system cameras with APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensors, considering its size advantage. Image quality isn't comparable, no, but with a smaller camera you're more likely to have it with you in the first place, and any image beats the one from the camera you left at home.

ISO 12,800 is only really a useful setting to have in an extreme pinch. All things considered the images retain reasonable detail and color saturation, but don't expect to print your images if you crank the sensitivity up this far -- use this resolution for low-res, on-screen viewing and you'll probably be satisfied.

Another area in which the EXPEED 4A sensor gives the V3 a leg up is in autofocus speed and responsiveness. The camera focuses with alacrity and precision about 98% of the time even with challenging subjects in low light, and only the combination of low light and very low contrast will slow it down, cause it to hunt or fail to attain focus. For example, when shooting video in very low light at an outdoors 4th of July concert, I shot perfect videos of the band on stage,. (And with surprisingly good audio quality, too, given the distance and the fact I was using the built-in stereo mic.) But when I tried to pan through the crowd, I lost focus repeatedly. The phase-detection autofocus sensors were not sensitive enough, and the contrast-detection system wasn't up to the task.

This was, of course, a very challenging environment and I am not sure a high-end DSLR would have acquitted itself much better. Interestingly, shooting still images in the same environment was less problematic and the V3 did surprisingly well, especially when fitted with the excellent 32mm f/1.2 Nikon 1 lens. This enabled me to capture a spectacular fireworks sequence, as well as some compelling portraits of people in light so low I could hardly see them with my naked eyes! On the whole, this is an ultra-fast, ultra-responsive camera that’s great for capturing grab shots of action subjects like kids and sports. The fact that it can shoot amazing bursts at 20 frames per second with full-time AF puts it in the top tier of its class, and ahead of many DSLRs for covering extreme action.

The Nikon V3 shoots bursts of images with autofocus at astounding speed, beyond what's possible even with professional DSLRs. You might think that's helpful only for sports shooters, but even pets and kids move quickly, and the fast burst shooting can prove very helpful when your reflexes aren't up the task.
(Animation above cropped from a series of shots with the Nikon V3, then downsampled.)

Indeed, the only real snags I experienced when shooting with the V3 were a few times when the camera failed to achieve focus when shooting close-up portraits in reasonably good light, and when trying to capture panoramic images. I noticed that the only times the camera unexpectedly failed to achieve focus were when I selected the AF-A mode and/or the Auto-area AF modes. As soon as I switched to single autofocus and single-point AF, the camera focused like a charm.

As for the occasional Easy Panorama problem, the excellent 137-page Nikon V3 instruction manual clearly states that if your panning action is too slow, too fast or too jerky, you may not be able to successfully record panoramic images. They’re right, and after practicing a bit, my panorama shooting percentage rose to nearly 100%.

Another cool option in the Creative menus is Auto HDR, which combines three images taken at different exposures to achieve a wider dynamic range that encompasses brighter highlights and deeper shadows. Regrettably there is no way of setting the exposure intervals, but this setting did yield satisfying results with subjects having high contrast. It’s worth noting that none of these creative mode settings works in raw or raw+JPEG capture modes. You have to set the camera for JPEG capture, and I invariably chose JPEG Fine.

I also found the V3’s auto-exposure system to be commendably reliable and accurate, yielding nearly perfect exposure about 95% of the time in Matrix mode without user intervention. (That gels nicely with our lab testing, which found exposure metering better than average, with only flash metering being troublesome.)

Depending on the subject, center-weighted or spot readings might be preferable, and it’s very easy to set the exposure compensation, either directly or by using the touch screen. Once you set a positive or negative value (up to three stops in 1/3-stop intervals), the setting remains in effect and is read out on the LCD until you change it. Incidentally, the motor drive function provides settings up to 60 fps (albeit only for about half a second without full-time AF), and down to 6 fps for 50 frames, a flexible high-performance system.

It is impossible to provide a complete picture of the Nikon 1 V3’s real world performance without mentioning the lenses, which are pretty decent, although the kit lens is a bit soft in the corners. The Nikon 1 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR extends only 1.1 inches from the body in collapsed position and moves out about another 3/4 inch or so to shooting position when you turn the camera on. It has a clever built-in lens shield and actually zooms electronically via an internal micro-motor when you turn the wide textured zoom ring. It covers a 35mm-equivalent focal length range of 27-81mm, and its performance is extremely good at all focal lengths, delivering crisp, detailed images across the entire image field if you just stop down to f/5.6. I noticed no significant vignetting or color fringing in real-world use.

The Nikon 1 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR lens (81-297mm equivalent) is an excellent tele-zoom complement to the 10-30mm, and it extend only 2.5 inches from the body and weighs 6.2 ounces. At its maximum focal length of 110mm it extend another two more inches or so on a telescoping double barrel, but it balances extremely well on the V3 at all times and delivers outstanding image quality throughout its aperture and focal-length range.

You have to press a little button before turning the wide, textured zoom ring clockwise to bring the lens into shooting position, and there’s a notification on the LCD so you don’t try to take picture with the lens collapsed. It's a mild inconvenience, and the action of the zoom ring is not as silky smooth as it could be because of the complex multi-cam mechanical construction. These are small points, though, in view of its excellent imaging performance.

By far the most interesting lens I was able to use with the Nikon V3 is the 1 Nikkor 32mm f/1.2, a super-speedy lens providing an 86.4mm equivalent “portrait telephoto” focal length. This nine-element, seven-group lens has a street price just under $900, but it really transforms the V3's images, with spectacular bokeh at its widest apertures and top-tier imaging performance. You do have to watch out, though, because when the aperture is wide-open, you've potentially got razor-thin depth of field.

This premium lens features a floating element design, a Silent Wave AF motor, Nano Crystal Coating for superior light transmission and reduced flare, a smooth operating manual focus ring with manual/AF override, and a metallic lens barrel. Yes it’s great for shooting professional looking portraits where the subject “pops” off the background, but it's also a surprisingly good general purpose low light lens that can shoot sharp pictures wide open -- a truly great lens that singlehandedly takes the Nikon 1 system -- and especially the V3 -- to another level.

Note: Reduced contrast in this image is due to it being shot through a store window. I liked the colors and patterns, though, and couldn't bring myself not to include it. A touch of Photoshop's Auto Contrast control brings it right back to life.

I’ll report on the Nikon FT-1 mount adapter in Part II of my Field Test. This handy accessory lets you mount 65 different Nikon F-mount lenses on the V3, and I greatly enjoyed testing it out. More performance details on the Nikon 1 V3 and its impressive performance can also be found in the second and final installment of my Field Test. As noted above, though, I sadly wasn't able to get my hands on its accessory finder or portrait grip, so couldn't test the complete system.

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