Nikon V3 Field Test Part II

Of lenses, accessories and and SLR-slaying performance!

By Jason Schneider | Posted: 08/05/2014

In the first part of my Field Test, I presented an overall picture of the Nikon 1 V3, the most technically advanced camera in the Nikon 1 series. It's the first model in the attractively compact system camera line that I believe is clearly targeted at serious shooters and professionals. In the second and final installment, I'll take a closer look at some of the elements that define its unique character, and which help it pair nicely with the extensive Nikon DSLR system, thereby extending its range and capabilities.

Focus on lenses

This portrait was shot with the 1 NIKKOR VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD-ZOOM lens at telephoto.
(1/320 sec. @ ISO 400, 75mm equiv., f/5.6)

The standard short zoom in the Nikon 1 V3 kit is the Nikkor VR 10-30mm f/3.4-5.6 PD-Zoom, which has a 27-81mm equivalent focal length range. I found image quality to be excellent over its entire focal length range, and it sharpens up nicely even in the corners if you stop down to f/5.6. It has Nikon's VR image stabilization built in, and also features a Power-Drive mechanism, which quickly and quietly controls zoom by simply turning the textured zoom ring

This fly-by-wire system provides smoother zooming than a manual control would, and lets you vary the zoom speed depending on how far you turn the zoom ring, which is especially useful when shooting video. When you turn the camera off, the lens collapses automatically and a built-in lens barrier closes, so a lens cap isn't needed. In its collapsed position it extends a mere 1.1 inches from the camera body, making for an attractively compact and portable package.

The Nikkor VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens delivers a very useful 81 to 297mm-equivalent range. It's the perfect complement to the 10-30mm short zoom, and again, I found performance over its entire focal length range quite impressive. It's a manual zoom lens and it's quite compact, extending only 2.4 inches from the body in collapsed position.

However, to get it into shooting position you have to press a button while turning the wide, textured zoom ring to extend the lens to shooting position. If you don't, you'll get a warning on the LCD and the camera will not fire. This can be annoying if you're trying to get off a quick shot, but I settled on a simple solution -- always turn the lens to operating position as soon as I mounted it. It's a small price to pay for a high quality long range zoom that's ultra-compact when retracted, and which can focus down to 3.3 feet at all focal lengths.

This image was shot with the 1 NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens near wide-angle.
(1/640 sec. @ ISO 160, 138mm equiv., f/4.2)

I already covered the Nikkor 32mm f/1.2 prime lens (86.4mm equivalent) extensively in Part I of my Field Test, but to reiterate, the performance and bokeh of this ultra-high-speed medium telephoto are truly awesome. At a skosh under $900, it's expensive -- but I think it's also one of the best reasons for acquiring a Nikon V3 in the first place!

The Nikon FT1 adapter

Another good reason to buy the V3 is the solid, straightforward, and brilliant Nikon FT1 mount adapter, which currently retails for around US$220-240.

The FT1 adapter allows you to use a large number of Nikkor lenses directly on Nikon 1-series cameras, including the V3. As of this writing, a total of 78 AF-S, AF and PC-E Nikkor lenses are compatible, as well as four AF-S teleconverters. With an AF-S lens mounted, you'll get a lot of functionality, although there are still some caveats. With other supported Nikon F-mount lenses, functionality is much more limited.

This ingenious device simply acts as a spacer and electronic pass-thru for F-mount optics, providing the correct flange back distance while letting camera body and lens communicate. An array of 12 gold contacts mate with those in the camera and mounted lens, and there are no optical elements in the adapter itself. That means there's no compromise on the image quality of the lens.

Nikon's VR image stabilization will function when a VR-equipped lens is used. With AF-S lenses, autofocus is possible in single-servo mode only, and the autofocus area is fixed at the central point. When using CPU lenses, program, priority and manual exposure modes can be used, but only aperture-priority and manual modes can be used with non-CPU lenses. With other lens types, you must focus and adjust exposure manually.

For this image of a quirky coffee shop display, I used the AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens mounted on Nikon's FT1 adapter, which provides for both autofocus and autoexposure.
(1/400 sec. @ ISO 1600, 108mm equiv., f/5.0)

Shooting in Motion Snapshot mode -- which records short video clips -- is also only possible with AF-S lenses, and the Smart Photo Selector function can't be used at all. And of course, the effective focal length of any mounted lens will be multiplied by a factor of 2.7X, due to the fact that 1-series cameras use a sensor much smaller than 35mm film or even the APS-C sensors in most DSLRs.

Despite these limitations, the ability to use Nikon F-mount lenses is, I think, a major advantage. It allows Nikon DSLR shooters to integrate the V3 into their overall Nikon system, and although wide-angle possibilities are very limited, you'll be shooting with the sweet spot at the center of your DSLR lenses.

Architectural detail of an ornate pillar at the New York State Education Department Building.
(1/500 sec. @ ISO 560, 167mm equiv., f/8.0 with AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED)

As I discovered for myself, the FT1 adapter works extremely well. The Nikon V3 supports it straight out of the box, but the adapter's firmware must be updated to version 1.20 for autofocus support with this body.

Testing the FT1 adapter on the V3

The 2.7x focal length crop means you only use the center of each lens. Here, the AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED lens at 105mm is equivalent to a much stronger 284mm tele.
(1/1,000 sec. @ ISO 1600, 284mm equiv., f/5.6)

During my review, I had access to one Nikon F-mount lens for use with the FT1 adapter: the AF-S DX Zoom Nikkor 18-135mm f/3.5-5.6G IF-ED, a 7.5x zoom that provides an impressive 49 to 365mm-equivalent range on the V3. Although a consumer zoom that was introduced alongside the D80 back in mid-2006, it's uncommonly sharp for the class across most of the zoom range, especially if stopped down a little.

Mounting the FT1 and the 18-135mm Nikkor took only a few seconds. Despite the size of the lens it's quite light, and the whole rig was surprisingly handy and well balanced. The ability to shoot with almost full functionality -- aside from the aforementioned autofocus mode limitations -- including stabilization and all exposure modes is gratifying and quite liberating.

The performance of this combination was even better than I would have expected. In part this may have been due to the fact that the CX sensor is capturing only the central portion of the F-mount lens's imaging circle, which is typically the area that delivers the highest resolution and contrast. However, I was also very impressed with the performance of the vibration reduction, and several handheld images I shot of architectural details at the maximum telephoto setting were extremely sharp, showing crisp contrast and excellent detail.

Of course, having what is in effect a super-zoom would also be a great choice for such subjects as sports and wildlife, but unfortunately I did not have the opportunity to shoot any more active subjects during my time with the FT1 adapter. Still, I would heartily recommend the FT1 to any Nikon 1 shooter, especially a V3 owner who also owns a Nikon DSLR system, or who's upgraded from one and kept their lenses.

The elusive EVF

Perhaps my biggest disappointment in reviewing the Nikon 1 V3 has nothing whatever to do with the camera's performance, features, or capability, but to the unavailability of one of its most important accessories. Now officially part of the standard kit, the Nikon DF-N1000 Electronic Viewfinder is also sold separately for around US$330, if you picked your V3 up without one before it joined the bundle, or bought overseas without the viewfinder.

A little bit of blue peeking thru. Shot with the 1 NIKKOR VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD-ZOOM.
(1/1,250 sec. @ ISO 160, 40mm equiv., f/4.5)

While the Nikon V3's built-in, 3.0-inch 1,037k-dot touchscreen LCD is much better than average -- as I mentioned in Part I of my Field Test -- there is no doubt that the electronic viewfinder would have been more flexible, and easier to see in bright sunlight. Shooting with it would likely have helped add a modicum of stability in handholding the camera, too, and thereby improved low-light shooting. There is simply no substitute for holding a camera up to your eye and against your face rather instead of out in front of you and that's just one reason most DSLR shooters prefer eye-level viewing.

For the record, the DF-N1000 has a 16mm eye-point, provides diopter adjustments from -3 to +1, has a brightness control, and slides into the accessory shoe, where it mates with electronic contacts in a port on the back of the camera. It has an integrated eye sensor that automatically transfers the image to where you are viewing, measures 1.3 x 1.3 x1.6 inchers, and weighs only 0.9 ounces.

Lots of detail in this shot of a bucket of potatoes, taken with the 1 NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens.
(1/500 sec. @ ISO 180, 92mm equiv., f/3.8)

Assuming that this EVF performs on a par with competitive designs featuring similar specs, and has an acceptably-fast refresh rate, I'd consider it an absolutely essential accessory for the V3. Regardless of the kit configuration you go for in markets where it's an optional item, I wouldn't leave the store without it.

Sadly, this accessory wasn't available to me during my review, so I can't provide any hands-on commentary. Internet scuttlebutt has it that somebody in the engineering or supply chain got the mounting shoe dimensions slightly wrong, resulting in a too-tight fit in the accessory shoe. I rather doubt that's the reason for its inavailability, as Nikon Japan had already found and disclosed the issue, which was restricted to a small serial number range, within just days of the Nikon V3 first going on sale. Whatever the actual story, I'm sure that it -- and the EVF itself -- will emerge in the fullness of time. Rest assured that the accessory is probably well worth waiting for.

Swift performance

Before I wrap up, there are a couple of other things which deserve mention. Firstly is the V3's ability to shoot bursts up of photos at up to an incredible 60 frames per second -- albeit without fulltime autofocus at speeds faster than 20 fps.

What would 60 frames per second look like? This animation, slowed down to 1/30th actual speed, gives you an idea. (20 frames or 1/3 second, cropped from full-size images and downsampled.)

I did shoot a few 60 fps sequences, each around a second in length, and I can confirm that this feature really works. The images were uniformly sharp and crisp. However, the subjects I was able to find on short notice -- for example, people walking down the street -- really didn't do justice to this feature. If you buy the Nikon V3 and have a friend who plays golf or tennis, I highly recommend that you offer to do an analysis of their swing. You've got to practice to get the timing right, but it will be worth it. The results will be breathtaking once you get the hang of it.

I also tried shooting video clips at the V3's 120 frames-per-second slow-motion speed. The camera performed flawlessly, but again, the subjects I could find during my time with the Nikon V3 weren't an inspiration. This, too, will be a great feature if you shoot golf, tennis, baseball swings, or anything else where the action is too fast to take in at full speed.

Wide-open shooting

One feature I wasn't so fond of was the Nikon V3's Program auto exposure curve. This forces use of an open aperture basically all of the time, unless there is no ISO sensitivity low enough or shutter speed high enough to shoot wide-open. Likely, this is due in part to the smaller-than-average image sensor, and Nikon's desire to keep noise to a minimum.

The problems with this approach are twofold, though: The best optical performance of most lenses is reached when they're stopped down a little, and by shooting wide-open all the time, you have a very shallow zone of focus. For portraits and the like that can be very attractive, so long as you get focus in precisely the right place, but for many subjects (and especially when shooting with a very bright lens like the 32mm f/1.2) shooting wide-open isn't really what you want.

You can use the Flexible Program (aka Program Shift) function to get around this, but it has a rather quirky design. Since the aperture is typically fully-open to start off with, turning the dial right (which would bias towards a larger aperture) does nothing. However, the camera remembers how far you've turned the dial in that direction, and then has to be turned that far to the left before the "adjustment" is forgotten.

The net result is that unless you turn the dial to the left first of all, it can seem that the Flexible Program function isn't actually doing anything except to add an asterisk next to the Program mode icon on the LCD monitor. Shoot only with the V3, and you'll get used to this quickly enough, but if you switch back and forth between different cameras it can be a bit maddening.

You can, of course, just turn the camera to Aperture-priority mode, but a better solution to all of this would be for Nikon to update the V3's firmware, tweaking the program curve to aim for the lens' aperture sweet spot rather than for a wide-open aperture. We live in hope!

The Nikon V3, like all 1-series cameras, offers full-sensor readout for video capture. (Many competing cameras skip lines of pixels to reduce the amount of data they must process, which reduces image quality.) The result is clean, relatively artifact-free video. It also offers high-speed rates of 120 fps at HD resolution, and up to 1,200 fps at greatly reduced resolution. Apologies for the shakiness in this video, but while shooting the incoming bullet train and managing our bags, we stumbled just slightly.

Download the original 1080p 60 fps video, straight out of the camera

Final thoughts

From my time with the camera, I have to say that the Nikon V3 is the most serious and competent 1-series camera to date. Personally, I'd go a step further: For me, it's the first Nikon compact system camera that can go head-to-head with any of its competitors. The sensor might be smaller than those of most compact system cameras, and ISO sensitivity / noise performance or dynamic range might not be the equal of larger-sensored cameras, but the Nikon V3's speed and size nevertheless make it a very compelling package. If you haven't found past Nikon 1-series cameras appealing, I think it's high time you gave them a second look.


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