Having owned my Panasonic GF1 for just over two years now, I figured that technology had moved on enough to warrant investigating a new small-form camera for days off and secret squirrel assignments. With Panasonic’s follow-up models being too consumer-based with added touch-screens and gimmicks, while still utilising the same sensor, I’d waited eagerly for the GX1. However, when it finally arrived, it just looked, well, naff. The problem is that in recent months Fuji have taken a leap forward by looking backwards. Their X100 and X10 both have such classic looks, you’ll really enjoy looking at the camera itself, never mind their high quality output. I’ve only played with them briefly but, while feeling that the fixed lens on the X100 could prove frustrating for a £1000 camera, the feel of it would probably outweigh that issue.
So, with that aside, my hunt for my next camera led me to Nikon’s latest range of “Compact Camera System” models; the V1 and the J1. In my every day work, I use a wide range of Nikon lenses on D700, D3 and D3s bodies but have never used their smaller cameras before. In recent years, I’d used the Canon S70 (and still do for underwater pictures) and the Canon Powershot G7 before finding the Panasonic Lumix GF1. Thanks to the always-wonderful people at Nikon UK, I was allowed to get my hands on a range of bits and pieces from the range including the V1 and J1 bodies, the 10mm f2.8 lens, the 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 lens, the 10-100mm f4.5-5.6 lens and the SB-N5 flash unit. Before I go any further, I’ll explain the difference between the two. The slightly more expensive V1 has a hot-shoe and viewfinder, while the J1 has a pop-up flash and no viewfinder. I gather that the idea is that the V1 is aimed at the street photographer and more serious photographer while the J1 is aimed at the consumer who’s less bothered about buying extra attachments. With identical sensors and output, the extra money for the V1 buys you a host of other features including auto-sensor cleaning. Deeper within the tech side of it, the V1 has both options of using a mechanical shutter or electronic while the J1 has only the electronic. While the electronic is virtually silent, making it ideal for street photography, I always found myself back on the mechanical shutter. I’d love to explain my reasoning but I can’t. I just prefer the “feel”. The only other difference that I could find was that the V1 has a higher resolution screen. Basically, to wade through all of that, if you’re interested in buying one but don’t know which to go for, I’d lean towards the V1. Yes, it’s a few quid more and you’ll have to buy the flash but I think the extra options that it provides make up for it.
Look and touch (but no fondling please)
Oddly, both cameras manage to catch the balance between bang up-to-date and retro styling with a very minimalist layouts. The smooth form actually reminds me very much of the Leica M7 body design with no sharp edges and a lovely rounded form that sits in the hand quite nicely. Having a father who worked in the motor industry for years, I’ve grown up with a love of things that are well ergonomically designed, so anything that sits right gets the thumbs up from me. When held, they both feel solid and expensive, unlike many other pocket cameras that feel too thin and insignificant. As previously mentioned, controls on the camera are sparse, to the point of being a little too minimalist. Having worked with cameras for a few years now, it was a bit surprising to find that I had to mail Nikon for the instruction booklet to work out some of the options! In the end it turns out that the vast majority of functions are accessed through the software menu which I’ll get to later. The controls that are featured have the feel of a Hi-Fi separate, with a brushed chrome finish and in-set buttons on the silver J1 that I received, while the V1 definitely had the feel of the afore-mentioned Leica with a powder black finish and reasonably subtle branding.
The backs of both cameras have near identical design aside from the pop-up flash button on the J1. One issue that I had with both cameras was the positioning of the thumb-wheel to change between certain modes. With the controls all clustered over to the right of the screen, I found that the selection dial was very easily knocked and turned, either in use or while carrying the camera over my shoulder. While I wasn’t using the camera in anger during these tests, it would be very annoying to grab for my camera to take a picture and find that it had rolled around to either video mode or the slightly baffling “Motion Snapshot” setting.
Moving on from the body, the lenses were quite an eclectic bunch. With the 10mm “pancake” lens being the one that I was automatically drawn towards, the 10-30mm kit lens looked like most other kit lenses while the monster 10-100mm looked more like it was designed for me D3s!
Starting with the 10mm lens, I have to say from the start that it was disappointing to find that it was only f2.8. While this may seem very fast to some, my personal benchmark was set by the 20mm pancake lens that I got with my GF1 with an f1.7 aperture. It’s a real shame that even f2 wasn’t possible as it makes all the difference to those who want to have a small camera as a quick alternative to their main kit. Aside from that, the lens is sharp and fast and has a nice slim profile so it sits nice and close to the body.
Next up is the 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 zoom lens. With very smooth zooming and sharp images, the lens is very reasonable but, like the 10mm, the aperture is too slow for me.
Last but not least is the 10-100mm, otherwise known as the “Thermos flask” due to it’s chunky size. Oddly, after all I said about liking slim and slender designs, this lens was possibly my favourite. Looks-wise, it’s a no go, looking like some sort of military drinks flask but when you’re sticking such a lump of glass and plastic onto the front of a slim camera, you’re doing it for one reason and that’s for the photographs. So once you’ve got used to the fact that it’s going to look a little silly, it’s a nice bit of kit. I’m guessing that its size is down to the amount of image stabilising that is needed to make this combination possible. With such a light body, you find yourself holding the lens rather than the body, but it does what it should with lovely smooth stabilisation allowing shots indoors, even at the f5.6 end. Focus is adjusted via a switch on the side of the lens which takes a little getting used to after years of on-camera focus buttons but doesn’t cause too much confusion.
All of my f stop criticism may seem harsh but I’m approaching this review with the intention of finding the right camera for me. If you’re planning on using this camera for everyday life and will happily pop the flash on at parties, then any of these lenses will be perfect. However, if you’re like me and want to suck as much natural light out of the day as possible before using flash, an f5.6 aperture is a bit of a no-go.
Cheeky little flasher
Take a particularly small and wide-eyed little mouse and cross it with a Nikon speedlight flash gun and what do you get? The SB-N5 flash. Never did I ever imagine that I’d be saying “ahhhh” at a flash unit but this truly is the cutest little bit of kit ever made. With full 180 degree rotation horizontally and 90 degrees vertically for full bounce options, it kicks out loads of light and slots easily onto the V1. As you’d imagine, it’s considerably more substantial than the pop-up flash on the J1 but does involve more extra outlay and more to carry around but as it’s such a gem, who cares? Even if you don’t own the camera, buy the flash and put it in a frame.
Operation (where you’re the doctor!)
Sadly, this is the area that really lets the camera down. Operations and adjustments that would be carried out in a fraction of a second on a camera that has on-body controls take much longer on both cameras. For starters, changing between camera modes involves pressing the menu button, moving to the camera settings, entering camera options, scrolling up to exposure mode and moving across into the options to pick between “Scene auto selector’, Program, Shutter priority, Aperture priority and Manual.
It might not sound like much but I’m constantly moving between manual, shutter priority and aperture priority while working, often even within the same set of images so it needs to be fast and very accessible. The same applies to white balance with the process being equally lengthy. While these vital options are buried in the user menu, the menu wheel on the back of the body gives you the option to switch between HD video, still image, Smart Photo Selector and Motion Snapshot. While they’re nearly all useful options, having them as the options that you have easiest access to seems a real waste. I could understand it on the J1 as it appears to be aimed at the consumer but to have the same option on the version that’s clearly aimed at photographers who are more experienced is really odd.
Now for a quick explanation of those four options on the wheel;
- “HD video” is very high quality, up to 1920 x 1080/60i. One neat little feature is the option to shoot in slow motion at up to 1200fps. The problem with shooting at that speed is that you need to be FLOODED with light for it to work as it’s filming so quickly. If you do have lots of light to play with, you can get some great effects and playing around with flowing water and the obligatory “head shake for slo-mo cheek wobble” is good fun. Here’s a link to a snippet that I filmed in the park. As you can see, the quality isn’t great and it looks dark despite being in the middle of the day, due to the ultra high frame rate.
- “Still image” is self-explanatory. If you need to know what that is, I’m frankly baffled as to how you’ve got this far into the review.
- “Smart Photo Selector” is essentially autopilot for the camera. Nikon describe it as a way “to deliver a perfect image every time. When a “can’t miss” photo opportunity arises, users can switch to the Smart Photo Selector mode which uses the camera’s pre-cache to start shooting and storing images. All of these images are analysed within the camera, and the best photo is selected based on a number of factors including exposure, focus and advanced facial recognition.” So basically, you don’t even have to think. While it’s the kind of thing that I can see on their consumer cameras, why is it on their camera that’s aimed at semi-pros and above? Bad move.
- “Motion Snapshot” is a way of making those moving pictures that they have in the newspapers in the Harry Potter films. It films two seconds of video in slow motion and combines it with a choice of four pre-programmed snippets of music. It’s just bizarre as a choice of quick-access option. How can this be more useful than being able to change between camera modes? While it’s possibly a fun little feature, it should be buried in the menu instead. You’re never going to need it in a rush.
Oh yeah, and the pictures too…
Firstly, one major problem that I found straight away was that Photoshop CS5 still hasn’t got a finalised RAW update that allows me to edit the files from this camera. They currently have an update that is still in user-testing stage (Adobe Raw 6.6) so while it appears to work perfectly well, the finalised update may produce slightly different results. While I know I could download and install the Nikon software, I’ve always avoided the software that camera makers provide as it’s invariably pretty ropey. I KNOW I’ll get grumbles for saying that as I’m sure it’s all singing and dancing these days but I’d rather just use the software that I’m going to use on a daily basis.
Pictures have a definite punch to them, straight out of the camera but, as expected for a camera with a very small sensor, noise can be an issue. Even though the camera can be pushed up to 3200ISO, I didn’t feel comfortable pushing it beyond 800ISO. Thankfully, in everyday life, you can get away with shooting within these limits but it’s a little frustrating seeing all that extra ISO listed on the menu but feeling uncomfortable using it.
Colour in the standard setting is, as expected, quite flat and allows for some tweaking while, of the image profiles, I found the monochrome setting to have a lovely smooth tone to it. If, like me, you shoot in jpeg and RAW, it’s quite nice to shoot in mono for instant results while knowing that the RAW file is in full colour if you want to play later. The RAWs allowed the usual amount of freedom of post production and held up well to close inspection.
The Grand Conclusion
Oh, if only this was a simple answer. Like anything that tries to set itself apart, Nikon have succeeded in areas while failing in others. Their line of compact cameras was well in need of a shake-up and the V1 and J1 definitely suggest a move in a fresh direction but I think the desire to create something interesting has resulted in them forgetting why most cameras do end up behaving in a similar manner; there are designs that work really well. If you’re going to make something radical, it needs to equal or improve upon what is already out there and the current operation lacks ease of use. If they swapped the wheel of toys on the back for a Av, Tv, M and HD option, it would be a VERY different camera. While it would lose some of it’s sparkly innovation, it would become usable again. The thing is, this could easily be resolved in a firmware patch. If Nikon isn’t prepared to offer it as an option, will someone else?
It’s a real shame that the picture quality from the camera has taken such a back-seat in the review as it does produce strong images and I think most people would be very happy with it. While noise does become an issue at the higher ISOs, anything within the usual range (100-800ISO) looks great. As I stated above, while the new toys that Nikon have added are fun and well worth an explore, they are just… toys. While people buy £200-300 cameras for exciting gimmicks, I think that anyone spending up to £849 wants a solid, well-performing camera that gets the job done. With tweaks, the Nikon 1 series could end up a great line of cameras but it’s not quite got it right just yet for me. I guess the GF1 will remain for a little longer but seeing what Nikon nearly created here makes me excited to see what’s coming next.
Fast frame rate
Innovative touches such as slo-mo
Solid photo quality at low to medium ISO
The flash that is like a light-producing Tamagotchi
Poor operation through heavy reliance on internal menu
Lens apertures not fast enough to beat the competition
ISO noise becomes apparent from 800 ISO upwards, despite options up to 3200 ISO