Nikon V1 Review

They day after the Nikon V1 arrived, I took it on a road trip.

I figured what better way to challenge a camera that is trying to be simultaneously feature-rich and also light and compact?

I also really wanted to see what - if any - new technology Nikon was adding to the mirrorless camera category with the introduction of their new "Nikon 1" line of cameras.

I was curious if the V1 handled any differently than some of the other mirrorless cameras I've used and how well Nikon translated their experience in the digital SLR market to a smaller camera.

I wanted to see if Nikon was really pushing the technology barrier, or just "keeping up with the Joneses". For those not aware, Nikon is fashionably late to the mirrorless camera party, launching a full 3 years after the first mirrorless camera from Panasonic.

Finally, I wanted to know how the camera performed in use, vs. how it was described in the glossy marketing brochures.

This Nikon V1 review is the result, and hopefully will answer these same questions for you, to help you decide if the Nikon V1 is the right mirrorless camera for you.

Table of Contents

Compared to the J1

The Nikon V1 was released at the same time as the less expensive J1, so you'd assume that the J1 has a lot less features. This is not entirely true.

The big difference between the two is that the V1 has an electronic viewfinder while the J1 does not - and there's no optional accessory. Shooting pictures with the J1 requires the use of the LCD screen.

The V1 also has a higher resolution LCD screen, which results in clearer more colorful images.

When it comes to the shutter inside the camera, you can switch the V1 between mechanical and electronic (the J1 only has electronic) — the mechanical shutter is better suited for high-speed photography, and you can find out more about how this camera captures action a bit later in this Nikon V1 review.

Finally, for the surprise difference: the J1 has a built-in flash while the V1 does not. Instead, the V1 has an accessory port that you can use for either the Nikon 1 SB-N5 Speedlight or the Nikon GP-N100 GPS Unit.

What's NOT Included

Before I get any further in this Nikon V1 review and tell you all about the fabulous things you can do with this camera, let's take a quick moment to discuss what it can't do.

First and foremeost, the V1 does not have a built-in flash.

Whether or not this is a deal-breaker depends on how you intend to use your camera. If your passion in life is taking snaps of your friends in dimly-lit bars and clubs, then the lack of a flash is a problem.

I found that I missed it on sunny days to brighten dark shadows with a touch of light (something that is aptly named "fill flash").

Yes, you can use a flash with the Nikon V1, but it's a separate accessory that you'll have to remember to tote along. This somewhat defeats the purpose of having a small, portable camera.

It's also worth noting that the V1 does not have a standard flash hot shoe. You won't be able to use "regular" Nikon flash units or other flash accessories with this camera.

The second thing missing from the V1 is a flexible LCD screen.

I've spent years taking pictures without one, and I've also used (and owned) plenty of cameras with flexible LCD screens.

Now that I've had a chance to use them on a wider range of camera models, I've found that they are quite useful, especially when you're taking video. When shooting video, I'm much less likely to hold the camera at eye level than I am when taking a picture.

I did take many shots for this Nikon V1 review with the camera held at odd angles and I was still able to see the LCD - sort of.

Watching the LCD from an extreme angle just means that you're more likely to take some photos that aren't composed quite as well as you'd like.

Shape and Size

The Nikon V1 body design is quite slick, and I mean this in the literal sense: there's no decent grip on the front of the camera.

A small rubberized thumb grip on the back is all that keeps the camera from sliding out of your hand. I used the V1 on some pretty warm days and had to keep wiping the sweat off my hands to keep a good grip on the front.

I typically feel comfortable holding a camera in one hand, but I kept the camera strap securely around my neck when taking pictures for this Nikon V1 review.

Some other mirrorless cameras like the Olympus E-P3 and the Sony NEX-5R have rubberized grips on the front that provide a more secure hand-hold on the camera.

If there are some other features of the Nikon V1 that you find particularily appealing, I'd suggest you find a local camera shop so that you can hold one yourself. Once you try it, you'll either feel the same as I do or you won't be at all concerned about accidentally losing your grip.

Nikon V1 Controls

There's a real lack of controls on the back of the Nikon V1, and I found that this makes the camera harder to use.

Since the V1 is more advanced than the J1, I feel that it should appeal more to intermediate photographers who want to control camera settings manually.

With only four settings on the main mode dial, it's tricky to figure out how to wrestle control away from the camera.

  1. Motion Snapshot — captures brief, slow-motion images
  2. Smart Photo Selector — the equivalent of "full AUTO" mode on other cameras
  3. Still Image — lets you take manual control, if you know where to look
  4. Movie — self-explanatory

Where's my Program mode? Or Aperture Priority? Or full Manual for that matter?

After much poking about through the camera's menus I discovered these modes: but they are only available in Still Image mode, and you can only change them by activating the menu system.

Once you select a manual mode the very next question becomes: how do I change settings?

For example, in Aperture Priority mode, you can select a lens aperture while the camera picks a matching shutter speed to ensure a balanced exposure. Most cameras have some type of dial or other obvious control that you can use to change aperture in this mode.

After several minutes of button mashing, I finally figured out that the small lever positioned near the thumb grip is what changes settings: pressing up on the lever narrows the aperture and pressing down opens it up.

The one control that I did like is the quick access to exposure compensation.

Once simple way to take a small amount of manual control over your camera is to use exposure compensation to intentionally brighten or darken your photos.

Positive exposure compensation creates a bright, cheerful look while negative exposure compensation creates photos that are dark and moody.

You can access exposure compensation with the press of the rotating dial on the back of the camera. With a twist of the dial, you can either make it positive or negative.

This is a quick and easy way to adjust the "look" of your photos, and I used it a lot as I was snapping photos for this Nikon V1 review.

Autofocus

The autofocus on the Nikon V1 is exceptionally fast, and it's one of the reasons why I prefer to use a mirrorless camera over a compact.

There are three distinct autofocus modes you can leverage:

  1. Area
  2. Single
  3. Tracking

For general use, I found that area autofocus worked the best. It worked equally well for subjects that were static and those in motion.

Single point autofocus came in handy when I wanted to use foreground elements to frame a subject in the background. In these cases, the area autofocus wants to lock on the subject CLOSEST to the camera, whcih doesn't work.

Tracking autofocus is good for subjects that are unwilling or unable to remain still. Since the autofocus response time is so fast, I didn't often need to use this, even for subjects moving rapidly.

Let's leave the discussion of autofocus at this: I used it on all kinds of subjects for this Nikon V1 review, and there wasn't a single time where I felt like I missed a shot because the camera was struggling to focus.

In other words, the Nikon V1 really is "point and shoot".

Electronic Viewfinder

I'm still getting used to electronic viewfinders.

If you've ever had the opportunity to use a digital SLR with an optical viewfinder, you'll immediately see the difference. Electronic viewfinders aren't as clear as optical ones, and the image in the viewfinder blurs when you move the camera quickly.

The benefit of an electronic viewfinder is that you can clearly see all of your camera settings displayed.

Since the Nikon V1 is such a compact camera, I found that I rarely needed to use the viewfinder, relying instead on the 3 inch LCD to compose my photos.

The viewfinder was helpful on one bright sunny day when I was taking pictures of my daughter practicing soccer (or football as it's more commonly called). Given the angle of the sun, I was having a tough time clearly seeing the image on the LCD.

Whether or not you "need" a viewfinder depends a lot on how you intend to use the camera. Anyone taking pictures of moving subjects in bright sun will no doubt find it very useful.

However, if you tend to take pictures indoors or if you take pictures of non-moving subjects, then its pretty easy to use the LCD at all times and never rely on the viewfinder.

ISO Settings and Performance

ISO is the setting that determines how sensitive the camera is to light.

A higher ISO means that camera is more sensitive to light, absorbing more light in a shorter period of time. High ISO settings are great to use in dim light when you want to avoid motion blur.

One questionable decision that Nikon make with their Nikon 1 line has to do with the size of the sensor: while other manufacturers are putting DSLR sensors into their mirrorless cameras, the sensor inside the Nikon 1 cameras is smaller then what's in their digital SLRs.

One of the biggest issue with smaller size sensors is that they make your photos look speckled at high ISO settings (also called image noise or grain).

This is why one of the main things I wanted to test for this Nikon V1 review was how well the camera handled noise at high ISO.

ISO 100
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
 

I found that noise becomes apparent right around ISO 400, which is much sooner than it becomes evident on other mirrorless cameras with larger sensors.

Is this a massive issue? Unless you want to take a lot of pictures in very dim available light then the answer is "no".

However, since the Nikon V1 doesn't have a built-in flash, you'll be relying on high ISO settings to get clear shots once the available light is dim.

If you find the level of image noise acceptable in the samples above, then you probably won't notice it for your own images.

Movie Mode

While I would not use the Nikon V1 to shoot an independent feature film, it's movie mode is quite capable when capturing family video memories.

There are three quality settings you can select:

MOVIE QUALITYSIZEFRAME RATE
Full High Definition (HD)1920 x 108060 frames/sec (interlaced)
Full High Definition (HD)1920 x 108030 frames/sec (progressive)
High Definition1280 x 72060 frames/sec (progressive)

I found that the last one worked best for fast-moving subjects, or instances where I was panning the camera.

The other two work well to achieve the highest quality image when you're taking video of non-moving subjects when the camera is stable.

Here are three samples of each mode — I panned the camera for each one so you can clearly see how motion is captured for each mode.

MOVIE MODESAMPLE
1920 x 1080 (60i)
1920 x 1080 (30p)
1280 x 720 (60p)

Autofocus in movie mode is great, but not always 100% accurate. Fast-moving subjects posed a challenge to the autofocus system, and I noticed times where the camera chose to focus on the background rather than my main subject.

The size of the subject can pose problems — I took video of a hummingbird, and the camera focused on the background instead of the small bird, but quickly corrected itself once a larger object (like the bird feeder) was more prominent in the frame.

While this may only be an issue if you want to take lots of videos of tiny birds in flight, it's something to keep in mind when you're using the Nikon V1 movie mode.

Here's another example to use by way of comparison: kids at a soccer (football) game.

In this video you can see that the subjects do remain sharp and clear, even though there is a LOT of motion involved. The subjects here are large enough so that the autofocus never gets confused about what should be kept in focus.

Speed

Um yeah, this camera is quick.

OK, maybe not quick enough if all you want to do is take pictures of extreme sports, but in that case you'll just have to shell out the extra money for a "true" digital SLR.

Since the Nkon V1 isn't burdened with a mirror, it can achieve some very fast consecutive photos speeds: you can choose between 10, 30 and even a whopping 60 photos per second.

Now, at the point where you're taking 60 pictures per second, you might as well be shooting video instead, but it may please some to know the option is there.

I found that 10 per second was more than enough to suit my high-speed photographic needs, and I used this extensively to take some frozen-in-time moments of my daughter kicking a ball.

At 30 photos per second, the consecutive images you capture wind up looking like a flipbook if you view them quickly one after the other.

Just realize: if you hold down the shutter button for a mere second, that's 30 pictures that you're going to have to go through later. Now, if you just want to pile them on your hard drive that's totally fine, but if you want to weed out the bad ones, this high-speed shooting can add a LOT of time to your editorial process.

Lenses

Image Taken With 10-30mm Lens

I used the Nikon 10-30mm for this Nikon V1 review, and found that it was excellent for general "travel" photography.

The wide-angle 10mm setting provides you with the means to capture dramatic landscapes and cityscapes, providing a real sense of scale.

At 30mm, the lens works quite well for portraits, but you do have to get pretty close to your subjects for some shots. This works fine with friends and family, but might be a bit too personal if you're taking pictures of the "locals".

An alternative lens to consider is the Nikon 1 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR which will provide you with more working distance between you and your subject.

You'll also find that the 30-110mm will produce blurrier backgrounds, and this may be the "look" you are after, especially if you shoot lots of portraits.

Summary

I was skeptical when I first started this Nikon V1 review about how a relative newcomer to the mirrorless camera market would perform.

I was also concerned that the small-sized sensor inside the V1 would not capture images with the same depth, color and clarity that I have become used to from Nikon digital SLR cameras.

Overall, I think this is a good start but there is definitely room for some improvements.

First, I'm surprised that Nikon chose to use a special new hot shoe instead of a standard one. If you are a photographer with an old Nikon flash, you can't use it with this camera. You also can't use any third party wireless flash triggers.

Beginning photographers may not care, but intermediates who use more flash could find this limitation frustrating.

The second thing that threw me off is the camera controls, and Nikon's choice to use a non-standard control dial with only 4 settings instead of the usual manual and AUTO modes.

When I first read the press release for the Nikon V1, it sounded like it was geared more toward intermediate photographers, while the J1 was for beginners.

If that's true, then intermediates will prefer one-click access to their manual controls like Aperture and Shutter Priority. Having to select these modes from a menu every time is not easy.

Finally, there's the issue of low-light high-ISO performance.

Nikon digital SLRs are renowned for their ability to minimize noise even at extremely high ISO settings — even at ISO 6400 you really have to know what to look for.

But with the V1, noise becomes an issue right at ISO 400 and by 6400 is very noticeable.

Nikon made the call to include a reduced-size sensor inside their Nikon 1 cameras that's smaller than the ones included in other mirrorless models. Sony in particular has found a way to cram DSLR-size sensors inside very compact bodies.

Had Nikon chosen the same route with the V1, I believe that its capacity to shoot in ALL kinds of light would be significantly improved.

Packages and Pricing

Image Gallery

nikon v1 mirrorless camera
Release Date: October 2011
$750 USD (with lens)