Nikon 1 V1: after three weeks

I’m here to tell you that it’s possible to insert an SD card wrong-way-up, at least in this camera. Which broke the spring that pushes the card out. Which complicates card removal, but otherwise it seems to have done no damage.

Now on to the more important stuff. Keep in mind that we’re still in First Impressions territory. This ain’t a review–it’s a progress report….


Late Note 7/28/2013: I’ve (finally) posted a short review of the camera on my Flickr.

Nikon 1 V1

I like the V1 camera. I like it a lot. It takes excellent photographs, weighs little, and is generally easy to use. It’s reasonably flexible. But there are issues. What follows is largely a discussion of things I wish Nikon had done differently, so there’s some danger you’ll think I dislike the camera. That would be a false impression.

The Lenses

The small sensor permits designing a small camera. If you believe you can live with that compromise, the next question involves the quality of the system’s lenses.

I’ve now taken a few hundred photos with the 30-110 mm lens, and continue to shoot with the 10-30. Both seem to be good-quality optics, but the 110 zoom is barely long enough for my usual purposes. I’ve certainly got a suitable big-camera Nikkor lens in my collection, and will likely buy the FT lens mount to address this, but I’d prefer that Nikon offer a longer lens that’s designed for the camera. (A wider-angle option would be real nice, too, but may be asking too much.)

Both Nikon 1 photo zoom lenses close in a retracted mode. When the lenses are retracted, the camera won’t take photographs, but pushing a button to extend the lens seems like an extra step. This is occasionally annoying, but I can tolerate it. I suppose it’s part of the price for the camera’s compact form factor.

Accessorizing

Since we last chatted, I’ve made a couple noteworthy modifications to the camera-as-carried. I’m now using Nikon’s “official” Nikon 1 wrist strap, and can’t say I find it better than the string strap it replaced. I imagine I’ll continue to seek a solution I actually like. I’ve also added Richard Franiec’s V1 Grip to the camera, which I like enormously; we’ve also added Freniac’s J1 grip to Joan’s camera (she likes the grip, but wishes it matched the white body and lenses). Those are seventy well spent dollars, between the two cameras. My camera’s also sporting a mount for my monopod’s head, but we shan’t go into detail about that.

Excepting my photographer’s vest, this camera will not fit in any pocket I’m likely to wear. I’m using a Tamrac 5720 bag to store and carry the V1, the second lens, and whatever gear I think I need. It’s light, and fairly small; I’ll follow this route for a time. Joan’s stuffed her J1 and a similar kit into Tamrac’s 3440, which is smaller and designed to carry less additional gear. We could probably trade bags and both be happy.

Two Shutters

I’m certain there’s a good reason Nikon equipped this camera with both mechanical and electronic shutters, but it’s not yet clear to me how to choose. Both shutters are very fast, and for most purposes seem interchangeable. There are a few electronic-shutter features which are clearly advantageous in some circumstances, but you give up significant exposure control if you use this camera in its high-speed modes.

If someone has a useful comment, I’d certainly like to hear it.

The Nikon 1 V1 Viewfinder

The V1′s viewfinder is, well, interesting. In normal usage it’s excellent. The viewfinder presents the image more or less as the camera settings impact the photo, and reports many of the camera settings around the frame. For composing a stable, well-defined photograph, this is an excellent tool. But if you’re setting up an action shot, the view is less rosy.

I’ve not found a way to turn off the review feature. (I’m hoping I’ve missed a setting, here. Can anyone help?) The V1 displays the image you just shot after you press the shutter release. This can be over-ridden by a partial-press of the shutter button, but that’s painful. If, like me, you often follow a shot with an immediate reframe/refocus/SHOOT, the extra partial clicks will mess up your rhythm.

Another viewfinder annoyance is the wake-up delay after you’ve stopped shooting, which seems to be around one second. How much that matters will depend a lot on your photographic habits, but I guarantee it will cost you an occasional unexpected shot. For this shooter, at least, battery savings are not the absolute first priority; that’s what spares are for. I often carry my camera “hot,” anticipating opportunistic photographs.

Finally: The V1 viewfinder continues to disagree with my sunglasses, which is mostly an annoyance. (Anyone else having this problem? I imagine it’s sunglass-specific; mine are a mild grey prescription lens.)

The V1 Controls

As I said, this is not a review.

I have several concerns, but the main issue is that Nikon clearly doesn’t consider this camera an SLR, despite the SLR-like layout and purchase price. That the controls are differently arranged than I’m accustomed to is an adjustment I can make. That there are fewer non-menu controls is pretty much a given, as the camera has less available mounting surface. On the other hand, the specific external controls Nikon selected are certainly debatable, and the arrangement–regardless of logic–is probably less than optimal. The dial which changes camera modes is too easily changed, for instance, and I’ve discovered that I can accidentally press several of the controls just by securely bracing the camera with my right hand.

A couple specific complaints: In my normal routine, I regularly change between auto-focus and manual focus. My D300 handles this with a switch; it’s a buried menu item on the V1. And I’ve come to depend on the D300′s Shooting Bank memory settings; that the V1 has no equivalent feature will certainly cause me endless frustration. (Yes, this is an advanced feature. But the V1 is complex capable enough that photographers could profitably use it.)

My more general response, though, is that I’m still learning how to use this camera. I’ll have a better critique later.

Is It Any Good?

Yes, but I’m not sure who the market is. All cameras are compromises, and compromised. The useful question is whether the specific compromises instantiated in the Nikon 1 V1 are something I (or you, of course) can live with. For me, I suspect the answer is yes.

I love my D300. We’ve taken thousands of photographs, and I no longer give much thought to anything except “Which lens should I use?” and “What are the right presets?” If something unexpected comes up, I can generally find a better setting within seconds, because I’m accustomed to the system and the design’s efficient. I’m extremely comfortable with the camera. But it’s a heavy and obtrusive beast, and I’ve grown weary of those features. I’ve been considering alternatives for at least a year.

The best cameras get out of the photographer’s way. Good point-and-shoots accomplish this by automating nearly everything, at the price of flexibility and (for some photographers) creativity. While professional cameras these days are also highly automated, they tend in another direction, by making controls easily accessible; the price is a sometimes intimidating level of complexity (also a creativity barrier, for many). By this test the V1 is a poorly implemented, SLR-derived, design. Most of the professional-camera controls are there. But they’re decidedly not easy to reach. Using this camera will involve devising strategies for working around that design failure.

A better V1 would mimic the D300′s efficiency, and I expect that future iterations will do so. Nikon could certainly make a version of this camera I’d unabashedly love. But Nikon’s marketers clearly don’t recognize that I exist, and that they might wisely serve my needs. There’s ample evidence that I’m not the only photographer seeking such a solution, and it’s clear that some of Nikon’s competitors are more directly addressing these concerns.


The V1 will be my primary camera for the next few months. We’ll see what I’m saying about it when summer ends.

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