Nikon 1

Nikon has released a very controversial new camera series, rather annoyingly named “1”, comprising two cameras (the V1 with an electronic viewfinder, and the J1 without), and three lenses. As usual, Thom Hogan pretty much nails it (I’ll link it when it drops off his front page — Thom is very bad about providing stable links to his pieces). There’s a lot of bad and some very, very good things about the new system. The bad stuff is sad because it’s so obvious and fixable. The good stuff is pretty freaking awesome.

100% crop of an ISO 3200 sample image from dpreview

The worst things are the initial selection of lenses and the pricing. At $650 for the most basic option (J1 bundled with 10-30mm lens, or 27-81mm equivalent) it’s a little too pricey for an impulse purchase. If they’d come in at $100-150 less then I would buy one out of curiosity. As it is, I’ll wait for the rapid and inevitable price drop. The price gets really bad when you look at the other lenses: $249 for the 10mm f2.8 prime just sucks (it’s another wide angle pancake, but f2.8 isn’t very fast), and $749 for the 10-100mm VR is ridiculous. That’s actually more expensive than Nikon’s DX equivalent 18-200mm VR! The whole point of smaller sensor cameras is to allow smaller, lighter, cheaper lenses. And again, the initial lenses aren’t particularly small, which makes the initial offer look superficially a lot worse than, say, getting an Olympus “pen” camera with a bigger sensor (with more pixels), similar size, and for less money.

For comparison, ISO 3200 shot I took in my bathroom using a D7000

Notes on low light performance: based on very little information (i.e. dpreview has posted exactly one high ISO sample — at least with the ISO stated) the low light performance of the new sensor looks pretty credible. We’re comparing the best APS-C DSLR sensor from last year (in terms of low light performance) with a sensor about one fourth its size with over half as many pixels. Note the pretty decent rendition of fine detail in the J1 sample image (the D7000 was shooting a 1/30 without VR and this was my sharpest shot, there’s no retouching at all — clearly the lighting in the J1 street scene was even more challenging than my bathroom’s lighting). Also note that they appear to be shooting JPEG, so the complete smearing of detail in the shadow areas may be a JPEG issue and not a sensor issue.

Obviously these two problems are easily fixed. Nikon can easily produce new lenses (and plans to) but how soon? And Nikon can obviously reduce prices (maybe these initial prices are just intended to gouge early adopters) but, again, when?

Aside from that it’s all good news, although perhaps not from a marketing point of view. At first glance Nikon has brought a 10MP camera with a sensor half the size of a Micro 4/3 sensor, and around a quarter the size of an APS-C sensor to a fight where Sony has a tiny-bodied large sensor camera with ridiculous numbers of pixels. And its prices are high.

But behind that there’s some very good and interesting stuff.

As Thom Hogan points out, the 1-series cameras are pushing a lot of pixels around very fast compared to anything else out there. This is impressive in itself and bodes well for future DSLRs. Next, we have a sensor with sufficient pixel density to put 24MP in an APS-C sensor and phase detect autofocus on the sensor. This means Nikon could make a shutterless, mirrorless DSLR with better autofocus and IQ than Sony’s Pellicle faux DSLRs (like the A77), or simply allow its next generation DSLRs to use phase detect AF in live view. What it probably can’t do is compete with the Nex-series cameras because well, that would be stupid (it would then have two competing mirrorless body systems).

So what we have in the 1-series is:

  • Very interesting bodies with what look like the right feature set and ergonomics, but of course none of us have played with them yet.
  • An attempt to rethink still image shooting (not just high-speed continuous shooting, but some attempt to manage it)
  • Thoughtful new video features (e.g. motion stills)
  • Gimmicky features that its rivals have come up with (e.g. 480fps and 1200fps video)
  • Very boring but adequate lenses which do not appear to fulfill the promise of the sensor and mount sizes chosen by Nikon (i.e. no tiny folding zoom lenses, no superfast primes).
  • New technologies (notably phase detect AF on the main sensor) which bode very well for the future (EVF-style DSLRs with no pellicle mirror rubbish OR phase detect AF in live view on DSLRs for example).
  • And a demonstration that Nikon can easily put 24MP sensors into its DX cameras.

I look forward to playing with these cameras and reading some in-depth reviews. Speaking as someone who currently carries a D5000 with an 18-200mm lens around as my “point and shoot” I’m really hoping that this system turns out to be better than it looks at first glance.

Post Script

Ken Rockwell (who is much better at providing stable links) posts his “review” which right now is just initial reactions. I have to say that his initial reactions mirror mine, but I warmed up a bit and now agree with Thom Hogan. The whole “CX is the new APS which was the new 110” argument is actually pretty compelling, as is the “a small sensor interchangeable lens camera is just an S100 with dirt”. (Of course my version goes one step further — “an S100 is just like a second iPhone4 with a zoom lens that doesn’t run apps, make phone calls, allow me to browse the web, and which I forget to charge and don’t carry with me”.)

This is why I think (and probably Thom Hogan thinks) the price is $150 too high.  At $500 it would look very nice compared to a $400 S100 — but then the S100’s MSRP is $500 or so, so perhaps real world prices will settle down to say $550 for the J1 vs $375 for the S100, and that’s actually pretty compelling. Consider the J1 at $550 with a $150 gizmo to allow you to use your DX/FX lenses:

J1 vs. S100 size — S100 wins.

J1 vs. S100 features — J1 wins big except the S100 goes wider (!) and faster (!).

Now imagine if the J1 had a decent prime wide angle zoom (say 6-12mm equivalent to match the DX 10-24mm) and a fast prime pancake (20mm f1.4). As Thom Hogan points out, the DX 40mm macro works as a fast 105mm macro on the J1. And the 35mm f1.8 is a 95mm f1.8 portrait lens. And the 18-200mm is a 50-540mm zoom. Now we’re cooking with gas. Of course, we’re not the target audience.