Nikon Hits 1 Deep (Final thoughts on the V1)

Nikon 1 V1 with 18.5mm f/1.8

The big slugger steps up to the plate and the baseball stadium gathers its collective breath to watch; the beer runs and bathroom breaks will have to wait a minute longer, because nobody wants to be the schlub that was in the can when the highlight reel homer was launched into low earth orbit. The numbers tell us that the odds of missing the homer are slim, but the royal we stay anyway because we're a sucker for drama.

And so it was when Nikon, the first of the 800 pound gorillas to enter the mirrorless fray with their 1 series. Everyone paused as rumors started to surface. Would the house of the D700 and D3 hit it out of the park, showing upstart Panasonic, Sony, and old man Olympus how to build a proper mirrorless camera? Would Nikon, in one fell swoop, fix all that was not quite right with the segment? But the doubts and anxieties rose just as quickly as the rumors, swirling around the rumored sensor size. A one-inch sensor? For real? Nikon was suddenly asking their faithful–the very same people that had been disparaging the comparatively small Micro Four-Thirds on issues of sensitivity and depth of field–to consider something smaller still.

Or were they? Were the Nikon faithful really their target in the first place? The interface, lacking the most fundamental of enthusiast controls (the PASM dial, and ISO button, etc...) seemed to be designed for point-and-shoot upgraders. Yet the EVF of the V1 suggested an enthusiast target audience (vs. the EVF-free J1)...but the initial lens lineup was an uninspiring collection of variable aperture zooms and a midspeed prime (the 28mm EQ f/2.8) more suited to a bridge or superzoom users than more serious shooters...but the EN-EL15 battery (also used by the D7000, D800, et. al.) suggested an enthusiast audience....but the proprietary flash socket suggested otherwise...but the FT-1 adapter for F-mount lenses...and so on and so on.

The schizophrenia embodied in this camera is the defining characteristic of the V1. It's the internal debates at mighty Nikon about the future of mirrorless cameras cast in metal, plastic, glass, and silicon. In an effort to please  many masters, they ended up pleasing nearly no one. And at the end of the day, the V1 was a long fly ball to the warning track. One out.

The funny thing is that beneath the multiple personalities the V1 is a fundamentally good camera. With the two-kit zooms (10-30mm and 30-110mm), I'd compare the V1 quite favorably against my first DSLR, the D70 with the 18-70mm zoom. You might laugh at that, but all you need to do is place the two kits side by side to see what an achievement this really is. The Nikon 1 system is small. Not tiny bordering on barely usable, but small and...human-sized. Not only that, but the V1 is megapicklier, FPSier, AFier, and ISOier.

I'd also compare it favorably against more recent cameras, like the Panasonic GF2 and a circa 2009 entry-level dSLR like the Pentax K-m. When I'm heading out to watch my nephew play youth soccer, the V1 and zooms get the nod as it's the perfect compromise of image quality, performance (FPS and AF) and size for that application. It even does a passable job with well-lit indoor sports. I'm not publishing two-page spreads with it, but it's perfectly suited to our Facebook age.

I really think that Nikon missed an opportunity by not launching the system with the 18.5mm f/1.8, as this lens really starts to show what the CX format is capable of. It's that close to being something really special. Improve it's low light AF just a hair and it's low-light sensitivity by just half a stop and the V1 with the 18.5mm f/1.8 would be the killer setup for any parent with a rapid toddler. I still recommend entry-level dSLRs to this crowd (as well as parents of youth basketball, volleyball, and hockey players) as the other mirrorless cameras still struggle with continuous AF, particularly in low light. But the Nikon 1 is tantalizingly close to being the perfect family camera.

And had Nikon launched the V1 with usable ISO1600 along with a PASM dial, a standard Nikon hot shoe, the 18.5mm f1/8, and priced it somewhere between the D5x00 and D7000, they could have been a contender among the DPReview-reading enthusiast crowd. Throw in a couple more classic fast primes at launch (a fast 35mm and 105mm EQ, for example) and even the upturned noses over at RangeFinderForum.com might have given it a second glance instead of shoving it into the junk drawer.

But this goes back to the fundamental problem–the Nikon 1 system does not yet know what it wants to be when it grows up, like the seven year old that want to be a baseball player one day and then a brain surgeon the next. The V1 had too much J1 DNA to be taken seriously by those that talk about such things, and it was a feature short and a dollar long on being the perfect family camera. Alas, a towering fly to the warning track in deep center field is still an out. Let's hope that Nikon gets a couple more at bats to get it right. In the meantime, I've gotta go to the can, want me to bring you back a beer?

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