Mirrorless system cameras, or SLR-likes, have experienced tremendous growth over the past few years. But until recently, Nikon offered no such models. In September, though, Nikon unveiled the 10-megapixel V1 ($900 with kit lens) and the 10-megapixel J1 ($650 with kit lens).
Both are now available in stores and online. I got a chance to try out the Nikon V1. Here are my first impressions:
Design and ergonomics. The most obvious way the V1 differs from most of Nikon's SLRs, such as the D7000, is size and weight. Even with its viewfinder (not available on the J1), the V1 is significantly thinner, shorter and lighter than even Nikon's entry-level SLRs, which is important if you travel.
Nikon tried to strike a balance between including plenty of physical controls (about a dozen, including buttons, a scroll wheel, a dial, and others) and keeping you from getting lost in menus. For the most part they succeeded, although I think the ISO and exposure settings should still have been given physical controls, or at least a place on the mode dial.
Still photos. Overall, I was impressed by what this little camera can do without a flash. Whether indoors or outdoors, I felt it worked quite well. And in very low light, my results were close to what I could capture with an SLR. But I think it would have been better if there was a popup flash. I wouldn't appreciate having to pay $150 for a proprietary external flash that only fits this camera, when the camera itself costs $900.
I was impressed with several different burst modes, one using the mechanical shutter and a few others that are accessible when you set the camera to use an electronic shutter (10, 30 or 60 frames per second), which also lets you fire shots silently.
Video. I was impressed with the quality and sharpness of the HD-resolution video, in both indoor and outdoor settings. Colors seemed vibrant, and contrast looked very good. However, it didn't appear as good as what I've seen on camcorders, particularly in the smoothness of zooming in and out. Like most SLR-likes and SLRs, you zoom the V1's kit lens by turning a ring.
Although I wasn't able to test it, Nikon does have a lens (VR 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 PD-Zoom) that includes a switch on it for camcorder-like zooming. Also, when I was in motion (walking down the street) and capturing video, the V1 recorded rather jittery video. I thought its image stabilization system would compensate for my motion more effectively.
I also tried capturing video in very low-light situations. Although the footage was somewhat grainy, it wasn't that much grainier than similar low-light video I've captured with one of Nikon's digital SLRs. However, the V1's slow-motion mode was disappointing since the resolution was very low.
LCD and Viewfinder. The display and the viewfinder both worked very well in my tests. When shooting in live view mode and composing on the LCD, the high-quality display appeared to work very well, even when panning in low light. The same was true for the high-quality electronic viewfinder, although I still prefer the through-the-lens one found on an SLR. Still, this type of viewfinder has its advantages. For example, here's one thing you can't do on an SLR: Look through the viewfinder and play back your images or video. On the V1, you can review them in the viewfinder, and even zoom in to check for sharpness and focus. That could be important in bright light, when the sun washes out your display.
Other features. The V1 has other features and accessories, that I couldn't try out. But one that intrigued me at first, but I felt came up short, was its motion snapshot mode, which captures one second of video and a still image. When you review it, the slideshow plays the video back in slow motion followed by a transition to the still image, both of which are set to music included in the camera.
However, to get this mini-slide show onto your computer, you can't just transfer the video file and play it back on your desktop or laptop. Instead, you need to install Nikon's View NX2 software and follow several steps. The idea is great, but it would be a lot better in practice if it were more flexible (longer clip and the ability to add more stills).
The folks at Nikon must have thought this mode would get a lot of use, since they included it on the mode dial, along with three other essential modes: still image, smart photo selector, and video. But I think most people will use it rarely, if at all.
Overall, this mirrorless camera should be a very good start for Nikon, once they knock a few hundred dollars off the price.