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The 1 Camera: What is Nikon Thinking? (Updated)
By Alvin Soon - on 28 Sep 2011, 10:35am

Updated on 21/10/11: Added the official price list released by Nikon Singapore on 20/10/11.

Updated on 21/11/11: Added our interview link with Nikon's Regional GM of Nikon Asia for further reading.

Photographers all over the web are groaning over Nikon's new 1 mount cameras, the J1 & the V1 (well, except for Thom Hogan).

Nikon announced their brand new mirrorless interchangeable lens system camera last week (check out our Nikon 1 launch article), and reactions have been mainly negative from the professional front. A big reason why has to do with the 1 mount's 13.2 x 8.8mm sensor size, which ranks as the smallest image sensor among mirrorless camera systems today. 

The image sensor size chart below from Wikipedia should illustrate how much smaller the Nikon 1's CX sensor (in yellow) is, compared to other standard sizes like APS-C (which powers entry-level DSLR cameras, the Sony NEX and Samsung NX mirrorless systems) and Micro Four Thirds. It's worth noting that the Nikon 1 mount sensor is still larger than the biggest compact camera sensors, like the 1/1.7" sensor you'll find in Canon's PowerShot G12.

Chart from Wikipedia.

Why Smaller Sensors, Nikon?

What's got photographers fretting is that, all things being equal, the larger the camera sensor the better the image quality you'll get. Which is why a picture taken with a 35mm full frame Nikon D3s DSLR camera looks better than a picture taken with a smartphone, and why photographers are worried that the 1 cameras will suffer an image quality hit from its small sensor.

But Nikon thinks that the sensor size game is over. In a speech during the launch event, Yasuyuki Okamoto, President of Imaging Company, Nikon, said that:

We had an extensive series of debates inside Nikon before reaching a conclusion that this dimension provides the best balance.

For us with Nikon, the days when sensor size was directly proportionate to image quality, or more resolutions meant better image quality, are almost over.

That's essentially the same message you'd hear from the Micro Four Thirds people when compared against APS-C cameras, except now I think they'd be happy to point out how much bigger their own sensor is compared to Nikon's.

You might question, if sensor size isn't directly proportionate to image quality, why Nikon still sells their full frame DSLR cameras. Mr Okamoto probably doesn't mean that the days of large sensors are over, it's more likely he means that Nikon feels a sensor this size is good enough for its target audience:

The Nikon 1 enables customers to casually enjoy taking photographs, for Nikon to become a part of customer's contemporary lifestyles.

And therein lies the main grippe of photographers everywhere: They were hoping for Nikon to launch a mirrorless system good enough to be secondary cameras for the serious photographer. But Nikon has resolutely decided not to go that route, and instead has launched a system that looks dead set for the casual photographer.

Smart Photo Selector: Deleting Your Bad Shots for You

Consider the mode called Smart Photo Selector. In this mode, a 1 camera can quickly shoot a burst of 20 images, out of which it will choose and save five that it thinks are the best, discarding the rest.

Photographers spend years honing their ability to shoot and discern which images are better than the rest, and it's unlikely that any will want to hand this vital decision over to a machine - not to mention giving it the permission to delete images by itself! Nikon probably thinks that this kind of automated trimming will appeal to a casual photographer, who doesn't want to spend hours reviewing hundreds of candidate images.

The Missing PASM Modes

Perhaps the most telling indicator of who Nikon thinks the J1 and the V1 are made for is the lack of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority and Manual modes on the mode dial, despite there being plenty of empty space on the dial. Not that they don't exist, but you'll need to dig deep into the software interface to activate the modes.

The mode dial on the back of the Nikon V1, missing the PASM modes that serious shooters prefer.

The Nikon 1 Wants to Go Fast

Even though Mr. Okamoto says in the same speech that Nikon "did not want to destroy a balance between camera and lens by choosing a big sensor, which would also result in more weight and less portability", the Nikon V1 & J1 aren't much smaller than the smallest Micro Four Thirds cameras which exist today; the Olympus mini and the Panasonic GF3. Instead of banking on hardware, Nikon seems determined to bank on the cameras' features.

The V1, for example, shoots up to 60fps (frames per second), but its maximum number of shots per burst is 30, which means that in half a second or so it can knock out a successive burst of 30 shots. It can get 10 frames per second if tracking AF is enabled, which means that it's tracking a moving subject and keeping it in focus. Putting that into perspective, the Nikon D3s DSLR camera shoots 9fps when shooting at full-frame, 11fps if shooting cropped. 

Nikon is also emphasizing that the hybrid autofocus system, which combines phase detection and contrast detection AF, is the world's fastest autofocus system with the most focus points: 73 points in fact, with phase detection. One of the criticisms with mirrorless cameras is that their use of contrast detection AF makes auto-focusing on these cameras slower and less accurate, especially in low-light where contrast is difficult to discern. However, we've found that the AF speeds and accuracy on most mirrorless cameras have been good enough, or have improved enough, for casual use.

The one area where contrast detection AF falters is in tracking fast moving subjects, like children, animals or sports. And that's one area where the 1 mount cameras might gather a niche audience, with its unusual 2.7x crop factor and the mount adapter for Nikkor lenses that Nikon is shipping. Mount a Nikkor 300mm lens on a 1 camera, and you now have a 810mm equivalent reach, with 10fps and fast AF. It might be attractive enough for wildlife and sports enthusiasts, who will favor the extra reach over the smaller sensor size.

Is Nikon Shooting Itself in the Foot?

The mirrorless system cameras market is a fierce one. The Micro Four Thirds system championed by Olympus and Panasonic has had three years to fortify its position. The Sony NEX system is putting up a competitive fight. Samsung still wants in the game with its NX cameras. Ricoh has its GXR interchangeable lens system, and Pentax has only just announced the first of their Q mirrorless system cameras. And who knows if Canon will eventually want in?

It won't be easy for Nikon to establish a beachfront on this 3-year old war. With Sony's NEX and Samsung's NX systems touting their larger APS-C sensors over the smaller Micro Four Thirds sensors, Nikon has decided to go even smaller with the CX-format sensors. Nikon knows that it's going to be a tough sell, which is why it's emphasizing its features over specs; to hopefully win over the casual photographers who're looking to upgrade from compact cameras, rather than the more serious users downgrading from DSLRs.

While everyone else is trying to make a smaller, mirrorless form of DSLR, Nikon is making more advanced Coolpix compacts. This is not necessarily a bad thing. This market segment is real, and there's a chance that Nikon could lure them away from their competitors. It won't be easy though, and here's where Nikon's 1 strategy is puzzling: The 1 cameras are seriously expensive.

We don't have the official local prices yet, but the prices overseas have already been confirmed, and we hope our estimates shouldn't be too far off:

Item Price
Nikon 1 J1 10-30mm Kit €638 (est. S$1106)
Nikon 1 J1 10mm Kit €696 (est. S$1207)
Nikon 1 J1 10-30mm & 30-110mm Twin Kit €812 (est. S$1407)
Nikon 1 J1 10-30mm & 30-110mm Pink Special Kit €870 (est. S$1508)
Nikon 1 V1 10-30mm Kit €962 (est. S$1668)
Nikon 1 V1 10mm Kit €1020 (est. S$1767)
Nikon 1 V1 10-30mm & 30-110mm Twin Kit €1136 (est. S$1970)

Let's have a look at some other cameras you can get in the same price range.

Item Price
Nikon D3100 18-55mm Kit S$919
Nikon D5100 18-55mm Kit S$1199
Nikon D7000 18-105mm Kit S$1899
Olympus E-PL3 14-42mm Kit S$998
Olympus E-PL3 14-42mm & 40-150mm Twin Kit S$1248
Olympus E-P3 14-42mm Kit S$1298
Olympus E-P3 14-42mm & 40-150mm Twin Kit S$1548

At a glance, we see that the Olympus Micro Four Thirds flagship E-P3 camera, with two lenses, costs less than our estimate of the basic Nikon 1 V1, with a single 10-30mm lens kit. The Nikon D3100 entry level camera is nearly the same price as the basic Nikon 1 J1 kit. Even Nikon's own D7000, a very capable mid-range DSLR camera, is cheaper than the Nikon 1 V1's twin lens kit.

Again, we want to emphasize that these are estimate prices based on the official prices released overseas. But even if the prices are off by a couple of hundred dollars, it's hard to see how the Nikon 1 cameras are competitively priced at all. 

While it's easy to guess and even understand where Nikon is coming from with the rest of the 1 system, the pricing of the cameras is the one area where we have no idea what Nikon is thinking. Entering a segment where Nikon needs every conceivable edge it can get, especially since its target audience is the casual user and not the dedicated photographer who might splurge on gear, it seems Nikon has decided that competitive pricing is one edge it doesn't need.

Update 1: Nikon Singapore has officially released the official prices, and it looks like our early estimates were off.

Item Price
Nikon 1 J1 10-30mm Kit S$999
Nikon 1 J1 10mm Kit S$1069
Nikon 1 J1 10mm & 10-30mm Twin Kit S$1199
Nikon 1 J1 10-30mm & 30-110mm Twin Kit S$1249
Nikon 1 V1 10-30mm Kit S$1299
Nikon 1 V1 10mm Kit S$1369
Nikon 1 V1 10mm & 10-30mm Twin Kit S$1499
Nikon 1 V1 10-30mm & 30-110mm Twin Kit S$1549

Update 2: Having shared our thoughts of the Nikon 1 system, we also interviewed Kimito Uemura, General Manager from the regional headquarters of Nikon Asia, to find out how the cameras were developed and where they're headed.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.