Today marks one of the most eagerly awaited debuts in recent photographic history. Nikon and Canon, the two standard bearers in professional photography, have up to this point kept themselves clear of the mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera craze that has swept up companies like Panasonic, Sony and Samsung, but no more.
The Nikon 1 series of compact system cameras, starting with the flagship V1 and the slightly simpler J1, is Nikon's first foray into this increasingly popular category. It comes with its own Nikon 1 lens mount and the CX sensor inside the two launch shooters is smaller (1 inch diagonally) than what you'd get with a Micro Four Thirds or Sony NEX camera -- a couple of decisions that may perplex and / or disappoint expectant users. Nonetheless, Nikon asks that we don't prejudge the 1 series based on specs and allow the superior image quality of the V1 and J1 speak for itself. That's advice we'll have to heed for the moment. We weren't allowed to take away any sample pictures or video from either camera, but that hasn't stopped us from putting together some comprehensive hands-on impressions of Nikon's new cameras, replete with video and sensor size comparison photos, just after the break.
Nikon told us that it started development on this new line of interchangeable-lens compacts four years ago and, unfortunately, there's a slight feeling that the V1 and J1 are addressing the market of yesteryear. The gap between simpleton point-and-shoots and sophisticated DSLRs is nowhere near as big today as it was back in 2007, with the GF series from Panasonic and the PEN cameras from Olympus doing the most to "shrink" the DSLR into more portable dimensions. Nikon's 1 series aims to bridge that same chasm, but the subtle difference is that the company seems to be approaching it from the other side by enhancing the quality of point-and-shoot cameras rather than contracting the size of DSLRs.
The physical controls have been simplified almost to a fault, with most tweaks and adjustments being done in menus or via multiple button presses. That's true of both the V1 and J1, giving you one of the strongest indicators that even though Nikon may still consider image quality its overriding concern, the 1 series is primarily about accessibility and simplicity for non-professionals. Aperture, shutter, exposure and other controls are all still there, you'll just have to dig around for them if you desire to fiddle with them.
Physically, both cameras feel reassuringly dense and rigid. The V1 has a magnesium alloy construction aiding that cause, a trickling-down of Nikon's DSLR build materials that is well appreciated here. We'd say build quality is the one area where the V1 and J1 come closest to their bulkier, more professionally inclined brandmates. Both fit very well in the hand and, though looks are always subjective, strike an appealing profile with their minimalist external design.
Nikon touts the 1 series as having the fastest autofocus in their class, thanks in part to a 73-point phase-detect autofocus that's built right into the sensor. It works in tandem with a contrast-detect AF system that's also built in to offer a hybrid focusing system that's supposed to work with excellent quickness under any and all circumstances. Our brief testing showed the V1 focusing swiftly and without issue. We're not sure it's quite ready for a speed test against the finest in Nikon's DSLR range, but it's mighty impressive stuff for a (sometimes) pocketable camera.
Speaking of dimensions, Nikon's new contenders are marginally smaller than Panasonic's GF2 and Samsung's brand spanking new NX200. Nikon has said that compactness has been of paramount importance and, indeed, among all the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera systems available today, Nikon gets the prize for having the smallest. But only by a small margin that will likely be irrelevant in actual use. Portability is maximized when using the 10mm F2.8 pancake lens, but we're most excited by the potential of the jumbo 10-100mm lens designed specifically for video. It has a power zoom that works in beautiful silence. The control is built into the left side of the lens and is operated naturally and easily with the left thumb. 1080p video captured with the V1 also looked good (as far as we could tell on the camera's own screen) and autofocus while shooting video looked reliable and smooth.
The V1 with a 10-30mm kit lens costs a few cents short of $900 and the J1 with the same lens will set you back nearly $650 when the pair launch in the US and across Europe on October 20th. Stay tuned for our full review nearer that date!