Looking for something that... almost... exists

May 10, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

 

I commented a while back on the launch of the Nikon 1 cameras. What I didn’t really anticipate at the time was that I would end up owning one!

It would be more strictly true to say that I co-own one of them as I share it with my partner. Bernie is no slouch as a photographer – in fact she has a formal qualification (A-Level) which is one up on me! – but is usually happy to let me lug the bigger cameras around. For several years she used, and was pretty happy with, a Canon Powershot Pro but it was pretty slow – OK for landscape and nature shots but not for any sort of action – and I didn’t like the early-implementation electronic viewfinder – well, it is a 2004 camera!

As documented in this blog, I’ve been looking for some time for a lighter camera which I could carry on road bike rides and other times when I didn’t want to lug an SLR but didn’t want to go completely naked either. Though Bernie’s Canon was still working perfectly, we thought we’d look for something we could share.

Our first attempt resulted in the purchase of an Olympus XZ-1. This had garnered a lot of good reviews and had an impressive spec. for a compact, with a fast and sharp 28-112mm lens being a big plus point. However it quickly became clear that this camera was not going to work out for us, the main reason being that it does not have a viewfinder. 

I’ve talked about this before. I’ve nothing against screen viewing in principle, and will fairly frequently use Live View on my DSLRs when I want ultra-precise focusing, but that’s for careful work on a tripod when I can shade the screen if necessary. The Olympus has a good screen but it’s still impossible to see it clearly in bright light. I know you can get screen shades and loupes but that rather defeats the object of carrying a compact. 

The XZ-1 sealed its own fate on our first trip to Menorca, in September last year as guest of Walk Menorca. Incidentally my report of this has just been published.  Lovely island, great walking, but lots of sunshine – fantastic for everything except seeing the screen on the XZ-1! I was shooting merrily with my NIkon D7000, but Bernie was struggling with the Olympus. It could take good shots* but it was impossible to see clearly enough to frame them properly.

*(I say “good shots” but I also have to say that image quality, even in good light and at base ISO, does not bear comparison with a DSLR, and I doubt it would stack up for my professional magazine work.)

DSC_0127 With this in mind, soon after getting back from Menorca, we put the XZ-1 up for sale and started looking for alternatives. As we were both now clear in our minds that it had to have a viewfinder, this narrowed the field considerably and we started looking again at the Nikon 1 – the J1 model has screen-only viewing but the V1 has an electronic viewfinder. And the net result is: we bought one! (from the lovely people at Wilkinson Cameras in Preston).

We have the V1 camera with the usual 10–30mm lens (equivalent to approx 27–81mm). I don’t intend to write a full review – there are plenty of those out there already – but here are a few first impressions on salient points. Much of this was hammered out in a week's intensive use on a second trip to Menorca – this time mountain biking.

DSC_0322

Handling

Overall a nice camera to hold; big enough to get both hands on it, with left hand under the lens in classic support position. Yes, there’s VR, but it still pays to support the camera properly. However, and let’s get this in right at the start, there is one big flaw; the mode dial on the rear of the camera is far too easily knocked out of position. As often as not, when lifting the camera out of a pouch, it ends up on the wrong setting and we find ourselves shooting a movie or burst when we wanted to take proper photos. This dial really should have a lock button, or at the very least be much more securely click-stopped. It’s not a deal-breaker, as we’re getting in the habit of checking it every time, but it is a seriously poor bit of design.

More camera control than I’d really like is done through menus, discouraging the use of Manual mode or regular switching between modes. On the whole, though, this is a niggle rather than a major problem. It is, fortunately, easy and quick to alter apertures when in Aperture Priority, Shutter-speeds in Shutter-priority, and to engage program shift when in Program mode. Pity it’s not equally easy to tweak the ISO settings.

DSC_0084 Viewing

The V1 switches automatically from screen to viewfinder as you raise it to your eye. This eye-start feature works flawlessly in our experience, though I’d prefer to have the option to turn the screen off altogether when not in use, as it clearly drains the battery (see under ‘Performance’, below). 

The screen is a good one, if not quite up to the latest SLR, and I’d have no hesitation in using it when appropriate, e.g. shooting on a tripod or at high or low levels where it’s awkward to use the viewfinder. However, the electronic viewfinder was central to our decision to buy this camera, so it is a relief to find that it is as bright and clear out in the field as it seemed in the shop.

My one gripe in relation to viewing is that when you are shooting in Single frame release mode, the image you’ve just taken is automatically displayed immediately afterwards, meaning that you can’t see what’s happening in front of you. This is fine when you’re shooting landscapes but not for action. Obviously we could shoot in Continuous mode instead, but this isn’t always the answer. On my SLRs, naturally, the review image only appears on the screen so I have a continuous viewfinder view – but there’s still an option to turn off image review altogether. The V1 needs this and it could be addressed through a firmware update.

Manual focus is clunky and not user-friendly but the AF is very good and I don’t imagine MF will get used much, if at all.

DSC_0416 Performance

Apart from the ‘blocking’ effect of image review that I’ve just mentioned, the V1 is very quick in use. The allegedly revolutionary autofocus system certainly seems to be both very fast and very accurate and the response to the shutter button also shows no discernible delay. 

The one downside is that battery life is a bit on the short side. The V1 uses the same EN–EL15 batteries as my D7000, which turned out to be just as well as it ran out of juice after 5 days of discontinuous use on Menorca. The D7000, meanwhile, which had taken twice as many shots, still showed 63% battery power. Remember I said I wanted to be able to turn the screen off? This is why.

Image quality

In the end, the acid test is the pictures, and the V1 measures up pretty well. Overall image quality is noticeably better than the Olympus XZ-1, or the Nikon Coolpix P7100 which I worked on last year; hardly surprising as the sensor is at least twice the size while retaining the same number of pixels. Up to around ISO 800 I’d see it as suitable for magazine full-page reproduction, though probably not for double-page spreads. Dynamic range is not as good as my DSLRs but I never expected it would be.

Overall impressions

We’re still getting to know the V1 and will certainly continue to explore its strengths and weaknesses. But we’re both very clear that – unlike the Olympus XZ-1 – it’s a keeper.


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