With the Nikon 1 System in the Masai Mara

Click on photo for a 1920×1200 version

Part 2 of this story is here (covering more normal shooting conditions)

Welcome

Welcome back to this series of first impressions which started about a year ago with the Nikon D7000 and roughly 6 months ago with the rather extensive Nikon D5100 “review”. Oh, and on June 15th, 2011 we celebrated Nikon’s 12th anniversary with the D family of D-SLRs

This time, I am not focusing on any new individual gear like camera or a lens, but rather take the liberty to view Nikon’s newly introduced System 1 as a whole from a user’s perspective. Well, almost as a whole, as some parts are still missing like GPS module and  F-mount converter FT-1.

On August 25th, 2011, Nikon announced a whole new camera “system” – the Nikon System 1. Consisting initially  of 2 camera models and 4 lenses, a flash and a GPS unit. You won’t find here any in-depth tables on specifications, or images of the camera and lenses itself. If you are interested in these kinds of information, please check out the familiar websites like imaging-.resources, dpreview, etc..  It does not make any particular sense for me to repeat this easy to find information. However, I thought you might be interested in some of the experiences I had in the first week of operation during my vacation to one of the premier photographic places on the planet – The Masai Mara.

 

The usual disclaimer:

I am not a professional photographer, neither a professional reviewer. Rather one of the countless photo enthusiasts who enjoy photography as one of their spare time activities. So don’t make your buying decision dependent on any information in this story, rather take the points made here as indication to look deeper and base your final judgment only after you had a chance to get your own personal experience – in your favorite camera store or with friends or in a local photo club. All of the gear described, presented and discussed about is my personal property, bought at a local dealer at regular prices without any subsidies or other influence from Nikon. You might consider as well that this website is not plastered with ad banners to “recoup” some of the efforts to provide this information. Photography is my hobby and writing this story as well. All of this information is my personal view, be it right or wrong. Nothing more, nothing less. Finally, I reserve the right to change my view at any time as part of my constant learning  Smile

Economic considerations

Where it started (some market and economic considerations)

A long time ago, the rumor mill started to spread the news that Nikon will enter the growing list of companies with a mirror-less camera system with interchangeable lenses. Due to their well established market positions in the DSLR camp, Nikon and Canon were not the first companies pushing for this paradigm shift in the market, it was rather Sony’s push to change the market rules in their second attempt to challenge the established DSLR market leaders (Canon and Nikon) . While the Asian market seemed to appreciate the new form factor, the more conservative US and European market has yet to mirror the Asian developments.

Back to Nikon. Given the tremendous focus and care the company had on it’s highly successful f-mount system, any new Nikon camera system has to be positioned from a company strategy perspective very carefully to open up a long term product and business roadmap (counted in decades) and not jeopardizing the existing business (f-mount cameras and lenses) plus leveraging the existing product and customer base as USP (Unique Selling Proposition) vs. their established and new competitors. Not an easy task to plan for a period of co-existence which basically provides Nikon both options for the future. If the mirrorless market is exploding, they have a product and customer base to work from and be in a better position creating the products to migrate the existing Nikon DSLR customer base to the new mirrorless market (and not loosing their customers to competitors). If the mirror-less market turns out to be is a time limited phenomenon, any activities in this period should not kill the established successful DSLR market base the company invested into for the last 60 years.

From a business strategy and economic perspective the System 1 is an interesting endeavor.  First, the focus on a “System” and not a “Camera”. Second the size of the Sensor, which by the way triggered so many negative discussions in the little internet world.

Let’s delve a bit into both terms. Both, Nikon and Canon, are arguably the most successful manufacturers of camera systems currently in the market. For a system oriented manufacturer, or as some would say platform, one of the most important differentiator to sustainable growth is the level of control and capability of the intersection between lenses and camera bodies – the mount. Properly defined (and secured) it allows a manufacturer independent innovation cycles on both ends – lenses and cameras. From a customer perspective the benefit grows in the long term as any individual investment increases the utility of already acquired tools. It is an investment protection for the customer and a viable tool for the manufacturer to keep the customer base as their aggregated level of investment in previous gear impacts future investment decisions. Allowing sometimes the manufacturer to bring products to the market which would not be at the leading edge in one single technical aspect, but seen overall, they still provide more value to the existing customer base. It’s the network effect which helps the manufacturer and simultaneously create benefit for the customer. Nikon was excellent with their execution record around the f-mount for the last 60 years and customers had in the average a rather positive experience vs. a feeling of being “locked-in” .

 

1) Cameras seen as systems vs. cameras as appliances

Quick jump to the world of appliances. Personally, I would consider all P&S cameras and all cameras without interchangeable lenses appliances. They have to create enough “value” by themselves to be considered by potential customers. This has positive and negative effects. On the positive side, the manufacturer has more liberty to design any piece of technology into the new product which fits the economic and technical  envelope and triggers enough buying actions with the intended target audience. Value for money. Almost no consideration for previous choices customers actually did. It is easy to grab customers from competitors away if your product is better. On the flip side for the company, you have a smaller secured customer base, every new product runs the danger of letting many of your customers switch to a competitor if it is not compelling. 

There is a potentially negative aspect for customers as well. While most products in this category at the time of purchase provide potentially more bang for the buck than a camera system, these investments are rather a quicker write off, as consecutive purchases won’t increase the utility of your old investments.

Nikon was explicit that it introduced with the Nikon 1 a camera system and not a range of cameras and lenses connected by a marketing term. Implicit message “We are in for the long run” and the mount is our key architectural decision and capability. Lenses have usually a different life cycle than cameras. Sensor technologies and sizes can change as well (See the f-mount and DX and FX). The ability to put a “pro” Nikon 1 camera on the market, bigger and with all the user dials – no problem, but keep the mount for this “system”. That’s Nikons established turf.

2) The sensor size.

Quite a few voices said: What the heck was Nikon thinking with it’s 2,7 crop CX sensor? Interestingly, most voices haven’t even looked at images. Just the pure fact, the technical data, was enough to make the judgment. My simple take on this is the economic view which is so important for the mass market. Most chip fabs produce sensors on 300mm size wafers. While the production cost of a wafer is rather fixed (say 5000 USD per 300mm wafer) the manufacturing costs per sensor are primarily driven by 2 factors – yíeld and the size of the sensors. Assuming that all manufacturers are capable of riding the same yield curve, the smaller sensor gives you (Nikon) a sustainable cost advantage. I would not say that the manufacturing cost advantage is currently passed on to the market, but it is there to compete more effectively with the established mirrorless companies with bigger sensors. For instance by introducing a value line over time.

If the mount design is flexible enough a second sensor size can be introduced into the same system as well as a more expensive and capable  product line – be it based on a DX size sensor or a yet to be defined EX sensor between DX and FX (just guessing). Anyway, Nikon seem to have taken the long view on this strategy for the mass market. Take a look at the Nikon 1 manufacturing plant tour . A company would not put 8000+ people behind a niche product.

Nikon can’t ignore the early lead of Olympus and Sony had in this space. But rather than introducing one “SuperDuperIncredibleTheWorldHasNeverSeen” individual product, they seemed to focus on the proper basics first and let the innovation waves roll on top of it for the years to come. See the lens patents as a potential indicators what is in the pipe.

BTW, the new mount is all electronic, removing the biggest technical hurdle of the old F-mount: The mechanical aperture lever with its increasing limitations (exposure precision, lens design, ..).

To cut a long story short. These kind of long term perspectives among other considerations triggered my personal decision to get into the Nikon System 1.

 

My Nikon 1 System and very first impressions

Was there a real need to get the System 1? Honestly, not really. Rather driven by curiosity how this new system would complement my existing setup and allow for new, yet untapped photo opportunities not possible with the DSLRs or my P7000 Coolpix. In the past; I tried a couple of times to extend my DSLR gear with a compact camera. The limitations for me were so severe (battery life, sluggishness in operation, image quality, ….) that these attempts need to be considered unsuccessful attempts.

Next attempt

On Wednesday Oct 19th, most of my stuff arrived, except the 2 cameras which came in on Thursday. No issue, as I was abroad anyway. Friday I was able to pick up all products:

  • Nikon 1 – J1 Kit with 10-30mm lens (black)
  • Nikon 1 – V1 Kit with 10mm pancake lens (black)
  • AFS 30-110mm VR lens (black)
  • AFS 10-100mm VR PD power drive lens (black)
  • SB-N5 flash
  • 2 spare batteries for the J1 (EN-EL 20)
  • 1 spare battery for the V1 (EN-EL15)

As mirror-less cameras need more battery capacity than DSLRs, the prices of batteries vs. camera is imho too high. Especially considering, that someone needs more batteries in the average. Can’t avoid getting the feeling of the Gillette business model. “Get the razor subsidized and we (over)charge you for the blades”

With the exception of the PowerDrive(PD)  lens, the 3 x Series 1 lenses (10mm pancake, 10-30mm and 30-110mm ) are really small and light weight. The PD lens has much more “glass” in it and feels more in line with the lenses I usually use. The V1 is from a size perspective somehow similar to the P7000, while the J1 – especially with the pancake lens – looks like the proverbial “always carry-on” sidekick camera.

Interestingly, only 2 out of the 4 lenses where provided with sun hoods. Both the 10mm pancake and the shorter zoom provide a sun hood only as an extra item. Inconvenient. Need to order it separately, as it was not available initially.

Incompatible batteries (V1) and unwieldy charger (J1)

I brought one of my new D7000 spare batteries (EN-EL15) into the camera store, to be able to use the V1 immediately. Unfortunately, my V1 displays the same error as some other owners have already experienced. The new, fully charged battery is not properly recognized and the camera displays a message to replace the worn &  uncharged battery with a new one. As I could not find any difference in the maker notes of the V1 batteries and my D7000 batteries (they are basically identical), there seems to be an incompatibility with what the D7000 writes into the memory chip of the EN-EL15 and the V1 reads out. To avoid any further incompatibilities until Nikon fixes the firmware I keep the batteries and charger of the 2 camera systems separate. Needless to say, it is inconvenient.

Another old relative with a new label can be seen in the J1 box. The battery charger MH-27 is about the same size as the charger of the D5100 and P7000 (MH-24). While the charger itself is bigger than the J1, the way how Nikon decided to accommodate non-US power plugs is weird, or should I say unacceptable.  Instead of plugging the appropriate power cord into the charger (and remove it easily when done) Nikon accompanies the charger with a plug adapter which permanently get fixed to the charger. The shape and size of this combination is the opposite of what users expect when they decide for a compact camera. It is unwieldy, awkward to use and beyond any logic. If Nikon is serious about compact and excellent cameras, they should put their charger on the top of the list of easy things to improve. Until then, you get (unfortunately) my thumbs down for this repeated and unnecessary act of user inconvenience by design (J1, D3100, D5100, P7000)

Why not charge the camera with a USB cable?

Talking about compactness: I would greatly appreciate if Nikon would introduce with all upcoming Nikon 1 cameras the ability to charge the camera with an USB cable (Micro USB or Mini USB, I don’t mind either). Basically all smartphones have this kind of ability and it would accommodate very well to those users who would like to travel light.

 

First shots

When I left the camera store, I was able to shoot a couple of photos in Vienna downtown on the way back. I chose the J1 and the PD lens. The J1’s batteries were charged, the V1’s needed a charge first and the PD lens was the most “serious” lens in the box giving the impression that the amount of glass in it would produce better images, just by the sheer weight (and it did) Smile

Compared to the P7000, the swiftness and agility could immediately be experienced. Turn on time is faster, AF is significantly faster (and less stressed vs DX/FX cameras due to deeper DOF), the 10-100mm PD lens is quick and convenient. If you are right hand side guy (or gal), all things are good. For lefthanders, things might be more complicated, which I didn’t check personally, but from the position of the knobs and wheels I would imagine that lefthanders might have some issues with usability. Check out for yourself before you buy if you are in this camp.

The smaller sensor provides deep DOF which sometimes makes life easier, sometimes harder.

Here are some examples from this very first shots with the J1 and the 10-100mm lens

(Click on the photo for a 1920×1200 version)

In the image above,a shallower DOF would have been nice to isolate the face from the background, but the helicopter below is such en example where the small sensor helps to get everything into the focus plane.

Click photo for a 1920×1200 version

A quick check against the sun shows that Nikon lens designers did their homework in the flare, ghosting and reflections department. Very well done. For sure better than many super zooms in the DX and FX camp, like the AFS 18-200mm DX and the AFS 28-300mm VR FX.

If you try hard, you get some form of shallow DOF with the 4 lenses. The easiest way with the current lenses is to use the longest focal length, get as close at possible to the MFD (Minimum Focus Distance) and check that the background is a bit away. This one was taken with the PD lens at 100mm and MFD which is approx. 1 meter (3ft)

So much for the very first shots in Vienna.

 

Context

I did not expect to get my hands on the System 1 before my long standing vacation trip to Kenya – including 4 days in the Masai Mara – began on Saturday. Yet, all of the available products arrived on time. A fantastic chance to take the little toys out for a ride which I did not want to miss. Leveraging the small size, I managed somehow to get the 7 items in my already packed photo bag, without leaving any of the “serious” stuff at home. I tried hard to lend, borrow (or even steal Smile ) a working FT-1 adapter, but to no avail. Need to wait for another chance. Latest information: They will ship end of November. If available, I would have taken the AFS 200mm/2 VR lens as long distance telephoto lens for the V1. New chances will come.

Given that this was not a pure photo trip to the Masai Mara, I had only 2 relatively small bags to facilitate carry-on during the flights. The ThinkTank  Airport Ultralight v2.5 and the ThinkTank Retrospective 20. Enough space for 5 bodies (D3x, D3s, D300s, J1, V1), 10 lenses (AFS 14-24mm, AFS 24-70mm, AFS 70-200mm, AFS 200-400mm, AFS 60mm Micro, AFS 50mm/1.8G, 4 Nikkor 1 lenses), 2 tele-convertes (TC14 and TC20EIII) and 2 flashes (SB-700, SB-N5). Tripod, Tripod head, chargers, card readers, cables were in the checked luggage. To accommodate the expected storage requirements for the videos I probably erred with SD and CF  cards rather to the safe side. 320 GB in total. In hindsight, too much. We ended up with 190 GB data in 4 days. A reasonable priced powerful little notebook (Lenovo X121e) was in the front bag of the Airport Ultralight for backup and photo editing during the trip. Usually, I keep during a trip one copy of data on the CF/SD cards and one copy on the notebook.

Back in 2007, I spent 2 days in the Mara for one of the most unforgettable photo trips I ever had. We had a full day to follow small lion puppies out there and those printed images are still in our apartment.

This is one of the photos from 2007.

 

The photo plan for this trip was very simple.

  1. Enjoy vacation with my wife and friends.
  2. Take some nice photos with the “serious” DSLR gear
  3. Get used to the new Nikon 1 system.

Results and impressions might have been different if I would have had only the System 1 gear with me. Honestly, I did not dare to jump completely the band wagon with basically no experience in the new system. In this trip, the V1 was the premier tool for HD video (1080/30p) and rather an add-on from a photographic perspective. Whenever I had time, I tried the J1 as well. Well, after I did my shots with the DSLRs.

Reading the manual

The flight to Nairobi is a bit more than 7 hrs, a good period to read both manuals front to back. I haven’t done this since the D1 and the follow-on DSLRs were sufficiently similar to avoid the same effort. But here comes a new camera system, were I found it worthwhile to do it for now.

I read the PDF version on my notebook, but if you are interested in a printed version, Nikon offers this service for a fee. In my country, its 19 Euro (25 USD) incl. shipping . Here is the website to order it for German and Austrian customers.

Don’t know if this is a sign of the design goal of Nikon to simplify the life for its intended customers, but the manual for the V1 is only 160 pages (vs. >400 pages for the D5100). The size of the manual almost shout – “Hey, I am simpler to use. Don’t be scared”.

Couple of notes I took while reading the V1 manual (beyond what I knew from the usual websites):

  • My favorite storage setting: RAW and JPEG (basic/small) is not available, need to be RAW+JPEG  fine/small at minimum.
  • No 14bit RAW support (is this an indication of dynamic range in the sensor?)
  • No explicit indication, if “RAW compressed” is really lossless or not (I hope)
  • Auto ISO-1600 is missing (AutoISO 400, 800 and 3200 is available), no minimum exposure time to set for ISO adoption
  • VR default setting is “Active” not “normal”: Nikon seems to expect people shooting the N1 will by majority be on the move
  • Video – European norms are missing in cameras for the EU market, i.e. 25p/50i – need to be looked at how it copes with light sources and video norms.
  • Battery – The V1 shows remaining charge in %, the J1 not.
  • Due to the size of the camera, there might be a need for a tripod adapter to accommodate larger lenses (TA-N100)
  • Page 173 –Available settings. Provides a good overview about what is available and where. It is also an indication of the weakness of these kind of systems, to have so many different states, which influence usability.
  • The significant memory size of this camera: 44 RAW/JPEG images fits in the buffer, 58 JPEG (large/fine) – Would be great to get this buffer in a D7000 …
  • Video recording per battery charge is 1:27 hrs

 

Arrival in Nairobi

Upon arrival in Nairobi, we had to stay for a night, before departing next morning with a smaller plane to the Masai Mara.

As I haven’t used the V1 yet, I kept using the J1. These night shots were done with the J1 and the 10mm pancake lens. If someone strives for a real compact setup in the System 1 range, this is the most compact one. Those photos were done with the following setting:

AF-S, single center AF field, 5 sec timer, ISO 100. The combo was mounted on the ball head of my tripod, but without the tripod, to facilitate setting the direction. Indeed, a very compact setup.

Click on the 3 photos for a 1920×1200 version

Interested in the high ISO performance of the small sensor I used the bar setup as a good test bed. The first image was taken with ISO 100, the second with ISO 1600. Not bad for this small sensor, which many (who actually never used the camera) dismissed from the beginning, basically claiming, that this smallish CX sensor is incapable for these kind of shots. YMMV, but imho, it is not bad at all.

ISO 100 Bar, click on the photo for a 1920×1200 version

ISO 1600 Bar, click on photo for a 1920×1200 version

 

The next day

Typical shooting started on the trip over to the lodge. The V1 as well as the J1 are very pleasant to use. The EVF of the V1 is a boon during bright sunlight. The screens on the background are not bright enough to really compose an image during bright sunlight. The EVF of the V1 helps. For most of the day the PD lens sticked to the V1 and the J1 rotated the other 3 lenses. Most of the time the 30-110mm is mounted on the J1.

While the PD lens is heavy (530gr, 18 oz) it quickly became the swiss knife of the 4 lenses. It covers basically the currently available focal range of the Series 1, has VR built in and excellent image quality. Looking at the RAW files at the long focal end, I would put the V1 & 10-100mm PD lens in front of a DX camera with the 18-100mm VR lens or even an FX camera with the AFS 28-300mm super zoom. What the V1 lacks in individual pixel quality vs. DX and FX the PD lens demonstrates better IQ than the respective DX and FX super zooms. Very nice to have the most compact setup almost leading the larger camera cousins.  The quality of this lens might be an indication that Nikon keeps the option open to introduce higher resolution bodies in the future.

I need reading glasses, which basically does not hinder my DSLR usage. Change the diopter setting in the optical viewfinder – problem solved. If you have glasses you might lean more to the V1 with its diopter adjustable EVF, vs the J1. Otherwise you end up constantly raising and lowering your reading glasses to be able to operate the J1.

Image Quality

Compared to DSLRs I got so used to, there is a limitation. Final output size is a bit more limited. Image quality is really great as long as it is not more than 2000 pixel in the long dimension – even at pixel level. Viewing the images at captured & native resolution and 100% crop, especially the 10-30mm drops off a bit. I haven’t had the opportunity to view images on my big screen at home (I am still in Kenya) but there is a visible difference at 100% crop level. Does it matter to you? It depends what your expectations are. If you treat the System 1 as your DSLR replacement – I would not concur. Is it better than the P7000 RAW files. Absolutely. Most of the V1/J1 images on this blog are resized to 1920×1200 pixel for this reason (and to accommodate the slow bandwidth here). Honestly, this resolution with enough base quality is more than enough for most scenarios the Series 1 was designed for. A letter (or A4 for Europeans) sized printout with this resolution will normally look excellent. If you need larger print sizes with excellent qualities take your DSLR or stitch multiple photos – or reduce your viewing expectations to normal viewing distances.

V1 & 10-100mm, out of cam, only converted to JPEG

V1 & 10-100mm, out of cam, only converted to JPEG

V1 & 10-100mm, The flare resistance of the PD lens is remarkable

This shot was done with a focal length of 10mm, Looking carefully, you might find the baby hippo (in the middle of the photo) 

Shot from the same position @ 100mm, 100% crop, converted to JPEG

Video

I can’t check it here for final quality assessments (my laptop screen has only 1366×768 pixel resoultion), but the HD videos the V1 delivered during a low level balloon flight were excellent. Supported by the PD lens’ qualities (low reflections against the sun), excellent VR, the videos are amazing for me. The 10x super zoom also supported the wide angle view needed for the basket and the telephoto end to be able to zoom in for individual animals – no lens change needed. The AF had no issues to catch running animals from above (think of the background issue…). Due to bandwidth restrictions I can’t currently upload some videos right now, but will do so when back home.

Fortunately, I decided to to bring a small Gitzo oil-damped video head on this trip, which greatly facilitated video capturing in the car. Especially at the tele-end, handholding has its limitations. Lesson learned: If you are serious with videography, plan for a small video head.

The only lens which does not have VR is the 10mm pancake lens. While I love this little good performer in the photography domain, it clearly shows its limitation while hand holding during video. The better video quality is with the PD and AFS 10-30mm lens. Or use a video head.

As a place holder for the video.
This was the perspective of the 10mm pancake. click on photo for a 1920×1200 version

EVF and screen in video mode

One of the issues I ran into was with the V1. The EVF has a sensor which switches the screen off and turns the EVF on when you look throughthe EVF with your eye. Sounds simple, but it is not. In the beginning, I was quite often confused, when I lost the screen during video recording – it went black, without even putting my eye close to the electronic view finder. What happened was, that in bright sunlight the screen is barely visible. So I created some shadow with my hand 30 cm (1 ft) above the camera, by holding it in front of the sun. The EVF sensor took this shadow as an indicator that I wanted to use the EVF. But I wasn’t even close to the EVF. False positives …

 

The flip side of HD video and small cameras – heat

During one of the trips on the last day I video recorded elephants. After 10-15 mins of  recording in a valley with about 30 degrees in the shadow ( approx 86-90 degree Fahrenheit for our US friends), the camera displayed this message for a short moment: “The camera’s internal temperature is high. The camera will now turn off.” And off it went. Forever.

According to the manual, the camera’s internal circuits will recognize when the temperature is back in the green range. Whatever I tried, cooling down, new batteries, the V1 stayed black – no reaction. Eventually I wrote a support request to Nikon to ask for a “hard reset” switch or similar method. Unfortunately the only recommendation was to keep the camera for 24 hrs in a cool room and without any batteries. It did not help either – still black. Need to go to Nikon support services when I am back in Vienna. The dense packaging and CPU processing power (dissipating heat as well) might pose some limitations in hot area’s. I assume that the failure of my V1 is an individual copy’s issue, not a fault due to a design issue. But higher temperatures seems to be something I need to be more careful about. BTW, the manual states the same temp range as the DSLR cameras 0-40 degree C.

The sudden death of my V1 had also an implication on my PD lens. It could not get back into its shorter transport position. On a dead camera, you can’t manually retract the PD lens. Unlike the other 2 lenses with lens knobs (10-30mm and 30-110mm) the PD lens has no knob and retracts and extents only by electricity. if the camera is turned off, no movement with this lens. Fortunately, the J1 was still around, working flawlessly. By mounting the lens to the J1 I could fix the problem. The lens is working fine for now.

White balance

Both cameras (V1 and J1) use their WB rather on the cool side of the range. I defer to later inspection on my color calibrated monitor at home, what the WB settings out-of-camera produce, but here in the field it looks rather cool. If confirmed at home, I’d adjust it in the comprehensive WB menu. Nothing special, just to be aware off.

Long range telephoto

Currently limited to 300mm (FX equivalent). I would have loved to use the V1 with fast AF-S lenses, but as said, the FT-1 adapter is still not available. Besides obvious stellar lenses like the AFS 200mm/2 VR and 70-200mm/2.8 lenses a range of smaller DX lenses closer to the size and price point of the System 1 could be useful:

  • AFS 35mm/1.8G = 95mm
  • AFS 40mm/2.8 Micro = 105mm
  • AFS 85mm/3.5G Micro = approx 200mm
  • AFS 55-300mm = approx 135mm-810mm
    Could also be a nice migration story for those who already have DX bodies or plan to get one in the future.

 

Depth of Field

In a nutshell, nice for landscape, bad for subject isolation (especially at long range).

An example. Both photo’s were shot from the same distance (approx 50 meters to the zebra). The trees in the background are much farther away, maybe 500 meters. Despite the focal length difference (270mm vs. 400mm) the different visual impression is clearly evident.

V1, 100mm, open aperture @ f5.6

 

D3x, AFS 200-400mm, open aperture @ f4

 

 

Handling

Handling is ok for me. I would not use the N1 cameras in the same set of circumstances like a DSLR. The DSLR (especially the higher end models) allow for more and faster flexibility over a wider set of usage scenarios.

The N1 menu system is very fast and if you don’t need to change a whole range of settings at once, sufficiently fast. Farsighted people like I need glasses on the J1 (and mostly the V1) for the menu settings to be operated swiftly. Another speed break is bright sunlight. Still possible to use the displays, but it needs more effort. The dial on the right side is almost too easy to turn. Countless times this wheel was on the wrong position – either by me holding the camera, or while taking it out from the bag. As both modes – Video and photo mode allow both styles of shooting – video and photo, there is no immediate feedback that there is something wrong. Only after the fact I figured out that the photo taken was recorded in video mode with low resolution and no RAW at all. Videos in photo mode are of lower quality than the full blown HD video in video mode. Easy to mix up and requires a higher level of consciousness than I am probably able to do.

AF and the the broader comparison: Mirrorless vs. DSLR – Speed of operation

Many questions in internet forums center around the AF: Is it fast? Is it solid? How capable is AF-C? How’s about AF in video mode? etc.., etc. …

The AF of the N1 series camera is one of the best, probably the best I had ever experienced in P&S and Mirror-less cameras (disclaimer: Only used the NEX-5 and Olympus P1). I was especially pleased in low light situations (the one above from the hotel) where the AF system found immediately its focal setting in a situation, where the D5100 would have a hard time doing the same. Impressive. Really impressive.

Yet, speed is for me more than just the speed of a single technical attribute and I’d like to take this opportunity to share my view and my experiences in this set of shooting scenarios. Sure, there are other scenarios, but in this one in the Masai Mara it was evident. If I compare the speed demon of the Nikon DSLR world with the speed demon of the mirrorless world, what did I observe in this trip?

During the morning, the sun barely out and the hyenas moving fast,  the AF of the N1 hunted helpless back and forth. The D3x was able to capture 8 out of 10 photos in focus.

D3x,

Initial AF capture is way faster with good DSLR bodies, than with the N1 bodies. Especially if the animal is standing in front of a cluttered background.

Animal in high grass or behind bushes are easier to get in focus with DSLRs. Independent of the camera type (DSLR, ML) the “killer feature” for guaranteed out-of-focus animals is a setting with multiple AF fields. You never know which AF field will be activated.

Another difference for me is speed of handling. With “pro” DSLRs it is possible to switch between AF-S, AF-C and MF, or Single AF-field vs. Multiple FAF-fields within fractions of a second  – without taking the eye off the viewfinder.

AFS lenses for DSLR have an manual override function, N1 lenses not. It is easier for DSLR users to help the AF system in complex situations.

Battery: The D3s had 91% capacity left after 500 photos. The V1 used up 2 full batteries for 90 mins of video and 400 photos. Mirrorless cameras need to be shut off during those minutes of inactivity to preserve energy. DSLRs can be on the whole day – leading to quicker start up times.

The AF of the V1 and J1 is excellent, but it is this broader view which makes up my view that ML as a camera class still lags good DSLRs.

An example

I was looking and shooting Hyenas as surprisingly this eagle came out on the right side. The Hyena was about 30 ft away, the bird 100ft. During the shift to the right side, good DSLRs (here the D3s) allow you to switch from AF-S to AF-.C and from single AF field to Multi AF field. This takes maybe a second, maybe 2, but not more. The first shot with f4 was in focus.

It is my current view that ML cameras have a systemic disadvantage in this aspect, or people more familiar with ML bodies know some unknown tricks (Which I would love to get hold of).

It is this broader consideration of “Speed”, that for now , AF between ML and DSLR is still not at the same level.

D3s, AFS 70-200mm VR II @f4

 

I’ll stop for now and provide the remaining thoughts and experiences in a second post.

Thanks for stopping by,

Andy

 

Part 2 of this story is here (covering more normal shooting conditions)

14 Responses to With the Nikon 1 System in the Masai Mara

  1. Tony Andrew says:

    Having just purchased a V1 that I was rather disappointed with (I also own a D3X) this is just the review I was hoping for, I can’t thank you enough for the time and effort this review has taken, I now can see the advantages and limitations of the V1 and am more enlightened as to what to expect from what is a camera that should not be put up against my D3X anyway, I will persevere with the V1, once again Andy thank you. some great shots.

    • nikonandye says:

      Tony,
      I think it depends on the expectations set. Over time, potentially one system will prevail. Which one? I really don’t know.

      The first part of my holiday trip was a safari, the second one is in a resort, giving the J1 an easier life than in the first week. The shooter has time, it is less demanding, the smaller size plays to its strength. In this setup, the DSLRs aren’t as well positioned than in the first one.
      As written before in my response to Hakan. Photo gear is a multi-purpose tool, icking and choosing one over the other should not be taken on just one use case (unless this is the only one you care about).

      Enjoy your gear,
      Andy

  2. Peter Clark says:

    I love my V1 with the 10-30 and the 30-110, (have the D700 and most of the pro Nkon lenses) and find your review exceptionnal in quality and also fun to read. Agree with your conclusions. Each tool has its use and the light V1 is tops for light and quality gear. Vive Nikon, Peter

    • nikonandye says:

      Peter, you are so right.
      Every tool has its own use, sometimes it fits perfect to the intended purpose, sometimes another tool does. Cameras and lenses are multipurpose tools, which allow significant overlap in use cases. I tried to show those areas were different tools overlap, where were they don’t.

      Nikon’s track record for sustainable value-add in their systems made me invest into the System 1.

      Enjoy your V1 kit,
      Andy

  3. Hakan Lindgren says:

    Glad to see you’re back! I had started to believe that this blog had died, but still I kept coming back… Your independent, knowledgeable and well written articles makes this one of the best photo blogs I’ve seen.

    • nikonandye says:

      Hakan,
      my bad.
      I very appreciate your kind words.

      I was too busy with my day job and as photography is a pure hobby, those long periods are inevitable. I haven’t given up photography at all, rather setting my priorities to take pictures, vs. writing about it. I do have some stories in my sleeve (like comparing a D3s and D3x) and would love to welcome you back in the future.

      kind regards,
      Andy

  4. Kirk Tuck says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It’s nice to hear “real world” experiences instead of forum chatter.

    • nikonandye says:

      Kirk,
      thanks for stopping by.

      Wanted to share some early impressions in one of typical photo settings – a vacation. I have to confess that some of the comparisons are a bit unfair to the N1 cameras (to be compared against pro gear). These comparisions are not meant to dismiss the System 1 bodies, but rather a practical response to those voices in photo forums claiming the end of DSLRs system as we know. Both systems have their space, and we will see how they will evolve.

      For those blog readers here, who don’t know Kirk, here is his blog:
      http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/10/nikon-1-counterintuitive-crazy-and.html

      kind regards,
      Andy

  5. Norm says:

    Great review. I have had my V1 for 10 days and I am more than happy with the performance. It doesn’t quite measure up to my D7000, but it is way better than I expected. I like to travel light so this will be my primary travel camera.

  6. PhotoHop says:

    The samples are incredible to my eyes…much better quality then I would have thought. Nice review and thanks!

  7. R-E says:

    Your photos with the V1 are tack sharp! Nicely done and thanks for the review.

  8. David says:

    Excellent review!!! I know now that I won’t be buying a V1 (I am a Nikon user with D700 and DX cameras) or J1, at least not now. The form factor makes these cameras about the same size as smaller Nikon DX bodies. The per-pixel quality as you mentioned. The price. I know you stated in your review that you only shot with NEX and Oly EP1 in micro 4/3 camp. These are by the way the slowest AF ILS cameras out there. Try any Panasonic m4/3 body – AF is instant in any light. Try the newest Oly EP3 – AF is instant. Now, on the same token, perhaps Nikon comes up with smaller bodies in next generation (that is if the whole thing is not a failure) and I might look at it again. I am looking forward to reading your conclusion….

  9. My friend, who has now both nex5 and 5N says 5N is much quicker.

  10. Pingback: Are DSLR’s going the way of the Dodo? | Enthusiast Photographer

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