A further look into the Nikon System 1
This is the second part about the Nikon System 1 in my blog. Click here for the first part of this article.
Hope you enjoyed the first part of this small story about Nikon’s new photographic system. As written earlier, camera and lenses are designed to be (in the general sense) multipurpose tools. Assessing one technical aspect and extrapolating this one aspect to a general assessment of the whole system runs the danger to be wrong – significantly wrong. Take for instance the debate about sensor size. Taken individually, people started to “hate” the new camera – only from the specs - even without considering all the other design choices the manufacturer did. Funny way of making choices. A single metric almost never qualifies to describe a complex technical product accurately. A more laissez-faire kind of approach seems to be more appropriate. With this in mind, let’s start to explore some of the other aspects of the System 1.
Size and some comments on details
The System 1 set: 2 cameras, 4 lenses and 1 flash. The FT-1 adapter is still missing
This photo shows nicely the 7 pieces, but it misses the point to put the size of the System 1 in context of the existing DSLR systems it might supersede in the long run. (Strong statement, but who knows? At least the term “long run” is sufficiently flexible …)
Comparing the V1 & 10-30mm and SB-N5 with a decent DSLR like the D7000 and the 17-55mm plus the SB-700, shows the real “progress” in size reduction. You can argue either way around, but it is significant. Size and weight.
Potentially, this image does more to tell the size we are talking about
Left: V1 & flash and standard zoom lens (equiv. 27-81mm on FX)
Right: D7000 & SB-700 & AFS 17-55mm/2.8 (equiv. 26-82mm on FX)
What Nikon did not achieve was the reduction in size of the accessories. The charger is the same size, so in relation to the accompanying camera, the charger morphs from a small gadget to a huge box of similar size like the camera it should help power. If Nikon is serious on their “compact” aspirations, I am sure they can do better in this category. Let’s wait and see.
Here is a photo of the absolutely weird charger (non-US version) for the Nikon J1. It is as big as the one for the EN-EL15, a battery 3 times as big, an has this unwieldy plug connector, which is almost impossible to remove without physically destroying the charger.
Talking about compact sizes. Here comes the flash. The first word which comes to my mind is “cute”. The second term is “will it function?”
There is a nice improvement with the lens cap. Not big, but helpful. I am one of those guys who constantly change lenses on different bodies. Both covers of the old DSLR system (gee, I am calling my brand new DSLR cams “old” – eek. Am I already infected by the small size fits all virus?) did not fit together to avoid any dust to get at the inside of the lens and camera cap. With the newly designed System 1 mount, Nikon did exactly that. Both covers can be screwed together to keep them clean in dusty places. Nice.
As written in my first part, Nikon decided for whatever kind of reason, to supply only 2 of the 4 lenses with sun hoods. The AFS 30-110mm and the AFS 10-100mm came out of the box with sun hoods, the 2 smaller lenses not. Independent of the shipping box (i.e. together with the camera in a kit, or stand alone). This might be a simple acknowledgement on behalf of Nikon, that the biggest group of their customer base would never use a sun hood – I don’t know, but likely. Anyway, those of us who understand the benefit of sun hoods are in for an extra expense.
Lens positions: Transport vs. Operation
Don’t know how the other ML camera manufacturers decided to solve the issue of maximum compact size and decent optical performance. Nikon applied in 3 of the 4 lenses initially introduced the “trick” of having a compact transport position and less compact operating position (moving the optical lenses to the appropriate distances needed for the lens to function). This is basically fine, but has a couple of side-effects.
First, It takes time and “effort” to get the camera ready when the shooter pulls it out of the bag. The exception being the 10mm pancake lens – nothing needed there.The AFS 30-110mm has one more step to “operationalize” it – the lens shade has to be removed to get to the unlock button under it. Don’t know if this is also needed with the AFS 10-30mm lens & lens hood, as I currently don’t have one.
The camera recognizes the manual button on the 10-300mm and 30-100mm lens in one direction, but not in the other one. The user can turn on the camera by pressing the lens knob, but this does not function in the other direction. Locking the lens doesn’t turn the camera off. Pressing the on/off button need to be done in addition to retracting and locking the lens. Why? I would prefer symmetrical behavior.
The “huge” 10-100mm PowerDrive lens is a bit different. The transition from transport to operational is not mechanical like with the 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses, but electrical. No mechanical button to unlock. If you would like to accelerate the power-up sequence, Nikon offers a “LOCK” switch on the lens, which basically does the opposite of the mechanical button. While the button on the 10-30mm and 30-110mm locks the lens down in transport position the “LOCK” switch locks the 10-100mm PD lens in the operational position. This helps to have a faster power on with this lens. I did it basically all 4 days in the Masai Mara to preserve energy with the cams.
There is a second difference between the 30-110m and 10-100mm lens. The 10-100mm lens is forgetful, the 30-110mm not. When the cam is turned off and turned on again, the 30-110mm lens “memorize” the latest focal length setting. Easy to do, as the focal length is set manually – there is just no other way. The 10-100mm PD lens, being all electrical, resets the focal length to the wide end – every time it is turned on. I would prefer that the lens and camera keep the last setting, as it requires a timely full zoom ride if you had 2 photo opportunity at the long end and wanted to shut down the cam in between. If this behavior is needed for internal lens calibration or just a firmware setting – I don’t know. If the latter, I’d like to have the option to keep the lens focal setting between power cycles.
Photographing in a relaxed environment
The first part of this report dealt with a situation which by its environmental circumstances gave preference to the DSLR camp. Yet the N1 provided decent performance. This second series covers rather typical smooth shooting scenarios. Walking around looking for nice sceneries and eventually use a tripod and enough time to fiddle with the camera settings.
What became a drag during the safari is a non-issue now. With enough time to switch menu settings back and forth, the menu structure becomes largely self evident. It is a good thing that Nikon reduced the number of options, which reduces the room for error. A couple of proposals for improvement. The menu items for my most often used parameters are not grouped together. I’d love to get those settings which most DSLRs have dedicated manual control wheels and knobs together in a direct sequence. It would greatly accelerate speed of operation.
My proposed sequence of menu settings would be (in order of most frequently used):
- ISO settings
- Exposure mode (PASM, or automatic)
- Focus mode (AFS. AFC, MF)
- AF area mode (single AF field, multiple AF fields, …)
- Metering (matrix, center, spot)
- …. all the other menu options ….
By spreading the menu settings over all menu options, there is a kind of time consuming effort needed to scroll all the way down to the AF area mode for example. How’s about a firmware update for enthusiasts and casual shooters? Enthusiasts would get a “speed optimized” menu layout, the casual shooter stays with the current one. Anyway, I am looking forward to the next generation of System 1 cameras when we get a kind of more explicit usability with dedicated external knobs and wheels. Similar to the P7000 or P7100 at least. Please.
This photo was taken with the J1 and the 10-30mm kit lens. Mounted on an oversized tripod for the J1 (the one I had for my DSLRs gear). timer used, VR turned off, exposure comp –2/3 EV, central AF field, matrix metering.
Given the bright sunlight and the shadows, this scene provided a good opportunity to check the impact of Active D-Lighting (ADL) – see image below.
Click here for a 1920×1200 version
ADL is something which depends more on your personal preference and ambition, rather than technicalities. Pick and choose as you like. My personal preference is the image without ADL.
This is another example, where ADL helped a bit. Click here for a 1920×1200 version
I am more and more surprised by the rock solid metering system in the N1 cameras. Even if currently the J1 is the only working sample I can use, I remember that the V1 was a similar joy last week. Put the usual –0.3 or –0.7 EV compensation in (like with all DSLRs) and you are set. Perfect in most cases.
Click here for a 1920×1200 version
If you haven’t forgotten photographic basics, there is always an opportunity to help the automatic systems by overriding their assumptions.
Exposure comp –1 EV. Click here for a full size version
Another example. J1 & 30-110mm kit lens. exp comp –1 1/3 EV. tripod, VR= off. Click here for a 1920×1200 version
So much has been written about the AF system of these new generation of Nikon cameras. Based on actual usage the system creates a very positive impression with me, although it is not perfect. Let me start:
Building the AF system into the sensor alleviates the constant issue of DSLRs to align the AF module with the sensor. No more front- and backfocus issues.
Helpful for the AF system accuracy is the smaller crop sensor’s deeper DOF – less precision needed than with FX and f1.4 lenses. Nikon’s factory metrics are not sufficiently accurate to allow perfect alignment, causing increasingly more issues with higher resolution sensor cameras and fast lenses. I don’t how Nikon achieved it to include the phase detection AF System into the sensor, but if this works here so well, it is a real feat. I don’t how Nikon is “replacing” the missed pixel data in those sectors of the sensor, where the AF circuits are located. If one can assume that the micro lenses in front of the sensels are covering 100% of the substrate, there is no room for the AF circuits. As they are on the sensor, some sensel need to give room for them. The RAW file does not show any “holes” in the pattern. Where is the data coming from? Do we have here calculated RAW cells for the first time? Hmmm. If this camera has “calculated” RAW cells to compensate for the AF space, what else could be done with software before it is stored in the RAW file? I would be interested in more information about the actual way how this is implemented. If somebody has a pointer to a description, please share.
I don’t have scientific data for this observation. But the initial lock on to a fast moving object (i.e. a bird in the sky, a plane) takes significantly longer than updating the AF data after the initial lock-on happened. If I compare the AF system of good DSLRs there was not so much difference between the 2 different modes (initial and subsequent AF). I missed quite a few shots for instance with a low flying plane approaching me, as the AF could not spend enough time to initially figure out where the plane was. I have not seen any data, what maximum speed the AF system is capable of for this initial phase. However, when it had something in focus, it was excellent in keeping it there.
Low light performance is also very, very good. Especially on tripods, the contrast AF system can cope with dark surfaces in the dark, which is beyond the AF system of DSLRs. Impressive. If not on a tripod, the AF hunts more as the user is not able to keep the camera steady for the duration of the AF contrast calculation.
All in all, I like the AF big time as it is for the first time that the biggest drawback of compact cameras is holistically addressed. I don’t have extensive experience with other ML cameras, only had the NEX-5 for a couple of weeks. The AF system of the N1 is leaps and bounds ahead of the NEX system. Don’t know how good (or better) more recent models are.
It would be good to know, where the phase AF fields are located. Currently there is no indication and information where they are. Are they cross type, or linear type, how many, at which EV is the handover to contrast AF? I understand, that the casual shooter is not interested and hence Nikon has no inclination to share this info. For me, it would be welcomed information to better understand the capabilities of the camera and henceforth reduce surprises, where I thought it should have done something, but was just not capable of. – and I am a tech geek anyway
Here a quick series of a dog at the beach
Not much to say about it. More than enough for most of us. Not at the same level of pixel detail than the latest generation of DSLR cams. Oh, and before I forget – a tripod helps to get better photos No, I am serious on this one. As users want smaller and lighter camera and lenses, they get what they want. Smaller and lighter. Lighter is nice from a carry around perspective, lighter is drag for best image quality. The setup has just lower inertia it can exhibit against the shooter pressing the knob. But these cameras have the huge, really huge benefit of shutterless operation which means almost no mechanical vibration during the exposure. Keep the aperture open an it approaches NIL (Aperture blades don’t have to move either). If you would like to get better quality images, please put it on a tripod and use either a remote or the timer. It really shows.
Similar to the old saying: How do recognize a P&S shooter vs. a ML shooter? Most of the P&S shooter use only one hand, ML shooters both.
If you are serious, use a tripod when needed.
ISO sensitivity and quality, Dynamic Range
When Nikon announced the System 1 with its tiny CX sensor, an uproar went through the internet. Unusable, ridiculous, stupid, were the terms most often read. Lets get real.
One ISO 1600 image was already in the first part of the story, so let me share 2 more scenes here which demonstrates also some DR capabilities.
ISO 100, Click here for a 1920×1200 Version
Stop. Halt. Unfair. you might argue. Sunlight isn’t the kind of harsh test. Agree to a degree.
Here is a second example.
ISO 100, Click here for a 1920×1200 version
ISO 3200, Click here for a 1920×1200 version
There are hundreds of different photo opportunities. Family events, architecture, vacation photography, landscape, night, street, action, sports, shooting in places where you don’t want to “show off” your expensive camera equipment. Just to name a few. My personal view is that ML cameras will start from a limited set of use cases were they already exhibit their strengths and gradually extend their capabilities from one generation to the next. The value of the system will grow over time due to the combined network effect of the 2 independent innovation cycles – cameras (faster) and lenses (slower) .
What would be a set of things I’d ask ML manufacturers to focus their development on?
- Lower the power consumption. It takes way too much energy to keep the camera in standby mode. Consequently, they are turned off between longer pauses. Turning them back on takes significantly longer vs. DSLRs. Please give us one day standby time. In a “pure” Nikon V1 setup (which means no other camera with me except the V1) in the Masai Mara would have required 4-5 batteries to to be ready at all times. Not a nice thought: 500$ of batteries, 15 hours of recharge and the associated weight.
- Dependent on the point above. The interaction between EVF and monitor on the back. Due to excessive power consumption the auto-off feature is needed. As described in the previous post, it complicates sometimes the usage of the cam. If the EVF and monitor take less energy, no issue in this department.
- Reduce the time lag of the EVF and Monitor display vs. the motion of the subject in front of the camera. There is a slight time delay between the movement of the subject and the time it is reflected on the monitor which makes time sensitive shutter clicks harder than needed. An optical view finder does not have this time lag (neither the energy consumption) to help determine the image and the proper time WHEN to press the shutter. I understand that a CPU need to execute some algorithms, but a special design for lower lag would be appreciated. Currently manual focus of moving subjects is very hard on N1 cams.
- Compactness of the N1 is achieved with lenses with 2 operation modes (transport and operation). Please get rid of this “speed brake” which it also not convenient.
- Reduce the size of the AF fields. They seem to be larger than their DSLRs brethren and get faster irritated when the subject which should be in focus is behind grass or branches..
- Thermal stability. Similar to the hot-chips in PCs a couple of years ago (still remember the Pentiums?) heat design seems to be more of a topic in ML cameras vs. DSLRs. Just another dimension to the first point on minimizing power consumption. Would help ML more than other designs.
Click here for a full size version
The built in flash is sufficient for good sushi
The sun was already gone and due to the low ambient light, ISO 3200 was needed. The AF system had no issue whatsoever to capture the eye of the snake. Image just resized. no post processing.
Click here for a 1920×1200 version
Click here for a 1920×1200 version
Click here for a 1920×1200 version
Click here for a full size version
No conclusion, rather the start of a journey
As this are only the first impressions and experiences with a brand new camera system from Nikon, I will stay clear of any final conclusions. It takes time to immerse into the new opportunities as well as limitations of a broad new set of tools. The first 10 days or so proved to be a very positive experience. It is somewhat above my original expectations as many of the test images published on the web did not reflect what this new camera with the small sensor is capable of in normal shooting conditions (and some normal photographic thoughts applied).
The set of lenses is a good start. The PD lens and the pancake somewhat above the two kit zooms. I hope that Nikon introduces new lenses faster than the normal rate of introduction to complement the existing ones. High on my list are a fast portrait lens, a fast wide angle and a tack sharp macro lens to name a few. In about a month or so the FT-1 converter will be around and I will surely look into the DX lenses capabilities to cope with the small camera. Among the ones I hope to get well along are the 35mm/1.8G (portrait), 40mm macro and 85mm/3.5 macro as telephoto prime. Another, but rather unusual check out will be the AFS 70-200mm/2.8 and 200mm/2 VR as super telephoto lenses. Will be fun.
The seamless inclusion of N1 NEF files into my CNX2 based workflow was simple and straight forward – no surprises there.
All in all, a very pleasant experience, which justified (for me) the expense incurred. I see it as the start of a longer term journey Nikon is embarking on and look forward on new developments to come which increase “the value” of my initial expenditures.
Thanks for reading and all the best,
This was the second part about the Nikon System 1 here. Click here for the first part of this article