A Guide to Nikon 1

The Nikon 1 lineup has now reached the start of a fourth generation. The third generation introduced a wider range of lenses and new cameras.

The first generation of the Nikon 1 was the J1 and V1, and I'd also include the short-lived J2 in this generation. These were the products that kicked off Nikon's use of the 1” Aptina sensor and the Nikon CX lens mount, and also introduced interesting new features such as the Motion Snapshot. 

Strangely, while Nikon seemed to be super hyper about reducing parts and manufacturing complexity in the original generation of cameras, they were priced higher than many of Nikon's more complex DSLR models. At the original prices, these cameras didn't sell well, and the rough edges on the camera designs—particularly the not-really-a-mode-dial that always changed to a new setting if you looked at it cross-eyed—didn't help matters. Nikon didn't start moving significant numbers of Nikon 1 products until they did a massive discounting just prior to launching the second generation. 

The second generation consisted of three models: 

  • S1 — barebones entry level camera (10mp)
  • J3 — entry level model (14mp)
  • V2 — small DSLR-like mid-range model (14mp)

The third generation consists of four models:

  • S2 — barebones entry level camera (14mp)
  • AW1 — waterproof camera (14mp)
  • J4 — fourth edition of the entry level model (18mp), and not available everywhere
  • V3 — rangefinder style camera with optional EVF (18mp)

The fourth generation currently consists of only one model:

  • J5 — fifth edition of the the original entry model (20mp), now using different sensor technology

This fourth generation is somewhat significant in that Nikon has moved from Aptina sensors to Sony sensors. The focus performance appears unchanged (great), but the dynamic range of the new sensor seems improved.

Many of the biggest problems with UI were fixed in the second and third generations, and the Nikon 1 models all shoot like very sophisticated compact cameras now. If you want an EVF, the V3 is your only choice in the current lineup. 

The Nikon 1 claim to fame in mirrorless is remarkably small quality lenses that focus at DSLR speeds in reasonable light. As of the date I'm writing this, no other mirrorless camera yet matches the continuous focus performance of the Nikon 1 models. A V3 with the 30-100mm is probably the smallest camera I know of that can perform reasonable birds-in-flight work. Couple a V3 with the FT1 lens adapter and a Nikon F-mount lens with AF-S (the 70-200mm VR is my favorite), and you have a real workhorse wildlife camera in a very small package (but you’ll need the optional EVF). The introduction of the 70-300mm CX lens pushes the Nikon 1 into serious long-lens capability (810mm equivalent) in a small package.

The downside to the Nikon 1 models is the small sensor size: 1". As I note elsewhere on this site there's about a stop difference each time you step down in sensor size: FX (full frame) -> DX (APS) -> m4/3 -> 1". Thus, the Nikon 1 models are not low-light specialists. It's actually amazing how much quality they do produce at ISO 3200, but don't expect them to outshoot or even come close to equalling bigger sensor cameras in low light. 

Up through the third generation Nikon seemed to be overcharging for the Nikon 1 cameras compared to what they were likely worth to most potential customers. At least at list price (many models often could be found at discount). You can buy an excellent DSLR and lens for what you can get the V3 kit for, for example. I expect that prices will eventually fall dramatically again with the third generation as they did for the first and second, so if you can wait, wait. The J5—start of the fourth generation—seems more realistically priced, though it’s still a bit higher than it probably should be. Wait for Nikon’s regular sales if you’re price conscious.

For lenses, you're pretty much stuck with Nikkors. Fortunately, Nikon has slowly stepped to the plate and produced some marvelous lenses for these cameras. The 18.5mm f/1.8 is exceedingly good. Surprisingly, the 6.7-13mm and the 30-110mm are also extremely good lenses. The stunner to me, though, was the new 10-100mm super zoom (not the power zoom version), which may actually be better than the 10-30mm kit lens in that range and almost holds its own against the 30-100mm in the rest of the range. I'd recommend one of the following starting kits:

  • 6.7-13mm, 10-30mm, 18.5mm, 30-110mm
  • 6.7-13mm, 10-100mm, 18.5mm

The 70-300mm (CX version) adds a super telephoto capability that starts to differentiate the Nikon 1 series from other mirrorless systems (810mm equivalent with fast continuous focus ability). Note that the AW1 uses special lenses to maintain the waterproof capability, and at present we only have three choices (10mm, 11.5-27mm, 10-100mm). 

Amazingly, my recommended kits take you from 18mm to approximately 300mm equivalent in two or three lenses that are very sharp and problem free, and, of course, small. The thing I find remarkable is how small I can pack a full Nikon 1 kit. I think all of my ex-girlfriend's had bigger purses. (Okay, that was a bit sexist, so sorry ladies; but for most of you that will give you a very good reference point.)

Personally, I like the Nikon 1 with a good lens on it better than almost any compact camera (though that's changed a bit with the introductions of large sensor compact cameras and mirrorless cameras such as the Panasonic GX-100 or GM5). Beyond that, the Nikon V3 can quickly morph into a portable wildlife shooter's pocket kit, and is probably the best very portable "long reach" option out there right now. (Why do I keep mentioning only the V3 in respect to wildlife instead of the J4 or J5? Because of the EVF. You can't hand hold a camera in front of you with 810mm equivalent focal length very well. The extra bracing point of the face makes all the difference in the world to getting good steady shots, even with VR active. The older V1 and V2 also have EVFs.)

Don't discount the Nikon 1 line (though Nikon should ;~). It sacrifices a little (sensor size) to gain a lot (very small system size with a full lens set). If the prices were a little more reasonable (watch for sales, though the J5 introduction price seems to suggest Nikon is becoming more reasonable), this system would be selling in far greater numbers than it is. When all is said and done, in most situations the Nikon 1 cameras and the excellent lenses take very good photos. 

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