Nikon V3 First Impressions

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Updated: to clarify minor points. 

I can sum everything up about my first day of shooting with the V3 in four words: what were they thinking?

Let’s start with the US situation. In the US, you can only buy a V3 in kit form, which includes the body, a new 10-30mm lens, an EVF, an extended grip, and an FT1 adapter. The cost of this kit is US$1200, or more than a D7100 body. So the very first thing you have to ask yourself is did you get more than you’d get with a D7100? Yes, you got a lens. 

Which brings us to the lens: it’s a fly-by-wire zoom (no mechanical coupling of the zoom ring). The hysteresis of the wired ring is pretty good, better than many: it zooms fast if you turn the ring fast, slower if you turn the ring slower, and the delay is small enough to mostly ignore. The problem is that this new lens is a truly consumer lens on a camera being priced professionally. Want to use filters? You can’t. Want to use a lens hood? You can’t. Plus you have the slight wait for the lens to extend when the camera is turned on. In other words, a total mismatch of product feature to customer. At US$1200, I want a prosumer level camera and I want to use prosumer lenses. This lens doesn’t add value to the kit, it subtracts value.

The included grip is both welcome and unwelcome. I get a real sense of different teams working on different parts of the kit, and compromises being dictated by decisions made by teams. For example, the grip gives you a traditional Nikon DSLR front command dial: horizontal, on the front of the grip just below an angled shutter release. Good. But now to make the camera usable without the grip, the front command dial on the camera body has to move to a vertical one positioned against the lens mount. Bad. I do like the ability to pare down the V3 to a more pocket size without the grip, but now I’m having to change my shooting orientation with the front dial and its position. Also, I have to now keep track of two very small parts (the rubber cover from the camera and the plastic cover from the grip) when the grip is on the camera, or else I end up with exposed contacts with the grip off. 

The likely purchaser of the V3 is going to want the grip, both for the better dial/shutter release positions and the hand grip, but also for the additional of the F3 button. Unfortunately, that also means taking the grip off to change the battery, a miscentered tripod mount, no real way to mount an Arca-style plate on the grip, and oddly, an offset locking dial with an internal cam mechanism that looks like it will be prone to field failure if you’re taking the grip on and off all the time. We’ll see how that holds up in real use, but I’m not holding my breath.

Overall, the build quality seems high, though it’s a different kind of solid than the original V1 and more the small DSLR style quality of the Coolpix A. Solid dials. Decent buttons. Metal chassis. But a springy shutter release and the dreaded compact camera Direction pad with wheel.

You get the optional EVF with the kit, and it appears to be both well made and decently integrated, but it’s still a hump on the body that can be dislodged. Why Nikon has moved from a fixed EVF to an optional one, I have no idea. It didn’t make the V3 less expensive, it actually made it more expensive. Sure, you can take the EVF off and make the camera a little smaller for the pocket. It very well may be that Nikon did a removable EVF because the J4 won’t be available everywhere. But I’m not convinced that integrating an EVF would have made the V3 that much bigger. The humorous thing is that I think Nikon got offended by how many reviewers wrote that the V2 looked ugly. Indeed, the V3, stripped of all its options, looks very nice. Basically a variation on the soap bar compact camera style. Put all the options on it, though, and it starts to look…well…ugly again. Or maybe ungainly is the right word. 

Meanwhile, the EVF is faster and looks better than the earlier EVFs in the V models. At least we have that improvement, though I still would have preferred it built in. One good piece of news is that the EVF doesn’t unhook without you pressing the buttons on both sides of it. Fears of the EVF popping off easily during use are unfounded. On the other hand, my EVF takes a bit of force to get off even with the buttons pressed. Close examination shows that there’s an asymmetry in the metal lock positions on my sample, which is probably causing that. (Funny thing. Within 24 hours of my writing that sentence, Nikon Japan issued a service advisory in Japan for the same thing. We’ll see if NikonUSA is ready to act on it.)

Having a tilting LCD is a big plus, especially since the folding option Nikon chose allows the LCD to be pulled away from the body itself and put into some unique and useful positions. Unfortunately for the social crowd, that doesn’t include a “selfie” position (the optional EVF would block that anyway, another of those one team causing decisions by other teams things). One big plus is that the LCD is now a touch screen, and a pretty good one at that. 

I guess Nikon also ended up in the position of trying to cram too many things into too little space, because we also get a microSD slot instead of an SD card slot. I’m not a big fan of that decision. Basically it means that Nikon 1 users moving up will need new cards, and then they’ll also need to keep track of their SD holder for microSD cards lest they lose their ability to ingest files into their computer. Oh, wait, there’s WiFi in the V3. Unfortunately, Nikon (and all the other camera makers) still hasn’t gotten around to realizing that might be useful to computer users. Instead, we’re still stuck with poorly designed iOS and Android apps and convoluted workflows. How about this Nikon: add WiFi ingest to Nikon Transfer? Is that beyond your programming capabilities? Apparently. 

Some good news is that we have three programmable function keys (one being the press of the rear command dial), and Nikon has chosen the defaults reasonably well (WB, ISO, Movie Record). Just switch that Movie Record assignment to AF-Area Mode and many of you will be happy, though you might want to move which FN button is which. The bad news is that many of the other camera defaults just aren’t consistent with a high-end shooter’s choices (Auto ISO set to 6400!, Active D-Lighting On, AF-A, etc.). So once again the likely purchaser of the V3 is going to have to spend some time optimizing the camera for their choices. Not a terrible thing, but be prepared to look through every menu option to make sure it’s what you want when you first get the camera.

Nikon seemed to take to heart the many reviews that said that the Nikon 1’s menus were sprawling and slowed shooting down. Their answer: a new menu (Image Processing, which has WB, ISO, NR, and Picture Control settings on a one page menu). I both like and dislike this. I like it because it does make it a little faster and easier to get to some key settings (though note that two of those can be controlled by FN buttons now), especially since we have a touch LCD screen that allows us to jump right to a menu. I dislike it because it’s a temporary patch on a bigger problem, and now we’ve got the Nikon 1 menu system deviating from the DSLR menu system (unless this is an indication of things to come on DSLRs). Basically, the menu system still feels a bit disorganized and disjointed, though I noticed that I’m scrolling less and jumping to things faster. So progress, but not perfection.

The really good news is that, in shooting, the V3 is pretty much like the previous V models: a decent EVF gives you a DSLR-like feel, the focus is DSLR-like once mastered, metering is excellent for a small camera, you still have incredibly fast frame rates available (20 fps with focus, 60 fps without), and can go “silent.” If anything, the addition of the FN buttons and command dials make the V3 even more DSLR-like, which is a good thing, IMHO. While Nikon didn’t take a direct route to get there, the V3 shoots and handles more like we wanted the V1 to back when the Nikon 1 was introduced. Yet I still can’t get over the impression that the camera is a bit of a kludge: the non-integrated EVF and optional grip are a step backward, I think. The grip and EVF aren't optional for my shooting, and they introduce weak points I need to watch while handling the camera, something I never feared with the V1 (other than that darned move-by-itself Mode dial). 

The really bad news is that Nikon still doesn’t get that we want Speedlight compatibility and control with the V cameras. The Nikon 1 flash system is seriously limited, and now we’re even more limited if we want to use the EVF, as it means all we have left for flash is the wimpy little pop-up, which can’t command an external flash except by putting it in complete manual mode to trigger “dumb” slaves. I’m going to quote company president Makota Kimura: "we need to question our ability to offer truly innovative functions and performance.” Uh, Kimura-san, could you have a talk with the Nikon 1 design team? They don’t seem to have gotten your messages about this. Flash, in particular, is an under-performing function that doesn’t even use Nikon’s current innovations.  

As for image quality, it’s far too early to say anything useful. That’s not really the point of offering a first impression. My expectation is that we’ll be in the same territory we’ve always been with the Aptina 1” sensors, only with more pixels. But I’ll need to do a lot of testing to get a firm answer about image quality. 

Had Nikon made the V3 with an integrated EVF and just put the darned hand grip into the body design, then priced the body at US$899 with the FT-1, I think we’d be in the territory where current Nikon 1 users would be rejoicing and more users would be joining them. At the current pricing with the awkwardness of the options, I’m not sure the value is there for anyone but the dedicated Nikon 1 user. 

Which brings me to the FT1 that Nikon threw in at the last minute in the US package. This makes the DSLR user consider picking up a V3 for long telephoto work (due to the 2.7x crop factor). A V3 puts 18mp in that crop factor, for the highest pixel density we currently have available. However, why wouldn’t you just buy a D7100 body at this price? You get a little less pixel density, but you get a better camera and better image quality. 

After using a D7100 side-by-side with mirrorless cameras in the Galapagos last month, I came to appreciate more and more what the D7100 can and does do in the right hands. If you’re going to price a camera at US$1200 or more, you’re going to have to beat the D7100. When I finish my review of the V3, we’ll see if it does, but I’m going to have to be surprised at something in continual use for me to to think that the V3 beats a D7100 at the same price for most users.

Sure, the V3 is smaller than a D7100. But we’re paying huge penalties for “small” these days. Right now the formula for mirrorless is this: smaller and lighter, but higher battery consumption and gives something up to DSLRs in active shooting situations. And higher prices than DSLRs that give better image quality in the case of the Nikon 1’s. 

That’s not to say there won’t be takers on the V3. I’ll find a place for it in my gear closet, despite the fact that I’m in the midst of trying to clean that closet down to just the basics I want to shoot with. The good things about the Nikon 1 V series remain: it’s a more-than-competent compact camera replacement in one respect, it’s the only mirrorless system that can focus and shoot fast with reliability, and in good light with the right lens (possibly plus the FT1) it becomes a wildlife shooter’s delight. I just wish that Nikon had put a bit more refinement into the design decisions and finally made the V series what we all wanted in the first place.


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