Nikon Introduces V3

(news & commentary)

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Nikon today announced the third (or is it fourth?) generation of the Nikon 1 camera, with the V3 (shown above in the US bundle package). 

The V3 contains an 18mp sensor that’ll work up to 20 fps with phase detect in a new body that’s closer to the classic soap bar shape with minimal grip and, get this, no built-in EVF. Instead, we get a 2.4m dot EVF that’s “optional" and attaches in the hot shoe/accessory port. The rear LCD is tiltable, which is nice. 

Did you notice the quotes around “optional” in the previous paragraph? It seems that NikonUSA will only sell the full V3 kit, which includes the hand grip and EVF, as well as the new 10-30mm lens. So here’s our first problem: V1 and V2 users wanting to move up have to buy another kit lens. And the price? US$1200 for that bundle. Yikes. Are Nikon clueless to the fact that the Nikon 1 was already regarded as overpriced? (More on that in a bit, though.) 

Our second problem is the new lens: no filter rings, no optional hood. Does that sound like the lens that comes bundled on a higher end camera?

Other features in the V3 that are new include 120fps slow motion video, though only at the 720 HD frame size (pity; most videographers are shooting only 1080 now, and really probably wanted 4k over smaller sized slow motion). We also get the Easy Panorama mode of the J3 and AW1 and some more silly “creative modes” (Toy Camera, Cross Process, Creative Palette) that don’t exactly fit well with a high end target customer willing to pay US$1200 for a camera. ISO gets a boost to 12,800, and there’s an EXPEED 4a inside, which helps give the 20 fps mode a two second buffer. The LCD is a touch-panel, and we finally get Highlights display back (though not while composing). We also get built-in WiFi for a change; now Nikon only has to fix and improve their software. On the downside,  the V3 uses microSD cards, not SD cards. Oh, and a new battery: the EN-EL20a. 

Apparently the folk at Nikon are still scratching their head wondering what it will take to make the V series cameras popular. My guess is that the V3 isn’t it, though I’ll have an exception in a moment. To understand that comment, let’s step through the V series design mistakes:

  • V1 — Not-Really-Mode dial that moved by just looking cross-eyed at it; almost no external control for a serious user; no real customization allowed; a slippery body with no real grip; proprietary accessory slot with no coordination with long-time Nikon accessories such as Speedlights; a sprawling menu system that you needed to dip into to do much of anything; and strange omissions (bracketing, anyone?). Some also thought 10mp wasn’t enough, especially in a small consumer oriented camera that cost US$900. 
  • V2 — Still almost no external control for serious users; no real customization allowed; no coordination with Speedlights; a sprawling menu system that you needed to dip into to do much of anything; and strange omissions (what, still no bracketing?). And the cost? Still higher than entry and mid-range DSLRs.
  • V3 — The EVF is now a forced option in the US, making for a vulnerable and expensive extra part the previous cameras didn’t have, plus the EVF also takes up the flash/accessory shoe; we lose the built-in hand grip for a smallish hump on the front of the camera and an optional grip that of course doesn’t have an Arca-style dovetail, meaning we’ll still be putting plates on the optional grip; still no coordination with Speedlights. A bump in price of 33% here in the US. 

It seems clear to me that Nikon doesn’t clearly know who they want to sell a Nikon 1 to, especially at the top end. The mix of purely consumer features with high-end features such as 20 fps shooting with continuous focus doesn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, I know a lot of those consumer features are just tag-alongs from the J series cameras, but the V3 is a bit of a mishmash, especially since some of it’s “advanced” features come in the form of “options.” 

The “official” images we’ve seen so far (mostly from Nikon France) also seem to be confused. Shooting high jump from the unlit side? Kind of calls out the camera’s more limited dynamic range, doesn’t it? So not only would I say that Nikon doesn’t know who the camera is for, they don’t know how to market it properly, either.

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The new lens Nikon introduced with the V3 suggests a bit of what Nikon might be thinking. A 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR lens on a 1” sensor that can focus at 20 fps is nearly the ideal birders’ handheld camera.  That’s 810mm equivalent at the long end at a reasonable aperture. So, for about US$2200 a dedicated birder can get something they can carry around with them to fully document their sightings. Curiously, Nikon doesn’t mention birders directly in their marketing, though obviously someone went to a zoo and shot some bird/owl closeups for sample images. Rather they keep referring to wildlife and safari shooters. Maybe. I’ll give that a try in August, but I think that Nikon’s a bit late to the game, here. I’ve been promoting the V1/V2 as a safari camera for some time. It’s not exactly as if Nikon overwhelmed us with sample images that prove that point, either. 

We also get yet another basic kit lens, this time the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD-Zoom. So Nikon’s now wasted engineering time on four different basic kit lenses (the original 10-30mm, the 11.5-27mm, the AW1 version of that, and now a new 10-30mm). What prompts this? Well, they’re still chasing that “other, not a DSLR” customer. This time we need PD, because Nikon really wants you to use this camera for video. The V3 is Nikon’s RX10 wannabe (though without the lens equivalent). Wait, what? Is the Nikon 1 line supposed to be underwater, video, mini-DSLR, high-end compact, what? But wait, we can take the same basic Nikon 1 bar-of-soap design and make it into a slide projector, a donut hole puncher, a camera that’ll compete with our Coolpix P series, or a bar of soap. 

This is disturbing, to say the least. Nikon seems to be chasing a customer they haven’t defined well. They’ve taken the really good part of the Nikon 1—the fast responsiveness, including DSLR-like focusing—and tried wrapping it any way they could think of that isn’t a mini-DSLR, and that didn’t work, especially at their higher-than-DSLR pricing. Has it occurred to them that a lot of us would actually value a mini-DSLR done right? This is the same kind of “find a new niche” thinking that gave us the Df and has Nikon directly avoiding updating the two of their most successful cameras of the past 10 years (the D300 and D700). 

Funny, I’ve been using a V2 just like a mini-DSLR. Indeed, I want it more DSLR-like, not less, so the additional controls and configuration are welcome. Getting the hand grip only through the “optional” grip is okay, I suppose, but apparently Nikon doesn’t realize that everyone who’d really want that grip has a tripod head with an Arca Swiss plate grip at the top. Nikon also seems reluctant to let Speedlights play with the Nikon 1 for some strange reason.

Most of the people I know that have actually bought a Nikon 1 camera also were looking for mini-DSLR. The others just wanted a large-sensor compact, which Nikon will announce shortly with, wait for it, the 1” sensor from the Nikon 1. Uh, what? This will give us a lineup of 1” models that will go something like this: P8000, S1, J3, AW1, V3. Apparently genes are getting mutated at random in the Nikon labs, and new camera species are the norm. To bad old Mother Nature will take most of them out. Survival of the fittest and all, you know. 

Seriously, I don’t get it. Well, I do get it. Nikon thought they would have a hit with the original J1/V1. They dedicated manufacturing space and marketing resources to this new line. They dedicated engineering resources to this new line. They committed to sensors (probably including production run guarantees). They started designing new optics for it (instead of putting much time into any new DX lenses other than kit ones ;~). Someone turned on the whole kit-and-kaboodle and expected it to work. Too bad they were priced 2x what they’d actually have sold for. With fewer parts, less costly parts, and Nikon’s most efficient manufacturing line they managed to price the cameras 2x what they’d have actually moved at. Not sure how that happened.

So when they didn’t sell, what could Nikon do? What they did was try a fire sale to unload the inventory and then stab at the market again with somewhat randomly updated product. Didn’t work. Try again. Probably won’t work, try again ;~). One problem for Nikon is that they’re increasing their costs and parts count as they keep rebuilding these cameras in search of a customer. The J1/V1 were incredibly simpler and cheaper to build than the AW1 and V3. So the already high prices Nikon wanted are going up, not down. Wrong direction. Moreover, if you did opt into the Nikon 1 system, there’s no continuity: batteries change, cards change, and those flashes you bought won’t work when the EVF is in the accessory slot. 

Of course, if you’re a birder, where else are you going to find 810mm (equivalent) f/5.6 in something that can actually follow focus on moving objects and capture reasonable photos for US$2200? So maybe Nikon will sell a few of these (assuming they know where to find the birders or the birders find them). 

But let’s look at the elephant in the room: US$1200. That’s a very big elephant. I’m now convinced that Nikon has chased themselves into a series of corners. They still have V2 inventory left. They don’t want to just go back into fire sale mode to unload that, as that causes issues with SG&A costs that get out of hand. They don’t want to have that inventory sit around too long, so they can’t price a V3 right where the V2 is. They have this same issue with their DSLR line and their compact camera line, too: too much inventory, and probably overpriced for what it would really sell for. 

But US$1200 is more than a D7100 body. And let’s face it, at most things the D7100 body is better. So the V3 is yet another of those mirrorless problems that keep appearing in the market: higher price for smaller size and weight. In the case of the Nikon 1 models, they aren’t even using the same-sized sensors, as Sony is. There’s a reason why the NEX—wait, Alpha x000 models—got the most traction in the mirrorless market: same sized sensor, similar price, much smaller size and weight than their DSLRs. As the performance is coming up to DSLR levels for focus, too, Sony probably will continue to have traction. Nikon is two sensor sizes down from the Sony models, with the only thing really going for it being the fast focus. The number one thing I keep hearing is “if Nikon had chosen m4/3 or DX sensors for the Nikon 1, I might have bought one.” Of course, Sony knows the downside of that, too: Sony’s APS DSLR sales slid badly when the APS NEX mirrorless models appeared. This is one tricky elephant. 


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