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Review: Nikon 1 mirrorless camera a pricey step between compact and DSLR

Nikon 1 V1, $899.99;

Nikon's new Nikon 1 mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras are aimed squarely at someone like me.

My wife and I enjoy taking photographs and can appreciate a good picture, but we don't think of ourselves as anything more than light hobbyist photographers. We want something more than a point-and-shoot, but find lugging around hefty DSLRs and their companion lenses something of a burden.

That's why, after some deliberation, we traded in our old entry-level Canon DSLR this summer for an Olympus Pen E-PL2.

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But should we have waited for Nikon's offering?

The hot-off-the-assembly-line Nikon 1 V1 – the higher-end of two initial Nikon 1 offerings (the other is the slightly smaller, more colourful Nikon 1 J1) – that I borrowed for a few test clicks makes me wonder. It is unquestionably a great little shooter that feels good in your hand, performs well and is a pleasure to operate.

But that isn't stopping some people from criticizing Nikon's design decisions.

When the Nikon 1 series was announced in September some onlookers slammed the nearly century-old Japanese camera giant for creating its own CX-format CMOS sensor and eschewing the Micro Four Thirds standard developed and successfully deployed by rivals Panasonic, Sony and Olympus in their compact interchangeable lens cameras. While Nikon's sensor is four times the size of those found in most compact cameras it's about half the size of a Micro Four Thirds. Critics argue the smaller the sensor, the noisier the picture, especially when shooting in low light.

There is certainly truth to this criticism, but I'm not sure the difference will be particularly noticeable to the consumers these fence-straddling cameras have been designed for. Casual photographers should be able to distinguish between the quality of images captured by the Nikon 1 camera and those taken with less-advanced point-and-shoots, and I think that's all that's really necessary.

In my tests, fast moving subjects under adequate light were captured with satisfying crispness. Dramatic, professional-looking depth of field effects – sharp-focused subjects set between a pleasantly blurry foreground and background – came naturally and without the need to fuss over any settings.

Part and parcel to the Nikon 1 line is a new series of miniature lenses designed to make the concept of hauling around multiple pieces of glass less intimidating to casual shooters. I tried a trio of these lenses – including the standard 1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm, the 1 Nikkor VR 30-110mm zoom, and the extremely compact (and, consequently, somewhat less versatile) 1 Nikkor 10mm pancake – and obtained satisfying results from all of them. Without exception they were easy to use, exceptionally quick to focus and captured vibrant, lifelike hues.

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And they're small. The 170-gram, 61-millimetre (when retracted) 30-110mm telephoto lens is particularly wee considering its power. These lenses are best carried in a bag or purse, but fit easily into a big trouser pocket in a pinch.

Serious photographers who have invested in Nikon's F-mount lenses will be saddened to know that they can't use their existing collection of glass. I'd argue that if you want to attach a monster-sized lens to a diminutive Nikon 1 camera you're probably missing the point. That said, Nikon has promised an adapter for F-mount lenses that will arrive as early as December – though you can expect some lens features (such as auto-focus) won't be compatible.

On the subject of the V1's svelte body, casual shutterbugs will also appreciate its simplicity. Its spartan, 300-gram chassis is a smooth matte black with squarish corners, and sports a smattering of clearly labelled and intuitive buttons (menu, playback, trash, display) and dials (a mode selector and menu/picture navigation ring). Power, shutter, record buttons sit on the camera's top side, while an "F" button provides useful, context-sensitive menu options, such as switching between a mechanical and electronic shutter (the latter of which allows users to capture a staggering 60 frames per second in short bursts) while shooting stills. More advanced users can dive deeper into the main menu to adjust settings including white balance, colour space, and ISO noise reduction.

Three user-friendly shooting modes – video, still, and smart photo selector (which picks the best of 20 shots snapped at different settings with one depression of the shutter button) – can be selected from the mode dial. A fourth, dubbed motion snapshot, is a bit of an odd duck. It combines a still with a second of video in slow motion and offers the option of adding a bit of banal music, resulting in something that isn't really a still or a movie but instead what might be called a moment. Nikon seems to be putting a lot of stock in it, though I have my doubts as to whether it will catch on. In my experience, people like to flip through pictures or watch movies. Super short clips like these feel like a novelty.

Its worth noting, too, that the V1's HD video is big-screen TV-worthy. Speedy auto-focus keeps subjects sharp, and active noise reduction proves a boon to low-light shooting. You can record at different speeds of slow-motion and even snap full resolution photos without interrupting the shot (something I wish I could do on my Olympus E-PL2), though it's worth noting that an overly sensitive mic clearly picks up the sound of any buttons depressed while filming.

The V1 feature that this Pen owner covets most is its built-in electronic viewfinder mounted above the lens, which instantly activates whenever one puts an eye up to the viewing glass. It offers a bright, clear, highly resolved (1.4 million dots) image of the current scene. The bright, 3-inch display on the back of the camera is fine, but there are times – when you're outdoors or want to ensure a perfectly framed shot – that a viewfinder is indispensable. I used it almost exclusively while shooting stills, and it convinced my wife that we now need to invest in a pricey electronic viewfinder accessory for our Olympus.

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Which brings us back to the question that opened this review: In light of the arrival of the Nikon 1 series, do I regret my Pen purchase?

I don't think so.

The Nikon 1 V1 is a fine camera for casual picture poppers looking to take their photography to the next level, but I'd likely have balked at its price. A starter V1 kit with camera body and 10-30mm lens is $900. That puts it at the very high end of mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras. And I've yet to mention it, but the V1 has no built-in flash, which for many will mean an extra $160 expenditure on the Nikon 1 SB-N5 Speedlight, which pops into the accessory shoe beside the viewfinder, bringing the total price over $1,000.

The $650 Nikon 1 J1 is more likely to fall into the range of current point-and-shoot owners looking to upgrade, and it has a built-in flash. However, it lacks the V1's electronic viewfinder, which, for me, is its greatest draw.

By contrast, I picked up my Olympus Pen E-PL2 with a stock lens for under $600, which left me a little extra cash to invest in a Panasonic Lumix 45-200mm telephoto lens. Granted, my Pen is a little slower and lacks a viewfinder, but these were trade-offs I was willing to live with in order to have greater lens options and keep within my budget.

However, I was very satisfied with the Nikon 1 V1 during my evaluation. It's another quality contender in the growing segment of cameras that fall somewhere between compacts and digital SLRs, and strong competition like this can't help but benefit consumers in the long run.

Look for the Nikon 1 V1, its sister camera the Nikon 1 J1, and a full range of accessories to hit Canadian stores on October 20th.

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About the Author
Game and Gadget Reporter

Chad Sapieha has been writing about video games and consumer gadgets for the Globe and Mail since 2003. His work has been published in magazines, newspapers, and Web sites across North America, and he has appeared as an expert on television and radio newscasts. More

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