Nikon 1 Mirrorless Cameras – Success or Failure?

August 5, 2012

On September 21, 2011, Nikon announced its Nikon 1 digital imaging system. Since then Nikon was able to achieve great success with its Nikon 1 J1 mirrorless, taking 5th and 10th position in the top selling Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens camera market in Japan (According to BCN, taken from the ILC ranking list, which includes also DSLR cameras, but subtracted the DSLR results). The J1 is the less expensive model of the two (J1 vs V1).

I personally thought that Nikon would have problem with this system, only due to the fact that its utilize a 1-inch CX sensor, smaller than Micro Four Thirds. It seems like customers embrace Nikon mirrorless with open arms. The thing is that the Nikon 1 J1 is doing a pretty good job, image quality wise. High ISO performance is very good and it’s hard to tell the difference between an Olympus OM-D E-M5 and Nikon 1 J1 up to ISO 1600.  From ISO3200 and above, you can see that the J1 and V1 perform worse, but not too much far behind.

The main question still remains: “Is there any barrier with 1-inch CX sensors that can prevent Nikon for gaining upper hand in the mirrorless market?”. One of the main reasons we peak a Compact System Camera is to enjoy the benefits of a compact camera with a large sensor. This is the whole idea behind mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras in the first place.

Nikon 1 CX Sensor size comparison

Nikon 1 J1 and V1 sensors vs Olympus OM-D E-M5 and PEN E-PL3 Micro Four Thirds sensor (via

The fact that Nikon 1 J1 and V1 cameras use a smaller sensor than Micro Four Thirds and much smaller than APS-C. This can give Nikon an advantage of building smaller cameras and lenses, but will carry that sensor size barrier that will prevent them from outperforming cameras with larger sensor. Maybe the word “never” doesn’t fit well, but I can’t imagine Nikon coming up with a revolutionary patented technology that will make their sensors outperform larger sensors.  Both Sony and Canon didn’t want to carry that barrier and both opted for APS-C sensor size with their Mirrorless offering.

Nikon 1 camera system is indeed very neat. People that already owned Nikon lenses know that Nikon reputation in interchangeable lenses is one good reason why choosing Nikon over other mirrorless camera manufacturers.

In the following comparison on camera size, we can see the following cameras: Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF5 vs Canon EOS M vs Olympus PEN Mini E-PM1 vs Nikon 1 J1 and V1. You can see that’s the V1 is actually the largest in the group in terms of height, the Nikon 1 J1 is the smallest one (size calculated excluding excluding protrusion). The Nikon 1 J1 is certainly smaller than the other cameras. The reason it is smaller is the lack of viewfinder that the V1 has.


Pentax Q vs Nikon 1 V1 and J1 size comparison

Pentax Q vs Nikon 1 V1 and J1 size comparison

In the image above you can see how the Nikon 1 V1 and J1 compares to the Pentax Q. Pentax Q utilizes a 1/2.3-inch size sensor, much smaller than the Nikon 1 J1. This is the main reason why Pentax has failed with the Pentax Q. Of course after that Pentax released the Pentax K-01 with APS-C size sensor. The Pentax K-01 was proven to be a great camera overall (dpreview: “Excellent photos quality..” – source). The Pentax Q might be with us for a while, but if you read my article about it, I can’t see Pentax Q surviving two years from now.

So Nikon chosen a sensor size that is in somewhere in the middle, not small as the Q, but smaller than Micro Four Thirds. I do believe that Nikon engineers have a technology road map, one that will lead to new great features that could only be possible using a smaller sensor. We’ve already seen the 10 fps  and up to 50 fps using Electric shutter. This alone just gives us a quick glimpse of what Nikon is planning for us in future Nikon 1 cameras. wrote in its Nikon 1 J1 review: “Image quality can’t match Micro Four Thirds cameras”. CNET on the other hand really liked the camera overall. I’ve gone through many reviews and its seems that the opinions about the Nikon 1 is a mixed bag. Some reviewers really love this camera, some emphasize on the disadvantages (lack manual focus ring, slow flash sync speed in the J1,  small high ISO range). The thing is that one had to make some compromises in order to being new features that will actually be very useful.

Most of us will probably won’t shoot over ISO 1600, and for that reason, its better to use a smaller sensor that won’t have any problem up to ISO 1600 (will improve in time), but in return, give the customer great new features that will be useful and enjoyable. I think that Nikon was able to achieve that with the Nikon 1 camera system. So by understanding the needs of amateur and enthusiast photographers and technology constraints, I think that Nikon made smart choice going with a smaller sensor. Sells proves that this formula works (for now).

Now that Canon entered the market with its EOS M mirrorless camera,  the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera market becomes more saturated. The competition it tough, and mobile phone cameras doesn’t make this any easier. A lot of money is spent to bring new technologies to this market in order to make it stand out in the crowd.  One of the second main reason why people pick a MILC  is the ability to use special interchangeable lenses.

If there was only one lens, there was no reason to pick a MILC camera, many would have preferred a fixed lens large-compact instead (ie. Sony RX100).  Interchangeable lenses gives the photographers great flexibility and the option to become more creative. You can use 1:1 macro lenses, telephoto-zoom lenses, high quality very fast prime lenses and ultra-wide angle lenses.  You can shoot photos that are impossible to achieve with mobile phone cameras, P&s or large-sensor fixed-lens compact cameras.

As for the time of writing this article, Nikon has only 4 1 Nikkor lenses: 10-30mm VR, 30-110mm VR, 10mm and 10-100mm VR. The 10-100mm VR PD-Zoom was specifically designed for video shooting (aka specialized lens). At for now, the selection is pretty small, but Nikon will release more lenses pretty soon. Nikon is well known for its great optics. I am sure that whatever lens they introduce, optical quality will be top notch (at least I hope so).

There are also rumors of a high-end Nikon J2 camera coming  this month ( The thing is that Nikon does need to come up with a pro model, something that Nikon 1 camera owners can upgrade to in the future.

All in all I think that Nikon 1 system is a good choice for every photographer who want to explore the digital photography world, and especially those who come from point-and-shoot. Nikon 1 still needs more lenses and one more advanced body. When that time comes, I’m sure that it can give a tough competition to other vendors in their own game. So if you are thinking of buying a Nikon 1 camera, know that you are making a good choice. Don’t forget, when you are buying a Nikon 1 camera, you are buying yourself into a system. This is an investment that should be carefully planned, but don’t over analyze it :]

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  5. About Nikon 1 Mirrorless Camera System
  6. Why Nikon CX sensor so small? (size comparison)
  7. Why Ricoh acquired Pentax? – New Mirrorless Cameras on the Way?
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