Nikon finally enters the mirrorless camera market – but will they be able to compete?

Written by Gary on September 22nd, 2011

Panasonic, Olympus, Sony and Samsung have made significant inroads in the traditional entry-level dSLR market with their brilliant little mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, led by the Micro Four Thirds 2x crop format.

Nikon today announced their mirrorless camera system  (Nikon 1 System)  and confirmed the long held belief that this would be a much smaller sensor – half the size of Micro Four Thirds and a third the size of the Sony and Samsung sensors – giving a 2.7x crop factor.

Now, given Nikon is a very late entrant, this ploy of an even smaller sensor could just work for them as it differentiates buyers clearly from those wanting the better image quality and ability to blur the background that one gets from larger sensors (such as with their dSLRs or other mirrorless cameras), from those who just want a simple, carry anywhere compact camera.

BUT the only way this would work is if they make the lenses substantially smaller than the Micro Four Thirds so they can be truly pocketable camera kits as this would justify the reduction in image quality for many people.

As Sony has found, it doesn’t matter how small you can make the cameras (as long as they are still big enough to have a nice 3″ LCD screen and be reasonably ergonomic), compact size is dependent largely upon the lens size.

Theoretically, the smaller the sensor, the smaller you can make the lenses.

As Olympus and Panasonic found though, enthusiasts don’t just want small lenses, but high quality lenses with large apertures to make up for the relatively smaller sensor – and they have addressed this issue with their nice collection of fast lenses – 12mm f/2.0, 20mm f/1.7, 25mm f/1.4 and 45mm f/1.8.

If Nikon wish to attract enthusiasts to their new system and not just those who don’t know any better, then they will need to have a range of nice fast lenses such as these and not just technology driven features such as 60fps burst rates, etc which will eventually be available in all the systems soon anyway.

The conundrum Nikon faces though, is why would an enthusiast purchase a range of expensive lenses for such as small sensor camera, when they can do much better buying Micro Four Thirds?

Furthermore, the 2.7x crop factor does not make using existing Nikon dSLR lenses an exciting prospect so it is hard to see existing Nikon dSLR users being overly excited, although the main potential for them is to be able to shoot 60 fps at fixed focus with more telephoto reach which just would not be possible on a Nikon dSLR.

The HD video modes are otherwise not that exciting when compared with what you can do with a Panasonic GH-2 or Sony NEX-7, or even a Nikon dSLR.

The cameras do introduce some very useful features not currently found on other mirrorless cameras, but I would expect the other mirrorless systems to have these features soon, so they won’t be a differentiating factor for long:

  • fast AF, even for moving subjects thanks to dual AF modes including 73 point phase detect AF – I presume the contrast-detect AF would be on a par for speed with the Olympus E-P3/E-PL3 and the Panasonic GH-2/G3/GF3 but these cameras do not have phase contrast AF option.
  • 60 fps full resolution burst rate thanks to the electronic shutter mode but fixed focus, but not many will really want to use 60fps that often
  • 1/250th sec flash sync (V1 only) – but there is no hotshoe, and it is not compatible with Nikon wireless i-TTL so this largely becomes irrelevant.

Now let’s look at the 2 initial Nikon CX cameras.

They both have in common:

  • 10mp 13.2mm x 8.8mm 2.7x crop CMOS sensor
  • Nikon 1 lens mount with an optional Nikon F lens adapter
  • “fast” hybrid autofocus – switchable between phase detection for moving subjects  and contrast-detection AF
  • 135 single contrast-detect AF points, 41 point auto-area AF, subject tracking AF, 73 point phase detect AF
  • ISO 100-3200 (6400 Hi)
  • exposure compensation +/- 3EV
  • spot metering as well as matrix and centre weighted
  • 10-60fps electronic shutter burst rate but with fixed focus only at 60fps
  • SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card compatibility
  • HD video at 1080i 60/30fps or 720p 30/15fps in MOV format using H.264/MPEG-4 compression and AAC audio
  • Slow Motion movies but only at a ridiculously small 640×200 (at 13x slo-mo) or 320x 120 (at 40x slo-mo)
  • Motion Snapshot mode 1080p 60fps capture but plays at 24fps – designed to capture short clips
  • dual core EXPEED 3 image processing engine
  • Neither camera supports Nikon’s wireless i-TTL off-camera flash system
  • front IR remote receiver

A cheaper, more compact, simple Nikon J1 camera:

  • 106mm x 61mm x 30mm body
  • 277g w/o battery
  • 3″ 460K dot fixed LCD screen
  • 1/60th sec flash sync
  • no EVF
  • pretty colors
  • $649 with 3x kit lens

The more serious enthusiasts Nikon V1 camera:

  • 113mm x 76mm x 44mm
  • 294g w/o battery
  • 1.4 million dot EVF with eye detection activation (similar to the Panasonic GH-1/2 cameras)
  • 3″ 920K dot fixed LCD
  • 5fps mechanical shutter burst rate (to 1/4000th sec) with limitations in addition to the electronic shutter
  • magnesium alloy body
  • Multi-Accessory Port for attaching SB-N5 compact flash or GP-N100 GPS module
  • but no hotshoe still
  • infrared receiver ports on the front and back of the camera
  • 3.5mm stereo microphone jack
  • $899 with 3x kit lens

Now the lenses:

1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F3.5-5.6:

  • 27-81mm eq. range

1 Nikkor VR 30-110mm F3.8-5.6 lens:

  • 81-297mm eq. range

1 Nikkor 10mm F2.8 pancake lens:

  • 27mm eq.

1 Nikkor VR 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 :

  • 27-270mm 10x power zoom for HD video

My take:

If Nikon make some affordable, super compact, high quality fast primes in the 24-100mm range (in 35mm camera terms) providing a truly pocketable kit, then they might have a system worth buying, but even then, the Micro Four Thirds system easily beats it on image quality and depth of field control, particularly when you factor in that not only do you get double sized sensor, fast aperture lenses, but with Olympus cameras, you get image stabilisation with the fast primes as well thanks to the in-body image stabilisation.

And as a long time photographer, who wants to keep calculating out 2.7x crop factors when using legacy lenses, and why would you bother using this system for legacy lenses when there are much better alternatives, unless you happen to own a range of C-mount lenses.

The small sensor will make it really tough to get adequate depth of field control for those nicely blurred backgrounds which let your portraits pop, for instance, if they bring out a 35mm f1.4 “portrait lens”, it would have the DOF of a 95mm f/3.8 lens on a 35mm camera – usable but limiting.

Still, there will be plenty of buyers coming from point and shoot cameras who this system will appeal to just because it says Nikon on the camera or because the size suits them and the image quality and versatility is not as important, but even then, the price tags seem twice as much as they should be for the intended market.

Nikon needed to really make an impression with enthusiasts in order to get some early buy in, and without introducing this system with a fast aperture lens (such as a 24mm f/2.0 or 90mm f/1.8 equivalent as Olympus now has), all they will get is criticism and negativity from those hoping Nikon would make a useful pocketable camera system.

I am not sure Nikon’s shareholders will be placated by this effort, it may be a matter of too little, too late, and the bus has already left.

I suspect there will be some potential and existing Nikon dSLR buyers who may think twice about owning Nikon as this system may not give them adequate image quality in a compact complimentary kit as a Micro Four Thirds or APS-C sized mirrorless camera would.

Thus those wanting to use dSLR for sports, etc but want a smaller kit for travel are more likely to prefer the following combinations than a Nikon because most Nikon dSLR users are not going to be able to bring themselves down to using a 1″ sensor:

  • Canon dSLR with Canon 2x crop mirrorless (when they come out with it), or in the meanwhile, Micro Four Thirds given the flash are at least compatible in manual mode, and you can get a full AF EOS adapter for Micro Four Thirds from Birger.
  • Sony dSLR with Sony NEX mirrorless
  • Olympus E5 dSLR with Micro Four Thirds

Indeed, we could see a flood of dSLR users moving away from Nikon and back to Canon because of the lack of a suitable mirrorless system to compliment their dSLR kit – assuming of course Canon comes to the party as expected with a 2x crop mirrorless system which will have a sensor twice the size of the Nikon sensor.

Hopefully Nikon is working overtime to create a full frame mirrorless camera to better compliment their dSLRs because I can’t see this 1″ system cutting it.

Why a full frame mirrorless?

Because currently the only one is the super expensive Leica M9 and fanatics and pros insist on the highest image quality, while a mirrorless system creates a lot more possibilities that could compliment a dSLR such as quiet shutter, rapid burst rates, much easier manual focus with legacy lenses especially with tilt-shift lenses, ability to use lenses at their native field of view,  and potential for CD-AF such as eye-detection AF which would make shallow DOF portraits so much easier than with dSLRs.



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