Leap of Faith

NIKON's BARGAIN 1 V1   Monday, December 16

The last few months have seen some extraordinary equipment launched into what looks increasingly like a struggling and extremely competitive photographic market. Top-of-the-line hardware is not, apparently, synonymous these days with either runaway success or a guarantee of survival.

Much respected commentators have warned recently that while mirror-less cameras are stealing market share from the venerable DSLR - portability versus weight in an age of increasing restrictions for air travellers - they're not exactly enhancing profitability or their own brand sustainability in the process.

As photographers we're currently spoiled for choice like never before, but will it last and will today's investment in hardware and expensive glass stand the test of time or professional servicing requirements?

On paper, the four-thirds development into micro four-thirds seems to have triggered a substantial shift of allegiances, with Olympus and Panasonic backing their innovative, interchangeable system with serious, high quality prime lenses that even constantly-updated sensors struggle to match for resolution.  Sony have recently moved into something approximating the lead, in innovation if not quite sales, with a series of diminutive but class-leading cameras that they're still having difficulty in supplying with appropriate glass, the superlative Carl Zeiss line excluded, but that's limited for choice and doesn't come cheaply; it's even whispered that fabled Leica lenses might be better anchored to an Alpha 7R with its over-40MP sensor than to an M-240.  

The list of competing brands goes on, there being nothing wrong with Samsung or Ricoh, Fuji also establishing a following for high-class retro cameras that are being backed with a fast-filling range of high-quality glass and Leica rarely disappointing with expensive, almost niche-like equipment that will always attract a following for quality, aesthetics and, possibly, collector value.

So what of Canon and Nikon? The comfort of being placed first and second in the professional stakes for so long has probably led to a certain complacency, a feeling of near-invincibility, but it looks like they've miscalculated and, possibly, quite badly at that. 

Increasingly mobile photographers, a number with active and influential blogs, are abandoning the heavy DSLR (and its even heavier glass) for near-pocketable equipment with small but high-quality interchangeable lenses. Recently, the Olympus OM-D EM-1 has leapfrogged the much-acclaimed EM-5, with the added attraction that those who'd previously invested in high-performance four-thirds lenses can now mount them on the latest MFT bodies via adapters with no loss of original facilities or functions. For those not so invested, the array of current (and mini) primes is breathtaking in both range and quality, not to mention SIZE.

Almost-universal and mostly affordable air connections have taken some of the exoticism out of travel in the last thirty or so years but, still blessed in what I do for a living with the occasional opportunity to visit less-trodden if not necessarily less-populated parts, the attraction of un- or re-discovered places remains undimmed. Time is often at a premium but an hour stolen here, a couple there is more than enough to get under the skin of a place and to put a few images onto a card. Wilting under the weight of a full-blown DSLR system, even with only a couple of zooms, was becoming an increasingly less attractive proposition with advancing years but the advent of mirror-less cameras, tablet computers and their attendant apps has been a game-changer, Snapseed as good a substitute for Photoshop as any for web use.  

Travelling with just one camera can lead to a certain insecurity but with three 'minis' - two of the interchangeable lens-type with a total of four lenses and one with a fixed zoom, the lot covering a range from 24mm to 270mm and weighing in at less than a single Nikon 7000 with a kit zoom (not a criticism: I've got and use one) - almost every eventuality is amply covered and at least one of them can play substitute, left behind to keep the hotel safe company and to further lighten the load. 

So, my last distance outing, Eastwards, was something of a leap of faith as far as the camera bag was concerned. Ultimately even the EM-5 was left behind in favour of a combo comprising not only one of the newest MFT offerings but an already ageing Nikon 1 V1 body with 10mm and 18.5mm primes and a 10-100mm zoom plus a first-generation Sony RX100 with fixed zoom; the latest Lumix GM-1 with 12-32mm zoom an en-route addition that should ultimately complement and share lenses with the OM-Ds: a worthy successor to one of Panasonic's best, the still widely-used GF-1. 

Was that faith rewarded? For travel photography, a resounding yes. The bag - a ballistic nylon, waterproof 'Small Shoulder & Belt' type from Domke, unobtrusive and no bigger than a purse - and a couple of pockets swallowed the lot! 

The Travelling Trio

I've long been a daily visitor to Steve Huff's excellent, prolific but real-world website and blog where charts, technicalities and pixel-peeping are replaced by in-the-hand experiences of equipment that really hit most nails on the head. Mr Huff may be a committed Leica fan but is not shy to recommend much cheaper hardware if he thinks that its qualities merit consideration as competition for the best. I'm indebted to his alert that Nikon's marketing department had decided to make virtual 'presents' of the V1 at a price, with a good lens, that simply made it difficult to ignore (let's say...twenty V1s for the price of one German flagship M without glass). Steve Huff is found under www.stevehuffphoto.com. Nikon mistimed its entry into this sector, underplaying its hand with an excellent system that deserves respect rather than the brickbats it received, albeit mostly from armchair reviewers who criticised its specification on paper rather than from photographers who both used and appreciated it. That said, the camera does lend itself to certain, inexpensive and even free add-ons and alterations to enhance its handling.

The Franiec Grip

A black camera is always much easier to spirit into daily use past an unsuspecting spouse than a white one, but that's what was offered, cheap, so clean one had to come; the attractive price softened the tirade.

V1 back and mode dial

V1 back and mode dial

Not the prettiest of shapes when accommodating a viewfinder (!), the V1 body is, nevertheless, well put together, its white enamel-over-magnesium-and-aluminium-alloy top plate and front attractive and certainly good for Tropical use.  The back is standard matt black with an adjustable-diopter EVF and the usual, but small, array of buttons, the menu easy to navigate and understand. Offered with the excellent 10mm f2.8 pancake lens (27mm equivalent) - that doubles effectively as a macro - in matching white, its first accessory, originating in Hong Kong and from a comprehensive Amazon list, was a (cheap but very effective) black metal, vented screw-in lens hood to keep out stray light. Next came the ever-useful and beautifully machined, made-to-measure Richard Franiec black metal grip that can be heartily recommended as a must-have, the  whole then rounded off by replacing the camera's standard carrying strap in Singapore by a 'Cam-inred leather one from either TK Foto at the Funan Centre or Cathay Photo at Peninsula Plaza, the two just a few steps away from each other; how they manage to sell these at the prices they do is beyond me as they're top quality and come in all colours and lug fittings with well-designed, anti-chafing body protection; I bring a selection home with me after every trip as they also make good presents for hobbyists. There are a couple of small V1 niggles, top and back, that are easily dealt with for next to nothing: a couple of inches of sticky tape, no less. The mode dial, which falls under the right thumb, is something of a free-wheeler that occasionally surprises by covertly parking itself in 'movie' rather than photo mode and then, top-left, the slightest touch will knock the accessory shoe cover off. As being 'pretty' is not what makes good images, 'ugly' tape will effectively solve both problems. 

All taped up and ready to go

I wondered at first what it was that made a small camera feel so good and well-balanced in the hand: it's the huge battery that, thank you Nikon, is the same as the one that powers my D7000. It gives the unit heft and just makes it all feel so substantial; haven't recorded the number of shots from a fully-charged battery but it seems prodigious as can't recall changing one during a day's use.  No need for me to go into the various operating options as there are plenty of expert sites out there covering those in detail but the menu is simple, the controls ditto, the rocker switch above the control wheel for changing aperture (and magnifying playback) particularly handy for those choosing to wear the camera on the face, preferring the excellent EVF to arm's length framing, particularly in bright light.

Notwithstanding the much-criticised and relatively small sensor, colour out of the camera is pleasingly true and I see nothing wrong with its resolving powers. It might not serve for detailed landscape work but for travel/street/people it's my current go-to and anyone doubting its 'bokeh' potential or out-of-focus area performance, while the 10mm needs to be up-close to achieve the necessary, I can best speak for the 18.5mm f1.8 and the 10-100mm f4-5.6VR with examples:

10-100mm: Lime sir?

18.5mm: smells a bit but tasty.....Singapore Durian

And for those into B&W,  a lot of creative fun can be had with an app like 'Dramatic HD', where conversions can be as rewarding as the original capture - no manipulation of DoF incidentally:

10-100mm: traffic police, Cochin

10-100mm: Delhi Mosque Guide

For bag-less outings, the V1 plus 10mm (27mm) or 18.5mm (50mm) fits very snugly into one of Op/Tech USA's neoprene offerings for compacts that protects it from light rain, knocks, and dust, especially for anyone, like me, preferring to pocket the lens caps before leaving home. 

Although a Nikon user for many years - going back to F3 film days - like so many I hadn't given the Nikon 1 series a second thought until Steve Huff's timely alert of a bargain.

All I can say is thank you, as I've already had a lot of fun with it and it seems that it's really not the 10.1m pixels sensor that's important but the way in which they're put together. For more serious work, the FT1 adapter will accommodate most F-mount lenses, although the crop factor effectively turns them all into degrees of telephoto and the body into a virtual accessory for the lens. For the money asked for the V1 today, new, boxed and guaranteed, less than for some P&S compacts, how can anyone go wrong?

And what of the Sony RX100 and the Lumix GM-1? Enough has been written about the prodigious Sony, which is already in its second iteration as a mark II when the potential of the original has yet to be fully explored, to confirm that it's a take-anywhere mini-tank that does anything you ask of it; photographic pocket insurance of the highest order. The  Lumix 'baby' - in both age and size - will probably deserve a page to itself sometime soon but a first walk with it around Singapore's venerable Old Lady, the Raffles Hotel, indicates that, accepting an array of micro four-thirds lenses, it'll be a no-brainer and a worthy offspring of the renowned GF-1. Downsizing seems not to have affected anything other than a heightened desire for adoption. You don't even need a bag for this one, but make sure your pockets don't have holes in them: it might even beat the small change to your ankles.......


'Produce' of the V1, RX100 and GM-1 can be seen in the   www.picjerz.com   galleries under NEW: Delhi, Cochin Portraits, Singapore Snaps and Raffles!