Here's the Nikon V1 (left) next to a Canon G9 with lens retracted. As you can see, their body sizes are quite similar. So are their weights. The G9, however, has a lot more buttons, dials, and direct controls. It also has a hot shoe that will work with any standard flash unit, which is something the V1 lacks. On the other hand, the V1 is generally much easier and faster to operate and produces much high quality output.
Being the independent thinker I am, I decided to see for myself how well the much-reviled (and equally much-praised) Nikon V1 with its 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom would perform as a street and travel camera. As you can see from the comparison photo above, the V1 meets many of the most important qualifications for street and travel: It's small (approximately 113 x 76 x 43.5 mm/4.4 x 3 x 1.7 in. body only), lightweight (383 g/13.5 oz with battery and memory card), durable (magnesium alloy body), and unintimidating.
The question on my mind was whether it offered the speed, flexibility, and image quality that are so lacking in compact digicams and camera phones. I was not expecting it to be as capable or to have the same image quality as larger, heavier, more expensive APS-C and full-frame DSLRs. Those of you who do have that expectation should read no further. What follows is a summary of my discoveries, likes and dislikes, and a few tips for overcoming some of the V1's shortcomings.
The V1 is ready to shoot as soon as you extend the lens from its fully retracted state--or, in the case of the fixed focal lenth 10mm f/2.8, as soon as you press the On button. Unlike compact cameras with electronic zoom mechanisms linked to a rocker switch, you have direct and immediate mechanical control over focal length, with markings on the lens barrel. The image snaps into focus as soon as you press the shutter button halfway down. The 3" diagonal, 921K-dot LCD display is reasonably visible in bright light, however, when you raise the camera to your eye it automatically switches over to the built-in 1440K-dot electronic viewfinder.
The Nikon V1 really struts its stuff when it comes to continuous focusing speed. If you use its electronic shutter, the V1 is capable of tracking movement in bright light at 10, 30, or 60 frames-per-second. It also has a 44-frame buffer, even for raw images. This is more useful for sports or wildlife photography than street and travel, but it's nice to have on hand nevertheless.
I asked this gentleman's permission to take his picture, which he graciously granted. The speed element here was the Nikon V1's ability to capture fleeting facial expressions and hand gestures such as this one.
No sooner had I raised the camera to my eye than this teenager turned to glance at me. I focused and released the shutter in no more than a half-second. Even though his face is off-center, the focus is spot-on. The first question out of his mouth was, "Are you a tourist?"
Things slow down when you need to do something other than focus, frame, and shoot. The V1 has very few direct controls. This means that when you want to set options such as ISO, white balance, or exposure mode (PASM), you have to do a bit of menu-diving. These generally aren't things you need to set often, so in my experience the inconvenience is minor.
Exposure compensation, which is something I use often, is directly available by pressing and turning the control dial on back of the camera. Unfortunately, you have to press a Set button for your change to register, which once again slows things down a second or two. (There is no exposure bracketing feature, by the way, but since I never use it I never missed it.)
An added speed-bump is the fact that there is no way to turn off image review, even when you're using the electronic viewfinder. This is no consequence to shooters who like to "chimp" every shot. For those of us who want to keep a constant live view of the subject, it's an annoyance that requires tapping the shutter button after each exposure to return to live view.
The V1's 10MP image sensor is approximately 4X as large in area as those in the average compact digicam while half as large as a four-thirds sensor. Should it come as any surprise that the image quality is significantly better than that of compact digicams and falls short of that of APS-C and full-frame, especially at high ISOs? In this regard shooting with the Nikon V1 is no different from shooting with 35mm vs. medium-format film. All things being equal, of course the larger format will offer a noticable edge in resolution and smoothness. It will also require a larger, heavier camera with larger, heavier, lenses--the sort of kit that a sizable percentage of photographers would rather leave at home than carry everywhere.
When you look at the Nikon V1 for what it is--a compact yet capable camera--then its technical image quality is quite impressive and more than sufficient for street and travel photography. (Artistic image quality is your responsibility.) It well exceeds anything you'd need for screen resolution on the web. Based on personal experience, it's also good enough for excellent 11x14 prints, even with slightly cropped images shot at ISO 800.
I find that I'm lot more comfortable pointing a small, nondescript looking camera at people on the street than a large DSLR with a lens the size of a soda can. So are my subjects, at least those who notice me at all. The all-black Nikon V1 simply doesn't attract much attention. The same might not be true of the all-white version, yet even that would be more likely to convey that you're a style-conscious amateur rather than a pro.
Better yet, the V1 offers a choice of two shutters. The mechanical shutter operates with a whisper-quiet "snick." The electronic shutter is dead silent. So are the focus and zoom mechanisms in the lenses. I found it almost eerie how easy it was to photograph someone from only inches away without attracting even so much as a glance.
Travel photography requires the ability to shoot off and on for hours at a time, as you move from one place to the next. Street photography requires the camera to be on for long periods, ready to snap a picture at a moment's notice. Both can be a heavier than normal drain on battery power.
Fortunately, the V1 uses the same high-capacity 1900mAh EN-EL15 battery Nikon designed for its D7000 DSLR. This battery charges quickly, can easily last through a full day of shooting, and is readily available if you should decide to pack a spare. Don't take this for granted. Many cameras are powered by batteries so weak and hard to find that they become an Achilles heel.
Drawbacks and Remedies
All cameras have limitations and design flaws. The Nikon V1 is no exception. In addition to the ones I've already mentioned, one of the most annoying is the mode dial on the back of the camera. It doesn't cycle you through the standard PASM exposure modes you might expect. You have to menu-dive for that. Instead, the modes are Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo, Still Image, and Movie. Suffice it to say that the mode I used most often was Still Image. The problem is that although the detents on the mode dial seem stiff enough, in practice it's quite easy to accidentally move the dial. I solved this problem by taping the mode dial in place with a piece of black gaffer's tape. This shouldn't be necessary, but at least it's quick, cheap, and effective.
The gaffer's tape solution also came in handy for taping down the small removable plastic cover for the accessory port. Travel photography in particular involves a lot of camera handling, jostling, moving around, and distractions. Anything that can fall off of your camera will, and will probably never be seen again.
The one thing you can't tape over is the slow lens speed typical of kit zooms. You're at f/5.6 before you know it. Even though the zooms have vibration-reduction, you'll still be shooting at speeds below 1/30 and/or high ISOs in low light. This system begs for one or two fast primes with a maximum aperture of at least f/1.8.
Finally, keep in mind that like many digital cameras, the Nikon V1 takes a few seconds to awake once it's gone to sleep. That may not sound like much, but it can often mean the difference between catching or losing a once-in-a-lifetime shot. My solution was to increase the default time-before-sleep from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. This reduced the constant need to re-awaken the camera with only a minor increase in battery drain. You can increase the time-before-sleep even more if you like, just make sure to have a spare battery on hand if you do.
Would I Buy One?
Given the amount of money I have budgeted (less than $1000 for camera plus one or two lenses), the V1 is a strong contender, especially now that Nikon has temporarily knocked $100 off the price here in the U.S. If the price ($800 with 10-30mm kit zoom) still seems high for a camera of this size and specification, keep in mind that the Nikon V1 has a built-in hi-res optical viewfinder. That said, so does the Panasonic Lumix G3, for roughly $200 less, but with considerably less ability to maintain focus on fast moving objects.
If I had more money on hand I'd probably opt for the Olympus E-M5, assuming I was also willing to wait for dealers to have them in stock. I might even consider the Sony NEX-7 if it weren't for the lenses being so large. You'll know what I decided when you see the pictures I upload from my upcoming trip to China. Until then, I hope you enjoy the photos I've taken so far. Feel free to visit my Zenfolio gallery for more examples. If there are any Nikon V1 owners out there who have something constructive to add, please send comments.