Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: Adequate verging on sufficient.
The Long Version: Welcome to the third instalment of my overly-long-running review of the obsolete Nikon 1 V1. Part one was mostly getting the negatives out of the way, while part two took a sunnier view on things. Now it's finally time to look at the image quality of the camera that I've nicknamed "that stupid f'cking little piece of sh't". But don't read too much into that – I give affectionate nicknames to many of my cameras.
The first thing you need to know about image quality is that the V1 really wants to have a shutter speed of 1/30s, and won't increase its iso sensitivity to go faster than that. This is fine for the 10-30mm, and almost acceptable with good technique with the 30-110mm, as they both have in-lens image stabilization. The unstabilized 10mm f/2.8 should also be good with this – I don't own it to test – but the camera isn't clever enough to boost its minimun shutter speed with the 18.5mm, which is a 50mm-equivalent.
Let me tell you, 1/30 at 50mm isn't nearly fast enough to avoid camera shake with this lightweight little LCD-based camera. And this isn't just a 'low light' thing – I've run into its limitations on a cloudy day. This camera can't be trusted to do its own thing, and needs to be actively managed.
I'm generally happy with the V1 up to about iso800, which looks a little like iso6400 on my D800, but iso400 and under does create a significantly better file. I've printed the Rubbermaid photo above, taken at iso1000, as an 18x12, and it shows noise and artifacts under critical examination. Especially for higher iso settings, the modest per-pixel image quality makes low-DPI prints and uprezzing more difficult than usual. Yes, plenty of people make big prints from low-resolution cameras, but noise and noise removal – even with raw files – will make marginal prints from the V1 break up and look digital in a bad way.
On the other hand, the shipping container photo below, at a functionally identical iso900, passed scrutiny that's much more incisive than mine at the same size. Content matters tremendously, and it's overly simplistic to set an absolute limit on what will and won't be satisfactory ahead of time. My lesson from this is to use the shutter speed and aperture that the camera and photo requires, respectively, and let the iso sort itself out. Yes, this sometimes leads to disappointment, but I'd rather have a noisy photo than a blurry one, or worse, no photo at all.
But for web-sized images or snapshots none of this really matters. Properly managed, with the camera forced to use a sensible shutter speed and a reasonable iso setting, the V1's image quality is actually pretty decent. Coupled with its small lenses the V1 is a great camera for wandering around the city with, and I wouldn't feel foolish carrying it as my only camera for any multi-day trip that doesn't have photography as its primary goal.
The V1 lacks the modern nicety of having lens distortion correction built into the camera, and all of the lenses would benefit from it. Fortunately both Lightroom and DxO Optics, the two programs I use, support most of the 1's lenses. I'm just waiting for the 18.5mm lens to be supported, and when that finally catches up then I'll never hesitate to use it.
As a three-lens kit the V1 with the 10-30, 30-110, and fast normal 18.5mm prime makes for a flexible combination. Of the three the 30-110 is my favourite, and it seems to be a bit better than the 10-30, but really all of them are about as good as the camera. That's not a ringing endorsement, it's true, but this isn't an inherently exciting system.
Even at 'only' 10 megapickles, the V1's pixel density would make for a 74Mpx full-frame sensor, so designing appropriately small and inexpensive lenses is a major accomplishment. I've rounded out my lens options by adding the FT-1 adapter to my kit, and can't say that even the best F-mount lenses really blow me away on the V1, either. More on that in yet another review instalment, but for now the short version is that the 1-system lenses are fine.
When compared to recent cameras its image quality offers few surprises. It's generally better than smaller compact cameras that cost about the same amount of money as the 1V1's fire-sale prices, and not as good as larger-sensored cameras that cost more. And despite all of my griping, it actually compares quite favourably to older cameras that I've used extensively, such as the Olympus E-3 or Panasonic GH1, which remain some of the better 4/3 sensors out there.
The V1's image quality is good enough for pretty much everything that I usually do, so I know I'll have generally decent results from it, but it's tough being the little brother to a D800. The V1 is the camera that I carry when I'm carrying something else, whether it's a bigger camera that will benefit from the V1's small size and zoom lenses, or my audio kit that benefits from its silence.
So despite being deeply flawed as a photo-taking device, the reality is that the V1 makes an excellent sidekick, and there isn't a camera out there that would be a better match for my needs. Yes, that's a little sad in many ways, but that's just the way it is some times.
last updated 18 feb 2013