Nikon Unveils Mirrorless Offering: the J1 and V1
Nikon has announced its long-anticipated mirrorless interchangeable lens camera system, with two models aiming to bridge the gap between its enthusiast point-and-shoot compacts, like the P7100 and P300, and its DSLR market. The ‘CX’ system utilizes a 10MP CMOS sensor with a crop factor 2.5x bigger than the 1/1.7″ sensor found in most enthusiast compacts, while coming out behind its main compact system rivals at 1/3 the size of APS-C sensor used in Sony’s and Samsung’s offerings, and 1/2 the size of Micro Four Thirds standard adopted by Olympus and Panasonic.
The system will launch with two handsome little cameras (all available, along with lenses, in five colors), both tentatively scheduled for an October 20th release date. The introductory J1, with a MSRP of $650, has a hybrid contrast detect and phase detect autofocus system, shoots up to 10 fps, 1920 x 1080 @ 60i/30 fps video and comes with a kit 10-30mm (27-81mm equivalent) lens. The more advanced V1, at $900, has these same specs with a magnesium alloy construction, 1.4 million dot electronic viewfinder and accessory port for optional speedlight or GPS functionality.
Entering a Crowded Field
With roughly the same dimensions as the Sony NEX-5N, the similarly-priced Nikon J1 will have a slight advantage as far as lens size, leading to higher portability. But the advantages end there. Comparing the spec sheets side-by-side, Sony’s option is simply more compelling than Nikon’s. Offering a sensor three times as large: Sony’s 16MP ‘magic’ sensor very similar to that in Nikon’s own $1200 D7000, an LCD resolution twice as dense, three stops more high ISO range (up to 25k!), the Nikon offering is looking seriously outmatched.
It’s hard to discern the target demographic for the 1 cameras. At these prices and with this spec sheet, they are not competitive in the high-end mirrorless interchangeable lens market: pros and enthusiasts looking for a second “carry everywhere” camera when they are not on a shoot with their bulky full-frame or medium format camera. Likewise, consumers (the multi-color availability makes it look like a nod to this demo) looking to “trade up” from compacts will balk at these prices, considering the entry-level models of the established mirrorless players, like the E-PM1 from Olympus, the Panasonic GF3 and Sony’s NEX-3C are cheaper and better spec’d. It’s unclear that the consumer market really cares about interchangeable lenses, but the promise of baked-in DSLR image quality, or something approaching it, is more compelling, and that’s something the 1 system is in the least advantageous position to offer.
Too Little, Too Late?
All this doesn’t even take into account that Nikon is seriously late to the party. The other mirrorless systems have a few years head start, with all the advantages that entails, including a few generations of cameras to iron out the inevitable early kinks, shrink the bodies, and foster a relatively mature family of lenses with third party lenses now trickling out. Nikon will launch with four (relatively slow) lenses: the kit zoom, a 10mm f/2.8 (27mm equivalent) pancake, a 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 (81-297mm equivalent), and a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 (27–270mm equivalent) PD-ZOOM and has promised an F-mount adapter.
At a time of tremendous industry upheaval, when dynamic, game-changing innovation is required, Nikon has taken a staunchly conservative position, choosing to avoid stepping on the toes of its entrenched interests – its bread-and-butter DSLR business and lucrative P&S market – rather than using its impressive engineering prowess to really tackle the elephant-in-the-room question head-on: “what will the camera of tomorrow look like?” It looks like they are depending on their brand name to sell these cameras rather than true innovation. As a longtime Nikon user myself, it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion.
To borrow a metaphor from Thom Hogan, so much of the mirrorless war has been geared to finding a “goldilocks” solution, with the “just right” combination of portability, functionality, image quality and, of course, price. Only time, and consumers can tell us what that magic spot is, but I wouldn’t put my money on ‘CX.’
You have to hand it to Sony, with relatively little to lose, and much to gain, they are acting like an ambitious startup, rethinking every accepted convention inherited from the legacy of film cameras. Leveraging their extensive range of consumer technologies from their entire product catalogue, they throw every new feature they can into as tiny a package as possible, and with each iteration, add thoughtful touches that show they are actually listening to the desires of the marketplace.