A System Guide to Nikon 1 (CX)

bythom nikon 1

Items on same line indicate model updates. Different lines indicate varying model levels.


Nikon surprised the world in 2011 with the introduction of the Nikon 1, with two camera models, several lenses, and a new accessory line. The surprises were basically two: (1) the use of a small 1” sensor in Nikon’s mirrorless system; and (2) the incredible autofocus performance Nikon managed in these mirrorless models.

That focus performance was unmatched by any mirrorless camera at the time, and near DSLR levels. Even today, the Nikon 1 autofocus system is at or near the top of the heap in mirrorless, despite many advances by competitors and few by Nikon. Moreover, it could manage that at speeds up to 20 fps. It was that far ahead of its time, basically.

But it’s that 1” sensor that’s what most people look at. Compared to a full frame sensor, Nikon’s use of this far smaller sensor puts the Nikon 1 models about three stops behind the full frame cameras, all else equal. But they’re behind the m4/3 and APS sensor mirrorless cameras, too.

It didn’t help that Nikon grossly overpriced the Nikon 1 when it came out. At the original prices, it just didn’t sell. At later discounted prices that were more reflective of the value of the product, they sold decently.

The good news about a small sensor is that it makes for a small camera and small lenses. Nikon has made basically three of the smallest mirrorless models ever:

  • J series — a small rangefinder-style camera that uses the rear LCD for composing (no EVF option). This series of bodies has refined the same basic camera over five yearly updates, plus it was used to create an underwater version, the AW1.
  • V series — a small, more DSLR-like camera that includes an EVF (built-in or optional). Unlike the J series, the V series jumps all over the place, with not a single one of the three iterations being much like the previous ones.
  • S series — an attempt to make a truly consumer, feature-light version of the J series, and to push the body size even smaller.

Over the course of the Nikon’s history the 1” sensors Nikon used have gone from a 10mp Aptina-supplied one (J1) to a 20mp Sony-supplied one (J5), with a couple of stops in between. From an image quality standpoint, only the 20mp sensor in the J5 is at the highest current standards for 1” as I write this, thus making the J5 the preferred Nikon 1 model for anyone seeking ultimate image quality.

In terms of lenses, Nikon was a bit inconsistent.

  • Primes — 10mm f/2.8, 18.5mm f/1.8, 32mm f/1.2
  • Zooms6.7-13mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6, 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR, 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 VR, 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 VR

Lenses that stand out are in bold in the above list. The rest are decent, but either aren’t exceptional enough to get excited about, or have drawbacks (particularly the 11-27.5mm, which is missing stabilization).

There are two stunning lenses in that list, though. The 32mm f/1.2 is probably the best small camera portrait lens I’ve encountered. It’s an 85mm equivalent, is optically brilliant, and the fast aperture manages to bring some subject isolation to the very small 1” sensor bodies.

Meanwhile, the 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 with any of the Nikon 1 bodies makes for the most portable long-reach wildlife set available. We’re at 800mm equivalent at the long end, yet at just over a pound and only a bit over 4” long when retracted. The fast autofocus of the Nikon 1 cameras coupled with this small telephoto zoom make for pretty decent birds-in-flight capability. Essentially, a V2 (maybe V3 with the EVF) and a 70-300mm are a birders delight.

One frustrating aspect of the Nikon 1 series is that all the accessories—flash, GPS, etc.—are not compatible with the DSLR accessories, and vice versa. This is just seriously bad decision making on Nikon’s part, though they did re-use some DSLR batteries in the Nikon 1 cameras.

The bad news is that Nikon appears to have completely abandoned the Nikon 1 line. We got no new cameras or lenses in 2016. Moreover, it appears that Nikon took the Nikon 1 designs and turned them into DL cameras with built-in lenses. Those built-in lenses are arguably better than the kit lenses that came with the J/V/S series cameras, while the DL models inherit pretty much all the Nikon 1 features and add to them (including compatibility with Nikon DSLR accessories).


text and images 2017Thom Hogan
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