The Nikon 1 V3: The greatest small camera in the world
by George DeWolfe
First, you have to understand where I am coming from: Over 50 years of professional and fine art photography. This is not meant in any way to be a bragging session, but I just want to add a little weight to what I am about to write.
Let me also limit myself. I very rarely print images larger than 17×22 inches. It’s a choice. My preference is actually for a 4×5 or 8×10 contact print from a traditional negative, the highest image quality attainable. The ultimate test of any camera/printing system is how good a black-and-white print it will produce. Not color, black and white.
I was skeptical about the Nikon 1 system at first: It has a smallish sensor: how well will it make large prints? The V1 did an admirable job and produced images better than any point and shoot I’d used before. But then I decided to try something, put it on a tripod and treat it like a regular DSLR. The results I obtained in the black-and-white prints from these images were of superb technical quality and beautiful tonality.
The latest iteration of this little gem of a camera is the V3. Because of the quality of this model I have sold all my DSLR cameras except one, a small lightweight D5500. But I am now using the V3 for everything and the D5500 sits and collects dust.
The kit I have (pictured) is the Nikon 1 V3 with the lightest Gitzo or Really Right Stuff Tripod and the Leica Ball Head. I came to this decision by degrees and experimenting. The Leica ball head is one of the best in the world, and it supports 15 pounds. It’s small and does everything you want a good ball head to do—fast. One control makes all the adjustments. I’d come close to saying that it’s the best ball head in the world, but it doesn’t support heavier DSLR equipment. But it’s perfect for the Nikon 1 V3 and lighter Nikon cameras including the D3300, D5500 and D7100.
I recommend both the Gitzo GT1542T Series 1 Traveler and the Really Right Stuff TQC-14. It’s hard for me to decide which one I like the best, but for lightweight action, movement and travel, either is excellent. They will support all but the heaviest DSLR.
Years ago Ansel Adams was asked what camera he favored using. He replied, “The heaviest one I can lift!” To him that probably meant a 4×5 or 8×10 view camera. My approach is a little different: Carrying the lightest camera I can find that produces the highest quality image. Today, that is the Nikon 1 V3. (Actually, the Nikon A was very close because it had a DX censor in a small point-and-shoot frame, but it had a fixed focal length and is now discontinued.)
The quantitative and technical aspects of the V3 are discussed on many popular photography websites. I am going to concentrate on its main qualitative functions in this article.
The main attribute a camera needs to have, aside from any other, is the quality of the image it produces. What usually happens at this point in most camera reviews I read is that image quality is broken down into its quantitative aspects. I think that’s misleading. What photographers really want is a qualitative image evaluation of the camera’s image by an expert whose images they respect.
An expert will usually not compare camera images from different cameras. He’ll compare the camera image to something he has in his head (and possibly heart). If you start comparing images from different cameras you end up eventually suffering from what is called, “Judge’s Creep.” ( Judge’s Creep is what happens to judges of a large contest. After hours of ‘judging’ you get tired and your idea of quality diminishes). In a camera we are looking for absolute image quality, not relative image quality. The image the expert has in his head is the absolute best.
My qualitative “scale” revolves around the word beautiful. In a black-and-white print, which is what I make most of the time, beautiful is described in terms of tonal quality. Tonal quality is a function of the articulation of the gray values.
Articulation is the number of values within the framework of the photograph. And it has been shown (Seeing Black and White, Alan Gilchrist, Oxford, 2006) that the more gray values there are in a photograph, the less flattening (or compression) occurs in the print. So, the more values, the better the tonal quality.
Shown below is the functional visual tonal scale of the Nikon V3:
The test was made photographing a gray towel in shade and bracketing in steps of 1 stop either side of middle gray until the image became black or white without detail. The test shows that the V3 has a full detail range of 5 stops and a dynamic range of 7 stops from white to black. This is a visual test with no numbers or calculations involved. It has as many tonal values as an ordinary Nikon DSLR. This was also a typical range of panchromatic black-and-white film such as Kodak Tri-X.
This is a functional test, one that quickly shows a photographer how the sensor records images. It’s very useful in determining when you’ll have to bracket images for HDR processing. My standard operating procedure with digital photography is to bracket one stop above and one stop under the correct exposure if I have the opportunity.
The second part of a qualitative digital workflow is using RAW files. The Nikon NEF Raw format allows you elbow room when processing in Lightroom or Photoshop. JPEG files don’t offer as much flexibility.
Third, I always photograph in color, because the color information is necessary to convert the image into a quality black-and-white image.
The one slightly negative quality I’ve have about the Nikon 1 is the tiny size of the flash card. It’s about as big as my thumbnail. After a period of working with the camera, however, I am used to it and that negative aspect has worn off. It makes you be careful when handling the camera, which is a good thing.
One of the best attributes of the Nikon 1 camera system is its array of high quality lenses. I use the zooms most of the time, but the 32mm (85mm equivalent, 2.7x crop factor) is the best portrait lens I’ve ever seen. It is absolutely superb.
My move to exchange all but one Nikon DSLR with the Nikon 1 did not come easy and it came by degrees with the evolution of the Nikon 1 itself. From the first model, the V1, which I still love, Nikon has steadily improved the camera to the point that I can make excellent 17×22 prints from the Epson 3880. I don’t think the Nikon 1 V3 needs any more endorsement than that.