Nikon 1’s first 50mm lens

The 1 Nikkor 18.5mm f/1.8 for the Nikon 1 Series is here, and it’s a beauty.  The much anticipated 50mm-equivalent not only adds a beloved classic frame to the 1 Series lineup, but is also its first wide-aperture lens, introducing a much needed fast option for 1 Series users and extending the range of artistic and technical capabilities available such as shallower Depth of Field and night shooting.

The 18.5mm is 1 1/4 stops faster than its sibling, the 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 prime, promising more than double the low-light performance of its peer.

It’s got all the hallmarks of the 1 Series – it’s small, light, and inexpensive – but how does it stack up optically?  To begin to answer that question we will enlist the aid of Nikon’s own MTF charts for the 18.5mm, the 10mm, and the best standard comparable lens – the AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.8.  With the same effective angle of view and aperture ratio, and being perhaps the most popular 50mm lens, this is the lens to beat.

There are three main areas I want to draw your attention to in these graphs, which depict resolution as a measure of image quality (IQ) on the vertical axis, and distance from the center of the lens on the horizontal, for each of the three lenses: in the yellow boxes above, the first is the point at which the quality of the 18.5mm first drops below .6, a rating above which is generally accepted as “good”.  In excess of 75% of the 18.5mm’s diameter is above this level, whereas for the 10mm this is 50%, and for the traditional 50mm less than 40%.  The second and third areas are the lowest quality scores achieved by the other lenses.  The perennial 50mm had the lowest outside score of .1, while the 10mm floored at .2, and the 18.5mm did not even meet .3.

Together, this means dramatically more relative area of the lens with higher resolution, which translates directly to sharper, crisper images for you, the shooter.  Did I mention it’s less than half the weight?

These measures are not trivial, and have two major implications for the 1 Series: the first is that Nikon is demonstrating a continuing trend of improvement not only in the geometric characteristics of the lenses in the family, covering an ever-wide range of angles of view and light gathering abilities, but also in optical quality as sharpness and color transmission continue to improve.

The second, and far more important, conclusion is what Nikon is signalling to us: this lens is an affirmation of their commitment to the 1 Series, and to the fact that they don’t take their first new lens family introduction in 50 years lightly.

The 1 Series is here to stay, and it’s the future of Nikon.

We’ll keep you posted once we get one of these and have some sample images.  Until then, here’s some stock photos (be sure to take note of the excellent nighttime performance and lovely shallow DoF):

NikonUSA down… V2 coming?

As of 3:42pm, today (Wed Sept 12 ’12), nikonusa.com is “currently undergoing maintenance”.  Could this be a poorly-executed Apple-style product upgrade?  Could it be a major overhaul to the website to accommodate a new product or website feature?  Could it be the IT intern is taking a long time to add more RAM to the server in Tokyo?

Stay tuned, folks!  We’ll soon know for sure…

Update: Yes!  It’s the sixth lens for the 1 series, the much-asked-for fast 50mm-equivalent prime, and a new camera, the D600

Choosing to get a V1

Your iPhone (or suitable substitute) is great.  It does everything, you’re only paying for phone service, and it’s the best camera you’ve ever owned.  It takes good shots, it’s always available, and it’s free.  It’s almost ideal, really.  Almost.

But sooner or later, everybody realizes that their iPhone isn’t really going to cover all the bases if one gets serious about capturing lasting memories.  There are a few specific shortcomings:

  1. The need for better low-light performance.  The iPhone camera produces terrible pictures inside or at night
  2. The need for to be able to capture lots of shots in a short time, rather than waiting for several seconds while the camera reloads
  3. The need for a physical zoom (the iPhone doesn’t have one), and for that matter
  4. The need for changeable lenses to cover every situation

In other words, those things which tend to mean missing the shot, or put a timeless way, losing a memory forever (outside our very ‘analog’ heads, that is).

However, most are like me: I never had been (and still am not) willing to make the compromises necessary to actually buy a big DSLR which would traditionally provide all those benefits, because:

  1. Big, conspicuous body and lens ruins every candid scene and is a hassle to have with you
  2. Long prep time between “That’s a cool shot” and “Ok got it” means usually you don’t
  3. Buttons, dials, levers, and other geek-fetishisms get old really fast

Up until a couple years ago you could add “absurd price premium” to that list, but today’s breed, such as the D3200, have more than addressed that.

So, what are we looking for?  The sweet spot: A small, easy-to-use camera which produces superior images under harsher circumstances than an iPhone, without being so much of a burden like a professional camera.  In short: not missing the memory.

When I started my search for a small, quality camera, I very quickly found discussions of “micro-4/3” cameras, which led me to the Nikon 1 Series, and the V1 in particular.  I have to admit I was already “brand-prepped” on Nikon: here was one of the most revered groups making cameras, who had been around forever, with a lot of credibility and history, a perennial top seller, and was also my father’s preferred make.

It’s true, as a Nikon it got some bonus points, but the V1 caught my attention right from the start on its own merits.  One of the first things I did was watch the product demo from B&H Photo, which drew my attention to the “Smart Photo Selector” feature, a concept which nearly sealed the deal for me single-handedly.

The Smart Photo Selector mode of the 1 Series instructs the camera to take something like 30 pictures rapidly when the shutter is pressed; the camera then scans the images automagically for things like blur, closed eyes, out of focus faces, and other anomalies and selects the top 5 images to keep and the best single image as their representative.

I can’t stress enough how brilliant this is: here is the consumer, looking for a camera which will allow them to take pictures in rapid fire, the purpose being to then go through and pick the best one, not having missed the scene.  Meanwhile, the designers of the 1 Series had already skipped ahead through that, and decided they would simply make the camera perform all of those steps.  The end result, the smart photo selector, is an incredible time and hassle -saver.

This ability to think ahead of the consumer is pervasive in the 1 Series’ design, and is what is starting to make Nikon look like the Apple of the camera world.

The V1’s dedication to the aforementioned sweet spot goes on:

  • a silent shutter mode or a physical shutter, which is perfect for not waking sleeping babies or making people jittery in a candid scene
  • viewfinder if you need it
  • the viewfinder automatically comes on using the same light sensor the iPhone does: bring it up to your eye and it switches on
  • fastest autofocus, period (as in, for any amount of money)
  • amazing subject-tracking autofocus lets you select something – say, a face – and the camera will maintain focus on it as it moves
  • HD video, and ability to continue taking pictures even while shooting video

Yet the V1 is still small and light, and not covered in buttons (though all the manual settings and modes are available if needed).  Overall image quality is fantastic, and far beyond what you get from your cameraphone.  Speaking of which, how does the 1 Series stack up against the “big 4” limitations of the most popular camera ever (the iPhone)?  Great!  It has:

  • excellent low-light performance (comparatively speaking – there is never enough of this even with a $10k lens)
  • incredible fast shooting – 60fps for a moment if need be, and in regular mode (5fps) it’s more than most of the big cameras costing 5x the price.
  • great introductory lens selection – and incredible lens selection with FT-1 adapter which lets you use any of the 70 million Nikkor lenses out there, and the countless others which can be adapted to an F-mount, which Nikon has been using for over 50 years.

I won’t get into the “sensor wars” battle here, but suffice it to say that the resolution of this camera allows it to produce a crisp photo up to any standard print size (say, 11×20 and certainly 4×6).

Here are the best, most spot-on reviews of the V1:

The first three being more humanistic and the latter two highly technical and detailed.  If you need to know about battery life, lcd screen brightness, or IQ showdowns vs that Sony/Leica/etc, I highly recommend any of them.  If you’re shopping, best of luck to you.

Update: Rumor has it that there will be a V2 this month, so if you’re considering a V1, perhaps you should sit tight.