Nikon's lineup of compacts with interchangeable lenses -- its 1 Series -- is rapidly growing.
Following a fair flurry of updates over the last couple of months, it now boasts four current models in three lines, the J, V and S families. The S1 is an entry-level model, and slips in at the bottom of the stack at around £440 online.
Lenses aside, the S1 shares one key feature with the very first model in the range -- the J1 -- and that's they both have a 10.1-megapixel sensor producing 3,872x2,592 pixel images. That's fine for poster and canvas printing, but you won't want to be cropping too far if you intend to output your shots as large prints rather than posting them online.
Yet in other respects, it's much improved. It's shed around 15 per cent of its weight, and is very slightly smaller. It's cheaper, too, and so offers a more affordable route into Nikon's rapidly developing 1-mount lens system, which is one of the smallest and easiest to carry of any interchangeable lens set-up.
While its styling is highly reminiscent of the J-series cameras however, the build quality reflects the lower price. The body is fashioned from glossy plastic, which doesn't feel either as sturdy or as classy. Meanwhile, the rear LCD -- a high point of both the J- and V-series cameras -- is still 3 inches from corner to corner, but is now populated with only half as many pixels. If you're coming from a rival compact you might not notice the difference, but it's very obvious when stepping down from a J or V camera, and doesn't make for nearly so luxurious a user experience.
Nikon has put together two bundles: the Slim Zoom Lens Kit, which I've reviewed here, pairs the S1 with 11-27.5mm glass, while the Double Zoom Kit, adds a second lens covering off 30-110mm. The sensor that sits behind them is considerably smaller than you'll find in most other compact interchangeable lens cameras, so when working out how these lenses would perform on a regular 35mm camera you need to multiply the focal lengths by 2.7. That gives you 29.7-74.25mm on the slim zoom and 81-297mm on the longer telephoto respectively.
Maximum wide-angle aperture on the 11-27mm lens stands at f/3.5, and at f/3.8 on the 30-110mm option. On either lens, it's f/5.6 at full telephoto, and can be tightened to a minimum f/16 to extend the depth of field.
Sensitivity runs from ISO 100 to ISO 6,400, with compensation of +/-3EV in increments of 1/3EV.
The 1 system has always excelled at speed, and that's also true of the S1, where the maximum shutter speed stands at 1/16,000 second, and burst shooting touches 60fps. When paired with an appropriate lens, this would be a great camera for freezing sports and wildlife in motion.
At the opposite end of the scale, you can hold the shutter open for up to 30 seconds -- a duration that's spot on for night-time city photography. Bulb mode has a two minute limit.
I performed my tests on an overcast day, with the S1 set to produce JPEGs in camera. There was no evidence of compression artefacts, with the S1 maintaining a very light touch throughout.
The overcast conditions were pretty demanding when it came to accurately balancing the light on exterior shots however, and in some pictures the grey sky was flat and lacked the texture that was evident in images taken at the same time on other cameras.
The camera did a great job of resolving a high level of detail right across the frame, and comparing the extreme corners with the very centre revealed very little difference between the two. This is impressive, as it's often the case that you have to cut cameras a little slack in the corners, where they have to bend the incoming light to a more extreme degree.
It was therefore no great surprise that there was no evidence of pink or green colour fringing in my test shots either, as the supplied kit lens managed to focus each wavelength of incoming light in sync.
There was a very fine highlight though along the edges of some thin, darker subject matter where it met strong contrasts, such as the sky. This is evident in the image below, where the rigging is traced by a white line going both forwards and backwards from the tallest mast.
When working in close up, it's easy to isolate a specific subject, which remains sharp as the rest of the frame gently falls away. Minimum focusing distance sits at 30cm.
Low-light performance is good, even at fairly high sensitivities. The image below was exposed at ISO 1,800, and although there's a fair amount of grain to be found when it's zoomed to 100 per cent, the colours are realistic, there's a good balance of highlight and shadow and there's no obvious loss of detail when viewed full screen.
In the still life test, the S1 naturally performed best under studio lighting, although even here the colours were a touch too strong. The S1 set its sensitivity to ISO 200, and detail was sharp thanks to an absence of grain in the result.
Switching off the studio lighting and forcing it to rely on the ambient light in the studio saw it hike its sensitivity to a more ambitious ISO 2,500. This introduced a considerable degree of grain into the image, which affected the overall clarity of the image when zoomed to 100 per cent, but when taken as a whole the image retained a high level of detail, and small text on the spirit bottle in the middle of the tableau remained easily legible.
It performed poorly when using the on-board flash, producing an overall dark result in which it was more difficult to make out fine detail on darker subjects such as the wooden spice box at the centre of the frame, and the black Canon lens towards the rear. Despite this, the flash was strong enough to cast dark shadows behind the objects, which affected the overall balance of the image.
When shooting movies, the S1 can reach an impressive 60fps -- either interlaced at 1,920x1,080 resolution, or progressive at 1,280x720 pixels.
You can tweak the microphone sensitivity on three levels, which are supplemented by options for auto, off and a wind-cut feature. I kept this latter option turned on throughout my tests, but as can be heard from the soundtrack, very strong wind was still too much for it to cope with. This is common to most cameras, so it's not something for which the S1 out to be criticised in particular, and when out of the wind it did record a very clean and detailed audio track.
Moving image quality was good, colours were accurate and its response to rapid changes in the composition of the image was fast, for a good performance overall.
The S1 is a good camera, and a great entry point into Nikon's 1-series compact system line-up. That makes it very attractive, as the 1-series is one of the smallest mainstream sets of compact interchangeable cameras available, and so really plays to the strengths of a system designed to pair many of the benefits of a dSLR with the body of a point-and-shoot.
For anyone who hasn't had their hands on a J- or V-series camera, it will likely offer all that they want, but those who have experienced the alternative will know where this camera is lacking: subjective desirability. The J3, like the J2 and J1 before it, is one of the most appealing, beautifully built cameras around, and simply owning one is a real joy. The fact that it also takes decent pictures is a bonus.
The S1 takes decent pictures too, but the camera itself is more run-of-the-mill, and that slightly dents its appeal. That's greatly ameliorated by the lower price, with the S1 undercutting the J3 by around a third -- a big saving.
If you don't need the extra pixels on the J3's sensor, you can live without its metal body and you're not bothered about the finer resolution on the rear LCD, let your head rule your heart and opt for the S1 instead.