When I reviewed the Nikon 1 J2 back at the end of summer, I was disappointed that the difference between that and its predecessor, the J1, was so slight. Nikon has followed up with the V2, an upgrade to the V1, which this time around boasts far more obvious improvements. You can snap it now for around £760.
For starters, the resolution has increased from 10.1 to 14.2 megapixels, so at full size, images are 4,608x3,072 pixels -- up from 3,872x2,592. Naturally, 10.1 megapixels is still plenty for printing pictures at A2 size and above, but with more pixels at your disposal, the V2 lets you crop more tightly in post-production and still have a sufficiently large photo left for printing.
The sensor itself hasn't physically changed size, so those extra pixels are being squeezed in on a 13.2x8.8mm CMOS chip, giving them less room to breathe than their predecessors. As my tests reveal below however, it's not a problem, as noise -- even at high sensitivities -- is very well controlled.
It uses the Nikon 1 lens system, so if you're upgrading from a previous model you can take your lenses with you. These are among the smallest mainstream lenses you can buy, and they help maintain the range's pixie proportions, striking the perfect balance between manageability and portability. Although larger than the Pentax Q the lens and body combo of the 1 system feels far more practical in general use.
There's a neat push and twist mechanism on the 10-30mm kit lens that takes the camera out of sleep mode. On the J2 this is supplemented by a button on the top of the body, used to switch it on when you're using a prime lens, such as the 18.5mm f/1.8. This button has been replaced on the V2 by a cuff surrounding the shutter release, which is identical to the zoom rocker used by many compacts. Although zooming is handled manually by twisting the lens ring, it's tempting to pull on the power switch instead and end up turning the camera off at an inopportune moment.
Around the back, there's a super-smooth 3-inch display -- one of the best on any camera -- and an electronic viewfinder, which is more obvious from the front in the V2 than it was on the V1, as it shares a housing with the repositioned flash. There's a proximity sensor here, too, which switches to the eyepiece when it detects that you've moved the camera close to your face.
It's not only the higher resolution that points to the V2 as being a superior camera than the J2; the increased range of controls also reinforces that feeling. With the V2 you have direct access to the regular PASM modes using a wheel on the top of the body, which also switches you into auto and movie modes. On the J2, aperture and shutter priority are instead found alongside the creative scene modes, so switching between them isn't such a swift operation.
The controls are extremely well thought out, with a dedicated wheel on the top of the body changing settings for the current mode, and the F button stepping you through various shooting options, adjusting the function of the wheel so that a single dial can set anything from sensitivity to white balance and focus mode.
Shutter speed ranges from 1/4,000 to 30 seconds when using the mechanical shutter, but can be increased to 1/16,000 second when using the electronic shutter. The bulb mode, which is used to hold the shutter open, automatically shuts it again after 2 minutes.
Such high shutter speeds allow it to reach a maximum burst shooting speed of 60fps, and not just when saving cut down images, either -- it maintains that rate at full size.
Aperture range naturally depends on your choice of lens, but I tested the V2 with the 10-30mm kit lens, which is equivalent to 27-81mm on a 35mm camera, with maximum apertures of f/3.5 and f/5.6 at either end of the zoom.
I kept it set to aperture priority so that I could control the depth of field while it handled all of the other shooting options. The only time I interfered was when I forced the sensitivity for the specific low-light tests, and switched to auto mode for the still-life test.
Low light performance
Sensitivity kicks off at ISO 160 and runs through to 6,400, with compensation in 1/3EV increments stretching for three stops in either direction.
Low light performance is good, right the way up the scale. I forced the V2 to shoot at increasingly high settings until it reached ISO 6,400. At this level there was some noise and dappling in the darker background of the scene, as can be seen in the shot below, where the noise is clearest on the wall at the back of the shot. The main focus of the image, though, remained pleasingly clean, with plenty of detail on the moulding of the candle holder and the cloth to the left.
In more general use, dropping the sensitivity to ISO 1,250 demonstrated how much detail it retained in general at a level where in many other small-sensor cameras I would expect to see significant degradation in the result. The icons at the back of this Orthodox chapel are not as detailed here as they are in real life, but zooming to 100 per cent reveals that little is lost from their overall appearance.
Contrasts are well handled, but when tasked with shooting a frame split 50:50 between shadow and highlight and using in-camera JPEG conversion, it had a tendency to compensate for the shadows and bleach out the highlights.
The first of the shots below shows the level of detail achieved by framing just the part of the building that is in full sunlight. There is plenty of detail, even in areas where there's little tonal variation, with the V2 making best use of the limited palette.
However, pulling back to frame the rest of the building revealed those parts that were in shadow. The V2 gave these prominence, capturing an admirable level of texture in the shadows but, in the process, losing detail in the highlight areas.
The V2 is extremely fast to focus with the 10-30mm kit lens, and it compensates quickly for a shift in your framing. However, there is a fall off in the level of focus at the extreme corners of the frame when compared with the centre. It's less obvious at the edges directly above, below, and to the left and right of the centre point.
In the image below, the central portion of the water tower is sharp as far as the top of the brickwork, but there is a slight softening above that. The branches in the corners of the shot, however, are degraded to a more extreme degree, and their outlines lack the crispness of other branches that pass through the central portion of the frame.
This is caused by the lens not compensating perfectly for the angle at which it needs to bend the incoming light at the corners to keep it in sync with the light that passes through in a straight line at the centre.
Despite this there was no evidence of chromatic aberration in my tests, in which sharp contrasts such as the corners of buildings and branches are fringed by a third colour.
Minimum focusing distance on this particular lens is 20cm, but set it to the widest aperture and the fall-off in the level of clarity around your subject at this point is rapid, and it very effectively isolates the point of focus. The background bokeh effect is particularly attractive.
The results are even better with the 18.5mm f/1.4 lens, which Nikon also supplied with the test camera. This allows for razor-thin depth of field and helps highlight fine detail within the image.
Still life test
The still life test is performed with the camera set to auto and tasked with shooting a selection of everyday objects using studio lights, ambient light and the on-board flash.
As is often the case, the V2 performed best under studio lighting. This enabled it to keep the sensitivity down to ISO 200, capture accurate colours and render the results without any evidence of noise. Even bright areas, such as the white tops of the paint pots and the bristles on the brush to the left of the setup were clear and not bleached out.
When resorting to ambient light, it increased its sensitivity to ISO 800, widened the aperture to f/3.5 (from f/4) and lengthened the exposure to 1/40 second (from 1/250). The result was measurably brighter and the colours had less punch than they had under the studio lights. They were still clean, however, with minimal noise throughout, and highlight areas clearly rendered, although with a faster fall-off in the level of focus due to the wider aperture.
Enabling the flash allowed the V2 to dial down its sensitivity to ISO 160, but the result was quite dark and exhibited strong contrasts. Colours were accurately reproduced across the spectrum however, and the image was very crisp.
The V2 can shoot video at up to 1,920x1,080i, 60fps, or 30fps progressive. I opted for the latter in my tests. Dropping the resolution lets you increase the frame rate, and shoot 60fps progressive at 1,280x720 pixels, and up to 1,200fps for extremely slow motion playback if you're happy to trim the resolution as far as 320x120 pixels.
Low light performance was a particular highlight, with the V2 doing a great job of shooting candles in a small chapel -- a setting that also highlighted its excellent performance at recording a clean and detailed soundtrack, with the guttering of the candles clearly audible.
In more conventionally framed situations, such as exterior shots, colour reproduction was again accurate, although compensation for changing light levels, while swift, was stepped rather than smooth.
The V2 is a great little camera. It's just about the perfect size, and the Lilliputian lens system could teach rival mirrorless interchangeable lens manufacturers a thing or two. Most rivals marry a compact body with a lens that wouldn't look out of place on a dSLR, and in doing so sidestep one of the major selling points of the whole mirrorless genre.
Image quality maintained a high standard throughout my tests, and the increased resolution does much to enhance the V2's appeal.
Prices vary wildly, so shop around, and don't immediately be put off by the fact that it costs the same as an entry-level dSLR. The two systems share many features, and for the light traveller the V2 may well be the better bet.