It was Hamish’s piece on the Plaubel Makina and Agfa 1035 that finally pushed me into typing my thoughts about a camera with a not dissimilar design ethos. I hope it doesn’t trouble any readers to discover it is a digital camera that wasn’t particularly successful and belongs to a camera line that is now discontinued.
The camera is the Nikon 1 V1, the debut camera and flagship of Nikon’s much heralded 1 series of digital cameras, a camera line that wasn’t quite what photographers were expecting.
Ah, the V1, what a beauty! Seemingly hewn from a chipped off block of TMA-1, the black crystalline monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Look at the clean line of the top; the shutter, power button and record buttons all recessed like the LED spots in the ceiling of a modernist interior. Run your eye over the raised line on the front (the suggestion of a grip), through the number 1 and the ‘k’ in Nikon and right across the middle of the shutter release. Look how the four buttons compliment the circular multi-selector dial by their shape. Lovely. Check out the slightly textured matt paint finish, designed to reflect precisely nowt. Modest. Understated but purposeful looking. It’s the essence of anti-bling.
It looks like no other interchangeable lens camera Nikon was producing at the time, and nothing since. Their DSLR’s looked like their late film SLRs, and 7 years on they still do (apart from the obese FE-alike). The V1 seems to hail from a different school; it looks to me like a homage to the German modernism movement born in the inter-war years – it’s straight outta Weimar.
I am sure you know about Bauhaus, the art school that has had a profound effect on how our world looks, whether it be interiors, buildings, art, graphic design or typography. Whether consciously or not, Nikon made a camera whose design salutes the achievements of Bauhaus. But it doesn’t stop at functional design. The V1’s menu system too is a little different to the regular DSLR menu system font, and the colour scheme is monochromatic with a splash of pale yellow.
So here we have a picture taking machine wrapped in a functional design. No shiney chrome or faux leather. No looking like the 60’s just for the sake of it. By the way, did I just write ‘picture taking machine’? Hmm, thought so. This is where Nikon’s stealth camera, that probably doesn’t show up on airport scans, starts to go a little birne-shaped for me. It looks great, it feels great, but as soon as you want to change settings you run into trouble – major cognitive friction. Let me illustrate.
Camera mode dials are designed to help both beginners and experienced photographers find where they want to be. For beginners, automated modes are represented by universal icons. They are independent of language. Advanced modes (or normal exposure modes to regular photographers) are shown with abbreviations – the very familiar MSAP. On my Sony RX100 III mode dial, I see this mix of icons and abbreviations. When I bought the Sony camera I instantly knew what each mode was and what I could do with it. I didn’t have to consult the manual. People the world over know what these represent. You want to take photos in aperture priority? Well, turn the dial to A. You want the camera to do all the thinking? No problem, choose P for Program. You want the camera to do even more thinking? That’s the green camera icon. These symbols and abbreviations are universally understood. They are bedrocks of sound user experience design. Meddle with them or remove them at your peril.
Well, Nikon meddled.
Imagine changing the universal no entry sign on a public road to something else that nobody understands, or (and this happens) meddle with the signs at a themed restaurant for mens and womens toilets? At the least, the outcome is embarrassing. Nikon obfuscated the hell out of the V1’s mode dial. Take a look at the exposure mode dial and see why; only 4 modes and all icons. I only recognise two of them – the green camera icon is a stills mode and the cine camera icon is, well, video. With the green camera icon, Nikon changed what the symbol means from the largely understood automatic mode into a general stills photography mode with many options in the menu.
What is that first symbol? What does it mean? Is it an eye or a leaf. What’s the white camera with a plus sign icon mean? Then you try the eye icon (motion snapshot) mode. Hey presto! Your WTF moment arrives – congratulations, you just made a video with some elevator music slapped on it. Why, Nikon why? Why did you deem this fluff ‘feature’ so important?
And why no MSAP? There is acres of space left on that mode dial. It’s roughly two thirds blank. How much would a fully functional mode dial have improved this cameras usability? I will answer – by a very large amount.
The white camera with a plus sign mode apparently plucks choice frames from a fast burst of 20 frames at 30 feet per second. I have never used it. Admittedly, it is amazing technology that still impresses 7 years later, but it’s an assistive technology surely. It isn’t why anyone buys a camera. Video and associated whizz bang technology feature far too prominently in the easy to reach functionality of the V1. They neglected experienced stills photographers. Apparently, this camera wasn’t made for them. So, who exactly was it made for?
It turns out, based on research, Nikon discovered a new class of person who they expected to buy and use the camera – the compact camera upgrader who didn’t want a DSLR because they felt intimidated by them. Unfortunately for Nikon, the compact camera upgrader who didn’t want an SLR either didn’t exist, or they chose the iPhone instead, and the stills photographer who really fancied the V1 was dumbfounded by its video first functionality.
Mix a high asking price for a camera aimed at beginners and the ‘intimidated’ with an aesthetic design aimed at the higher end, and you get a product with an identity crisis.
Ah well, I still like the thing.
Lovely to look at and hold. It’s a great street camera when you get your head around its stills mode. One innovation that works for me is the lever for changing aperture. It swaps to controlling the shutter speed when you change to shutter priority, but you have to go into the Menu to change modes.
However, the V1’s saving grace for me is image quality; a humble 10 megapixels of loveliness. The kit lens too, seems to resolve very well indeed. It’s image quality helped me get a colour image into Landscape Photographer of the Year back in 2013. Where I think this camera truly excels is in monochrome though. The black and white images accompanying this piece were made with VSCO Tri-X emulation. I wonder whether it’s the relatively low pixel count making the difference.
Nikon tried to change things with its successor the V2. A fully realised mode dial was added. However, if the V1 aesthetic was designed by a truly inspired team, then surely the V2 was designed, camel style, by a dysfunctional committee with Mr Potato Head as its Chairperson. They morphed one of Nikon’s coolest and distinctive cameras into one of its ugliest, by sticking bits on it like a massive grip and a viewfinder hump that reminds me of the monster’s head from Aliens (okay, I have a bit of a vivid imagination).
I would have settled for a V1s with a full mode dial.
You can find more of my photographs at https://www.instagram.com/christopher.pattison/