The new 35 mm5

film and sdhc crad

When I was a little boy, serious photographers looked down at 35 mm. In this digital age many might not even know what 35mm is: it was the standard film format almost everybody used in those days. People 'in the know' preferred a camera with a larger film format though: a Rollei or even a Hasselblad. And it's true, with those camera's you got better pictures - if you got a picture that is.

35 mm film and its modern form.
Picture data: Nikon1 V2, 55 mm Micro-Nikkor via FT-1, natural light with reflector, 1/100s f/3.5 160 ISO

Hasselblads, Rolleis and their amateur couterparts like an Agfa Clack or Lubitel etcetera were big and clumsy. When people went on holiday or on a weekend trip, they wanted a small camera, they could take with them effortless. If you had to make a picture in a limited time you used 35mm as well, because those cameras were much faster. That's why almost all news pictures from the second half of the last century were made with 35mm camera, or better: with Nikon camera's. In the studio Hasselblad and even larger camera's still were strong, but even there 35mm was used when speed was an issue. Medium format (the film format of Rollei and Hasselblad) became a niche within a decade and from the late sixties 35 mm was the norm. It was in fact an old standard, set in 1932, but sometimes great ideas need time to be recognized. Other formats came and went: Instamatic, 110, half frame, APS - none of them was able to replace 35mm.

Then digital came. There was no film anymore, and at first sight the need for a standard format disappeared as well. Yet for reasons of cheaper manufacturing, digital image sensors came soon in a few standard sizes as well, with strange names that only vaguely gave an indication of their size.
Those first sensors were mostly quite small, because it was expensive to manufacture larger sensors. They generated pictures with lots of noise: small grey or colored dots or blotches, that didn’t look well. Also, because those cameras were no reflexcameras (DSLRs) they were slow in focusing and even slow in general. Then they still had problems with pictures with large contrasts and all these things were better handled by DSLRs – for several reasons which not all had to do with the sensor format.

First DSLRs
About ten years ago the first affordable DSLRs came to the market. With those cameras you got a decent quality, they were fast and their only disadvantage was that they were bigger and more expensive than the digital compact cameras. At first they became popular with pros and better amateurs, later the idea that those cameras made much better pictures reached the general audience. Soon every soccer mom and dads knew they should get a DSLR to make pictures of their kids.

In 2008 Panasonic introduced the first camera that was meant to dethrone the DSLRs: a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses. (I prefer to call them CILC: compact cameras with interchangeable lenses, because i.m.o. the most important aspect is that they are compact.) It had a sensor that was half of the old 35mm format. Competitors followed, partly with the same format (micro 4/3), partly with APS-C cameras.  Those APS-cameras were much more compact than the DSLRs but their lenses still had to be big. They were also less fast in focusing than DSLRs.

Nikon 1
In September 2011 the Nikon 1 series was introduced. Nikon 1 cameras have a sensor smaller than the one used in DSLRs and even than in m4/3 cameras, yet much larger than in a compact camera or smart phone. (Sensor diagonal and lens focal lengths are 1,8x smaller than in APS-C cameras.) Thanks to that and to a special technique with phase detection AF pixels in the image sensor, theses cameras also focus very fast, as fast as a DSLR. In fact in many aspects they are even much faster: they can make as many as 15 fps with continuous focusing, 30 and even 60 fps without focusing after the first shot. On top of that they make slow motion movies with 400 and 1200 fps. (The fastest Nikon DSLR pro model D4 reaches resp. 11 and 12 fps and has no slow motion option). With regards to noise these cameras are as good as DSLRs were between about four years ago. In fact, Nikon 1 cameras are the perfect answer to what a soccer mom and dad could wish. Alas, since that kind of consumer needs time to understand their needs, the CILC market is still much smaller than it could be - or better: should be.

Why we loved 35mm
If we compare Nikon 1 with the original idea of 35mm, we see a lot of similarities. Why did we love 35 mm? 35mm was fast, small, light and had a lot of depth of field, making focusing easier. Films and lenses were cheaper and especially long and fast lenses were relatively small and cheap. 35 mm was also discrete. Especially the original Leica’s and the Nikon range finder camera’s (like the Nikon I - not to be confused with the Nikon 1!) were so small that it was very easy to make pictures unnoticed. The  fact that those rangefinder cameras had no mirror and hence were very silent, helped also a lot in this aspect. Another important thing was that you could look through the viewfinder directly, almost like you used your eyes normally. (At that time medium format had a viewfinder that showed you an image that was mirrored and had to be looked at from above.)

Yes, the quality of 35mm photography was somewhat less than of medium format, but soon nobody did care: in newspapers the difference was not visible anyway (no big color pages then!) and magazines didn’t care because they loved the feel of real life 35mm photography gave them.

Nikon 1 cameras bring this 35mm-feeling back. They are light and small, extremely fast, completely silent (if you use the right setting), unobtrusive and enable us to use long and fast lenses. The electronic viewfinder of the V-versions also makes it also possible to see the image you made immediately in the viewfinder, without the need to take the camera of your eye. (You can of course switch image review off if you don't like it.)

Looking down
I know that many look down at non-DSLR-camera’s, just like in the old days many looked down at 35 mm. But what if DSLRs are the medium format cameras of the digital age? They do have advantages in certain situations, but how often are you in such a situation? Even more important: do you have the technical knowledge and the right lenses to make pictures that show those advantages?

Most people for example, never buy an extra lens, they just work with their mediocre standard zoom. The average DSLR owner has about 1.25 lenses. We should excuse the average DSLR-owner, because an extra lens makes his already huge and heavy DSLR even huger and heavier. The advantage of faster focusing of a DSLR doesn’t exists, at least not if you compare them to a Nikon 1 camera. In many situations a Nikon 1 camera focuses faster and it always focuses more accurate!


nikon 1 V2

An entry level Nikon DSLR does have an advantage of less than one stop when it comes to noise compared to Nikon 1 cameras. The high end APS-C DSLR D7100 has about the same amount of noise at ISO 3200 as the Nikon 1 V2 (and S3) at 1600 ISO. (Please see the examples on the right). With other brands the noise-difference is even less. The fact that a Nikon 1 camera has no mirror makes and hence can use longer shutter speeds, makes the DSLR high ISO advantage even smaller.

Most users though, just make horrible flash photos as soon as there is not much light anyway, so maybe we overrate this issue. Another advantage of a DSLR is the smaller DOF, which enables you theoretically to make beautiful blurred backgrounds. Yet 98% of the DSLR owners use the green Auto setting which mostly kills your small DOF and the standard zoom which doesn't have a real nice bokeh. A third advantage of a DSLR compared to the Nikon 1 S models (not the Nikon 1 V-models, they have an EVF) is that they have a viewfinder that allows you to look through it instead of at it. Guess what? Most entry level DSLR owners just use the monitor as their viewfinder.

Weight lifting instead of making pictures
If you don’t really need a DSLR then you’re lugging around a lot of weight for nothing. It even means that you are missing a lot of pictures. Often you will not take your camera with you or even if you have it with you, you won't use it: too much trouble. Similar: often you will not have the long lens you need.

Take a Nikon 1, the FT-1 adapter and a cheap 50-200 or 70-300mm lens, and you have the perfect safari, bird or sports lens or sports lens (don't forget the 15-60 fps for sports). Combine it with a 30 mm f/1.4 (Sigma) or a 32 mm f/1.2, a 50 mm f/1.4 and/or a 85 mm f/1.4 or 1.8 and you have the ideal combination for silent stage photography (= 85 mm f/1.4, 135 mm f/1.4 and 230 mm f/1.4 in full frame terms).

Use it on the street and nobody will object to you making pictures – often they will not even notice. Making pictures with small camera’s and smart phones is normal, almost nobody objects to that. Making pictures with a big black heavy and loud DSLR is much harder if not impossible in many situations.

And the quality? In most pictures you won’t see the difference. The entry level DSLRs are very good, but better than their lenses. 24 MP of a D3200 is great, but in the corners you only have about 10 MP because most lenses simply are not sharp enough. On the other hand Nikon 1 lenses like the 18.5 mm f/1.8, 6.3-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 and 32mm f/1.2 are also so extremely good, that you will be hard pressed to find a similar quality for a DSLR, even if you buy pro lenses.

If you use a fast lens with it, a Nikon 1 is as good as or better than any entry APS-C DSLR in every aspect and it’s still very small and light. Depending on the combination you chose, it might be more expensive than a Nikon D3200 e.g., but it’s a lot more fun and makes much more and better pictures.

It’s perfect for taking the pictures most people make: of your partner, children, friends and the things you see on your holiday. With special lenses and/or the VT-1 adapter, it can even do a lot of professional work. I love the larger depth of field in landscape and macro, and the extra reach of long lenses. I love the EVF which shows me my pictures while making them, so I don’t have to take the camera of my eyes. (You can switch off the review by the way, if you’re afraid you’ll miss something while reviewing.) I also love that the camera is so light. This is not only an advantage because I can take it with me so easily, but also because it makes it easier to point the camera, e.g. to follow subjects.  

There’s just one thing I don’t understand about those cameras. Asian women seem to recognize the advantages of these cameras very well, they buy them often. American and European women don’t, at least a lot less then Asian women – and a lot less than Nikon expected. Now there are many differences between Asian and European and American women. The most important one in this context is that Asian women love things which are cute - and Nikon 1 cameras are definitely cute.

Many European and American women don’t want cute things, they want to show that they can do the same things men can. When it comes to cameras this is a big mistake. First of all men are not always right in their choices :) Secondly, there are some biological differences between men and women you can’t deny, when it comes to carrying weights. A DSLR is often just too heavy for women. Too heavy doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t carry a camera, but more that you can’t work with it for a prolonged period of time. Even I, a relatively strong man in good shape, love the lightness of the Nikon 1 camera for that reason. You can take pictures with a Nikon 1 camera and a long lens for hours, just try that with a DSLR without a tripod!

So yes, I love Nikon 1. Yes, I think it’s the new 35 mm. I just don’t understand why relatively few European and American women buy those cameras.

So here is my personal message to them:

Dear ladies, please show that you are years ahead of men and buy a Nikon 1 (preferably a V2) with one or two fast lenses: the 18.5mm f/1.8 and if possible the 32mm f/1.2. You will make much better pictures than men and everybody will think it’s because you are such a great photographer. That must be the case, because it can’t be that small cute white camera, can it?


Dré de Man, August 9, 2013


(Noise samples: D7100 on top, you can also see it's slightly sharper.)


Nikon 1 cameras are small, and the lenses are small as well. Here a Nikon 1 V2 with the superzoom 10-100 mm, equivalent to the 18-200 mm for DX.

Picture data: made with a second Nikon 1 V2 using an AF Micro-Nikkor 55/2.8 via the FT-1-adapter, 1/250 s f/9. Studio strobes were activated using the built in flash on Nikon 1 V2 (manual, 1/32 with IR filter on flash)

lenses for nikon 1

Lenses for Nikon 1 cameras. The two big lenses on top are for Nikon DSLRs, but can be used with the FT-1 adapter. The 32mm f/1.2 is not on the picture. At the bottom you see the 18.5mm f/1.8 and the 10mm f/2.8.

Picture data: Nikon 1 V2 using an AF Micro-Nikkor 55/2.8 via the FT1-adapter, 1/250 s f/6.3. Studio strobes were activated using the built in flash on Nikon 1 V2 (manual, 1/32 with IR filter on flash)

This is my first post on this new site, so soon you’ll see more, certainly from september 1st. Here you can see already some pictures made with Nikon 1 cameras. (About one third of them, the rest have been made with Nikon D700, D800E and D3s cameras). Which ones are made with Nikon 1 cameras? I'll tell you later.

100% views of smal details of pictures made with Nikon 1 V2 and Nikon D7100 at resp. ISO 1600 and ISO 3200 at daylight.
The D7100 picture has been reduced in size in Photoshop to match the V2 shot, which did reduce the noise as well. It's hard to tell which shot bis better, so the noise advantage of the high end DSLR is exactly one stop. Processed from RAW in Adobe Camera Raw without noise reduction.
You'll find which is which at the bottom of this page.
Nikon 1 example pictures




On Nikon 1 cameras,
Nikon1 lenses and more
By Dré de Man, photographer, journalist, and author of 26 books on digital photography and Nikon cameras