Thursday, October 23, 2014

Which Is Better, DSLR or Mirrorless? Yeah, this Is a Nikon J1 Review

This review is different than any other. It is a review and a piece of advice at the same time. The topic of the review is the Nikon J1 - the cheapest Nikon mirrorless you can find at this point (used). But the article also touches upon a more general issue: Which is Better, DSLR or Mirrorless? Read the review, then find the answers at the "Final Verdict" section - which is significantly more extended than in previous articles

And so, I decided to get a mirrorless. I had used a mirrorless camera in the past - it was an Olympus Pen; it didn't replace my Nikon DX system. I bought a Nikon J1 together with a Nikkor 10-30mm VR lens (to be reviewed in the next couple of weeks), fully knowing it will not replace my Nikon FX system. Perhaps this review is written from a non-objective perspective, as it reflects the thoughts of a photographer who plans to use two systems, Nikon 1 (CX) and Nikon Full Frame (FX). Then again, Amateur Nikon is not about cold diagrams, charts and numbers, but about photography as an experience. It might be so that you're wondering the same things. Perhaps you're thinking, to the question "Which is better, a DSLR or a mirrorless?", the answer might be: both!

When the light is good, the camera can definitely deliver.
But it's more about that; it's about being able to capture so many more moments
than you would if you had to carry a DSLR in a bag all the time.

+ really small size, you just throw it into a pocket and it's with you everywhere
+ great value. I bought mine used, with a fine 10-30VR lens, for only 120 euros ($150; 95 GBP)
+ discreet, comfortable to use in public.

- all the important controls are there, but they're in menus. The menu system is quite intuitive, though.
- battery life poor, you need at least one extra battery.
- small sensor means depth of field control can be problematic (more difficult to isolate subjects)

Intended Users
Great for:
  • situations you need a small, expendable, discreet (and yet competent) camera.
  • carrying around "in case" there's something to photograph. Like I said, throw it in a pocket and it's with you all day, without bothering you.
  • street photography; candid shots; it's perfect for the job.

Not for:
  • not that it's bad (actually, it can hold its own pretty well), but when the light gets dimmer, DX (not to mention FX) sensors are ahead.
  • flash photography. You're stuck with the on-board flash, which can't even be used in non-TTL mode (so, you can't control any slave flashes reliably)
  • in absolute terms of image quality, control, and creative freedom, something like the D7100 (or even an entry-level D3300, to be fair) will be better.

Final Verdict

One reason AmateurNikon was created, was because I became tired of reading reviews online that were completely disconnected from a more general context of photography. Cold facts, numbers, "marks" for camera sensors, anything that can be measured - and some things that shouldn't be measured - were there. The thing is, the most important things you realize only when you see them within a specific framework. The Nikon J1 (and, arguably, mirrorless cameras in general) are such a case.

Disconnected from its context, the J1 is a rather mediocre camera. The sensor is capable, but not as capable as a DX DSLR; the controls are decisively "beginner-like"; the battery life is poor. I could go on, finding little flaws like these. But the Nikon J1, and the Nikon 1 system in general, must be seen within a context

- Are you a complete beginner who looks for something better than your mobile phone?
- Are you already familiar with the basics of photography, you own a DSLR, but wondering whether you would be better served by mirrorless?
- Or, perhaps, you are a very experienced shooter (a pro, even) with a heavy investment in the Nikon FX system, but you're looking for something smaller and more discreet for the "less serious" moments?

I'll assume the latter, not only because it describes my own situation, but because I believe that if you get the reasons behind my getting a Nikon J1, you will get the Nikon 1 system in general.

Let's acknowledge this right away: as an experienced shooter, I would never trust anything lesser than my D700 and my FX glasses for critical work. Package it any way you want, put any kind of ribbons you want. A full frame sensor in a tough DSLR body will always be preferable to a Nikon 1 solution - at least for my kind of work; if you're a paparazzo trying to get photos of celebrities sunbathing on a yacht, then yeah, maybe a Nikon V3 with a 400mm lens attached might be your thing. Portraiture or low light action, I'll stick with the D700.

But not all photography is about "critical work". What is, "critical work" anyway? We each define this differently, I'm not sure. I do know what is non-critical work though: Going downtown, on a sunny autumn day, you think: "hey, maybe I should get the camera along, there might be something nice to photograph". They are literally countless the times I did not take a camera with me on such occasions, because it would have entailed dragging a camera bag (even a small one, fitting just* the D700 and a midrange zoom or a 50mm prime).

*"just" here means 1.5 Kg or 3.3 lbs; make that 3kg/6.5lbs if you carry a heavy f./2.8 zoom

Since I got the J1, I've been taking it with me almost everywhere I go. Even to the supermarket. I don't take many photos (I have this principle - you should try it, it'll teach you something - that you shouldn't take a photo unless you have actually visualized something specific; like having "taken a photo" with your eyes/mind already). But it's there, with me, always. I know that, if I see something, I'll have the chance to photograph it.

The most important thing, perhaps: although there are some other underlying reasons too, since I got the Nikon J1 I have been enjoying photography more. I have returned to that time of my pre-pro days, when I got photographs simply for my own pleasure. I simply visualize a scene, I compose, I shoot. 

Isn't that what photography is all about, in some sense?

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