Last month the Nikon Z system celebrated its third birthday... but we’ve just passed another Nikon anniversary that slipped quietly under the radar. As I waxed lyrical about the Z system in a previous opinion article, I joked Nikon was a little late to the mirrorless party, but that’s not entirely true… The Big N first dipped its toes in mirrorless waters just over a decade ago, when it launched the Nikon 1 J1 and V1.
Back in 2011 the commercial mirrorless market was still very much in its infancy. Olympus and Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds system was nearly three years old, and both Sony and Samsung had launched their first APS-C mirrorless offerings the year prior. But anyone hoping Nikon would release a DX mirrorless camera would have to wait another eight years for the Z50 (though it was definitely worth it!).
Instead, Nikon took a bold gamble and launched the Nikon 1. The Nikon 1 system launched on September 21 2011 and was developed around a tiny 1-inch ‘CX’ CMOS sensor with a 2.7x crop factor. Today, of course, 1-inch sensors are widely used by Sony, Canon and Panasonic in some pretty serious compact cameras; back then, it just wasn't taken seriously.
The J1 and V1 featured a new hybrid AF system that boasted the world’s fastest autofocusing and the cameras packed 10Mp sensors, 60fps high-speed continuous shooting (imagine!), full HD video and raw shooting. The Nikon 1 V1 had a slightly better spec thanks to its electronic viewfinder, hot shoe, microphone port and extended battery life.
Neither were critical darlings and despite the nine additional cameras released for this system over the next few years, the Nikon 1 range was given the chop shortly before the Z mount’s 2018 debut.
Now at this point you might be wondering why I’m harping on about a now redundant mirrorless system given the rise and rise of the mighty Z mount.
Well, I don’t think Nikon 1 was a bad concept – I think it was misunderstood. At a time when megapixels were still very much the marketing buzzword, it’s possible consumers never took to the system’s 10Mp (and later 14Mp and finally 20Mp) sensors. By the time the Nikon 1 J5 arrived with 20 million pixels, it was probably too late – the Nikon 1's window of opportunity was gone.
And that’s a great shame because I still believe there’s a place for an affordable compact interchangeable lens system with a 1-inch sensor. In a world where smartphones have taken chunks out of the compact camera market, even the best camera phones simply cannot touch the versatility of the Nikon 1’s surprisingly comprehensive roster of 13 Nikon-branded lenses.
Let's not forget just how swanky the original J1 and V1 look even now, in 2021; there aren’t many modern cameras (let alone 10-year-old examples) that look half as slick today. A big selling point for mirrorless cameras has always been smaller and lighter bodies, and the J1 and V1 were released as the world’s smallest and lightest interchangeable lens cameras (the former weighs just 277g).
Just take a look at the Nikon 1 J5 above and imagine its 21MP sensor back in the original Nikon 1 J1 at the top of this article. With those looks and a proper sensor, just imagine what might have been...
Nikon has moved onto bigger and better things, but that won’t stop me from wondering how a 1 series camera would fare were it released with all the mod cons we’ve come to expect today.
The Nikon Z fc is probably the closest spiritual successor to the Nikon 1 today, but even though the Z fc is super-cute, it's definitely a nod to the past, whereas the Nikon 1's clean, minimalist design looked to the future.