The Nikon V1 in Vietnam by Colin Steel
Part 1 – The V1 Vietnam Experience
Hey fellow photo travel folks, I just got back today from a five-day trip to Central Vietnam with my good mates Melvin & Adrian from Singapore Trekkers and I wanted to share some photos and early thoughts on both the locations and the equipment I used. As someone who was brought up during the Vietnam war, I have vivid memories of the nightly news reports, the protests, the music and the horror of what seemed at the time like a never ending drama. I was also immersed in the cultural events that followed it through the many movies that it spawned, Apocalypse Now, Platoon etc. For that reason the country has always held a certain fascination for me and many of the place names conjured up memories from newsreels, movies, photos and newspaper articles; China Beach, Red Beach, Hue, Da Nang and so on. I have visited the country many times before but mainly in the North and have only visited the South a couple of times so I decided to put that right on this trip which centered on two main locations; the ancient capital of Hue and the trading port of Hoi An.
These two locations are very different with Hue having been the scene of a major battle in the Tet offensive and Hoi An being a Unesco preservation site and very unique historical location. Unfortunately, as a result of the conflict at Hue much of the ancient city was destroyed however its still possible to visit the remaining parts of the Citadel and Khai Dinh’s tomb. Hoi An on the other hand has a small but nicely preserved old town and a lovely traditional market which is fresh with smell of herbs and flowers if you go early in the morning (and of course the stink of fish) It’s great to go before the sun comes up as you will catch the towns people awakening and starting their day.
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Interestingly, I found the people in Central Vietnam and Hoi An in particular to be more friendly to photographers and, as usual, you just need to buy some fruit or a little craft and they will be very happy for you to shoot away. I bought some delicious fruit from the lady below for around 50 cents and we had a good laugh together at the staged model shoot that was going on across the road into the bargain.
So lets have a look at the photographic and travel experience with some comments on the V1 kit thrown in. As you will recall from my travel prep post for this trip, I decided to take the smallest and lightest kit I have which consists of the Nikon V1, 10, 10-30, 30-110 lenses and the little flash unit. I did cheat though and also took the FT1 adaptor and my favorite Nikkor 50 mm f1.4 which becomes a very handy, fast portrait lens on the V1’s 2.7 crop sensor and, although I didn’t use it much, the results are rather nice as seen in the opening shot above. Incidentally, all of the photos used on here were processed on the fly using the amazing little Nik Snapseed App as I have never bothered to learn photoshop and have a strong aversion to sitting behind a screen editing photos. I love the simplicity of the app and its lightening quick in use on an ipad, its a perfect match for lightweight travel use.
The V1 in Use
Make no mistake, this is not a D3 (maybe that should be D4 or D800) replacement but it is a damn fine little camera which is capable of extremely good results if you watch out for a couple of handling quirks and employ good camera handling craft. Let’s look at its so-called Achilles heel; its small sensor and low light capabilities.
Much has been made of the limitations of this sensor and of course the files from it wont stand up against the pro body D3 ones for example but for me much of this argument depends on what you want to do with the photos you take. For example, most of my photos end up on the internet on this blog and I very rarely print bigger than A3 and more usually at A4 size. The V1 is fine for this kind of use.
I shot the photos in this sequence inside the magnificent Marble Mountain shrine near Hoi An. This is a huge cavern which, at around 10:30 to 11 a.m. has some fantastic shafts of light that enter through three or four holes in the upper part of the cave. About half way up the cave wall there is a large Buddha carving and there are several little arched shrines on the floor level. I have been here before and the trick is to wait for a local worshiper to come in for prayer as they will light some incense sticks as part of their prayer ritual and, as we all know, shafts of light and smoke makes for intriguing photo possibilities. The nun praying above was an added bonus, she was visiting with friends and in return for some Polaroid snaps was delighted to pose praying in one of the shafts of light. These are great little photographic moments that can’t be planned and are all the better for that.
I took the shot below from over the shoulder of one of the guardian statues at the entrance to try to give a better perspective on what the overall scene looks like. You can see quite clearly how the shafts come down across the Buddha and in front of the little shrine where the devotees will pray.
All of the shots from the cavern are taken with the tiny 10 mm lens which has become a firm favorite of mine on the V1. It’s currently the fastest Nikon 1 system Lens at f2.8 and although that’s not exactly a light gatherer, it works well enough wide open and, coupled with the lack of mirror movement, its possible to use at very low shutter speeds and I think most of this sequence were shot at around ISO 800 as a result. The key to this kind of shooting is to get the camera steady through controlled breathing, a light but firm hold with the viewfinder against your eye and snapping of a short burst of 5-6 shots which is where the V1 excels with its rapid shooting capabilities. As I said, have no fear of the f2.8 aperture as its sharp wide open and this is where one of the other V1 criticisms’ actually becomes a benefit, the DoF effect of the small sensor will work in your favor.
I particularly like the negative, black space in this photograph of the nun because of the way it isolates the subject. I wasn’t able to get the shafts of light right but the exposure is pretty good on the skin considering the harsh contrast and the dappled shadows work rather well. The V1 meter also did a decent job on this but I added around 0.7 negative compensation which also helped with keeping the shot sharp and maintained the features.
Here’s a final low light shot taken at the Thu Bon riverside in Hoi An. Hoi An is famous for its lanterns and they are made locally in the shops in the old town. Given this theme, little kids have a thriving industry selling little paper candle lanterns that are designed to be floated down the Thu Bon accompanied by a wish. The kids are charming and its hard to resist the exchange of spending 50 cents in return for a photo. The fun of it is that another bunch of kids wait a little downriver to snatch the lanterns out for recycling and resale !! You will no doubt notice that this photo is a bit more colorful, this is nothing to do with the V1, it’s simply that I liked the desaturated look for the low light cavern and early morning shots, just my choice I am afraid 🙂
Here’s a more colorful reflection shot to balance things up. This is taken at the small stream that flows under the Japanese bridge in the town centre. The bridge is nice but tricky to photograph as it generally has a large number of tourists on it. One thing to watch out for with Snapseed is that it can start to introduce noise in certain situations and I can certainly see it creeping in on the bottom right of this shot. This is nothing to do with the V1 sensor and this kind of shot would have been better dealt with in Lightroom or a similar more powerful editing software.
I mentioned some of the V1’s handling quirks and I explored a few of them with some suggested fixes in my Myanmar part 2 blog posting. One more worrying one that I have now found very irritating is the tendency for the small aperture adjustment lever/button to change to smaller apertures due to the holding point for your thumb. The button works by shutting down aperture with an upward push and its pretty sensitive. The effect is that while shooting your thumb pressure on the grip will move the button enough to inadvertently shut the lens down on you and this is fatal in the kind of low light shooting situations I mentioned above. There is no fix for this and you just need to be very vigilant, I found myself shooting at f 16 a couple of times and had no idea what had happened. To be honest, this is not good enough and its pretty ridiculous that you have to be sticking gaffer tape on a camera anyway. Nikon have been in the game long enough to know how to design a camera decently and I am afraid it doesn’t show in some of the design characteristics of the V1. The aperture issue was pointed out by nearly every reviewer of the camera and it makes you wonder how it was use tested before launch.
Having got that gripe out of the way lets finish up this first part of the post on a more positive note. Here is a very nice portrait taken in the Citadel at Hue, I really like the way the V1 captured the light and colors.
Well that’s it for this taster on Central Vietnam, I have been traveling all day and am pretty much out of it now. Stay tuned over the next few days and I will post a further series of articles on this trip including a more specific look at Hue and Hoi An locations including some of the many fishing villages along the Thu Bon river.
Colin Steele – See his blog HERE