The Nikon V1 Shoots Ballet. Bravo!
by Joe Marquez – His website is HERE.
Can the Nikon V1 focus fast enough to capture world-class ballet dancers at the decisive moment? What about in low light? What about image quality? Earlier this month, I had a brief opportunity to test the V1 at a couple of ballet warm-ups and rehearsals in Honolulu. Could the inexpensive and diminutive Nikon V1 compete with my workhorse Nikon DSLRs?
I am the official photographer for Ballet Hawaii in Honolulu. During major ballet productions at the Blaisdell Concert Hall, I photograph world-class dancers from around the world. In early August I photographed Cinderella by the acclaimed artistic director of The Washington Ballet – Septime Webre. His Cinderella production in Hawaii was a major collaboration and included professional dancers from The Washington Ballet, the American Ballet Theatre, the Eugene Ballet Company, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and students from Ballet Hawaii.
I typically photograph ballet with two Nikon DSLRs – the D3s and D800. I generally use the D3s to capture individuals or small groups of dancers and the D800 for wider and full stage captures. However, I ‘m always looking at other smaller, quieter camera options that can get the shots I need – and ballet rehearsals are an ideal venue for testing. In the past I tested a Fuji X100, Fuji X-Pro 1 and Sony Rx1 – each with limited success. These excellent cameras produce superb images, however the problem is their inability to track fast-moving dancers. Frequently, I’d have to revert to zone focusing to get the shot.
Enter the Nikon V1. I dismissed this camera when it was first announced almost two years ago. I read through the litany of complaints: sensor too small, not enough pixels, poor low-light performance, no subject isolation, etc. The one universal attribute was the surprisingly fast-focusing speed of the V1. Steve Huff’s review and the dramatic price drop a few months ago caught my attention but it wasn’t until the 32mm f/1.2 lens was released that I became seriously intrigued. Fast 1.2 glass on a small fast-focusing camera is worth consideration. But is it fast enough for ballet?
So about two months ago I purchased a Nikon V1 and the three primes – the 10mm f/2.8, 18.5mm f/1.8 and the 32. I tested the system in the streets of Honolulu, at small events and performances and patiently waited for the next major ballet performance in Hawaii – Cinderella.
For all major productions I try to capture a few special images during warm-ups and rehearsals. These images are used to document the production and generate a little publicity. Rehearsals also give me an opportunity to learn the dance sequences and get my timing down before the main performances. As usual, I used my workhouse DSLRs to make certain I got the necessary Cinderella shots. Only then did I bring out the Nikon V1 to give it a go.
So how did the Nikon V1 perform? Incredibly well and I’ve included a dozen images for your review. All images were shot RAW and the few here on display were converted to b&w with Silver Efex Pro. I prefer performance photos in color (under proper stage lighting) and rehearsal photos in b&w. As an added bonus, the V1 produces images with a pleasant film-like grain, which I rather enjoy.
V1 with 10mm 2.8
The key to ballet photography is timing. The dancer(s), the photographer and the camera have to be in sync to get that decisive moment – usually the peak or maximum height of a pose or jump. The V1 was able to capture these moments time and time again. In fact some of my favorite rehearsal images were taken with the V1.
I simply used continuous focus, auto-area mode with face detection on. I set the camera to manual exposure and occasionally used auto-iso. I’d track the dancer through the EVF and press the shutter as needed. I didn’t notice any delay or lag. For the most part I was able to get the shot I wanted – precisely when I wanted it. I’ve never been able to do this with any camera other than my DSLRs. And what is most impressive is the ability of the V1 to track fast-moving dancers jumping directly at me – and capturing them at the peak of their jump – all in low light. This is no easy feat for any camera including the venerable D3s.
V1 with 18.5 1.8
Here are a few details. In total I took less than 300 rehearsal shots with the V1. Were there many misses? You bet – but most were my fault due to bad timing or poor framing. Without doing a statistical analysis I would say the percentage of in-focus quality shots using the V1 was comparable to the DSLRs.
More details. During daytime warm-ups, the studio was sufficiently lit with diffused sunlight from several large windows. Here I used the 18.5mm and 10mm lenses. This allowed me to take wider shots (in tight quarters) and capture more than one dancer. I used the 32 to get more artsy images including some nice subject isolation (yes, subject isolation on the Nikon CX sensor).
The ultimate challenge was shooting a walk-through rehearsal on the dark Blaisdell stage. The stage lighting program was not used so the stage was darker than usual. When it was time to test the V1 I used the fastest lens I had – the 32. The 1.2 glass allowed me to keep shutter speeds and iso quite manageable. I was able to focus, track and capture several dancers at the decisive moment – including lovely Maki Onuki performing a jeté with her broom. This was the first time I’d seen her Cinderella performance. I had one and only one chance to get the shot with the V1. As she danced around the stage I kept tracking her through the viewfinder. When she jumped – I pressed the shutter and the V1/32 combo nailed the shot. By the way, Maki loves this particular image.
Would I use the V1 for a live ballet performance? Absolutely. I’d certainly never sacrifice an important ballet shot by using a less capable or inferior camera, however, I have no doubt I could shoot an entire ballet with the V1 and get superb images. The V1 will never surpass the image quality and low light capability of a full frame DSLR. However, the silent shutter and fast-focusing sensor are ideal attributes and the image quality is more than adequate for capturing all the beauty of a ballet performance.
So what next? I may purchase the Nikon Ft-1 adapter and try the 70-200mm lens (converts to a 190-540mm f/2.8 lens on a V1) at a live ballet performance. If so I’d probably purchase a V2 and disable image review (can’t do this on the V1). Or I may wait for the Nikon V3 and hope for improved ergonomics and low light capability while maintaining the current features that make the V1 special. And finally, I really must try using the 10, 30 and 60 fps burst rate. Might make for some wonderful captures of a ballerina in mid-air.
Just for fun, I’ve also included a link to a short video clip utilizing another feature of the Nikon V1 – slow motion at 400fps. The young ballet students were in a character class, dancing in a large circle. After a few photos I realized still images alone weren’t capturing the energy of the moment so I switched modes and took five seconds of video. This converts to a one-minute slow motion clip. This feature, fun as it is, would be so much more useful at higher resolution than the current 640×240 pixels.
Hope Nikon improves this feature in the V3.
The inexpensive and diminutive V1 continues to amaze. Focusing speed is outstanding and image quality is more than adequate for ballet photography. In particular the 32mm lens on the V1 is a superb combination with the ability to capture fast-moving, talented dancers at decisive moments in good light or bad. Now I must patiently wait to photograph the next major ballet performance in Hawaii. In the meantime – bravo Nikon V1, bravo!
Special thanks to Ballet Hawaii, The Washington Ballet, Septime Webre and the many talented performers including: Maki Onuki, Luis R. Torres, Jared Nelson, Morgann Rose, Tamás Krizsa and of course the students at Ballet Hawaii.