DCRP

Nikon 1 J1 Review

Conclusion

The Nikon 1 J1 is the entry-level model in Nikon's brand new series of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The J1 is small, sleek, and eye-catching -- and you have five colors from which to choose. Build quality is generally solid, save for the flimsy door over the battery/memory card compartment. I can't say that I'm a huge fan of some elements of the J1's design. The buttons on the back of the camera are on the small side (especially the four-way controller), the scroll wheel spins too freely, and the AF-assist lamp is easy to block with your fingers. The J1 has both a new sensor and new lens mount -- both known as CX. The sensor is larger than what you'd find on compact cameras (and the Pentax Q) but smaller than Micro Four Thirds and especially APS-C. There are currently four CX-mount lenses, though I expect the collection to grow in the future. The two Nikon 1 cameras will soon be able to use classic Nikkor F-mount lenses via a yet-to-be-priced adapter. The camera does not have image stabilization built-in, so you'll have to rely on the lens for shake reduction. Whichever lens you use, there's a 2.7X crop factor to keep in mind. The camera has a pop-up flash that really pops up. It's quite weak though, with a guide number of 5 meters at ISO 100, and there's no support for an external flash on the camera. On the back of the J1 is a very nice 3-inch LCD display, with 460,000 pixels. The screen is bright and sharp, and easy to see outdoors and in low light.

There's no doubt that the Nikon J1 is definitely targeted to people stepping up from compact cameras, rather than enthusiasts. All you have to do is small number of buttons on the body, the small collection of manual controls, and the simplified menu system. For taking everyday pictures, there's a Scene Auto Selector mode, which does exactly as it sounds like. Strangely enough, the J1 doesn't have a dedicated scene mode, so you have to work with whatever the camera picks. The more unique shooting modes (both of which have spots on the mode dial) are Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector. Maybe I'm just out of touch, but I don't see the point of Motion Snapshot. It combines a photo with one second worth of slow-motion 1080p video taken before you hit the shutter release button, complete with background music. A more inspiring feature is Smart Photo Selector which selects the best five photos out of twenty (which are taken in less than a second), with the best one on top of the "stack". While the J1 has the basic manual controls covered, don't expect much more than that. You have the usual P/A/S/M modes (which should really be on the mode dial), the ability to fine-tune white balance, and support for the RAW image format. If you want to bracket, customize buttons and menus, or quickly adjust settings via a shortcut menu, you're out of luck here. That brings us to the J1's movie mode, which records Full HD video at either 60i or 30p, with stereo sound. The camera can focus continuously while recording a movie, and you can take up to fifteen still images, as well. Manual exposure controls are available for movies, as well as mic level control and a wind filter.

Camera performance is generally very good, though the J1 needs help in a few areas. The camera starts up in about 1.1 seconds, and generally focuses very quickly. However, if the camera switches to contrast detect AF, which it does in low light, expect less impressive performance, with focus times of a second or slightly longer. Shutter lag wasn't an issue, and shot-to-shot delays were brief, even if the flash is used. The J1 has an exceptional burst mode, with speeds of up to 60 frames per second. Two of the "slower" speeds -- 5 and 10 fps -- even allow for focusing between each shot. Despite having a relatively powerful battery, the J1 can take just 230 shots per charge -- tied with the Pentax Q for the worst of any interchangeable lens camera on the market.

Photo quality is very good. Not as good as a full size digital SLR, but comparable to what you'll get from a Micro Four Thirds camera. Exposure was accurate the majority of the time, though the camera did overexpose a bit at times. Colors are vibrant and pleasing to the eye. Image sharpness was about average... not too sharp, not too soft (and the lens you're using has a lot to do with this). The camera does seem a bit noisy at base ISOs, and I think I know what's to blame: Active D-Lighting. While this feature does brighten shadows, it always brings out more noise. If you're bothered by noise, try turning that feature off. There is also a bit of noise reduction artifacting at lower ISOs, but it's manageable. Noise levels are reasonable until ISO 1600 in low light and ISO 3200 in good light, which is about the same as on Micro Four Thirds cameras. I imagine that you can get better results at high ISOs by shooting RAW, but I won't know for sure until I've had a go at it with a real RAW converter. Purple fringing, also lens dependent, was visible from time-to-time. Redeye was pleasantly not an issue on the J1, thanks to that high-popping flash.

Overall, the Nikon 1 J1 ($650) is a pretty good interchangeable lens camera, though it's definitely more for those who lean toward the beginner end of the spectrum. I figure that most of those folks will just put it into Scene Auto Selector mode and let the camera do the rest. The camera's fast autofocus system (in good light), Full HD video recording, and minimalist interface should keep Nikon's target audience pretty happy. Enthusiasts are another story. The J1 is light on manual controls, its interface doesn't allow for quick access to camera settings, and the lack of expandability will be frustrating. Stepping up to the higher-end V1 will add in an electronic viewfinder and proprietary accessory shoe, but that camera is $900. And that brings up the value question. I think the Nikon 1 cameras don't offer as much bang for the buck as the Olympus E-PL3 or Sony Alpha NEX-5N (both of which are $699). In closing, if you're moving up from a point-and-shoot camera and want the flexibility of interchangeable lenses, then the Nikon J1 is worth considering. More hard core users will probably want to look at one of the other cameras I've listed below.

  • Very good photo quality
  • Compact, stylish, generally solid body, comes in five eye-catching colors
  • Sharp 3-inch LCD display with 460,000 pixels, good outdoor/low light visibility
  • Very fast AF performance when lighting is good
  • Standard selection of manual controls, including WB fine-tuning and RAW support
  • Scene Auto Selector mode picks a scene mode for you
  • Smart Photo Selector shoots 20 photos in less than a second, saves only the best five (and highlights the #1 pick)
  • Insanely fast burst mode shoots at up to 60 fps; camera can focus between each shot at 5 and 10 fps speeds
  • Full HD movie mode (1080/60i or 30p) with stereo sound, continuous autofocus, and manual controls
    • Slow motion movie mode lets you record at up to 1200 fps
  • Active D-Lighting brightens shadows, reduces highlight clipping (though it makes photos noisier)
  • Time-lapse (interval) shooting option
  • Redeye not a problem

What I didn't care for:

  • Some noise and noise reduction artifacting at lower ISOs (try turning off Active D-Lighting to help with the former)
  • Weak built-in flash; no external flash available (you need the V1 for that)
  • Low light focusing a bit slow (if contrast detect AF is used)
  • Not enthusiast friendly due to oversimplified interface, no custom buttons/functions, no shortcut menu, and limited expandability
  • Limited lens selection (though this will change over time)
  • Not a great value for the money
  • Buttons on the small side; scroll wheel turns too freely; AF-assist lamp is easy to block with your fingers
  • Uninspiring Motion Snapshot feature
  • Poor battery life; extra battery is over $60
  • Flimsy door over memory/battery compartment; can't access what's inside while camera is on a tripod
  • Full manual on CD-ROM (though printed basic manual isn't bad)

Some other inexpensive interchangeable lens cameras worth looking at include the Olympus E-PL3, Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3, Pentax Q, Samsung NX200, and the Sony Alpha NEX-5N.

As always, I recommend a trip to your local camera or electronics store to try out the Nikon 1 J1 and its competitors before you buy!

Photo Gallery

Check out our standard and Maui photo galleries to see how the J1's image quality looks!

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If you have a question about this review, please send them to Jeff. Due to my limited resources, please do not e-mail me asking for a personal recommendation.