Originally Posted: October 9, 2011
Last Updated: October 11, 2011
The Nikon 1 J1 (priced from $649) is the entry-level model in Nikon's brand new line of mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. The 1-System cameras feature a new 10 Megapixel CX-format sensor, which is smaller than Micro Four Thirds and APS-C, but larger than what you'll find on compact cameras and the Pentax Q. It also uses new CX-mount lenses, which have a 2.7X crop factor. Image stabilization is built into select lenses, rather into the body itself.
The 1-series cameras are designed to be very easy-to-use, with a minimalist design, basic menu system, and a fairly basic set of manual controls. Other features include fast continuous shooting, a hybrid AF system, 3-inch LCD, interesting Smart Photo Selector feature, and (of course) Full HD movie recording.
The J1 and V1, side-by-side
Images courtesy of Nikon USA
The J1 has a big brother known as the V1, which includes an electronic viewfinder, along with a few other features. The chart below helps differentiate the two models:
So there are Nikon's first two entries into the growing interchangeable lens camera market!
Is the entry-level J1 a worthy challenger to offerings from Sony, Olympus, and Panasonic? Find out now in our review!
What's in the Box?
The J1 will be available in four kits, with various color choices along the way. You can get it with an 10 - 30 mm lens ($649, all five colors), with a 10mm pancake and the 10 - 30 mm ($899, in white, red, silver only), or with the 10 - 30 and a 30 - 110 mm telephoto zoom (also $899 and white, red, silver only). Wait, that's only three -- the fourth one ($929) is the dual lens kit in pink, with a bunch of extras thrown in for good measure. Here's what you'll find in the box for each of those:
- The 10.1 effective Megapixel Nikon 1 J1 camera body
- F3.5-5.6, 10 - 30 mm Nikkor VR lens
- F2.8, 10mm Nikkor pancake lens [two lens wide-angle kit only]
- F3.8-5.6, 30 - 110 mm Nikkor VR lens [two lens zoom kit only]
- EN-EL20 lithium-ion battery
- Battery charger
- Body cap
- Shoulder strap
- Lens hoods for 10-30 and 30-110 lenses [pink two lens zoom kit only]
- Pink leather wrist strap [pink two lens zoom kit only]
- Pink wrapping cloth [pink two lens zoom kit only]
- USB cable
- CD-ROMs featuring Nikon ViewNX 2, Short Movie Creator, and Reference Manual
- User's manual (printed) + full manual on CD-ROM
The J1 with all three of its available kit lenses -- in white, no less
Three of the four Nikon 1 System lenses are available in the various kits. The one that's not available in a kit is the F4.5-5.6, 10 - 100 mm power zoom VR lens, which will set you back $749. Build quality-wise, all of the 1 system lenses I used felt quite solid, with metal mounts and very little plastic. Both of the zoom lenses I tried are collapsible so they take up less space in your bag, and when you set the lens to the shooting position, the camera turns on too. None of these lens have manual focus rings -- this action is performed using the scroll wheel on the back of the camera just like on a compact camera. Whichever lens you attach to the camera, there is a 2.7X crop factor, so that 10 - 30 mm kit lens has a field-of-view of 27 - 81 mm.
Some of you might be wondering if you can use your regular Nikkor F-mount lenses with the 1 System. The answer is yes, though you'll need to wait for an adapter that is not yet available. I do know that only AF-S and AF-I lenses will support autofocus when using the adapter, which is the same restriction that owners of entry-level Nikon D-SLRs have to deal with.
Interchangeable lens cameras like the J1 never come with memory cards. So, unless have one already, you'll need to pick one up. The J1 supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC cards (including the new, super fast UHS-I cards). If you're mostly taking stills, then a 2GB or 4GB card is probably fine. If you plan on taking a lot of movies, then you'll want something like an 8GB or 16GB card, instead. Picking up a high speed card (Class 6 or higher) is highly recommended, especially if you'll be taking HD videos.
The J1 uses a brand new lithium-ion battery known as the EN-EL20. This compact battery contains 7.4 Wh of energy, which is quite a bit for a camera this small. Here's how that translates into battery life:
Unfortunately for Nikon, the J1's battery life is tied for last, along with the Pentax Q (an even smaller interchangeable lens camera). I highly, highly recommend picking up a spare battery if you're buying the J1, though keep in mind it'll set you back over $60. It's worth pointing out that the more expensive Nikon 1 V1 has 50% better battery life than the J1, so that's another option.
When it's time to charge the battery, just pop it into the included charger, which plugs directly into the wall. It takes about two hours to fully charge the EL-EL20.
The FT1 mount adapter lets you use Nikon F-mount lenses
While there are quite a few accessories available for the Nikon 1 System, only a handful work with the J1, since it lacks the accessory port of the more expensive V1. Here's what you can buy for the J1:
For those who are wondering what accessories you're missing out on by not buying the V1, they include an external flash as well as a GPS receiver (and probably more in the future).
Bundled software includes Nikon Transfer, VIewNX 2, and Short Movie Creator (all three are for both Mac and Windows). Nikon Transfer does just as it sounds -- it moves your photos and movies from the camera to your PC. ViewNX 2 is a pretty standard image organizer, with a good set of editing tools for both JPEG and RAW images. You can adjust things like sharpness/contrast/brightness/and color, brighten shadows, straighten a crooked photo, remove redeye, or reduce chromatic aberrations. If it's a RAW file you're working with, you can also adjust the exposure and white balance. ViewNX 2 can also be used to edit videos produced by the J1.
Also included is Short Movie Creator, and I think Nikon can explain what it does better than me, so here goes. "Short Movie Creator analyzes the registered source files and automatically edits the movie based on the settings that you apply." Needless to say, I didn't try it.
Currently, the RAW images produced by the J1 and V1 are not supported by Adobe for Photoshop or Lightroom.
Design & Features
The Nikon 1 J1 is a compact interchangeable lens camera with a sleek, rounded design. The body is made mostly of metal, and it feels quite solid, save for the flimsy door over the battery/memory card slot. The camera can be easily held and operated with one hand, though you'll probably need to use your left hand too, if you're using anything other than the 10mm pancake lens.
Ergonomics are a mixed bag. Many of the buttons on the back of the camera are on the small side, and the scroll wheel turns too easily. I'm can't say that I'm a fan of the flush controls on the top of the camera, either. The dedicated movie recording button really isn't as useful as it could be, as it's only usable when the mode dial is set to movie mode. (I have a separate rant saved up for the mode dial in a little bit.) You will need to watch the fingers on your left hand, as the AF-assist lamp is easily blocked.
Image courtesy of Nikon USA
The J1 is available in five colors, including silver, black, red, pink, and white. The J1 is one of the few cameras that can pull off glossy white well, in my opinion.
I don't usually take this photo with interchangeable lens cameras, but the J1 gets one, since it's so compact
Now let's see how the J1 compares to other interchangeable lens cameras in its class in terms of size and weight:
If it wasn't for that darn Pentax Q, the Nikon J1 would be the smallest interchangeable lens camera in the world. Pentax uses the smallest sensor size of any ILC out there, hence its tiny frame. The J1 isn't going to fit into your jeans pocket, but it travels easily in a jacket pocket or over your shoulder.
Let's start our tour of the J1 now, shall we?
So here's the front of the J1, with the lens removed. As I mentioned at the start of the review, the Nikon 1 System uses a totally new sensor and lens design, known as CX format.
CX format lenses are a lot like Micro Four Thirds lenses in terms of size. They attach to the camera in typical Nikon fashion -- backwards -- and can be released by pressing the silver button to the right of the mount. I've said it a few times already, but there's a 2.7X crop factor on the J1, so the 10 - 30 mm kit lens is equivalent to 27 - 81 mm.
The J1's CMOS sensor is 13.2 x 8.8 mm in size, which makes it smaller than all of the competition, save for the Pentax Q. With an area of 116 square mm, it's about half the size of Micro Four Thirds, and a third the size of APS-C (here a nice chart that compares all the sensor sizes).
The sensor actually has phase detection built right into it, which the camera will use in certain situations. My friends over at Hungarian camera site PixInfo.com noticed that you can actually see horizontal lines in rare circumstances when phase detection is used, as the camera has to interpolate that row in the sensor (since it has no photo sites). My guess is that you'll never see this phenomenon in the real world.
The J1 does not have image stabilization built into the body. The camera doesn't have a dust reduction system, either -- at least not in the traditional sense. Instead of shaking dust away like all of the competition, there's a glass shield in front of the sensor that requires a blower to clean.
At the top-right of the photo is a unusual-looking pop-up flash. The flash, which is released manually, gets about as far away from the lens as physically possible. I have to wonder how sturdy that design will be over the long term -- I guess we'll find out. The flash has a guide number of 5 meters at ISO 100, which is the tied with the Pentax Q for being the weakest of any interchangeable lens camera. If you want a stronger flash, you'll have to buy the V1 which, even then, is locked down to one proprietary external flash.
Other items on the front of the camera include a stereo microphone, AF-assist lamp, and the receiver for the optional remote control.
On the back of the camera you'll find a 3-inch LCD display with 460,000 pixels. I found the screen to be very sharp, bright, and easy to see outdoors. Low light visibility was good, as well.
There's no electronic viewfinder on the J1 (you'll need the V1 for that too), so you'll be composing all of your photos on the LCD.
The "F" (feature) button may look like something that opens up a shortcut menu, or is perhaps customizable, but no, it's used for selecting the theme (in Motion Snapshot mode) or the sub-mode (everywhere else), and for adjusting manual exposure settings.
That brings us to the mode dial. Nikon has gone the Sony NEX route here by oversimplifying the camera, providing just four options: Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, Auto mode, and movie mode. While the camera has manual exposure controls, you have to dig through the menus to get to them. For those wondering, yes, the more enthusiast-oriented V1 is the same way.
The combination four-way controller / scroll wheel is pretty standard, though it would've been nice to have some customizability here. I found that the plasticky scroll wheel spins a bit too freely, as well. This scroll wheel is also what you'll use to manually focus.
On the top of the camera you'll find the flash (obviously in the down position), speaker, power button shutter release, and movie recording button. Those last three are all too flush against the body for my taste, and the movie button only records movies when in movie mode, which kind of defeats the purpose of having such a button in the first place.
The only thing to see here is just how far up that built-in flash pops up. We'll see in the photo test section whether that actually helps with redeye reduction.
On the right side of the camera you'll find its I/O ports, which are under a plastic cover. The ports include USB as well as mini-HDMI. The latter is the only way in which you can connect to a television, as the J1 does not support composite video output.
On the bottom of the camera you'll find a metal tripod mount (hidden from view here) and the battery/memory card compartment. The plastic door over said compartment is quite flimsy, and you won't be able to access what's inside when using a tripod.
The include EN-EL20 lithium-ion battery can be seen at right.
Believe it or not, there's no live histogram on the J1
Being a mirrorless camera, all Nikon 1 System cameras are live view only. In other words, you compose all photos on an LCD or, in the case of the V1, an electronic viewfinder. The benefits of live view include 100% frame coverage, a live preview of exposure and white balance, face detection, and frame enlargement for easy manual focusing. While a composition grid is available, a live histogram is (surprisingly) not.
The camera has what Nikon calls the fastest AF system in the world. The camera has a hybrid AF system, switching between contrast and phase detection depending on the situation (it uses the former in low light, the latter for fast action). The J1 has 41-point auto AF, and there are a whopping 135 points to choose from manually. I'll have more about the J1's AF performance on the next page.
So what features does the J1 offer? Let's start with two of the most-hyped: Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector, both of which have dedicated spots on the mode dial.
'The amount of attention Nikon has given to the Motion Snapshot feature is a bit baffling to me. It's not the first time a camera has wrapped video around a still, and the results just don't seem very inspiring (to me, at least). Simply put, the camera takes one second of video before a still photo is taken. When played back, the video is shown in slow-motion (taking 2.5 seconds to play back), followed by the still. There are four themes (background music) to choose from. While this sample isn't as exciting as, say, a child blowing out their birthday candles, it still gives you an idea as to what Motion Snapshot is all about.
The Smart Photo Selector feature is a lot more interesting. When you halfway-press the shutter release button, the camera starts buffering photos. When you fully press the shutter release, twenty photos are saved. The camera then throws out all but five of the photos, using things like exposure, sharpness, composition, and face detection to decide which are the best ones. The best shot of the five is saved as the first photo in the stack. It's hard for me to provide an example of how well this works, since the camera throws away all the bad photos. I have no complaints about the ones it saved, though.
The other shooting modes are best accessed by setting the mode dial to the Still Image position. There you can access these five exposure modes:
- Scene Auto Selector: the J1 will select one of four possible scene modes (portrait, landscape, night portrait, close-up), or just use auto mode
- Programmed Auto mode: still automatic, but will full menu access, and a Program Shift feature which lets you select from various aperture/shutter speed combinations
- Shutter priority mode: you pick the shutter speed, and the camera selects the matching aperture; the shutter speed range is 30 - 1/16000 second (thank the use of an electronic shutter for those super-fast speeds)
- Aperture priority mode: you select the aperture and the camera picks the appropriate shutter speed; the aperture range will vary depending on what lens you're using; for the 10 - 30 mm kit lens, it's F3.5 to (just) F16
- Full manual mode: you select the shutter speed and aperture, with the same ranges as above; a bulb mode is available, and if you've got the optional wireless remote, you can start and stop the exposure by pressing its button
Now let's talk about the features found in the camera's menu system. The J1's menu system is remarkably plain-looking, though it's very responsive and easy to navigate. I was surprised to see that the consumer-friendly J1 lacks any help screens, like those found on Nikon's digital SLRs. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Nikon has buried a lot of the camera's functions in the menus, so expect to do a lot of scrolling through them. A shortcut menu would've been very handy on the J1. Anyhow, here are the more remarkable still-related features from the main menu:
- Image size: you've got three JPEG options, RAW (NEF), and RAW + JPEG; a RAW file weighs in at 17.1 MB, while a Large/Fine JPEG is 6.8 MB.
- Continuous: choose from regular single frame, continuous, and high speed; I'll have performance numbers on the next page
- White balance: the J1 offers the usual presets, plus a custom option for using a white or gray card; see below for a bit more
- ISO sensitivity: select it manually (100 - Hi/6400) or choose an Auto range (100 - 400, 100 - 800, 100 - 3200)
- Picture Control: sets of image parameters, such as saturation and sharpness, which can be adjusted; see below for more
- Active D-Lighting (on/off): supposed to preserve highlight and shadow detail; see below for an example
- Interval timer shooting: choose the number of shots and the interval between each one, for time-lapse photography; AC adapter strongly recommended
- Vibration Reduction: if your lens supports it, you'll be able to choose between off, normal and, in come cases, "active mode" (for reducing severe camera shake)
- Focus mode: choose between single and continuous AF, or let the camera pick in Auto-Select AF mode; a manual focus option is also available, complete with center-frame enlargement and a not-terribly useful distance guide
- AF area mode: auto-area will pick up to 41 points automatically; single-point lets you manually pick one of 135 possible spots in the frame on which to focus; in subject tracking mode, you pick the subject, press the OK button, and the camera will keep it in focus as they move around the frame
|Fine-tuning white balance||Adjusting a Picture Control|
The J1 isn't exactly overflowing with manual controls. While you can fine-tune white balance, you can't bracket for it. In fact, you can't bracket for anything on the J1. The Picture Control feature lets you adjust sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue, or add filter and toning effects to monochrome images.
Active D-Lighting, found on many other Nikon cameras, aims to improve overall image contrast. On many Nikon cameras it's off by default, but the opposite is true on the J1. There are no levels of ADL to choose from on this camera -- just on or off. Here's an example:
|Active D-Lighting off
View Full Size Image
|Active D-Lighting on (default)
View Full Size Image
You're probably thinking "why is the photo with ADL turned on darker than the one with it off?". What's happening here is that the camera is preserving highlight detail -- check the lamp just outside the hallway to see what I mean. The downside of Active D-Lighting is that it does add some noise to your photos.
One of the big features on the Nikon 1 cameras is the ability to record Full HD video. The camera records videos at 1920 x 1080 at 60i (sensor output is 60p) with stereo sound. If you don't like interlacing, you can shoot at 1080/30p, as well. In either case, the bit rate is 24 Mbps, and the maximum recording time is 20 minutes (or if the file size hits 4GB). A 720p60 mode is also available, with a 29 minute recording limit. A high speed memory card is recommended for best performance.
The J1 can focus continuously while recording a movie, so your subject stays in subject as they move around the frame. If you have a VR lens attached, you'll be able to reduce shake, with an "active" mode for when you're moving around too.
Both Nikon 1 cameras offer full manual exposure controls in movie mode. You can adjust the shutter speed, aperture, or both (using that zoom controller on the back of the camera). The ISO sensitivity can also be manipulated, with the same options that are available for still shooting. Other movie options include mic level adjustment, a wind filter, and the ability to add a fade effect to the beginning and end of your clip.
The J1 can take up to fifteen full resolution stills while you're recording a movie at the 1080/60i setting (photos taken at the 1080/30p setting are 2 Megapixel). There's no "click" when this happens, so you have to look for the little camera icon at the lower-right of the LCD to know that something actually happened.
Something else the camera can do is take slow motion movies. You can record at 400 fps (at 640 x 240) or 1200 fps (at 320 x 120), and then play the movies back at normal speed, which makes everything move in slow motion. The recording time limit is 5 seconds, but it takes 1 and 3 minutes to play back the clips at normal speed (respectively).
I've got two sample movies for you so far. The first one is was taken at the 1080/30p setting. The second one, taken at 1080/60i, is "just plane cool", though does anyone else notice some strange artifacts in the video?
The J1 has a pretty standard playback mode, with only four features worth a quick mention:
- Rating: press the F-button to rate a photo from 1-5 stars, or target it for deletion
- Calendar view: quickly jump to photos taken on a specific day
- D-Lighting: brighten the dark areas of a photo, with your choice of low, normal, and high settings
- Edit movie: trim unwanted footage from a video clip
By default, the camera doesn't show you much information about your photos. However, a quick press of the info button will give you a lot more, including a histogram (finally).
The J1 between photos instantly in playback mode. You can use the four-way controller or the scroll wheel to move between them.
Performance & Photo Quality
The Nikon 1 J1 is generally a very responsive performer. When the J1 is using its phase detection AF system, it is indeed extremely fast to lock focus. Speeds are less impressive when the camera switches to contrast detect AF, which is most likely to happen in low light situations. My Panasonic DMC-FZ150 review unit was able to lock focus quicker than the J1 when I was taking my night test scenes, which isn't a promising sign. The table below summarizes the J1's performance:
The low light numbers are really hard to evaluate, since it depends on what focus system the camera is using. If it chooses phase detection, then it'll be less than a second. For contrast detect, it'll take a second or slightly longer to focus.
One of the highlights on the two Nikon 1 cameras is their continuous shooting mode, which can fire away as fast as 60 frames/second (courtesy of its electronic shutter). Two other speeds are available in electronic mode (10 and 30 fps), and there's "regular" 5 fps mode, as well. At the 5 and 10 fps, the camera is capable of focusing while shooting, which is pretty neat. Here's how the J1 performed at its slowest and fastest speeds (relatively speaking):
There's no real way for me to prove that the camera is actually shooting at 60 fps, since all twelve shots are over and done with in 1/5th of a second. You pretty much just point the camera at your subject and hope you catch them in the frame at some point! The numbers for the regular continuous mode are accurate though, and you can see that I was unable to get the J1 to hit its advertised frame rate. After the camera reaches the limits shown in the table, it pauses briefly, and then continues shooting at a much lower frame rate. While it does take a while for the camera to clear its buffer memory (especially if RAW photos are involved), it doesn't impact camera performance a whole lot.
Alright, that's enough numbers for one review. Let's talk about photo quality now, shall we? With the exception of the night shots, all of the photos below were taken with the 10 - 30 mm kit lens.
Our standard macro test subject looks pretty good. Colors are accurate, though the white background seems a bit green to me. The subject is fairly sharp, with plenty of detail captured. There might be a little bit of noise around the ears, but you'll need a magnifying glass to see it.
The minimum distance to your subject depends on the lens you're using. For the 10 - 30 mm kit lens, it's 20 cm. Nikon only makes four CX-mount lenses, and none of them are designed for macro photography. I imagine that will change at some point in the future.
The night test photo was taken with the Nikon F3.8-5.6, 30 - 110 mm CX-mount lens. For those playing along at home, this lens is equivalent to 81 - 297 mm, and it features Nikon's VR II image stabilization system. The night photo turned out well, thanks to the camera's manual exposure controls (which are harder to access than they should be) and the nice reflections on SF Bay that night. The buildings are sharp across the frame, and highlight clipping is relatively minor. Noise levels are low here, and I don't see any purple fringing, either.
Now let's use this same night scene to see how the J1 performed at higher sensitivities:
ISO 6400 (H1)
There's not much of a difference between the first three crops (ISO 100 - 400). At ISO 800 we start to see some noise and detail loss, though it's not going to keep you from making a midsize or large print. Going up a stop to ISO 1600 we see more noticeable detail loss, so this is where I'd stop, and save this sensitivity for small prints only. The ISO 3200 and 6400 photos have too much noise and detail loss to be usable. Once I get a decent RAW converter I'll see if I can make those high ISO photos a bit nicer looking.
We'll see how the J1 fared in normal lighting in a moment.
Back in the tour section of the review, I wondered if the J1's crazy pop-up flash would prevent redeye. The flash, along with the camera's use of its bright green AF-assist lamp to shrink the pupils of your subject, did the job here -- there's no redeye to be found. Should you encounter any, there's a tool in playback mode to remove this annoyance.
There's moderate barrel distortion at the wide end of the 10 - 30 mm kit lens. You can see the effects of barrel distortion in the real world by noticing the "curve" of the building on the right side of this photo. I did not find corner blurring or vignetting to be an issue with this lens. The other two lenses I tested (10mm pancake and 30 - 110 mm) had very minor corner blurring.
Now it's time to see how the J1 performed in our studio ISO test. Since these photos are taken under consistent lighting, you can compare the results with those from other cameras I've reviewed over the years. Keep in mind that the crops only show a small portion of the test scene, so be sure to view the full size images too. And with that, let's begin:
ISO 6400 (H1)
Everything is nice and clean through ISO 400. There's a slight drop in color saturation at ISO 800, but noise levels remain low. Details start to deteriorate a bit at ISO 1600, but it's still quite usable. ISO 3200 is my stopping point in good light (and is best saved for small prints), though we might be able to clean these up by shooting RAW and post-processing (I'll have examples as soon as Adobe adds support for the J1 to Photoshop). The J1 holds up well against the Olympus E-PL3, though I think the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 has a slight edge at higher ISOs.
Overall, the J1 produces very good photos, though they're not as sharp or as clean as what you'd see from a full-size Nikon D-SLR (the sensor size has a lot to do with that). Exposure was accurate most of the time, with a slight tendency to overexpose. As my Maui photo gallery illustrates, color is fantastic (though it's hard to take a bad picture there). Photos are slightly soft (especially with the pancake lens), and there is some mild detail smudging and noise visible at times. I think Active D-Lighting is the reason for a lot of the noise, as the camera is trying to brighten up the shadows (as in this photo), so you might want to turn that feature off if you find noise to be an issue. The J1's photos do get noisier faster than other interchangeable lens cameras, though for what most people will be doing with these photos, you probably won't notice much of a difference (if any). Purple fringing is a lens-related issue, and it did pop up on both the pancake and kit lenses.
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)
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!