Nikon 1 J1 Review

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.

Nikon 1 J1 available colors
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.

Nikon 1 J1 in the hand
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:

Camera Dimensions (W x H x D, excluding protrusions) Volume (bulk) Mass (empty)
Nikon 1 J1 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.2 in. 12.7 cu in. 234 g
Olympus E-PL3 4.3 x 2.5 x 1.5 in. 16.1 cu in. 265 g
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 4.2 x 2.6 x 1.3 in. 14.2 cu in. 222 g
Pentax Q 3.9 x 2.3 x 1.2 in. 10.8 cu in. 179 g
Samsung NX200 4.6 x 2.5 x 1.4 in. 16.1 cu in. 220 g
Sony Alpha NEX-5N 4.4 x 2.4 x 1.6 in. 16.9 cu in. 210 g

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?

Front of the Nikon 1 J1

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.

Back of the Nikon 1 J1

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.

Top of the Nikon 1 J1

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.

Left side of the Nikon 1 J1

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.

Right side of the Nikon 1 J1

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.

Bottom of the Nikon 1 J1

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?

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080 @ 30p, 15.0 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

Click to play movie (1920 x 1080 @ 60i, 25.6 MB, QuickTime/H.264 format)

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.