The J1 uses the new CX mount, and at present there are four lenses in the system: the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom, a 10mm f/2.8 ‘pancake’ prime, a 30-110mm VR f/3.8-5.6 telephoto zoom and a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 lens that’s optimised for video. During the course of our testing we found ourselves favouring the 10mm prime on account of it being faster and sharper than the kit zoom, although the kit zoom certainly has the advantage of being more flexible.
Owing to the size of the CX-format sensor, Nikon 1 cameras incur a 2.7x crop factor. In this respect the 10-30mm kit zoom equates to 27-81mm in 35mm terms. The CX lenses all feel well made and are nicely styled too, with the rubberised ring around the 10-30mm offering good grip – if only Nikon could have applied the same kind of practically-minded thinking to the J1’s gripless body!
In terms of sharpness, we were left suitably impressed by both the 10-30mm and, especially, the 10mm. As might be expected images are pin-sharp in the centre of the frame, but corner and edge sharpness is pretty impressive too – especially when the lenses are stopped down to their sweet spot of around f/8. There’s no dedicated Macro lens as yet, but close focusing on small objects can yield quite good results.
And so to general image quality. Overall, we have to say we were left quite impressed by the J1’s ability to produce richly toned and pleasingly vibrant images. Even on the ‘Standard’ Picture Control setting the J1 delivered images with plenty of pop, which is sure to chime well with its target audience. While we’re compelled to point out the J1’s shortcomings elsewhere, there’s no doubt that it produces an overall level of image quality that is leagues above what any regular compact camera is capable of.
While the J1 delivers images that are tonally rich with good levels of sharpness and detail, depth of field is something that’s undoubtedly compromised by the smaller CX sensor. Using the J1 next to an Olympus E-PL3, with both the kit zoom on each camera set to 28mm and focused on a static subject we found the area behind to be visibly more defocused and ‘blurry’ on the E-PL3 than the J1 at f/3.5. Against an APS-C equipped DSLR, the difference was even more pronounced.
It is still possible to 'throw' the background with the J1, just not to the same extent it is with larger sensors. This may not be such a problem for the J1’s intended audience of casual photographers, but for serious enthusiasts – especially those with an eye for portraiture – it does limit the J1 as a creative tool.
Metering is pretty spot on, with the J1 not showing any regular signs towards either over- or under-exposing. The J1’s dynamic range is noticeably wider than what we’ve seen on regular compacts too, which facilitates the production of better images in high-contrast situations. It’s not quite up there with what can be expected of a DSLR though, and when push comes to shove highlight detail tends to be sacrificed.
Noise is very well controlled from ISO 100 to ISO 400, with ISO 800 and ISO 1600 also producing largely noise-free results, even though there is some softening of detail. However at the highest ISO settings of 3200 and 6400 images show marked deterioration, often accompanied by a loss of colour and a shift in hue.
The J1’s Automatic white balance performs consistently well, with performance under mixed lighting sources also reliable. Should you wish to, there are six presets to choose from along with a manual setting.
The Nikon J1 is a stylish looking compact system camera that delivers class-leading shooting speeds, super-efficient AF performance and vibrant, punchy images. However, given the highly competitive nature of the CSC market this isn’t really enough to elevate it above its peers and many rival CSCs offer richer feature sets and better value for money. It’s good to finally see Nikon in the CSC market, and the J1 certainly shows some promise, but it’s not quite the all-conquering model we’d hoped for.