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Nikon J1 Review

Pros

  • Good image quality
  • Solid build quality
  • Fast AF performance

Cons

  • PASM not on shooting mode dial
  • Depth of field is limited by sensor size
  • Uncompetitively priced

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £549.99
  • 10.1-megapixels
  • EXPEED 3 image processor
  • ISO 100 - 3200 (extendable to 6400)
  • 60fps burst speed at full resolution (max 12 images)
  • 1080/60i/30p Full HD movie recording

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It’s taken a while but Nikon has, at long last, joined the compact system camera (CSC) market with the launch of the Nikon 1 system. There are two models in the Nikon 1 range at present; the consumer-targeted J1 that we have here, and the more enthusiast-orientated V1.

Given the £250-odd price gap between the two models, the differences between them are actually rather less pronounced than you might expect. The Nikon J1 doesn’t get the 1.4million-dot EVF of the V1, but does sport its own built-in flash (the V1 requires the optional Nikon SB-N5 flash unit to be attached to its proprietary hotshoe). The 3inch LCD monitor on the back of the J1 displays at 460k-dots too, whereas the £850 V1 gets a 921k-dot monitor. Lastly, the Nikon J1’s 1020mAh Li-ion battery is smaller than the cell inside the V1 and consequently offers fewer shots on a single charge.

Inside, however, both Nikon cameras are both very similar, although the J1’s sibling does distinguish itself on account of offering a mechanical shutter that provides a bit more flexibility than the J1’s electronic-only shutter, along with a faster maximum flash synch speed of 1/250sec as opposed to the J1’s maximum 1/60sec.

Both models are built around a 10.1-megapixel CMOS sensor measuring 13.2 x 8.8mm, a size Nikon is calling CX. While this is approximately four times the size of a regular 1/2.3in chip as used in the vast majority of compact cameras, it’s only around a third of the size of a regular APS-C sensor (as used in most DSLRs), with Micro Four Thirds sensors sitting neatly in the middle between CX and APS-C. Of all the CSC models currently on the market only the Pentax Q, with its 1/2.3in chip, uses a smaller sensor than the Nikon 1 system.

In theory the smaller CX sensor puts the Nikon 1 at a disadvantage when it comes to low-light performance and also limits how shallow depth-of-field can be. And while limiting the J1’s resolution to 10.1MP should have a positive impact on image quality by ensuring the sensor isn’t overpopulated, it’s still going to be a hard sell for Nikon – even in these supposedly post megapixel-arms-race days – when the J1 is compared against it’s nearest competitors, all of which offer higher overall resolutions to go with their larger sensors. Most of the Micro Four Thirds models, for instance, offer around 14megapixels.

The decision to go with CX rather than going with something closer to APS-C has been the source of much debate in photography circles, with some critics even going as far as to suggest that it’s a cynical move aimed more at protecting the Nikon’s vested DSLR interests than in launching a groundbreaking new CSC standard.

Nikon refute all this, of course, insisting instead that the Nikon 1 range has been painstakingly designed from the ground up as a complete system, in which all of the constituent parts work together to produce the best possible image quality in the smallest possible package.

While the choice of sensor size has certainly raised some eyebrows, there are no such misgivings about Nikon’s latest generation of EXPEED 3 image processor. Utilising dual processors it’s a super speedy chip that enables the J1 (and V1) to reach some impressive shooting speeds, including a class-leading 60fps at full-resolution.

Irrespective of sensor size and processor abilities, what might well prove far more crucial to the success or failure of the J1 is the launch price. In this respect the decision to launch the J1 with a £550 price tag could be a problem for Nikon as it makes the camera look pretty expensive against some of its main competitors.

Given that the J1 and 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom package can now be bought for around £500 if you shop around online, it’s nearest rivals in terms of price and design would have be the Panasonic Lumix GF3 (£300 with 14-42mm), Olympus E-PL3 (£490 with 14-42mm), Sony NEX-C3 (£400 with 18-55mm). The newer Sony NEX-5N is slightly more expensive at £590 with 18-55mm, while the Samsung NX200 will cost you around £200 extra.

That’s some pretty tough competition. Does the J1 measure up? Without further ado, let’s take a closer look and find out…

The J1’s 10.1MP sensor delivers a maximum output of 3,872 x 2,592 pixels, with the choice to record still images as compressed JPEGs or lossless Raw files. While shooting JPEGs, resolution can be lowered to 8MP (medium) and 5MP (small), with three levels of quality to choose from: Fine, Normal and Basic. Disappointingly for a camera of this price and type, there are no alternative aspect ratios to choose from beyond the default 3:2. Sensitivity, meanwhile, ranges from ISO 100-3200, with an extended “Hi 1” setting of ISO 6400 available.

Although the J1 offers the creative quartet of Program, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Manual shooting modes (PASM), it’s somewhat telling that they don’t get their own place on the shooting mode dial, even though there’s plenty enough space for them. Instead, they’re collectively represented by a single green camera icon. This means that should you wish to switch between Aperture-priority and Shutter-priority, or perhaps put the J1 into its fully automatic Scene selector mode then you’ll have to enter the in-camera menu and navigate your way to the Exposure mode sub-menu. It’s not at all the cleanest or most intuitive way of arranging things, and reinforces the idea that the J1 is targeted primarily at those upgrading from point-and-shoot compacts.

One further reason the individual PASM options don’t make in onto the physical mode dial is that Nikon has instead decided to use it to promote two all-new shooting modes – Motion Snapshot and Smart Photo Selector. In keeping with other aspects of the camera though, they are both very much designed for the point-and-shoot crowd.

Motion Snapshot is, on paper at least, an interesting proposition that automatically records a short video clip every time a still image is taken. These clips last for two seconds but are played back in slow-motion, meaning that the actual recording time is less than a second, which in turn means there isn’t any noticeable shutter lag when shooting.

Motion Snapshot movie clips are stored as .MOV files and can be viewed individually, although every 24 hours the camera will also combine everything that’s been recorded into a single presentation. Nikon also bundles software with the J1 that can be used to make motion snapshot files for sharing although it’s not particularly intuitive to use.

Ultimately, while the general idea behind Motion Snapshots is quite fun and quirky, we struggled to make any great use of the feature in regular day-to-day shooting. We can certainly see how the feature would prove useful in certain situations (such as a toddler blowing out birthday cake candles), but we just don’t envisage these kinds of situations cropping up all that often, meaning the overall usefulness of the feature is somewhat restricted.

Of course, Nikon would probably argue that the feature can be used to better capture an essence of something (or someone) or to help put an image in context. However we’d counter by arguing that a good still image does exactly the same thing, but in a less fussy way. Perhaps we’re just stuck in our ways, but overall it just doesn’t seem like a must-have killer feature.

Smart Photo Selector, on the other hand, is a far more practical tool – especially when used for portrait photography. When selected, the J1 automatically takes 20 shots before discarding those that are less-than-perfect (for example, where a subject is blinking) to present you with what the camera thinks are the best five images. From these, you can pick a keeper and discard the rest.

During testing we found that it works really well for candid photography (where the subject isn’t aware you’re shooting them) as it gives you a much better chance of capturing those fleeting yet priceless expressions that can define a subject’s mood or character. Henri Cartier-Bresson almost certainly wouldn’t approve of watering-down his ‘decisive moment’ principle in such a way, but we think it’s a pretty useful tool.

Aside from these two new shooting modes, the J1 isn’t a particularly feature-rich camera. There are no fancy digital effects filters or clever post-processing tools. It does get six Picture Control options though – Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape – which at least allow you some control over the sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue levels of your images.

The J1 also offers Nikon’s Active D-Lighting for better shadow detail retention in high-contrast scenes, although it only comes as a straightforward on/off option, rather than the graduated low/standard/high strength levels seen in Nikon DSLRs and high-end compacts. Long Exposure Noise Reduction is a similarly on/off affair, as is High ISO Noise Reduction. There is an interval timer though, which might prove useful to some.

Movie abilities are pretty solid, with the maximum recording setting being 1920 x 1080/60i, with 1080/30p and 720/60p options also available. You can also shoot still images while recording video. Sound is recorded in stereo, but there’s no external microphone input. Should you want to make slow-motion movies the J1 duly obliges with 1200fps (at 320 x 120 pixels) and 400fps (at 640 x 240 pixels). All movies are stored as .MOV files.

Aside from the plastic battery latch, the J1 benefits from an all-metal outer construction that gives it a solid, premium feel in the hand. At 389 grams with a battery, memory card and the 10-30mm kit zoom attached there’s a reassuring weight about it too. In terms of overall size the J1 is on a par with the Olympus E-PL3, slightly smaller even. The 10-30mm kit zoom is a collapsible design, and when it’s fully retracted the overall package is small enough to fit inside a regular coat pocket, although you’ll certainly notice it’s there.

In line with the general theme of minimalist design, the J1’s buttons are set fairly flush to the camera body, although they remain well spaced and easy to use. As we mentioned earlier, the physical shooting mode dial feels a bit empty and doesn’t offer any direct access to the PASM shooting modes.

While the J1 sits quite comfortably in the hand there’s no finger grip and the smooth metal finish makes it hard to get a secure grip. There is a texturised thumb pad on the back,  but it feels like a bit of token effort. While we can appreciate that Nikon wanted to give the J1 a stylish appearance (which it undoubtedly has), a decent finger grip really is a must for a £500 camera in our opinion. Without one you’ll definitely want to make good use of the supplied neck strap.

The J1’s AF module uses an intriguing combination of 135-point contrast-detection and 73-point phase-detection to deliver a super-fast AF system that Nikon neatly describes as Hybrid Autofocus. In testing, we’ve found it to be one of the best around, up there with the super-speedy Lumix G3 even.

In good light, focus is all but instantaneous – by the time you’ve half-pressed the shutter button the focus box will be green and you’re good to go. In less than ideal light (such as at dusk or in dim artificial lighting), you can expect to encounter a small amount of focus hunting, although the camera still remains impressively quick to lock on. Once light levels become too low for the camera to focus independently then a green AF Assist light can be called upon to help focus on subjects within 6-8ft of the camera.

Start-up time is a fraction under 1.5 seconds. While that’s not quite as instant as a DSLR, it’s still far quicker than most regular compacts and pretty good by CSC standards too. The super-speedy AF means that you can have a shot in the bank in less than two seconds from pressing the On/Off button, which should be plenty fast enough in the majority of situations.

The J1 offers class-leading continuous shooting performance for a CSC with a maximum speed of 60fps at full resolution, with options to shoot at 30fps and 10fps too. There is a price to be paid for this though, as all of the 10/30/60fps Electronic Shutter options put the camera into what is effectively an automatic mode whereby user control over shutter and/or aperture settings is disabled. Should you opt instead for the J1’s standard 5fps Continuous drive mode then you are free to change the camera’s shooting settings as you wish.

AF control can be set to multi-point Auto-area, adjustable Single-point and automatic Subject tracking. This final AF mode is pretty reliable, so long as your subject isn’t moving too quickly or erratically, however for the majority of our testing time we found ourselves favouring the Single-point mode, especially for scenes with a static subject, as this allows you to put this point of focus anywhere in the screen simply by clicking the OK button and then using the D-pad keys to move the white focus box around.

One further restriction to the faster shooting speeds is the memory buffer size, which limits how many shots you can shoot in one go before the camera has to stop to process all of the recorded information. Shooting at 60fps limits the number of consecutive images you can record to just twelve, regardless of whether you are shooting JPEGs (in either of the three quality levels), Raw or both simultaneously. At 30fps and 10fps the J1 can shoot 13 frames before coming to a halt. In the ‘regular’ 5fps Continuous setting, JPEG quality settings do make a difference though, with a maximum 23 consecutive images available at Fine setting, 33 images at Normal and 48 images when the J1 is set to Basic JPEG quality.

One aspect of the J1 that really impresses is the 3inch rear LCD monitor. While Nikon lists it as a 460k-dot monitor, it somehow appears sharper than this to our eyes. Perhaps it’s the backlit LCD monitor playing tricks on our eyes, but to us it looks more like a 921k-dot monitor. Either way, the screen is bright and colourful and offers plenty of pop.

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.

Verdict
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.

100
Images shot at the baseline ISO 100 are noise free.
 
200
There are no problems with ISO 200 either.

400
At ISO 400 there is a minor softening of detail, but overall quality is still very good.

800
At ISO 800 the softening of detail is more pronounced, but noise is still well controlled.

1600
At ISO 1600 is quite soft and shadow detail has been compromised, but there is little sign of colour noise.

3200
The sea-change occurs at ISO 3200, where the image begins to fall apart.

6400
ISO 6400 is really only for emergencies only.

The following full-size examples show what the J1 is capable of in a real-world situation at higher ISO settings. Click on the images to enlarge.

Nikon J1 ISO1600
ISO 1600

Nikon J1 ISO1600
ISO 1600

Nikon J1 ISO3200
ISO 3200

Nikon J1
The 10mm pancake lens delivers excellent sharpness.

Nikon J1
Even on the ‘Standard’ Picture Control setting the J1 delivers images with rich colour and plenty of pop.

Nikon J1
It’s possible to create a shallow depth of field for still life subjects, but you need to shoot as close to the minimum focus distance as possible.

Nikon J1
In more general use, the small CX sensor does have its depth of field limitations though.

Nikon J1
The J1 produces images with good tone and contrast, but note the blown highlights in the top right of the image.

Nikon J1 30mm f/5.6
Shooting with the 10-30mm at 30mm and f/5.6, we were unable to pull the displaying peacock from its surroundings.

Nikon J1
The sub 1.5-second start-up time is great for ‘grabbed shots’ like this.

Nikon J1
The J1’s metering system works very well, even in testing conditions.

Nikon J1
The J1 has produced accurate, lifelike colour in this atumnal scene.

Nikon J1
Overall, we’ve been impressed with the J1’s image quality.

Nikon J1

We continually check thousands of prices to show you the best deals. If you buy a product through our site we will earn a small commission from the retailer – a sort of automated referral fee – but our reviewers are always kept separate from this process. You can read more about how we make money in our Ethics Policy.

Trusted Score


Score in detail

  • Value 7
  • Design & Features 7
  • Image Quality 8
  • Build Quality 8

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