Nikon 1 J3 Review - The Nikon 1 J3 is the manufacturer's third-generation consumer-grade compact system camera has a new sensor and creative control options, but is it enough to fend off the competition?
The CX sensor is a lot smaller than those used by most of its competitors. It measures 13.2 x 8.8mm, giving it a little over half the surface area of a Four-Thirds sensor (17.3 x 13.0mm), and less than a third of the area of a typical APC-C sensor (23.7 x 15.7mm).
From an enthusiast’s point of view this is somewhat disappointing, since a smaller sensor will inevitably mean an increased risk of noise at higher resolutions. Since the Nikon 1 J3 features a new higher resolution 14.2-megapixel sensor this could prove to be a problem.
Nikon 1 J3 Review – Features
Compared to most other small-form CSCs the Nikon 1 J3 is an expensive camera, which makes it all the more noticeable that compared to those same rivals – including the Panasonic Lumix GF6 – it is distinctly light on features. While other less expensive cameras offer refinements such as articulated monitors, flash hot-shoes, advanced wireless connectivity and sophisticated touch-screen controls, the Nikon J3 has none of these things.
A look at the control interface is enough to show that the J3 is more like a point-and-shoot compact camera with interchangeable lenses, rather than a creative camera in a small form factor. What features it does offer are ones that are also found on Nikon’s compact cameras, such as the Best Moment and Motion Snapshot capture modes, or the creative scene mode options.
The J3 does at least have the option of manual exposure modes, something that was lacking on the J1, but these options are only accessible from within the function menu. Other often-used options such as ISO setting and white balance are also hidden away in the menu system. The only shooting options that can be accessed directly from the external controls are exposure compensation, drive mode and self-timer, and the flash modes.
The dial on the Nikon 1 J3’s top plate where one would normally expect to find the exposure mode options merely offers a choice between three automatic modes, the video recording mode and the “Creative” mode, which is where you’ll find the manual exposure and scene mode options.
Many things on the Nikon J3 could be a lot better. The menu system is one example; it’s very pretty, with a nice clear three-column layout, but it is divided into six sections in a very confusing and non-intuitive way. For example if you were looking for the ISO settings, most people would probably look in the Shooting menu, which contains things such as Focus mode and the Active D-lighting option.
However on the J3 you’ll find ISO setting in the Image Processing menu, along with White Balance and the very useful Picture Control creative tone control options. It’s a layout that makes very little sense, and means that if you’re looking for a particular setting in a hurry you probably won’t be able to find it.
Nikon 1 J3 Review – Design
The whole point of the new CX sensor format is to allow the Nikon 1 cameras and lenses to be extremely compact, and the Nikon 1 J3 is indeed a very small camera, measuring just 101.0 x 60.5 x 28.8mm. However when you put it alongside other recent small-form CSCs, such as the Panasonic Lumix GF6 or Samsung NX2000 which we’ve reviewed recently, it’s actually not that much smaller, just 10mm narrower and 4mm shorter than the GF6.
In fact the Nikon’s standard 10-30mm kit lens is actually larger when extended for shooting than the 14-42mm kit lens supplied with the Panasonic.
The small advantage that the Nikon J3 does have in body size is really not much of an advantage at all. It still isn’t going to fit in your pocket, so you’re going to be carrying it around on its colour-co-ordinated neck strap just like all its larger rivals.
Lack of handgrip
There are a couple of other problems with the Nikon 1 J3’s design. Most other small-form CSCs have at least a vestigial handgrip, but the J3 does not. Instead it has a very slippery metallic finish and a small and smoothly rounded body.
It does have a tiny thumb grip on the back, but even so, if your hands get a little sweaty you’ll find that the J3 is about as easy to grip as a bar of soap. Make sure you keep the strap around your neck; you’re going to need it.
Another issue that we encountered during testing is that the battery hatch frequently comes open with the minimum of provocation. The hatch is quite flimsy with a weak plastic hinge, and we think there’s a real risk that it could be snapped off.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that the J3 is a very pretty little camera. The round-ended body shape is a clean, elegant design that will certainly draw some admiring glances, and with its all-metal shell the build quality (apart from that battery hatch) is certainly up to Nikon’s usual high standard.
Like most of the other Nikon 1 cameras the J3 is available in a range of attractive colours, including silver, black, beige, white and red.
Poor D-Pad design
A special mention must be made of the Nikon 1 J3’s dreadfully designed D-pad. This is the camera’s most important control, and is used for pretty much everything, including menu navigation, exposure adjustment, opening the Function menu and directly selecting several other options.
It has a rotary bezel which is used to adjust values in the manual exposure modes. Rotary bezel D-pads can sometimes be very good, but unfortunately the rotating part of this one is very small and partly recessed, making it unnecessarily fiddly to operate, and it is also very stiff to turn.
The result is that when you try to adjust shutter speed or aperture, you will have to press down as you turn the wheel, and inevitably end up accidentally activating and adjusting the exposure compensation or changing the flash mode. It’s incredibly frustrating to use and quite inexplicable when you consider the exemplary control systems found on Nikon’s superb DSLRs and other advanced cameras.
This single fault would be enough to put many people off using the Nikon 1 J3.
Nikon 1 J3 Review – Performance
Despite its numerous design flaws, in terms of overall performance the Nikon 1 J3 has much to commend it. The camera starts up automatically as soon as the lens is extended into shooting position, but can also be started normally by pressing the on/off button, in which case it can start up, focus and take a picture in approximately 2.2 seconds, which is a little slower than some of its competitors but still fairly quick.
In both JPEG and Raw + JPEG modes the J3 has a consistent shot-to-shot time of approximately 1.3 seconds, and appears to be able to maintain this speed indefinitely, which points to some very fast image processing since the combined file size of the Raw and JPEG images is over 20MB.
Raw files are 12-bit, compared to the 14-bit files used in most serious DSLRs, but still offer slightly better dynamic range than the JPEG images. There is one further annoyance here however – after each shot the screen goes black for about half a second, which is annoying if you’re trying to follow a moving subject.
Considering the difficulty in setting manual shutter speeds, it’s particularly frustrating as the Nikon J3 has an exceptionally versatile electronic shutter, offering shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/16,000th of a second, twice as fast as even the best mechanical shutter.
This feature, combined with the fast processing speed, means that the J3 can offer extremely fast continuous shooting speeds. It can rattle off full-resolution shots at 5, 15, 30 or 60fps, in both JPEG and Raw modes, with the number of frames in the sequence ranging from 37 to 20 in JPEG mode, although in Raw mode in can only manage 8 frames at 60fps.
The J3’s autofocus system merits a few comments. Most other compact system cameras use contrast detection autofocus, the same type of system found in compact point-and-shoot cameras. Such systems work well in good light, but can have problems once light levels fall. Digital SLRs on the other hand use phase-detection AF, using a specially designed sensor that is far more sensitive in low light levels.
The Nikon 1 J3 uses a hybrid AF system that combines both contrast and phase detection, automatically detecting when to switch from one to the other. As a result it has one of the fastest and most reliable autofocus systems we’ve seen on a CSC. It works consistently well even in very low light, and also has a bright AF assist lamp for when things get really dark.
Battery level issues
Another minor annoyance to add to the J3’s growing list is the battery level indicator. The J3 is powered by a fairly chunky 1020mAh li-ion rechargeable, from which one should expect at least 300-350 shots on a full charge, and it has the usual three-bar battery level indicator.
This indicator dropped to one bar after just 120 shots and a few short video clips, which was a cause for concern, but it then went on to shoot another 320 shots, many with flash, before the battery finally gave out. That’s some pretty impressive battery duration, but possibly the world’s least helpful battery indicator.
Nikon 1 J3 Review – Image Quality
As we remarked at the top of this review, the Nikon 1 cameras use a new smaller sensor format that measures just 13.2 x 8.8mm, giving it a little over half the surface area of a Four-Thirds sensor (17.3 x 13.0mm), and less than a third of the area of an APC-C sensor (typically around 23.7 x 15.7mm).
With most of its rivals using these larger sensor formats the J3 is starting off at a disadvantage in terms of image quality. A smaller sensor means smaller photocells, which potentially means less dynamic range, less colour depth and increased high-ISO noise. Unfortunately the J3 has hit all three of these stumbling blocks.
Colour and White Balance
Colour reproduction is a function of the light-gathering ability of the sensor and the accuracy of the metering system and the quality of the image processing, which unfortunately means that the J3 is starting off with a couple of disadvantages. It’s interesting to compare the raw and JPEG versions of the same image; the raw version will have massively over-saturated reds and under-saturated blues and greens, while white and bright yellow highlights are badly over-exposed.
After the image processor has finished turning them into JPEGs, the reds are under-saturated, the greens and blues are just about right, while the burned-out highlights are of course unchanged. The results look like the kind of output we’d expect to see from a mid-range compact camera, not a £500 CSC like the J3. Colours lack depth and highlight detail is lost.
As for the white balance, the automatic setting was, as one might expect, perfectly fine in bright daylight, but did have a tendency toward the cooler end of the temperature range in lower light conditions. Of the various pre-set settings, the only one we had time to test properly was the incandescent setting, which proved to be very accurate.
Exposure metering is generally accurate and reliable in normal daylight, but the small sensor does reduce dynamic range, so in high-contrast conditions the exposure system struggles to avoid featureless shadows and burned-out highlights, and unfortunately it frequently fails to do so.
In very low light conditions the metering often fails completely, producing badly under-exposed shots, and worryingly it often fails to trigger the flash in auto mode. Again, the J3 copes well with everyday situations, but is out of its depth in more challenging conditions, reinforcing the impression that it is really just a glorified compact.
In terms of final resolution the J3’s 14.2-megapixel sensor is obviously a big improvement over the 10MP sensor found in the earlier models in the range, but it’s still lagging some way behind most of its immediate rivals, such as the 20-megapixel APS-C-powered Samsung NX cameras. Nonetheless it produces a fair level of fine detail and the image processing makes the best of it, carefully avoiding the over-sharpening found in several rival cameras.
Finally we come to the nub of the issue. We’ve tried out a lot of very good cameras recently, and become accustomed to seeing usable images produced at very high ISO settings, so it comes as a bit of a shock when a camera suddenly does the exact opposite.
In our standard series of ISO test shots the J3 was only really doing its best work at the lowest settings of 160 and 200 ISO. There were hints of colour distortion already appearing at 400 ISO, and noise got progressively more noticeable. Nikon has wisely limited the J3 to a maximum of just 6400 ISO, and at that setting noise is very visible, with blotchy colour reproduction and a loss of fine detail. This is unfortunately the price one pays for a small-format sensor.
Kit Lens Performance
The Nikon 1 J3 is supplied as a kit with a colour-co-ordinated 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom lens, equivalent to roughly 28-80mm on a 35mm camera. Like a lot of CSC kit lenses it is retractable, and has to be extended in order to shoot.
As kit lenses go it’s not really one of the better ones; it suffers from significant corner blurring which seems to be worse at narrower apertures, and a comparison of raw and JPEG images shows that the camera’s processor is correcting a fair amount of optical distortion including some chromatic aberration.
Nikon 1 J3 Review – Verdict
Nikon’s 1 series of CSCs and its collection of CX-compatible lenses continues to grow, and is possibly shaping up to be a nice little system, but the J3 shows that it still has a long way to go. Considering its high price point the J3 really doesn’t have much to recommend it apart from its elegant good looks.
It lacks a number of useful features found on many of its cheaper rivals; its overall image quality and high-ISO noise control are lagging some way behind the rest of the field, and its control interface is clumsy, slow and poorly thought out. About the only rays of sunshine are its excellent hybrid autofocus system and its overall performance.
If you only ever use automatic shooting modes then you’ll feel right at home, but if you’re looking for a creative hobby camera then you’d be better off saving your money and looking elsewhere.
Nikon 1 J3 Review – Sample Image Gallery
These are just a selection of images captures with the Nikon 1 J3. For a full collection of images captures in the review, head on over to the Nikon 1 J3 review sample image gallery.