Nikon’s debut compact system camera boasts a long list of world
firsts, fastests and bests. But it isn’t without controversy
The J1 is the cheaper of the two models. It is aimed squarely at the mass market consumer upgrading from a compact, and seeking something simple and quick to use but with interchangeable lenses. Although image quality is quite important to this user convenience is at least as highly valued.
Nikon J1 Review – Features
Rather than use an APS-C sized sensor like most DSLRs (and some CSCs) Nikon has gone for a chip that’s only about one-third the size, and half the size of Micro Four-Thirds. This has drawn a lot of criticism from enthusiasts, but Nikon believes this size strikes the best balance between image quality and portability, and enables not just the cameras to be fairly compact but the lenses too.
At the heart of the J1 is a brand new CX-format 10.1MP CMOS sensor made especially for the Nikon 1 system. It measures 13.2 x 8.8mm and called the CX format and produces images up to 3872 x 2592 pixels in size with a magnification factor of 2.7x in relation to full frame (35mm).
The CX sensor is also the first to incorporate both phase detect and contrast detect AF on the sensor itself. Phase detection is used in DSLRs and is better for tracking moving subjects, while contrast detect AF – which can be more accurate – is used in compacts and other CSCs. The J1’s sensor is able to switch seamlessly between the two types according to the subject, giving what Nikon claims is the fastest auto-focusing system in the world. Users can also select between single point, auto area or subject tracking AF modes, providing 135 focus points in single point mode and 41 in Auto area AF.
The CX sensor is complemented by the Nikon 1’s secret weapon – the twin-engined Expeed 3 processor, which can process images at an unprecedented 600 megapixels per second. This along with the design and size of the sensor, gives the Nikon 1 J1 its list of ground-breaking features.
The first is a unique addition called Motion Snapshot, which wraps a one-second slow motion movie clip around a full-resolution still image. Think of those moving still photos that come to life on the pages of the Daily Prophet in the Harry Potter films. In this mode the camera records a few frames of video both before and after the moment of still capture. To view just click on the photo and the slo-mo clip starts to play, with a user-selectable musical background theme, before returning to the still shot. You can of course print the still image if you wish.
The next innovation is the Smart Photo Selector mode which, on depressing the shutter, takes a burst of 20 full-res still images almost instantaneously, captured both before and after the shutter is depressed. The processor then selects what it considers the best of the bunch and presents it, along with its pick of the next best four pictures. You can go with the camera’s choice and delete the rest, swap it for one of the others or save all five. This mode increases the chances of catching the decisive moment, such as a perfect expression, or the second your child crosses the finish line at the school sports day.
Still not impressed? Try the continuous burst mode which can shoot at 10 frames per second with full subject tracking AF or, by switching to the Hi setting, at up to 60fps which is, by some margin, the fastest in the world on any camera, even including pro DSLRs. Although it can only sustain this for about 12 JPEG or Raw files at a time, and the focus is fixed from the first frame, this is still an impressive feat that’s made possible by the J1’s electronic shutter and maximum 1/16,000th of a second speed.
The J1 does also offer the more conventional shooting modes including Aperture and Shutter Priority, Program, Manual and Auto Scene modes. In these modes adjustments are made using an up/down oriented toggle switch, which could easily be mistaken for a zoom rocker until you remember that zooming on the J1 is achieved manually by twisting the lens barrel (except for the power zoom10-100mm which has a zoom switch on the lens). Next to this switch an ‘F’ button offers a limited range of user selection depending on the shooting mode.
The J1’s movie setting offers the usual 1080 and 720 HD resolutions, plus a slow motion option. But the best feature of the video mode, unique among CSCs, is the J1’s ability to shoot full-resolution still pictures while simultaneously shooting movies, and it does so silently thanks to the electronic shutter. This is a useful feature for anyone who has ever struggled with the dilemma prior to an important life moment, such as your child’s first Nativity play, as to whether to shoot video or stills.
As for the more conventional features, the ISO range from 100 to 3200 (extendable to 6400) is not the highest around but is a sensible cap for the smaller sensor size. Nikon’s metering has always been strong and the J1 offers the usual choice of Matrix Multi-Segment AF, Centre-Weighted or Spot options, and for high-contrast scenes Active D-Lighting can be employed to boost shadow detail, though it can only be on or off, with no incremental adjustments.
There’s a Picture Styles menu to fine-tune the colour saturation or remove it altogether for mono images, but there are none of the creative effects and filters that are widely available on many other cameras, including Nikon’s, which is odd because the J1’s target audience is the group that appreciates these the most. Also strangely missing is a panorama or HDR mode, two popular features which are common on other cameras, and there are no manually selectable scene modes.
Although there is no electronic dust reduction system to prevent dust from landing on the sensor when lenses are swapped, Nikon has placed the camera’s infrared filter much further forward from the sensor so that any dust that does land on it should not be visible on the images.
Nikon J1 Review – Design and Performance
Nikon J1 Review – Design
As you’d expect from Nikon the J1’s build quality is excellent. From the front and top, it’s a minimalist masterpiece, with a flat front and flat top panel in which all the controls sit flush, except for the shutter button, and even that is raised by less than a millimetre. There is no hand grip or groove on the front for the fingers which means that, despite the rubbery thumb rest on the back, it doesn’t feel as secure in the hand as it should, which could be a problem with the bigger lenses such as the 10-100mm power zoom.
The built-in flash pops out of the top on a stalk that’s high enough to avoid redeye and shadows cast by the lens. The back of the camera is more conventional, with a mode dial, four-way d-pad and the usual smattering of buttons to the right of the 3in, 460k-dot LCD.
The J1 is available in black, white, red, pink or silver, with even three of the four lenses coloured to match the bodies.
Two of the initial four lenses feature a retractable design, which make them even more compact when not in use. To unlock the lens simply push the button and twist, and this also switches the camera on, which is a nice touch. Alternatively there’s a power button on the camera.
Nikon J1 Review -Performance
For a camera that prides itself on its speed it does take a couple of seconds to start up, but once up and running it’s a fairly brisk operator. Focusing is very fast and the J1 seems to have little trouble identifying and locking onto even fast-moving subjects.
More advanced photographers will be disappointed that Nikon has chosen to bury the manual exposure modes and controls in the menu. There is, after all, plenty of room on the mode dial and it would not have been difficult to offer quick access to the ISO and Auto White Balance, perhaps via the F button. But the J1 is not an enthusiast-targeted camera, and these options are buried, we suspect, to avoid any risk of them frightening off the target user.
The menu itself is divided into three sections for simplicity: shooting, playback and set-up, with everything within presented as a list. This means that each list is pretty long, and to change some- thing like the focus mode or flash exposure compensation you need to scroll right down to the bottom of the list, three pages away.
The J1 is designed to work best when left in its auto modes, and to be fair it generally does a great job. Which is just as well, because among the J1’s omissions is the absence of any kind of exposure compensation in either the Smart Photo Selector mode or Scene Auto Selector modes, so if the camera does get it wrong there’s nothing you can do to correct it.
The combination of fast focusing and high burst speed makes the J1 more suitable than most CSCs for action, leaving aside the inherent difficulty in following fast-moving subjects using an LCD screen rather than a viewfinder, especially in bright sun. The high-speed burst shooting mode is impressive, and although the buffer fills up quickly most of the kind of action moments that you’d use such speeds for are over in the blink of an eye. It’s confusing though that to switch from 10fps to 60fps you need to go into the main menu rather than stay within the Function menu.
Even more frustrating is that, despite there being a separate video record button, you can only shoot video when the mode dial is set to movie mode, which caused several missed opportunities. Surely the video mode position is superfluous?
These operational quirks (and a few others) are things users will get used to, but significantly more irksome is the J1’s battery performance. The quoted figure from the EN-EL20 Li-ion cell of 230 shots is right at the bottom of the league table, and if you’re using processor intensive features such as HD video or Smart Shot Selector a lot you may struggle to get that. Prolific shooters taking the J1 out on a day trip should plan on carrying a spare battery.
Nikon J1 Review – Image Quality
Colour and Exposure
The Nikon J1 rarely puts a foot wrong with its exposures, even with tricky situations like backlighting, only occasionally being tempted to overexposure by a dark background. The Auto White Balance generally works very well – better than some of the pre-sets – though the myriad different hues that artificial light comes in did sometimes throw the J1 off balance.
Sharpness and Detail
One problem with the J1’s smaller sensor is that it’s very difficult to achieve shallow depth of field compared with CSC models that have larger sensors. That aside, both Raw and JPEG images from the J1 look sharp and detailed with none of the heavy-handed sharpening at the processing stage that some cameras apply to compensate for deficiencies in the lens or the sensor.
Of the three lenses used in this test, the 10mm pancake appears to be the best in terms of sharpness and distortion. While the 10-30mm and 30-110mm both display some barrel distortion at the wideangle end it’s within expected tolerances.
Considering the small size of the Nikon 1 sensor the J1 does a commendable job of keeping noise under control. At up to ISO 800 it’s barely noticeable in real-world images, and even though it becomes more visible at ISO 1600 it isn’t really obtrusive.
At ISO 3200 chroma noise penetrates the shadow areas adversely affecting the colour, but images are still quite usable. The extended ISO 6400 position though is best kept for emergencies.
Nikon J1 Review – Value and Verdict
Nikon J1 Review – Value
The Nikon 1 J1 comes in a variety of kit options. With the 10-30mm zoom it’s £549 (RRP) and the 10mm pancake it’s £599. For £699 you can get the 10-30mm and 30-110mm twin lens kit. This makes the J1 competitive with rivals especially considering that the street price is likely to be a little lower. Although the J1’s sensor is smaller than its competitors it does offer many features that they don’t.
Nikon J1 Review – Verdict
Nikon’s innovative CSC debut takes the growing convergence between still and video capture to the next level. The J1’s minimalist design may not be to everyone’s taste but its size and simplicity, along with its blistering speed, should chime with its intended audience. Its image quality is better than we have any right to expect from such a small sensor and good enough for most consumers, few of whom will ever make an A3 print and then scrutinise it with a magnifying glass.
On the other hand the J1 is only marginally smaller than Micro Four Thirds cameras that have a sensor twice the size, and demanding users will notice the difference in image quality, especially at higher ISOs.
A few aspects of the J1’s operation are frustrating and the battery performance is frankly shocking, but overall Nikon deserves high praise for producing a camera that can take pictures that no other camera can, while its ability to shoot HD video and high-resolution stills simultaneously may be a clincher for young families.