Nikon 1 J1 interchangeable lens compact camera
Late to the party and making a scene
Review Somewhat late to the game, Nikon has finally released its Nikon 1 range of compact, mirrorless cameras which use a new CX-format sensor and a range of interchangeable lenses.
The J1 model is currently the entry-level Nikon One camera
The Nikon 1 range currently comprises V1 and J1 variants. Excellent build quality and high price place both firmly at the luxury end of the market, but it’s the smaller J1 which is the subject of this review. While the cameras share a mostly identical set of features, the J1 offers a lower resolution screen, loses the V1’s electronic eye-level viewfinder and multi-accessory port, but gains a built-in popup flash. The J1 also lacks the mechanical shutter found on the bigger model.
Not having an electronic viewfinder may not bother some users and the lack of multi-accessory port means you can’t take advantage of the external flash or GPS modules designed for the Nikon 1 system. However, these relatively minor differences will save you almost £300 making the J1 considerably better value for money.
Yet another format: Nikon's CX sensor has a 2.7x crop factor
Both models offer speedy operation, a super-quick start-up time and fast multi-point autofocus as well as the ability to capture full-resolution images at up to 60 shots per second. A pre/post capture system allows the J1 to start capturing images before you fully press the shutter button and then continue afterwards. These incredibly fast frame rates are matched with a buffer large enough to accommodate up to 100 shots.
This isn’t a new idea: my Sony DSC-F1 could do this in 1996 albeit with VGA-resolution images, but the J1’s Smart Photo Selector mode is able to automatically analyse and compare twenty such shots, picking the best five for you based on facial expression, composition and focus.
Built-in flash but the J1 has no sync contact for external guns
Another unique feature is the camera’s Motion Snapshot mode, which combines a one-second slow-motion clip of video with each photo, complete with incredibly cheesy music composed to evoke feelings of “Beauty”, “Waves”, “Relaxation” or “Tenderness”. It’s a fun feature, but more often than not, this gimmick results in an unexpectedly hilarious juxtaposition. Also available is HD video recording at resolutions up to 1080p at 30fps with additional slow-motion modes available which capture at 400fps or 1,200fps.
When shooting stills, the J1 provides automatic, semi-manual and manual modes providing full creative control over your photography. Unfortunately, none of these modes are made readily accessible to the photographer. On a traditional DSLR you would be able to switch easily between, say aperture priority and shutter priority with a simple twist of the mode dial.
A dearth of dials means that tweaks are menu driven
The J1’s mode dial however is disappointingly sparse – only four positions are available: The Motion Snaphot and Smart Photo Selector modes are given pride of place on the first two, with the fourth given over to video. This leaves just one position for stills, meaning you’ll have to delve into the on-screen menus to change parameters such as ISO, white balance, focus mode or shooting priority modes. Even the five available scene modes aren’t individually selectable. The ‘Scene auto selector’ mode just picks the best one for you automatically.
There’s plenty of space left on that mode dial for PASM settings, and the fact that Nikon has chosen not to include them hints at the kind of photographer they’re expecting to buy the J1. Similar small-bodied cameras such as the Olympus PEN mini also omit such functions, but the Olympus camera doesn’t have a mode dial at all. The simple addition of a few extra clicks round the dial would have transformed the J1 for the enthusiast.
Not much going on here
A context sensitive function button gives you quick access to continuous shooting options for stills, HD or slow motion for video or the selection of music in Motion Snapshot mode, While a four-way cursor pad with combined adjustment wheel lets you select self-timer, flash, exposure compensation and AE-lock options.
Although separate shutter release and video recording buttons are provided, you can’t be in a stills mode and simply press the record button to start capturing video. Instead, you must turn first turn the mode dial to video mode. If you’re already in video mode and you want to take a still, you can press the shutter release button to grab a still in the same resolution as your currently selected video mode.
10-30mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 27-81mm)
30-110mm kit lens (35mm equivalent: 81-297mm)
The J1’s physical dimensions cause it to look and handle like larger compact camera, save for the protruding lens which will prevent it from sliding into a trouser pocket – although a coat pocket should be easily large enough. Buy the twin lens bundle and you’ll have no problem putting the camera and lens into one pocket and the spare lens into the other.
Twin lens bundle with matching coloured optics
Unlike the majority of interchangeable lens compacts which use DSLR-sized APS-C or Micro Four Thirds format sensors, both Nikon 1 cameras are fitted with a new 10.1Mp 13.2 x 8.8mm sensor that falls about halfway between that of a compact and a DSLR. For the Nikon 1 range, the company has devised a range of diminutive lenses with a new smaller lens mount.
The selection of lenses is currently limited to just four, two of which were included in the review kit: the 10-30mm f/3.5-f/5.6 wide zoom and the 30-110mm f/3.8-f/5.6 telephoto zoom. Also available is a 10mm f/2.8 pancake prime and a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 PD-Zoom aimed at shooting video.
The current CX optics range features three zooms and one prime 'pancake' lens
When compared to a full-frame sensor, the J1 is working with a 2.7x crop factor with the result that the a 10mm Nikon 1 lens offers an equivalent field of view to a 27mm lens in 35mm equivalent terms. At the telephoto end of the scale, the 110mm is equivalent to 297mm.
To give you an idea of the size and weight saving involved here. The Nikon 1 10-110mm zoom weighs 180g whereas a 55-200mm f/4-f/5.6 AF-S VR DX lens for its DSLRs weighs in at 335g and is about 50 per cent longer.
Also available in black
An FT1 mount adapter is soon to be released which will allow you to use any Nikon mount SLR lens on the J1, but until then the range of lenses available remains somewhat smaller than that of competing mirrorless camera systems. Fans of macro photography or fast lenses in the f/1.4 range will have to wait. However, for fashionistas the J1 is available in five colours ranging from a smart black to an ironic pink, but if you want your lenses to match the more interesting shades, you’ll need to buy them at the same time as the camera body.
Due to its smaller physical size, the J1’s image sensor has to work much harder than an APS-C or even a Micro Four Thirds example. This shows up especially when you venture into the higher ISO modes. While you can still get a usable image at ISO 3200 there’s greater loss of detail and colour than is observed when using a full-sized DSLR, as you can see from the comparison images taken with the J1, an Olympus E-P2 Micro Four Thirds compact and the D3100, Nikon’s entry-level DSLR – see ISO samples download.
No EVF option on the J1, so you're stuck with the screen
The smaller sensor also makes it trickier to achieve a shallow depth of field: To blur the background and make your subject pop out, you’ll need to get in pretty close and make use of the telephoto end of the zoom range, if possible. Faster lenses would help with this, but the CX sensor is at a definite disadvantage here.
The J1 is a unique camera with a target market that’s hard to pin down. Its high-build quality, interchangeable lenses and manual control functions lean towards the serious enthusiast. However, Nikon’s decision to hide away the tech tweaks in favour of party gimmicks like “Motion Shot” shuns more accomplished photographers in favour of more undemanding users who really won’t want to be bothering with what, to them, will seem pointlessly big and unnecessary lenses when there are capable superzoom compacts available.
Versatile yet simplified, so who is it for?
Thanks to its interchangeable lenses and fast processing, the J1 is capable of taking the kind of shots that simply aren’t possible on a regular compact camera. It’s extremely fast and very easy to use. The multipoint autofocus is extremely quick and accurate and other than in low-light situations, the camera generally produces very pleasing images, provided you don’t peep too closely at the individual pixels.
However, it’s priced at a level where only those who really care about photography would be willing to invest in such a camera system, yet its somewhat lacklustre image quality when compared to the competition, limited lens support and lack of dedicated control buttons serve only to put off such customers who would probably be better served with one of the many alternatives. ®
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