Nikon 1 J1 £550
6th Jul 2012 | 11:55
Nikon's simplest mirrorless compact system camera
Update: now with ISO sensitivity test images.
Ever since Panasonic launched the first mirrorless compact system camera in September 2008, there has been rumour and speculation about whether Canon and Nikon would follow suit. But we had to wait, a little over three years before Nikon revealed its hand and unveiled two cameras, the Nikon 1 J1 and the Nikon 1 V1.
Collectively these make up the Nikon 1 system, and they both have the same 10.1MP CMOS sensor. The J1 is the entry-level model, with the biggest differences between it and the V1 being the lack of an electronic viewfinder (EVF) and a lower resolution LCD screen.
The Nikon J1 does, however, have a built-in flash, whereas the V1 doesn't - instead extra illumination must be provided by the new SpeedLight SB-N5, which has a novel shoe-mount.
With a street price of around £375 ($497 in the US) for a kit that includes the 1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens, the J1 is set to be the more popular of the two cameras - the V1 10-30mm kit retails for around £620 ($745).
As well as introducing the first new Nikon lens mount since 1959, the Nikon 1 cameras also debut a new sensor size that has been dubbed CX format and measures 13.2 x 8.8mm. This is smaller than both APS-C and Four Thirds format, and means that mounted lenses have a 2.7x focal length magnification factor.
It also means that the new cameras are slightly handicapped from the outset, because larger sensors mean more room for larger photoreceptors, and larger receptors usually result in better image quality.
However, Nikon hasn't exactly pushed the boundaries of sensor resolution, and has kept the effective pixel count at just 10.1 million. Until recently, Nikon was adamant that 12MP was enough for its APS-C format and full-frame cameras, provided the images are clean and of high quality, so the arguments are familiar for Nikon 1.
More big news for Nikon 1 is that the two cameras have a hybrid autofocus system that uses phase and contrast detection. Unlike DSLRs that use a dedicated AF sensor, the J1 and V1 use 73 pixels on the imaging sensor as phase detection AF sensors. Interestingly, although these pixels have a role to play in auto focusing, they are still used to make up the image.
Nikon employs both phase and contrast detection, because although current phase detection AF systems are faster, contrast detection is generally more accurate.
While the V1 has both an electronic and mechanical shutter (and the user can select which to use), the J1 just has an electronic shutter. Using an electronic shutter enables the continuous shooting rate to be pushed as high as 60fps, with 30fps and 10fps options also being available.
Full HD (1920 x 1080) video recording is possible at 60i, 30p (29.97fps) or 60p (59.94fps). In addition, slow motion video can also be recorded at 640 x 240 at 400fps or 320 x 120 at 1200fps, both of which are played back at 29.97fps.
In Motion Snapshot mode, the camera shoots a snippet of full HD video footage at 69.94fps for replay at 23.976fps (making it around one second long), with accompanying music and ending with a still image. Footage is recorded to the buffer memory from the moment the shutter release button is half-pressed, so the video includes slow-motion action from the point immediately before the shutter release is pressed home.
While Nikon is aiming the J1 at family photographers who are likely to rely on automatic exposure modes, it also has the program, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual (PASM) exposure modes that are preferred by enthusiast photographers.
Build quality and handling
Nikon opted to use a smaller than APS-C sized sensor to enable the J1 to be smaller than the average DSLR. While it is small and neat, the J1 isn't quite as small as the Olympus PEN E-PM1, which uses the larger Four Thirds sensor. And if you want something really small, then the Pentax Q could be the way to go – it's tiny, but then so is its sensor.
Design-wise, the J1 is minimalist and uncomplicated, with a fairly Spartan-looking top plate and small collection of controls on its back. The body is constructed from magnesium alloy and has a high-quality feel, as does the knurled wheel mode dial.
With the exception of the rotating multi-controller dial on the back of the camera, the buttons and dials feel well made and are responsive. The multi-controller works well enough, but it feels a little insubstantial and loose under your thumb as it's rotated.
When the Nikkor 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 VR collapsible lens is mounted, there are two ways to start up the J1. If the lens is collapsed, pressing the lens button and rotating the zoom ring extends the optic and brings the camera to life in a little under two seconds. Alternatively, pressing the on/off button on the J1's top plate activates the camera in around a second.
We were initially disappointed to discover that the advanced PASM exposure modes can only be selected via the menu when the mode dial is set to Still Image mode (denoted by a green camera icon). However, it isn't necessarily a huge drama, since many photographers tend to shoot in one mode, for example Aperture Priority, for the majority of the time.
Less experienced photographers can set the camera to Scene Auto Selector mode via the menu, or use the mode dial to set it to Smart Photo Selector.
Scene Auto Selector mode sets the camera to choose the settings that it calculates are appropriate for the scene. Unusually, there's no option to specify the type of scene being photographed.
Smart Photo Selector is an evolution of Nikon Best Shot Selector. In this new mode, depressing the shutter release half-way triggers recording and saving images to the buffer memory. An icon displays in the LCD that lets you know that recording has begun. Pressing the shutter release home also captures the desired shot, and the camera then compares it with the frames captured before the shutter button was fully depressed.
The camera selects what it calculates are the best five shots, based on composition and sharpness, and writes them to the memory card. While this can be useful, the camera is tied up processing and comparing the images for a couple of seconds after shooting.
Given Nikon's history in the photographic market, you would expect it to know a thing or two about camera design and control layout, and while the J1 is easy to use, Nikon DSLR users should expect a few differences. In shutter and aperture priority mode, for example, exposure is changed using a small switch that protrudes from the camera's back just above the mode dial. In manual mode, this switch is used in combination with the multi-control dial below the thumb rest. Both controls are quick and easy to use.
When the AF area mode is set to Single Point or Subject Tracking (via the menu), the active AF point is selected by pressing the OK button at the centre of the multi-controller dial and then using the navigation controls to set the desired spot.
It's straightforward, but it's a measure of the pace of change in the digital camera market that we're disappointed that the Nikon J1 doesn't have a touchscreen to enable faster, more intuitive AF point selection.
On the subject of the screen, the Nikon J1's 460,000 dot 3-inch LCD provides a decent view of the scene being composed, even in quite bright light. The viewing angle is also very wide both vertically and horizontally, but it's not quite as convenient to use as an articulated screen when shooting from awkward angles.
Another omission is an electronic level. These are becoming more commonplace in cameras these days, and while the Nikon J1 has a grid view to aid composition, a level makes it easier to ensure the horizon is level, whatever angle you are shooting from.
Although it's possible to set specific sensitivity settings via the Nikon J1's menu, when moving quickly between areas with different light levels it's useful to use one of the three automatic settings. The widest range is ISO 100-3200, and the camera can usually be relied upon to use the lowest value possible, but for those who want to make sure, ISO 100-800 and ISO 100-400 options are also available.
Overall, the Nikon J1 feels very nicely put together, and it has a reasonably good balance of menu and button-accessed controls, but it is likely to hold more appeal for the seasoned digital camera user than for traditionalists.
The majority of our test images look good straight from the Nikon J1. There is some variation, but generally the colours are fairly natural-looking, if slightly on the warm side, with just enough saturation to give them a bit of punch.
Under natural or flash light, the automatic white balance system performs well on most occasions, but a few of our shots taken in very overcast conditions have a slight magenta cast.
Although edges can look a little bolder than they should when viewed at 100% on the screen, fine details look a little soft. However, at more sensible printing sizes, images look good.
Nikon is mainly aiming the J1 at relatively inexperienced photographers who haven't yet learned the complexities and stumbling blocks of light metering. These users will find that the multi-purpose Matrix metering mode performs very well, and the camera isn't easily fooled by very bright or dark areas in the scene.
Considering the size of the sensor, the Nikon J1 resolves a respectable level of detail. However, our resolution tests reveal that it can't record as much detail as some Micro Four Thirds cameras. As usual, more detail can be extracted from raw files than is present in the simultaneously recorded JPEGs.
Noise is pretty well controlled, but even images captured at the lowest sensitivity settings have a faint texture that is just visible when they are examined at 100% on the computer screen.
Pushing the sensitivity to ISO 800 introduces some mottled colouring in shadow areas, which becomes increasingly noticeable (at 100%) as the sensitivity is increased. The best high sensitivity images are created by tailoring to the noise reduction for each raw file using Capture NX2.
Interestingly, although Nikon tells us that the J1 applies chromatic aberration correction to JPEG images, when we opened some raw files in Capture NX2 we found that they showed less chromatic aberration than their JPEG counterparts. Turning off the software's chromatic aberration correction brought the two file types closer into line.
Nikon makes some bold claims for the J1's AF system, and in many situations it performs well, even managing to keep up with fast-moving subjects. Not surprisingly, though, it isn't infallible. In low light, the lens is prone to a brief spell of hunting. On many occasions this is just a quick back and forwards adjustment in focus, but it's noticeable, nevertheless.
When Auto Area AF mode is selected, the Nikon J1 usually does a good job of identifying the subject. But switching to Single Point AF mode and setting the point yourself brings extra confidence, especially in busy scenes. The Subject Tracking AF mode also performs well, but the mechanics of activating it means it's hard to achieve the initial lock-on with some moving subjects.
Image quality and resolution
As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon J1, we've shot our resolution chart.
If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 100 the Nikon J1 is capable of resolving up to around 18 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.
Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:
ISO 100, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 18 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 100, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 200, score: 22 (see full image)
ISO 400, score: 20 (see full image)
ISO 800, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 1600, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 3200, score: 16 (see full image)
ISO 6400, score: 14 (see full image)
Noise and dynamic range
We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using the DXO Analyzer software to give noise and dynamic range measurements at every sensitivity (ISO) setting.
Like the Nikon 1 V1, the Nikon J1 uses a smaller sensor than APS-C or Micro Four Thirds cameras. This means that the J1's 10.1 million effective photosites (pixels) are likely to be smaller, which could be a challenge for image quality.
JPEG signal to noise ratio
Our lab tests indicate that the J1 produces JPEG images that have a low signal to noise ratio in comparison with images from the Olympus PEN E-PL3 and Sony NEX-C3. They are closer to the JPEGs from the Pentax Q, but even this camera - which has a much smaller sensor than the J1 - has a better signal to noise ratio at higher sensitivity settings.
A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) generally indicates a cleaner and better quality image.
Raw signal to noise ratio
The difference in the signal to noise ratio of the of the J1's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) and the Pentax Q's is much less than the JPEG files. From ISO 800 up, the J1 beats the Q, proving some benefit from the larger sensor. The raw files can't match the results from the Olympus PEN E-PL3 or Sony NEX-C3 though.
For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them please click here to read the full article.
JPEG dynamic range
Raw dynamic range
This chart indicates that the Nikon J1's raws compares well against the Olympus PEN E-PL3, Sony NEX C-3 and Pentax Q, with the best results from a sensitivity of ISO 1600. This test shows that the Nikon J1 is capable of capturing a good amount of shadow and highlight detail.
For a full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests, please click here to read the full article.
Sensitivity and noise
Full ISO 100 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.
Here are some of the images we've shot with the new Nikon J1 during our testing.
DEPTH OF FIELD: Although smaller than APS-C sized, the J1's sensor is large enough to allow depth of field to be restricted when shooting at f/2.8.
SHARP: Even in fairly low and very flat light, the J1's AF system usually gets the subject sharp quickly.
NATURAL:Despite the bright sky, using matrix metering has resulted in a natural-looking image with only slight underexposure of the foreground here.
FLASH: The bright sky is nicely balanced by the flash output for this low angle shot.
ISO 800:There's little noise visible in this ISO 800 image.
ISO 3200: Using a sensitivity setting of ISO 3200 has made this image a little on the soft side, and although chroma noise is visible, it's not a major problem.
DETAIL:There's plenty of detail in this ISO 400 shot taken with the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR kit lens mounted, but chromatic aberration is visible along some backlit edges.
FAST:The Nikon J1's AF system can latch onto and track fast moving subjects.
NO FLASH:When you don't want to use flash, the maximum aperture of the 10mm f/2.8 lens comes in handy.
Nikon's announcement of its 1 system wasn't met with approval all round. Some Nikon users are disappointed by the company's decision to use a relatively small sensor, while others were hoping for something directed more squarely at enthusiast photographers.
Nevertheless it is a formula that seems to be working for Nikon as the J1 has had some impressive sales figures and has been the best-selling CSC in the UK at several points since its arrival.
While Nikon wants to stake a claim in the new compact camera system market, it doesn't want to damage its DSLR sales, and this goes some way to explaining its decision to develop a new lens mount and use a smaller than APS-C sized sensor.
Perhaps more than any other manufacturer, Nikon has succeeded in producing a camera that sits between its compact and DSLR cameras.
Experienced photographers may have been happier if Nikon had used a design a little closer to its most advanced compact model, the Coolpix P7100, with more direct control via buttons and dials and an articulating screen. Perhaps this will come in the future, but it would be intimidating to the intended Nikon J1 (and V1) market - those who want a step up from a compact camera without the complexity of an DSLR.
Nikon's minimalist design and the magnesium alloy body give the Nikon J1 a high-quality feel. Novice photographers will find that they soon become familiar with the control layout and menu arrangement and will enjoy the decent image quality.
Exposure mode can only be changed via the menu, and although easy, changing the AF point requires a bit of button pressing – a touchscreen would make it much quicker.
Image quality is very good considering the sensor size, but it's not up to the standard from Micro Four Third and APS-C format cameras.
While the Nikon J1 is easy to get to grips with, a high-quality touchscreen would make its handling a little slicker and speed AF point selection. An articulated screen would make composing from unusual angles easier as well.
Image quality from the Nikon J1 is good, competing well with the average compact camera and approaching that of entry-level DSLRs.
In summary, the J1 provides a good introduction to interchangeable lens cameras, although it lacks some of the fun features such as in-camera filter effects seen on other offerings