Nikon 1 J3 £579

1st Mar 2013 | 13:30

Nikon 1 J3

Can Nikon's smallest CSC deliver the goods?

TechRadar rating:

3.5 stars

Like:

Good screen; Smart Photo Selector; Small size;

Dislike:

Small sensor; No viewfinder; Not a touchscreen;

Introduction

In a move which would make Panasonic proud, Nikon has already updated the J range of its compact system cameras, mere months after introducing the Nikon 1 J2. The company says that the Nikon 1 J3 is, for now, an addition to the range, but has admitted that it will reassess whether the J2 stays in the range pretty soon.

The J3 has the world's smallest body for a compact system camera, with a CX format (1-inch) sensor. Given that only Nikon produces those, that's perhaps not too difficult, but what the company also tells us is that it is smaller than all other CSCs, aside from the Pentax Q cameras, which use even smaller sensors.

While the Nikon 1 J2 had a 10 million pixel sensor, the Nikon 1 J3 has been upgraded to a 14 million pixel device. That gives the J2 the same pixel count as the Nikon 1 V2, the company's top of the range CSC. We're told it's the same device so we can expect to see very similar performance when we put the J3 through our lab tests.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Like the Nikon 1 J2 and V2, the J3 has Slow View mode, which enables you to see the action in slow motion to record the decisive moment, and Live Image Control, which gives you a preview of the effects of settings in the monitor prior to shooting.

In addition, the Snapshot function has been improved and there's an Advanced Movie mode that enables settings adjustments in Program, Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Manual Exposure mode when recording movies.

The Nikon 1 J3 has a sensitivity range of ISO 160-6400, and can capture up to approximately 22 shots with a single burst of continuous shooting at 15fps (with AF tracking), and approximately 20 shots with a single burst of continuous shooting at 60fps (without AF tracking).

Nikon 1 J3 review

Nikon claims that this is also its joint fastest CSC to date, with an Expeed 3A processing engine. This is the same engine as found in the Nikon V2 and enables processing speeds of up to 850 megapixels per second, facilitating the 60fps shooting mode.

As with the other cameras in the Nikon 1 series, the J3 features a hybrid autofocusing system. Switching between phase-detection AF and contrast-detection AF depending on the situation, this means that it can claim very fast focusing speeds, even in low light scenarios.

Like the J2 before it, the J3 has a 921k dot, 3-inch LCD monitor on the back of the camera for composing images. It's not a touchscreen, and it doesn't tilt or articulate, but a wide viewing angle is promised. There's no inbuilt electronic viewfinder, and there's also no possibility to add one since there's no hotshoe or accessories port.

Nikon 1 J3 review

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The Nikon J1 was incredibly popular, being the biggest selling CSC in Europe and Japan in the 12 months after it was launched. Despite the smaller sensor size and restricted range of lenses when compared to other cameras from the likes of Panasonic and Olympus, Nikon has still managed to find a large audience.

As it stands, the company now has three lines in its CSC range. The J3 now occupies the mid-range space, since the Nikon 1 S1, an entry-level CSC, was also announced in the early part of 2013. The company suspects that the S1 will take the place of the J1 as its mass seller, with the J3 as a step-up, or more premium option, thanks to its additional resolution and higher quality build.

With a recommended retail price of £579/US$599.95 (around AU$874) including a 10-30mm kit lens, the Nikon 1 J3 goes head to head with the likes of the Panasonic G5, Olympus PEN Mini and Sony NEX-F3.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Build quality and handling

Although the Nikon 1 J3 is smaller and lighter than the Nikon 1 J2, the design of the chassis itself is very similar. There's no grip on the front of the camera, though a small thumb rest on the back helps with purchase, especially when holding the CSC one-handed.

Nikon has decided to move the mode dial from the back of the camera to the top of the camera, which does make it slightly easier to use with your thumb than on the previous version. The J1 had no mode dial at all, so it's nice to see one continuing on the J range, giving quicker access to the different modes the camera offers.

Unlike the mode dial on the V2, however, P/A/S/M modes can't be accessed from the dial - presumably because the camera is aimed at a less advanced audience.

Nikon 1 J3 review

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Instead, on this dial you can choose between fully automatic, Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector and movie mode. There's also Creative Mode, which is where the semi-automatic and fully manual modes can be accessed from, as well as digital filters and Easy Panorama mode.

Like on other models, there are two ways to switch on the camera. First, there's a button on the top, but for grabbing those spur of the moment shots, the quickest way to activate it is to use the button on the side of the lens and twist it round to the side. This means the camera is ready to shoot as soon as it is switched on.

On the back of the camera there's been a bit of a switcharound with buttons, or how certain buttons work. Previously, a small switch near the top-right of the camera could be used to set aperture or shutter speed (when in the appropriate mode). Now, this must be done by scrolling the dial on the back of the camera.

Nikon 1 J3 review

There's no dedicated function button and instead a tap on the up arrow of the four-way directional pad is required. It does the same job though, enabling you to change between various options when in creative mode.

On the V2, a function button gives you quick access to key parameters, such as white balance and ISO. Unfortunately, there's no such option here, requiring a delve into the menu to make changes.

Other buttons, or functions accessed via the four way directional pad on the J3, include exposure compensation, a menu button, a playback button and a self-timer/drive mode option.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Unlike on the J2, there's no Display button for switching off shooting information for an uninterrupted composition screen - instead, again you need to delve into the menu to access this option, which can be a little frustrating.

The 73-point hybrid autofocus system that made its debut in the original Nikon 1 cameras has been maintained here. You can elect to have the camera choose an autofocus point for you, or for more flexibility, subject tracking and single point options are also available.

Once you've selected single point, hitting the OK button brings up the focus point selection, which you can then change via the arrow keys. It's a big shame that Nikon still hasn't incorporated a touchscreen into its Nikon 1 cameras, since it would make it much quicker and easier to set the autofocus point, and perhaps some of the key parameters in the menu too.

Nikon 1 J3 review

The Nikon 1 J3 has an inbuilt flash, which pops out of the top-left of the camera. The design has been changed from the J2, from a long stalk (which felt a little flimsy) to a new spring-loaded mechanism. This feels much more secure and less likely to accidentally be snapped off than that on its predecessor.

Also as on the Nikon 1 J2, a dedicated movie record button is found next to the shutter release on top of the Nikon 1 J3.

Handily, Nikon has made the decision to allow movie recording to be activated even when you're not in movie record mode - something that wasn't possible on the J2 and could be a little frustrating when trying to capture off-the-cuff moments.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Performance

Despite the fact that the Nikon 1 compact system cameras have significantly smaller sensors than competition from most of the rest of the industry, we've always found them to be solid performers. With an increase in pixel count and a new image processor, we had high hopes for the Nikon 1 J3.

Overall, the camera does produce pleasing images, with bright and punchy colours that are nice and vibrant straight out of the camera. There's a fair amount of detail, and images are reasonably sharp.

However, on running the camera through our lab tests initially, we were a little disappointed by the results. It scored significantly lower than its predecessor, the J2, on both signal to noise ratio and dynamic range, in both JPEG and raw shooting modes. However, results were improved when testing a second sample - perhaps indicating some variation between cameras.

Nikon 1 J3 review

The standard lens that is bundled with the camera is a 10-30mm optic, which covers an effective focal length of 27-81mm, a decent range that will suit a number of different situations.

By shooting at a narrow aperture, such as f/8, we can assess the sharpness of the lens up to the corners of the frame. The camera produces reasonably sharp images, though there is some drop off towards the very edge of the corners.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Examining images at 100% also reveals that the detail is a little soft, but when printing at standard sizes, or viewing at normal sizes on a screen, this shouldn't present too much of a problem.

Multi-purpose Matrix metering does a good job, even with mixed lighting conditions. When shooting in P/A/S/M modes, you can also alter metering modes to choose from Center-weighted and Spot metering if you find that Matrix isn't doing a good enough job.

Even though the sensor is relatively small, there's still good scope for creating images with a shallow depth of field effect. This is even true of the kit optic, which has a maximum aperture of f/3.5.

Nikon 1 J3 review

When shooting with a lens which has an aperture of f/1.8 we can really assess the quality of focus drop-off, and happily, these are rendered very well with some great, pleasingly bokeh effects on occasion.

Nikon added new creative filters to the J2, presumably in a bid to compete with the likes of Instagram et al, and these have remained on the Nikon 1 J3. Unfortunately, these are still nothing to write home about, and it is certainly beaten by others in the market - if you like that kind of thing.

We think it's better to experiment with Picture Styles anyway, which can be found in the Main Menu when shooting in semi-automatic or manual modes.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Here you can access settings such as Monochrome, which can be customised to your own preferences, perhaps ramping up the contrast or shooting in sepia for example.

One of the best things about shooting with these is that you can shoot in raw format, so should you need access to the "clean" file, you can have it. Other Picture Styles, such as Landscape and Portrait, can also be adjusted as necessary, and are useful for getting good colours from the specific subject you're photographing.

The digital filters that are available are Selective Colour, Soft and Miniature Mode. You can only shoot in JPEG mode with those, so you'll be stuck with whatever you shoot.

Nikon 1 J3 review

One of the most fun features of the Nikon 1 system is Motion Snapshot mode. This takes a one-second long, slow-motion video, combining it with a still photo to produce a sort of "living image" effect.

It's a great mode to play around with, and Nikon has made one vital improvement to the way these are recorded for the J3 - they can now be output as a single, unified file, so you can watch it back on your computer or smart devices. Previously, it was output as two separate files, so could only be watched easily on the camera itself.

Smart Photo Selector has been one of the key selling points of the Nikon 1 system. It works by shooting 20 high resolution images before and after the shutter button has been released. The camera then automatically chooses the best five images, from which you can choose your favourite.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Nikon has also added a variant on this, called Slow View, which takes a little explaining. This works by shooting a series of frames as you half-press the shutter. You can then watch, so long as your finger is half-pressed, those frames going round and round on the screen. When you spot the one you want to keep, fully depress the shutter button and it will be saved to the card.

Both are excellent options for shooting action, or fast-moving subjects, such as children, since it helps to capture those easy-to-miss moments.

The screen, with its high (920k dot) resolution, is a good performer, not suffering too badly from glare or reflections, even in reasonably bright sunlight. It's a shame it's not articulated for even better viewing from awkward angles though, especially because there's no option to add an additional EVF. But the angle of view is pretty good nevertheless.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Image quality and resolution

As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon 1 J3, 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 160 the Nikon 1 J3 is capable of resolving up to around 20 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

Nikon 1 J3 review

Full ISO 160 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 160, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 200, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 400, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 800, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 1600, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 3200, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 6400, score: 14 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Raw

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 160, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 200, score: 20 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 400, score: 18 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 800, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 1600, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 3200, score: 16 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Nikon 1 J3 review

ISO 6400, score: 14 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

Here we compare the Nikon 1 J3 with the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2, Nikon 1 J2, Canon EOS M, Nikon 1 V2 and Panasonic GF5.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Nikon 1 J3 JPEG Signal to Noise Ratio

These results show that the Nikon 1 J3 has a stronger signal to noise ratio than the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2, Nikon 1 J2, Canon EOS M, Nikon 1 V2 and Panasonic GF5.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Nikon 1 J3 TIFF Signal to Noise Ratio

The signal to noise ratios of the TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Nikon 1 J3 are weaker than the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2, Nikon 1 J2, Canon EOS M and Nikon 1 V2 throughout the sensitivity range, and weaker than the Panasonic GF5 until ISO 800, until it overtakes it from there and upwards.

JPEG dynamic range

Nikon 1 J3 JPEG Dynamic Range

The Nikon 1 J3's images showing a similar dynamic range to the Nikon 1 V2 throughout the sensitivity range.

Raw dynamic range

Nikon 1 J3 TIFF Dynamic Range

TIFF images (after conversion from raw) from the Nikon 1 J3 are weak, containing less dynamic range than the Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2, Nikon 1 J2, Canon EOS M and Nikon 1 V2, but it does have a stronger dynamic range than the Panasonic GF5 across the full sensitivity range.

Sample images

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Even with the standard 10-30mm kit lens, with its maximum aperture of f/3, the Nikon 1 J3 is capable of producing attractive shallow depth of field effects.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

You can experiment with Picture Styles to get unusual colours by fiddling with the hue and saturation. This also has the benefit of being able to shoot in raw format should you prefer a 'clean' version of the image later down the line.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The J3 has done a good job of producing an accurate exposure while set on Multi-purpose metering. Colours are also reproduced well.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

The Monochrome setting in Picture Styles is a particular favourite of ours. It pays to experiment with the Contrast settings to produce images with punch.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

You can choose from several different colour tones when in Monochrome. Using blue helps to recreate the effect of a Cyanotype image.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

Although not as wide as the range from competitors such as Panasonic and Olympus, the optics choice for Nikon 1 cameras is growing. This was shot using an 18.5mm f/1.8 lens, which gives an equivalent focal length of 50mm, making it useful for portraits.

Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Nikon 1 J3 review

Full ISO 160 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 160

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Raw

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 160

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 200

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 400

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 800

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 1600

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 3200

Nikon 1 J3 review

Click here to see the full resolution image

ISO 6400

Verdict

In some respects, the Nikon 1 J3 feels like the upgrade that the Nikon J2 should have been, and coming only a few short months after it, it looks like Nikon feels the same.

The fact that it has a higher resolution, has some much needed tweaks - and has the addition of some extra modes (such as Slow View), makes this a decent upgrade from the J1.

Images generally are pretty good, although the fact that two camera bodies produced such different results in our lab tests raises questions about quality assurance and consistency between units.

It's also a shame that digital filters still haven't been improved, or that Nikon couldn't see fit to add a touchscreen to the camera.

We liked

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The body redesign to make this the smallest and lightest CSC on the market (with a decent) sensor size makes it an attractive camera for carrying around on a day-to-day basis.

We disliked

It's a huge shame that the camera performed badly in our labs tests.

Final verdict

The Nikon 1 J3 is a very likeable camera, and if you're new to the CSC market it's certainly a good option. The number of compatible optics are growing for the Nikon 1 range, with some, such as the 50mm f/1.8 being a good investment to help you get more from the camera. With a few niggles, though, it's far from being perfect.

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