Tiny but mighty, the Nikon 1 J1 holds its own against larger competitors
Nikon launched its first mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, the Nikon 1 J1 and its more advanced sibling, the V1, last fall. The Nikon 1 J1 is the smaller and more affordable of the two, although both were designed from the ground up around a 10 megapixel (effective) CMOS sensor and feature a new lens mount and a few matching lenses.
In many ways, the J1 is an entry-level camera, particularly for those who want to move up from a point and shoot model, but it has enough manual controls to attract more experienced users as well.
The J1 is available in several kits including a single lens kit (10-30mm); a 2 lens wide-angle kit (10-30mm and a fast, f/2.8 10mm prime); 2 lens zoom kit (10-30mm VR, 30-110mm VR); and a two lens zoom kit in pink (10-30mm, 30-110mm, with pink accessories). Nikon recently released an adaptor for Nikkor E-FS lenses, expanding the range of glass for the J1.
Design and notable features
Available in white, black, red, silver, or pink—depending on the camera/lens kit selected—the Nikon 1 J1 body is tiny but well built. Although it measures a mere 4.2 by 2.4 by 1.2 inches and weighs only 8.3 ounces, most of its lenses prevent the J1 from being pocketable.
Unlike the V1, the Nikon 1 J1 does not have a viewfinder. But it does sport a 3-inch, 460,000 dot LCD that works pretty well under most lighting conditions. The J1 is equipped with a petite built-in flash but doesn’t accept an external flash like the V1.
A streamlined design and lack of a grip means the best way to hold the camera is to grasp the corners between thumb and forefinger, which is the norm for many compact cameras. Operation is pretty straightforward although consumers should at least browse the user manual to understand what lies beneath the options on the mode dial: Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, Still Image, and Movie. The occasional tip or hint will appear on the LCD suggesting a trip to the F (function) button for mode-specific options.
Below the mode dial on the camera’s rear panel is a typical compact camera control layout: display, playback, and menu buttons, along with a multi-selector/command dial for navigation, adjustments, and accessing AE/AF lock, exposure compensation, flash, and self-timer. The top panel is home to the tiny pop-up flash, on/off, shutter, and movie buttons. However, the J1 is menu-dependent for anything above the basics, including exposure modes.
Features and performance
The J1’s control layout is designed for simplicity but the camera is well stocked with features, including manual and semimanual exposure controls, Raw capture, and full HD video. In addition to a full complement of video controls (including manual exposure and AF), the J1 offers a few non-standard movie options.
Although not unique to the J1, users can shoot slow motion video at frame rates of 400 or 1200, and the camera is great for taking slo-mo clips of action like a dog shaking off water or a sports scene. The files are physically small and low resolution, but they’re fun to watch and great for posting on the Web.
Perhaps one of the most interesting, and potentially useful, functions is being able to shoot stills while simultaneously shooting video without any breaks in video—I don’t know any other camera that can do that.
A fun, but not necessarily practical, feature is Motion Snapshot, which produces a combo file. The camera buffers video and saves about one second of video captured just before the shutter snap. The video portion plays back in slow motion, fades out and then displays the still image at the end, accompanied by one of four themed music soundtracks.
Nikon made some hefty claims about the J1’s performance and, for the most part, those claims are justified. Autofocus, particularly in good light, is fast thanks to a hybrid AF system that utilizes phase detection or contrast detect AF, depending on the lighting conditions (in low light, contrast detection is used because it activates an AF illuminator). Unfortunately, it sometimes locked AF in the wrong place, but most test shots were accurately focused.
Continuous shooting starts at 5 frames-per-second at full resolution with autofocus, but can zip along as fast as 60 frames-per-second (with AF locked at the first frame). The Smart Photo Selector, similar to Nikon’s Best Shot Selector, captures a burst of up to 20 frames and then selects the five best shots. Users can opt to save all five or only one.
I found that the J1’s images looked best when captured under bright lighting conditions. I shot with three kit lenses and, on average, most shots produced respectable detail. Color rendition was good, with relatively rich and saturated colors. Unfortunately, the tiny flash didn’t help much in low light, even after going into the menu system to increase the flash’s intensity. The Nikon J1 did not fare well in Macworld’s lab tests.
Given the camera’s relatively small sensor, image noise was an issue. Pixel peepers will spy shadow noise at its lowest ISO (100) but it’s not bad. Increase the ISO and noise levels rise, of course, so it’s best to keep it lower than 800. The best bet is to shoot in Raw and process the images to reduce noise, but if you don’t want to hassle with post-processing, turn off the camera’s noise reduction to avoid extra smearing.
Video quality isn’t great, particularly in low light, but is more than sufficient for entertaining family and friends, particularly when shared on the computer. And, despite its ability to capture stereo sound, the audio track wasn’t stellar.
Macworld’s buying advice
Given the strong competition in the compact interchangeable lens category and the smaller sensor size, the Nikon 1 J1 may not hit a home run for all buyers. But it’s a fun camera to shoot with and, in many ways, the little J1 can hold its own, particularly when it comes to performance.
[Theano Nikitas, a full-time freelance writer and photographer, has been writing about photography for the past 19 years. Her digital imaging reviews, features, how-to articles, and images have appeared in a wide variety of publications and websites.]