March 5th, 2012, 06:34 PM
Nikon J1 Review: A Field Report
By Armando J. Heredia
The Nikon 1 Series represents the long-awaited entry of a popular DSLR manufacturer into the mirrorless interchangeable lens camera (ILC) market. The Nikon J1 model is the more consumer oriented version, and shares many common components and operating features with its enthusiast sibling, the Nikon V1.
The 1 Series stands out from the rapidly growing crowd of ILCs by a new sensor and hybrid AF system. Instead of iterating an APS-C body, Nikon chose to create a new sensor size and corresponding lens mount, an unexpected move to be sure. Nikon’s CX sensor is a little over half the size of the dominant m4/3 system, and imposes a 2.7x FOV crop when compared to full-frame sensors. The design choice to produce only a 10MP resolving sensor is daring. Only four native lenses currently exist for the camera – a 10mm f2.8 pancake prime (equivalent 27mm), and two consumer-grade zooms, a 10-30mm f3.5-5.6 (equivalent 27-81mm), a 30-110mm f3.8-5.6 ED (equivalent 81-297mm) telephoto and a 10-110 mm f4.5-5.6 ED (equivalent 27-297mm) superzoom with a new silent Power Drive. The latter three lenses are equipped with Vibration Reduction (VR).
The feature that received the most hype at pre-launch is the hybrid AF system – Nikon was able to integrate faster-focusing Phase Detect (PD) sensors directly upon the CX imaging chip. In theory, the 1 Series could now focus just as fast as any entry-level digital SLR since they both shared PD sensor capability. In lower light, the 1 Series would fall back to more traditional Contrast Detect (CD) sensors which are slower but more reliable in determining subject distance.
The Nikon J1 also has some consumer-oriented and value-add features such as Motion Snapshot, which combines brief video and a still of the “decisive moment;” 1080P movie capture and slow-motion video (thanks to a high frame rate continuous mode).
This review evaluated the camera’s still-photography features and has scoped out video functions accordingly.
The size of the Nikon J1 is deceiving – at first glance, it’s no bigger than most of the lower-tier Coolpix P&S models that it displaces in the Nikon product family.
As befitting the consumer tier, the Nikon J1 comes in a variety of colors – our evaluation model came in metallic silver with matching two-tone 10-30mm and 30-100 mm zooms. Oddly, the telephoto had a lens hood, but the short zoom did not. There are dedicated hoods for all the native lenses except for the 10mm prime. The hoods can be reverse mounted for storage and both lenses have the latest Nikon “pinch-cap” versions for easy removal.
The J1 body is no larger in size than a typical compact P&S such as the Coolpix L22
Overall, the footprint occupied by the 1 Series and the two kit lenses is relatively small. It’s not the smallest ILC in the market, but it’s quite portable even in the two-kit form.
The 1 Series can best be described as “pocketable,” though you’d need a large coat pocket or a modest purse or bag. Nonetheless, when compared to the smallest Nikon DSLR currently in the market – a D3100 – you immediately get a sense of the J1’s possibilities as a “carry everywhere” unit. Note the DSLR is sporting one of the smallest lenses possible – a 50mm f1.8 prime. The J1 still retains the general advantage of a larger, albeit slower zoom.
The J1 with built-in flash deployed and the 30-110’s hood mounted.
The front is mostly utilitarian – a large lens release button, a mostly bare gripping area on the right side (which has handling implications) , a pair of microphone inputs above the lens mount, a white-light AF assist and an IR input window round out the left the side. While the lenses mount and dismount in the same direction as the F-mount, veteran Nikon users will be slightly put out by the need to align the lens using the large dash mounted at 12:00 rather than the more traditional 2:00 position.
The Nikon J1 next to its larger cousin the Nikon D3100 – the smaller camera is positively svelte.
The rear is dominated by the large 3” display rated at 460K dots resolution, so the output can be a bit course at times. A small switch on the upper left activates the pop-up flash, which is deployed on a rather long and spindly support arm. On the right rear, you’ll find all the controls clustered together – a dedicated Function button, a vertical toggle that doubles as a command dial and zoom, and four buttons – Display, Play, Delete and Menu surrounding a combination control circular dial and a centered OK button. Inside of the circle is the traditional four-way controller, which is marked for specific shortcuts such AE-L/AF-L, self-timer, flash mode and Exposure Compensation. To the right of the bottom plate is the combination hatch leading to the battery and SD/SDHC/SDXC compartment. The tripod mount is wisely aligned with the lens axis.
Overall, the feel of the camera is hefty, thanks to the mostly aluminum build, but a lot of the rear fascia is plastic. Nonetheless, there are no creaks and groans – everything is quite solid and well-assembled.
The rear view of the J1.
After a few minutes use, one of the gotchas of the 1 Series becomes apparent – it’s smooth yet striking industrial design exterior lacks any gripping areas for positive handholding. The more expensive V1 features a minimal vertical “bar” on the right front that acts a friction point for your forefingers, but the J1 is completely bare in this regard. Nikon sells a dedicated GR-N2000 add-on handle, but it’s hard to take seriously at almost USD70 street. Several third party grips have become available at half the cost, and seem to do a much better job. The rear is a bit tight on grip space as well, as there is a small padded area available for your thumb right next to the mode dial, but should have been placed just a little bit higher for more optimal fit. Your other hand will likely be occupied supporting under the bottom plate and the mounted manual zoom lens. That’s not to say you can’t do the “one-hand” shooting style with this camera; it’s just that you won’t be doing it that often.
The kit lenses accompanying the camera are very light but well-built. Each lens is dominated by a wide rubberized manual zoom ring. There are marked detent positions for specific focal lengths, but there is no manual focus – that’s done in-camera. Nikon created a new Stepping Drive Motor for the CX mount, and it’s quite silent – very comparable to the full-ring motor Silent Wave on the F-mount. While the lenses have Vibration Reduction, there are no external controls – it’s all controlled in the camera by accessing a specific menu. Interestingly, there are no options to turn off VR, it’s on by default. Finally, each lens has a large button on the zoom ring – the zooms must be released from their most compact carry position in order to work correctly. By doing so, the camera also automatically powers up. The reverse is not true – collapsing the lenses back to carry position is simply that. You’ll have to power down manually using the ON/OFF switch.
Despite not having a dedicated EVF, the J1’s rear display was more than adequate to the task when composing, viewing and manipulating the camera. The display did not wash out easily, exhibited sharp and vibrant images, and had a very generous viewing angle. However the display is a drain on your battery life. With a CIPA rating of about 230 shots, the enthusiast user is going to need, not want, a second battery for maximum shoot time in the field.
The lenses zoom rather smoothly, and there are no hitches or rough spots encountered. The hood on the telezoom is effective, and serves as secondary protection. Both lenses were easy to mount and dis-mount; the small size and weight complemented the Nikon J1 quite nicely; it was difficult to tell at times which lens was on from a visual inspection – they’re that small and unobtrusive.
The camera’s dearth of external controls has been the subject of much discussion since the 1 Series debuted. In particular, the lack of a true Function button, which could be reassigned to an often manipulated control such as ISO or White Balance, as well as an equivalent “Recent Settings” menu, would go a long way to addressing some of the concerns. In addition, the inability to disable Auto-Review of the last taken image does hamper the “flow” of shooting photos in the field. It remains to be seen if Nikon will address those changes in a future firmware revision.
In a single word – excellent. With some caveats covered below.
Let’s talk about the focus capability first. There is no menu or external control to invoke Phase-Detect versus Contrast-Detect. The camera evaluates the ambient light values in the frame and decides accordingly. That “threshold” is difficult to quantify in a field-review, but you can easily tell when you’re in PD – especially if you chose Auto-Area AF – the rectangles light up and subjects immediately jump into focus – no hesitation. In fact, it felt very much like the Nikon D3100’s AutoArea AF performance. That’s not to say you’ll be replacing your D3 with this camera anytime soon – but the claim of DSLR-like focus performance is true. As light levels drop, the camera will switch to more traditional CD, which has the familiar one-step “stutter” at the end of the focusing operation to confirm the subject lock. Nikon’s implementation of PD directly on-sensor is a promising innovation, and hopefully will be seen in future offerings from other makers as well.
The PD is nicely complemented by a 73-point AF system – providing effective and wide coverage of the viewfinder area. You’ll be hard pressed to find a section not covered by an AF point. The CD gives you even more, with a 135-point coverage pattern. The subject really needs to have contrast under the AF point to optimize the lock-on, but overall the experience is like no other – I had the opportunity to let several other enthusiast and commercial shooters try out the camera briefly during a day-long road trip – they were all quite impressed and noted how the AF system made the camera feel very responsive for casual shooting.
On the image quality side, the Nikon J1 does not disappoint. Shots of the Provincetown harbor and other Cape Cod landmarks, in both rain and blue sky all reflect the color, contrast and sharpness typical of Nikon products and image processing. The Providence skyline exhibited good detail and excellent metering response, with no blowouts and good shadow detail.
Colorful boats in P-Town harbor following a brief rainstorm.
Nauset Light shrouded in a fast-moving storm front.
Elevated perspective of the East Side, Providence R.I.
As a compact camera, the Nikon J1 shines in terms of portability and convenience. With two zooms covering the most common focal lengths of 27-300mm and exhibiting a very low-profile, it was easy to pull the camera in and out of a jacket pocket for grab shots or to quickly swap lenses. From the forest pines of Rayce Point to the narrow alleys and beachfronts of Provincetown, it was easy to carry and yet the camera delivered some amazing wide-angles, zoom shots and close-ups. (Some samples thanks to Thomas P. Sisto)
Telephoto shot at 110mm max zoom (300mm equiv.)
On the trail with fellow shutterbugs!
Fungus close-ups from the forest floor.
Monuments in the mist…
Some “found” artwork patterns in a back alley…
One of the advantages of ILCs is the lack of a mirror box assembly. The slap of the mirror system degrades the stability of certain exposures close to the hand-held shutter speed “danger zone.” Without that mirror challenge, your ability to hand-hold inside the zone goes up accordingly. While some of these shots lack any artistic or inspirational value, the first two frames below were at 1/4th and 1/5th respectively. Without VR, these types of photos would be impossible to obtain. Again, it was easy to keep the Nikon J1 close at hand and keep an eye out for near-dusk and after-dark compositions.
The beach at low tide…
Low light Example 1
Low light Example 2
The “Superman Building” near Kennedy Plaza
Indoors, the camera’s limiting factor is based upon the CX lenses available now. The 10mm f2.8 pancake prime is a good start, but really isn’t that fast when talking about ambient light photography. In addition, the relatively low 1/60th flash synch ceiling imposes further challenges to action-freezing. The optional FT-1 adapter opens up options by allowing access to a bigger range of F-mount lenses, but the 2.7x crop factor effectively turns even a normal 50mm f1.8 into a mid-tele 135mm. That’s great for portrait and stand-off shooters, not so good for those who prefer to get in close and wide. Despite those factors, the J1 didn’t do too badly in a typically fluorescent-lit karate studio or a restaurant interior with the slow zooms. The noise is noticeable but not objectionable, and with some NR post-process, the images can be cleaned up for reasonable size reproductions, web use or conversion to B&W.
The Providence Statehouse at dusk
Karate studio work using the 30-110
Waiting for my breakfast!
So what are the downsides?
As a first-generation product, the Nikon 1 Series does deliver on innovations such as PD on-sensor, as well as living up to the image quality one expects from the brand. However, it’s not that simple a proposition. Based on the design and features, the target audience is clearly the average compact P&S owner wanting to move up-tier, gaining more capability and access to interchangeable lenses. In that regard, the camera is a clear success. The tougher proposition is for the enthusiast - such as readers of SeriousCompacts.com. That market segment is not going to be fully satisfied by the current iteration of the 1 Series. The Nikon V1 would appeal more to the enthusiast crowd because of the integral EVF, but both models are constrained by a dearth of manual controls and limited lens system choices.
That being said, this author and other photographers who had the opportunity to use the camera over the course of the evaluation all agree that if your type of photography lets you select a particular shooting mode and metering choice; the camera doesn’t get in the way. In fact, it was a liberating experience to just pay attention to the more artistic aspects of taking photos – the timing, the framing, the composition, etc. – the J1 took care of everything else. The PD AF system facilitated making the camera feel very responsive from shot-to-shot. But if you are a “fiddler” or enjoy complete and convenient access to all your camera’s controls, well, it’s going to be a tough sell.
The relative lack of choices in lenses is simply a matter of time. Nikon will continue to iterate new CX mount optics, but the historic track record of times between releases doesn’t point to a quick rollout. Despite Nikon’s fine reputation for TTL flash, the onboard unit of the J1 doesn’t tie back into the larger CLS wireless system used by the DSLR product family. It’s a simple flash, period.
Finally, there’s the price. At the USD599 starting point, the Nikon J1 starts to bump up against the established lines at Olympus, Panasonic and Sony. The other manufacturers, by virtue of a head-start, enjoy advantages in price tiering, completeness of systems (i.e., lenses and accessory choices) and market penetration. At USD499, this could be a better seller.
As part of Nikon’s opening shot to the ILC market, the Nikon J1 delivers on capability and performance. The Hybrid AF system really works, and the camera itself continues to live up to the manufacturer’s well-earned reputation as a leading provider of imaging technology.
For compact users who are interested in moving up to a faster, higher performing camera and the potential of a larger imaging system (lenses and accessories); the J1 will satisfy. For enthusiast users, well, the only thing this author can recommend is to get down to a retail store and handle it for yourself. You may or may not find the dearth of controls to be inhibiting.
From a cost perspective, this is where the rubber hits the road. The J1 is a first-generation model, and as such, early technology adopters have always paid a price – whether it was limited functionality, higher acquisition cost or both – to be first in line. With that philosophy, The Nikon 1 Series is priced accordingly – certainly not sky-high outrageous, but definitely not aiming to take market share based on competitive pricing. As such, buyers in general need to take a good hard look at the state of the market. The upside is that you’ll own one of the fastest and certainly one of the most innovative cameras today. The challenges will be to wait out the inevitable delay as more lenses and accessories become available, and seeing if changes in handling will occur through a firmware update. Overall, it’s a mixed recommendation – the Nikon J1 is great camera, but you’ll be paying a premium to have one.
A full gallery of Nikon J1 Sample Photos is available here: Nikon 1 J1 Samples - SeriousCompacts.com Gallery
Armando J. Heredia is an amateur photographer living in scenic New England on the US East Coast. He is a new reviewer to SeriousCompacts.com as well as Chief News Editor and moderator at Nikonians.org. When he’s not chasing after the next photo or story, Armando works in the Financial Services industry and spends time with his loving family and a menagerie of pets. -Amin
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March 5th, 2012, 11:41 PM
thank you for the insightful review. I played with J1 at my local pusher...er store and it did perform, fast fast AF!
Lovely sample imagery in this review BTW
March 6th, 2012, 02:35 AM
What a most excellent post! Thank you! I have been suggesting to a friend that he consider the Nikon as his go anywhere cam, I'll point him at this.
I absolutely love your Cape shots, not the least because they bring back memories... the first, of the Ptown harbour, is just lovely. Printable and hangable.
March 6th, 2012, 04:03 AM
By coincidence, I was approached by a 'nikon lady' in a branch of the UK's premier department store at the weekend. She had a shocking pink 'J1' around her neck which, for some strange reason, she assumed I might like but I quickly put her straight on that! I spent a few minutes discussing cameras with her and pointed out that the 'V1' is a superbly designed camera which handles nicely, is unobtrusive, and 'designed' rather than styled like most of the others,...however, it is shot in it's foot by tiny sensor and MASSIVE over price being a staggering £700 here in the UK....If I have my rate of exchange right thats about TWICE the US price!!
I pointed out to her that, were nikon to make a similar camera with APS-C sensor and sensible (read; competitive) price then thye would have a showstopper on their hands. I, for one, would/will immediately change from my Sony NEX,...but as things stand why pay more for an inferior system in the same size package? I should add that the 'V1' is better designed and nicer in the hand than Sony NEX models but my minumum requirement is the APS-C sensor with 20x16 inch prints without any 'texture'...which my NEX 3 is well able to do.
........I don't really 'get it',....don't nikon do any market survey analysis?...or even take a look at what Sony is making?
Last edited by Bugleone; March 6th, 2012 at 04:11 AM.
March 6th, 2012, 05:35 AM
Very nice review and excellent images.
As to the early adopters, I had a high tech client who once said, "The thing about pioneers is, they're the ones that take the arrows . . ."
March 6th, 2012, 08:12 AM
Armando, thank you so much for your thoughtful and balanced review and welcome aboard!
March 6th, 2012, 11:42 AM
Armando, a well written and enjoyable review! I still enjoy my V1. I added the grip, which makes a difference for my large hands, and I'm experimenting with the flash. A great, all-around camera system.
March 6th, 2012, 06:14 PM
Thank you everyone for the warm welcome and kind comments. I hope to be able to review the V1 perhaps in the near future if there is interest.
March 10th, 2012, 07:44 PM
I would like to see a V1 review. Please let me know if I can help with equipment.
March 16th, 2012, 11:48 AM
Very nice review. The images are also excellent.
Olympus E-PM1, E-PL5, and XZ-1; Pentax Q
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