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Nikon J1 Overview

by Mike Tomkins, Shawn Barnett, and Zig Weidelich

Hands-on Preview: September 21, 2011
Full Review: November 18, 2011

Nikon faithful, your wait is over! In September 2011, Nikon officially stepped into the ring to offer up its first compact system cameras, leaving long-time rival Canon as the only major, current maker of interchangeable-lens cameras not to offer a mirrorless model. The simultaneously-announced Nikon J1 and V1 system cameras--which comprise the initial entries in what the company is calling the Nikon 1 System--together debut a brand-new lens mount, a new sensor and hybrid autofocus system, and another generation of the company's EXPEED image processing engine.

With its entry into the compact system camera market, Nikon has assumed the middle-ground between its rivals in the mirrorless space. The Nikon 1 System cameras aren't quite as small as the tiny Pentax Q, but compared to that camera they offer a significant step upwards in sensor size and shooting performance. Nikon's other main system camera competitors fall into two camps, with Olympus and Panasonic together offering a variety of Micro Four Thirds cameras, while Samsung and Sony each have mirrorless models based on the same APS-C sensor size that dominates the digital SLR market. Compared to these cameras, Nikon's new offerings have a rather more modest sensor size, but they're also just a little smaller.

Of course, as well as providing a possible benefit to the customer in terms of camera and lens size and weight, the choice of a smaller sensor than many of its rivals likely gives Nikon an edge in terms of cost, and also helps the company avoid cannibalizing lucrative sales of its SLR cameras.

Of the two Nikon 1 System cameras, the Nikon J1 is the more compact and affordable model, forgoing features such as an electronic viewfinder, mechanical shutter, stereo microphone jack, or accessory port, and featuring a lower-resolution LCD panel. In a tip of the hat to a consumer audience, the J1 includes one feature absent from its enthusiast sibling, however: a built-in popup flash strobe. It's this camera which we'll be discussing in this review; information on its higher-end sibling can be found in our Nikon V1 preview.

Look and feel. Quite minimalist in its design, the Nikon J1 looks very much like a point and shoot pocket camera with a larger lens mounted. Its thickness appears to be less than it is, thanks to the black plastic used on the back of the body. On the sample I have the white portion makes the camera seem very slim indeed. This is employed by many camera makers of late, using tapers or body colors to change the apparent size of a camera. I think it's well executed in the Nikon J1.

Stereo microphones grace the left and right of the lens mount, and an AF-assist lamp and infrared remote port appear above and below the lens release button.

Another button that could be called a lens release button pops out from the side of the 10-30mm kit lens. You have to press this button and turn the barrel to the right to release the lens's pop-out mechanism before you can take a picture. This also powers on the camera (retracting it does not power the camera off, however). It works differently from Samsung and Olympus' retractable lenses: both of these lock in the usable position, but easily activate with a quick turn from their retracted position. The Nikon 10-30 locks closed and open, requiring a press for both actions.

From the top you can see the focal plane indicator, the rectangle that outlines the pop-up flash, the hole for a speaker, an LED status lamp, the rectangular power button, and the Shutter release and Record buttons. The design team also chose wide metal strap lugs, rather than D-rings, much to my satisfaction.

On the back there's a big 3-inch LCD with 460K-dots. It's nice enough that it seems like more. Above that is the flash pop-up slider, which releases the inverted-L shaped flash pop up rather comically. Right of that is the Feature button, marked with an F. It's not a programmable function button, unfortunately, but allows you to change just a few select features depending on the mode. Right of that is the Zoom toggle, which also serves to adjust shutter speed in Manual and Shutter priority modes, then shifts to controlling aperture in Aperture priority mode.

The Mode dial includes only four modes, including Movie, Still image, Smart Photo Selector, and Motion Snapshot. Display, Playback, Menu and Delete buttons surround the Multi-selector, which includes a rotating dial as well as four-way navigation buttons.

A textured thumbgrip rises toward the Mode dial, reducing the likelihood of accidental activation. HDMI and USB ports are found behind a tab-hinged plastic door on the right of the Nikon J1.

Optics. Nikon's new 1 System cameras debut a new mount dubbed the 1-mount, designed to accommodate a CX-format image sensor and the reduced backfocus distance of a mirrorless design. As noted, the Nikon J1 ships in three kits, all of which include a 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 stabilized zoom lens. This lens will yield 35mm-equivalent focal lengths ranging from 27 to 81mm.

Three other 1-mount lenses were announced alongside the Nikon J1: two stabilized zooms, and a pancake prime, all of which are already available. Starting with the prime, the NIKKOR 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens--which is available in a twin-lens kit along with the 10-30mm lens--offers a 27mm equivalent focal length, at a price of approximately US$250. For the zooms, the NIKKOR VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens--also available alongside the 10-30mm lens as a twin-lens kit--provides focal lengths from 81-297mm equivalents, and carries a pricetag of approximately US$250. (Both twin-lens kits are priced at around US$900, so there's effectively no savings over buying the lenses separately, at least in terms of list price.)

Finally, the second stabilized zoom is the NIKKOR VR 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 lens offers an even wider 27-270mm equivalent range, at a price of around US$750. This is Nikon's first power-zoom lens model, something that's come back into fashion of late, thanks to the rise of video capture in interchangeable-lens cameras. Mechanical zooms make it harder to adjust the focal length without shaking the camera during video capture, where a power zoom can make it relatively easier to do so.

Pentax pioneered interchangeable power zoom lenses in the film days, but they never caught on, perhaps due to a lack of a clear need or advantage for the technology in cameras devoted solely to still imaging. Shortly before Nikon revealed the 1-series product line, Panasonic announced a selection of power zoom lenses for its mirrorless cameras, and Nikon has become the second system camera manufacturer to identify (and answer) videographers' needs in this area.

In addition to the dedicated 1-mount optics, a Nikon FT-1 F-mount adaptor is to be offered for the J1, allowing the camera to accept F-mount lenses. The FT-1 adaptor features a tripod mount on its base, protecting the 1-mount from supporting the weight of heavier F-mount lenses, and includes support for autofocus when using AF-S NIKKOR lenses. Vibration reduction is also supported with VR lenses. Suggested retail price of the FT-1 adaptor is US$270.

Sensor. The Nikon J1 is based around a new CX-format image sensor with an effective resolution of 10.1 megapixels, the same chip that's also featured in the higher-end Nikon V1 model. Nikon says that it developed the sensor in-house, while a teardown of the Nikon V1 by reverse-engineering firm Chipworks suggests that fabrication is handled by Aptina Imaging. The sensor has a 2.7x focal length crop, for a diagonal of approximately 16mm. That equates to what's known as a 1"-type chip, using the arcane video camera tube size system typically referred to in compact camera spec sheets, although it actually has somewhere in the region of a 0.62-inch diagonal.

It's quite a lot larger than the 1/2.3"-type chip selected for Pentax's Q mount, which has a diagonal of just 7.7mm (0.3 inches), and a 5.6x focal length crop. By contrast, though, the Micro Four Thirds and APS-C compact system cameras from competitors such as Olympus, Panasonic, Sony, and Samsung all have significantly larger sensors. Micro Four Thirds chips have a 21.6mm (0.85 inch) diagonal and a 2.0x crop, while APS-C models have a diagonal of slightly over 28mm (1.1 inches), and a crop in the region of 1.5x.

Unlike the Nikon V1, which vibrates its sensor's low-pass filter to remove dust each time the camera is turned on or off, the J1 has no active dust reduction system, relying instead on a fixed glass dust shield in front of the sensor.

Processor. Nikon couples its new CX-format imager with a new generation of its EXPEED image processing engine. The Nikon J1 features a dual-core EXPEED 3 processor, which is said to have been optimized for noise performance, speed (in terms of general operation, burst rate, and focusing), as well as battery life.

Sensitivity. The standard ISO-equivalent sensitivity range for the Nikon J1 is ISO 100 to 3,200, and a Hi-1 position allows this to be extended to a maximum of ISO 6,400 equivalent.

Performance. Burst shooting is possible at a full ten frames per second with autofocus enabled, extremely swift by compact system camera standards. While Sony's NEX-7 can manage the same rate, it does so only with the focus and exposure locked from the first frame. By contrast, if focus is locked from the first frame in the Nikon J1, it's capable of a whopping 60 frames per second. At maximum resolution, buffer depth is rated at 19 frames in raw+JPEG Fine mode or raw mode, and 28 frames in JPEG fine mode.

Autofocus. As you can tell from the burst shooting speed possible with autofocus active, the Nikon J1's AF system is swift indeed. The speed of the AF system comes thanks to the fact that, unlike competing mirrorless cameras which rely solely on contrast detection to determine focus, the Nikon J1 has a hybrid system that combines both phase-detection and contrast-detection capability. The operating mode is chosen automatically as appropriate to the shooting conditions, and a generous array of 73 phase detection AF points are available.

Since there's no way to hook a separate autofocus sensor into the optical path in a mirrorless camera, Nikon has adopted a similar strategy to that used by Fujifilm in certain of its compact camera models last year. The phase detection autofocus points are placed on the image sensor itself, although it isn't currently clear how the focus points are spaced with regards to the surrounding photodiodes.

To help with focusing on nearby subjects in low ambient lighting conditions, the J1 includes an AF assist lamp.

LCD. One of the main differentiators between the Nikon J1 and its more-expensive sibling is the former's lack of an electronic viewfinder. Instead, the Nikon J1 offers only one choice on which to frame and review your photos and movies: a three-inch LCD panel. Total resolution of the J1's LCD is approximately 153,000 pixels, or 460,000 dots, with separate red, green and blue dots at each pixel location. (That's approximately half the total resolution of the V1's LCD panel, although still higher than that of many consumer cameras.)

Exposure. The Nikon J1 also lacks its sibling's mechanical shutter, instead relying solely on an electronic shutter. The fastest shutter speed available with the J1's electronic shutter is a swift 1/16,000 second. The biggest downside of the electronic-only shutter is to be found in its flash sync speed, which we'll come to in a moment.

Three metering modes are available in the J1: either matrix, center-weighted (4.5mm circle at the center of the frame), or spot (2mm circle at the selected focus area). A useful +/- 3.0 EV of exposure compensation is available, in 1/3 EV steps.

Flash. Another significant difference between the Nikon J1 and its enthusiast-friendly sibling is to be found in their provision for flash. Perhaps surprisingly, given that it's the smaller of the pair, the J1 includes a built-in flash strobe, something absent from the V1. (With that said, Nikon is targeting the J1 at consumer, who tend to be more forgiving of popup flash strobes' shortcomings in terms of output power, so the addition is maybe not so surprising as it might first seem.)

The Nikon J1's internal flash strobe has a guide number of 5 meters (16 feet) at ISO 100, making it around 43% less powerful than the external flash offered for its sibling. Thanks to the lack of a physical shutter assembly, X-sync is only 1/60 second. (The V1, by contrast, is capable of 1/250th second X-sync, when using its physical shutter mechanism.) Flash exposures use i-TTL metering, and unlike in the V1, manual exposure control is not possible. There is a flash exposure compensation range of -3 to +1 EV, set independently from the overall exposure, however.

The Nikon J1 lacks any provision for external or bounce flash.

Accessories. Since it lacks the Multi-Accessory Port found on its sibling, the Nikon J1 can't accept any accessories which use this feature. As well as being unable to accept the SB-N5 external strobe, this means the J1 also can't use the V1's optional GP-N100 GPS unit.

The Nikon J1 is, however, still compatible with Nikon's optional ML-L3 infrared remote control unit, several different AC adapter models, and the TA-N100 tripod adapter (which increases separation between the lens mount and tripod plate).

Full HD. 1,920 x 1,080 60i movie with stereo audio. Click image to view on Vimeo. Visit the Nikon J1 Video page for more details and samples.

Movies. As well as still imaging, the Nikon J1 also offers high-definition Full HD movie capture capability. The J1 can record at up to 1080p resolution (1,920 x 1,080 pixels), with a rate of either 30 progressive-scan frames per second or 60 interlaced fields per second, derived from 60 frames-per-second sensor output. MPEG-4 / H.264 AVC compression is used, and the J1 can also shoot 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) clips at 60 frames per second. Autofocus is possible during video capture, and is pretty-much silent with all three kit lenses. That's great news, because unlike its more-expensive sibling, the Nikon J1 cannot accept an external microphone; instead audio is captured solely with its internal stereo mic. Surprisingly, though, it does offer manual audio levels control. It also offers the ability to shoot high-res 8.3 megapixel, 16:9 aspect stills during video capture, without any interruption to the video feed.

Unlike some competitors, the Nikon J1 doesn't offer standard-definition movie capture at typical shooting rates. However, if the resolution is dropped to 640 x 240 pixels, the recording rate can be increased to 400 frames per second, which plays back at 30 frames per second to slow the action down by a little over 13x. At 320 x 120 pixel resolution, the recording rate increases still further to 1,200 frames per second, for a 40x slo-mo. The maximum capture length in either slow-motion mode is five seconds, for a maximum clip length of 66 seconds at 640 x 240 resolution, or 200 seconds at 320 x 120.

There's also an unusual Motion Snapshot mode, which creates a brief slow-motion clip in high definition, and follows the clip with a still frame from the action, all automatically set to a built-in music selection. The clip starts buffering when the shutter button is half-pressed in the Motion Snapshot mode, with buffering continuing for as long as 90 seconds. When the shutter button is fully pressed, the still frame is captured, and the J1 saves one-second of video from immediately before the moment of capture, slowed down to 40% of real time. The video file is saved in slow motion, and without audio, as a separate file from the JPEG still image frame that was captured at the moment the shutter button was fully pressed. When reviewed in-camera, though, they're played in sequence, with a musical accompaniment continuing throughout. Four background music choices are available: Beauty, Waves, Relaxation, and Tenderness.

Another even more unusual feature of the J1's movie mode is the ability to set the camera to automatically bookend videos with fades to and from either a black or white background.

Power. The Nikon J1 draws power from a proprietary EN-EL20 lithium ion battery pack. Nikon rates battery life to CIPA testing standards at around 230 shots with 50% flash usage, significantly less than the V1's 350-shot life when using its optional external flash strobe. Nikon also rates the J1 as capable of 70 minutes of 1080i video capture on a charge, a full 50 minutes less than the V1. An MH-27 wall charger is included in the product bundle.

The J1 can also receive power from the Nikon EH-5, EH-5a, or EH-5b AC adapters courtesy of the EP-5C power connector, which uses a dummy battery to mate the adapter to the camera.

Storage. Given its impressive burst speed, the Nikon J1 benefits from use of a really fast flash card. It supports Secure Digital cards, including not only the higher-capacity SDHC and SDXC types, but also the latest high-speed UHS-I cards. Nikon recommends use of at least a Class 6 card during movie capture.

Images are stored in either 12-bit NEF raw or JPEG compressed formats, and both types can be written simultaneously. Movies are saved using H.264 / MPEG-4 AVC compression, in a .MOV container, and include AAC audio.

Connectivity. The Nikon J1 includes both USB 2.0 High Speed data connectivity, and a high-definition video output, but lacks its sibling's standard-def output. The high-def output requires an optional HDMI cable with Type-C mini connector.

Nikon J1 Shooter's Report

by Shawn Barnett

Both before and after the announcement of the mirrorless Nikon 1 camera system, the main complaint from enthusiasts has been about the new camera's sensor size. A few fellow journalists present at the late-night launch event had to ask, "Why?! Why use a smaller sensor when the goal of mirrorless is to get the best quality at the smallest size?" It's a good question. The answer, of course, is to achieve smaller optics as well as smaller camera bodies. As small as other CSC makers have made their bodies, they're somewhat limited in how small they can make their lenses and achieve the same focal lengths.

But that's not the question I have about the Nikon 1. My question is whether the small consumer market in the US for compact system cameras can support yet another incompatible system. I think it's established that the Japanese market has enthusiastically embraced compact system cameras (as have I), but I was disappointed to hear that Nikon had tuned the J1 in particular to appeal to the consumer market. I think the more successful model for any new camera platform is to appeal to the enthusiasts first, who will help you build a base market, then gradually take on the consumers. Current US shoppers figure if they're going to spend $600-900 for a quality camera, they're going to go for the big SLR. And most who want one have already purchased an SLR, so I think adoption of CSCs will continue to lag. But it won't be for lack of effort, particularly from Panasonic with the GF1, Olympus with the E-PM1, and now Nikon with the J1.

With that preliminary analysis behind, I have to confess, I found the Nikon J1 a kick to use. What's more, my 13-year-old daughter took to the little white camera instantly, a fact that could easily turn all analysts on their pointy heads.

Setting out with the Nikon J1, I was disappointed to have to bring along a tripod, but too often I've been irritated with inconsistent framing when I do ISO comparison shots, so I knew I had to have it. But the Nikon J1 is so small, I really wanted to see what I could do to grab surreptitious shots of the various folks milling about Times Square, even at 3:00 am. Instead I was rather conspicuous with my mid-size Manfrotto, but I think it might have served as a deterrent to some of those who seemed to want to accost me at that time of night, so it was probably good all the same.

At the ready. How often do you see this many uniforms in one spot? I was happy I had a camera to capture a few shots of these officers getting ready for the arrival of the POTUS.

Imaging-Resource.com readers know that I'm excited about this category of camera. Though I still use and appreciate SLRs, I want a small camera with good quality optics that I can have with me everywhere. Pocket cameras like the Canon S95, and larger ones like the Nikon P7100 serve the need well enough, but interchangeable lens cameras like the Olympus Pens have taken their place in my life when I'm not using an SLR.

Streetcam. It's small and inconspicuous, so the Nikon J1 makes a good, stealthy street camera.

It's not just portability, but also anonymity that a smaller CSC offers. Though I had a biggish tripod, I didn't stand out as badly as people do when they're holding a 1Ds Mark III with a white lens mounted. As I walked around, nobody shied away from me or thought of me at all. I was just another person taking pictures in one of the most-photographed parts of the world. As I was leaving Times Square that morning, I purposely passed a couple of women having their picture taken, and with the 10mm pancake attached, I stopped momentarily to grab a shot. It probably happens every few seconds in this square during the day, but being there so late I got the shot with fewer people in attendance.

30-110mm. The 1Nikkor telephoto zoom is smaller than Panasonic's normal MFT zoom, but reaches from 81-297mm equivalent.

I'm not a frequent street photographer, but I really had fun playing one for the day. Humans at work and play are my favorite subjects, so any large city sends my photographic eye into overdrive. Living in a semi-rural area, I seldom get to stretch these muscles, but I was having fun. I didn't explore either of the Nikon J1's new Mode dial settings, instead keeping to Program and semi-auto modes. It's a pity Nikon chose to leave PASM off the Mode dial, but most of us enthusiasts who want to use pocket cameras for creative shooting are used to having to bend a little. It's as easy as pressing the Menu button and rapidly navigating to the Exposure mode menu item. The menu is fast, very responsive despite its animation, and it remains where you were last, so if you're cycling through ISO settings, it's easy enough to get back in there and make a change.

Fashion cam. I'd been trying to get a shot of the black Nikon J1 in good light, when I noticed the ballerina in the background and switched to the pink for effect. The J1 underexposed this shot, but there was plenty of info there to fix it.

When in Manual mode, Playback's Zoom toggle transforms into the shutter speed lever, and the Multi-controller's dial serves as the aperture control, perhaps its best function. In Aperture priority mode, the dial does nothing, and aperture is adjusted with the zoom toggle. Another unfortunate surprise is the lack of exposure preview when making settings in Manual mode. Setting Exposure compensation does preview the exposure, however, so there's hope they can add Manual exposure preview with a firmware update.

The 10-30mm lens was just about right for most street shooting, ranging from 27-81mm. While at first it was a little stiff, with just a small amount of use, the zoom mechanism was smooth; not posh, mind you, but good. Autofocus in good light is indeed very quick. I'm intrigued with the Nikon 1's 73-point phase-detect AF system, and I'm still hoping to learn more about how it works; for now, though, Nikon is hush-hush about the technology.

The lenses have no manual focus ring, sadly, another downside for the enthusiast. You can set Manual focus by selecting it in the Menu, then pressing the OK button to enter Manual focus mode. Focus is adjusted via the rear dial. The view zooms, but it's very difficult to tell when focus is achieved, despite the higher-resolution screen.

Zoom. Taken at 297mm equivalent, this shot has some grain to it at ISO 400, but it looks very film-like. There's slight flare coming off the top of his orange hat.

The 1 Nikkor long telephoto is also compressible, getting down to quite a small package. The lens lock on both lenses takes a little getting used to, but I got the hang of it in just a few minutes. Ranging from 81-297mm, the 1 Nikkor 30-110mm lens offers an impressive zoom range for its size.

Interface. I already said that I'm not crazy about the Mode dial having only four items, only two of which I'm likely to use, but I do like the Nikon J1's menu system. It has only three main categories: Playback, Camera, and Settings. Navigation is fast, left and right arrows move between levels, and up and down arrows scroll through choices. Using the rear dial is even faster, ripping quickly to exactly the right control.

Movie mode. Though the top deck has a Record button, Movie recording is only available in Movie mode. On the other hand, high-resolution 16:9 stills can be recorded while you're shooting video. The stills are saved separately, and not integrated into the video, as you'll often see on Canon cameras with this ability.

As we've already said, the J1 can record at up to 1080p (1,920 x 1,080 pixels), with a rate of either 30 progressive-scan frames per second or 60 interlaced fields per second, derived from 60 frames-per-second sensor output. This mode uses MPEG-4 / H.264 AVC compression. 720p (1,280 x 720 pixel) movies can also be recorded at 60fps. The J1 is limited to its built-in stereo mics, so budding videographers should stick to the Nikon V1.

Two slow-mo video modes are available, too, one at 640 x 240 pixels and 400 frames per second, which slows the action by about 13x. At 320 x 120 you get 1,200 frames per second, playing back at 40x super slo-mo.

Motion Snapshot. Nikon made a lot of their Motion Snapshot mode, which captures a small snippet of video before capturing a full-res still image. After capture, you press the F button to set the combo to music. Choices are Beauty, Waves, Relaxation, and Tenderness. In Playback mode, pressing the OK button plays back first the video, then the still as the music plays the background. I'll be brutally honest. I don't get it. Someone will, though, and get good at capturing Motion Snapshots for some art show that requires monitors and projectors, making them millions. More power to them. I'd have rather had PASM on the dial. Gray the letters out or make them accessible with a key, I don't care, but make them available on the dial to reduce menu digging. Other companies in this space, notably Panasonic and Olympus, have omitted the Mode dial to reduce camera size, but Nikon included it, they just didn't give it the modes one would want a dial for. Again, it's the camera's target market that determines so much of the Nikon J1 design, and it isn't photography enthusiasts. But even for consumers, I think both of these modes would do better buried in a Scene menu.

Smart Photo Selector. The other apparently Mode-dial-worthy mode is Smart Photo Selector, giving it a place on the Mode dial, a child of the long-standing Best Shot Selector from Coolpixes gone by. This one fires off up to 20 shots and looks for blur and poor composition, then whittles down the shots for you from 20 to five. Then you get to choose the final picture, or else keep all five. At the launch event, I was told that Smart Photo Selector also accounted for subjects blinking, but that's not mentioned in the user manual, and doesn't seem to be the case based on photos selected as being the 'best' by the camera. It did seem to do a reasonable job of choosing the least blurry images, though, and that in itself is probably enough to make it a useful function for many consumers.

Scene mode. Though I say that the above modes would be better buried in the Scene menu, it turns out that the Scene menu doesn't exist on the Nikon J1. Someone's finally recognized that people seldom use Scene modes, so all they included on the J1 was Scene auto selector. Select it, and you just depend on the camera to know when you're photographing a red sunset and not an Irish Setter.

Missing. Some of the more recent digital photography innovations are completely absent from the Nikon J1; things like sweep panorama, handheld multi-shot, and HDR modes. It's as if the feature list was established two years ago and these were left out because they weren't part of the standard set of expectations.

Silence. One final intriguing element to the Nikon J1 for stealth photography is its lack of physical shutter curtains. It's all electronic. Sony's latest cameras have the option of an electronic first curtain, but finish the exposure with a real shutter. The Nikon V1, introduced at the same time, has physical shutters, but not the J1. That means you can turn off the artificial shutter and AF confirmation sounds and shoot in complete silence. It's pretty cool. The only disadvantage to this shutterless design is that flash sync speed is limited to 1/60 second, while the Nikon V1 can reach 1/250 second.

Overall, I really enjoyed shooting the Nikon J1. I'm not convinced that Nikon targeted the right market with the Nikon 1 series overall, but the J1 serves the consumer market it seeks. If that market exists in the US, the Nikon J1 is sure to find it.

 

Nikon J1 Comparisons

Nikon J1 versus Olympus E-PM1

Nikon J1 vs Olympus E-PM1 Front
Nikon J1 vs Olympus E-PM1 Top
Nikon J1 vs Olympus E-PM1 Top Extended
Nikon J1 vs Olympus E-PM1 Back
Our first and most obvious comparison is to the Olympus E-PM1, the latest and smallest Micro Four Thirds camera. It's clear the Nikon J1 is smaller than the E-PM1, but really not by much. The Olympus for its slightly larger body offers a full standard hot shoe and a slightly more solid feel. The Olympus comes with a small detachable flash, not shown, but has no pop-up flash. Controls are similar, except there's no mode dial on the Olympus, which instead relies on onscreen controls used in conjunction with the multi controller. Note also the slightly more compact retractable lens, making the Nikon J1 that much more pocketable; to some the tradeoff in sensor size might not be worth the few millimeters gained, for others it'll be just right.


Nikon J1 versus Panasonic GF3

Nikon J1 vs Panasonic GF3 Front
Nikon J1 vs Panasonic GF3 Top
Nikon J1 vs Panasonic GF3 Back
Another comparison worth making is with the Panasonic GF3, which is a little taller thanks to its hump, which contains a flash, and a little thicker, but not by much with its 14mm pancake lens (equivalent to 28mm), while the Nikon J1's 10mm lens is equivalent to a 27mm lens. Neither lens has image stabilization in their pancakes, but both companies employ optical stabilization in most of their zoom lenses. The GF3 also has no mode dial, instead relying on a touchscreen.


Nikon J1 versus Pentax Q

Nikon J1 vs Pentax Q Front
Nikon J1 vs Pentax Q Top
Nikon J1 vs Pentax Q Back
For an example of a company that went for an even smaller sensor size, see the Pentax Q. It is indeed smaller than the Nikon J1. Despite its smaller size, its designers recognized that at least a percentage of its likely users would want quick access to PASM modes, as well as a full hot shoe. Because the Pentax Q uses sensor-shift image stabilization, even its tiny "Standard Prime" is stabilized.


Nikon J1 Image Quality

by Shawn Barnett and Zig Weidelich

The crops below compare the Nikon J1 to a couple of premium Point & Shoots (the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000), as well as an entry-level DSLR (Nikon D3100), and a couple of Compact System Cameras (Olympus E-PM1 and Sony NEX-C3). Unfortunately, we don't have Pentax Q images yet. Though we normally start with ISO 1,600 here, we thought we'd start with base ISO to show the best that each camera can do.

Note that these images are best quality JPEGs straight out of the camera, at default settings including noise reduction. Each camera was shot with the sharpest lens on hand, though we have no reference lens for the Nikon 1 system yet, so we had to use the 1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR. The new lens seems to be quite good, with very good sharpness across the frame at 30mm. The point and shoot cameras we've included here obviously used their fixed lenses.

Nikon J1 versus Canon G12 at base ISO

Nikon J1 at ISO 100
Canon G12 ISO 80

Even with both at 10-megapixels, the Nikon J1's larger sensor leaves behind a little more chroma noise in the shadows, even at its base ISO 100 setting. We suspect this is how the Nikon J1 maintains such good detail as ISO rises, particularly evident in the printed results. The Canon G12 seems to have an edge, up until we reach the red leaf swatch, where the Nikon J1's better handling of red renders the leaves more distinctly, in keeping with the Nikon pattern of its SLRs. Still, the swatch is soft compared to Nikon SLRs at ISO 100.


Nikon J1 versus Nikon P7000 at base ISO

Nikon J1 at ISO 100
Nikon P7000 at ISO 100

Up against its cousin, the Nikon P7000, the Nikon J1 turns out a slightly smoother image, with less sharpening around the edges. The chroma noise in the shadows is still a problem, though. Interesting to see how well both cameras do with the red swatch, though they're still different.


Nikon J1 versus Nikon D3100 at base ISO

Nikon J1 at ISO 100
Nikon D3100 at ISO 100

Up against another family member, which we added primarily because Nikon's R&D General Manager said the J1 would be comparable to SLRs, the J1 is somewhat unfairly matched against the Nikon D3100. But considering the 4-million pixel difference, it doesn't do badly at ISO 100. Again, the J1 remains true to Nikon's signature processing, down to the detail in the red swatch. Both are also smoother, and a little softer compared to other cameras, most of which oversharpen where Nikons tend to render a more photo-like image at their default setting (to see what I mean, see the E-PM1 below).


Nikon J1 versus Olympus E-PM1 at base ISO

Nikon J1 at ISO 100
Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 200

Olympus's latest E-PM1 does better than the J1 in some areas; not so well in others. The top image shows more noise suppression in the shadows, which does scatter the chroma noise into larger color blobs that are harder to see, and there's strong evidence of sharpening halos around the orange swatch, the bottle, and the letters. The Mosaic image looks considerably crisper and more details (some of which is due to framing difference), thanks again to more aggressive sharpening. Though it seems like I'm critical of the E-PM1, I point it out more to illustrate what I mean by "more photo-like image," because the J1's treatment is more even-handed regardless of the subject detail. The final proof of that is found in the red-leaf swatch. While it renders the red leaves very soft, you can see more detail in the purple swatch beneath it, including several holes in the fabric that the J1 misses. The light red leaves above are also crisper, while the Nikon's rendering doesn't have as much detail as the best of the E-PM1, it all looks about even. As I mentioned earlier, this is more common among Nikon SLRs, a trait I quite admire.


Nikon J1 versus Sony NEX-C3 at base ISO

Nikon J1 at ISO 100
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 200

Those crying foul over the Nikon 1's smaller sensor will clap furiously over our inclusion of the NEX-C3. There's just more data here thanks to the 16-megapixel sensor. We'll see how they both do against each other as the ISO goes up.



Most decent cameras produce very good results at base ISO, so we like to see what they can do at higher settings. Recent advances in sensor technology have made ISO 1,600 look a lot more like ISO 100, but there are still cameras whose quality starts to fall apart at this setting. We also choose 1,600 because we like to be able to shoot at least at this level when indoors and at night.

Nikon J1 versus Canon G12 at ISO 1,600

Nikon J1 at ISO 1,600
Canon G12 ISO 1,600

Big changes begin to appear with the jump to ISO 1,600, a change we usually only show for SLRs and larger-sensor CSCs, but this is the arena the Nikon J1 has entered. Though it again leaves more chroma noise behind in the shadows, the Nikon J1 clearly does much better than the Canon G12 at ISO 1,600, with better detail everywhere.


Nikon J1 versus Nikon P7000 at ISO 1,600

Nikon J1 at ISO 1,600
Nikon P7000 at ISO 1,600

The Nikon J1 proves again that larger sensors are indeed better, as it also bests the Nikon P7000 in detail at ISO 1,600. This is as was expected, as I submit that the Nikon J1 is more a competitor to this family of cameras than to larger CSCs.


Nikon J1 versus Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600

Nikon J1 at ISO 1,600
Nikon D3100 at ISO 1,600

And then the Nikon D3100 comes in to prove that larger sensors are indeed better light gatherers in any given generation, as it offers more detail in every area.


Nikon J1 versus Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 1,600

Nikon J1 at ISO 1,600
Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 1,600

Here the Nikon J1 is also bested just a little in the detail department, but the E-PM1 does struggle here and there with blocky artifacts and continued sharpening halos. These print very well, though, so it's not a strike against the E-PM1. The Nikon J1 still does a little better with the red swatch.


Nikon J1 versus Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 1,600

Nikon J1 at ISO 1,600
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 1,600

Sony's NEX-C3 does better on detail than most contenders, still finding threads in the purple swatch at the bottom, something even the D3100 misses. Still, for the 10-megapixel resolution, the Nikon J1 doesn't do too badly.



Today's ISO 3,200 is yesterday's ISO 1,600 (well, almost), so below are the same crops at ISO 3,200.

Nikon J1 versus Canon G12 at ISO 3,200

Nikon J1 at ISO 3,200
Canon G12 ISO 3,200

The Nikon J1 holds detail much better than the Canon G12 at ISO 3,200. The images pretty well speak for themselves, with the G12 having trouble maintaining the boundary between the two red swatches. The Canon also renders colors much darker.


Nikon J1 versus Nikon P7000 at ISO 3,200

Nikon J1 at ISO 3,200
Nikon P7000 at ISO 3,200

Note also how the Nikon J1 retains detail in the beige mosaic pattern, considerably better than the Nikon P7000.


Nikon J1 versus Nikon D3100 at ISO 3,200

Nikon J1 at ISO 3,200
Nikon D3100 at ISO 3,200

With the exception of the red swatch, it is noteworthy that you could probably res up the Nikon J1's images and get something comparable to the Nikon D3100's image, at least in terms of mosaic data and even shadow detail. It's much closer than I expected.


Nikon J1 versus Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 3,200

Nikon J1 at ISO 3,200
Olympus E-PM1 at ISO 3,200

The Nikon J1 seems to be facing down this storm of noise much better than the Olympus E-PM1. While the E-PM1 is busy sharpening and killing noise, losing color in the process, the Nikon is still producing a comparatively even image. The E-PM1 maintains greater contrast, and renders the letters better, but it's surprising just how well the J1 does for its size.


Nikon J1 versus Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200

Nikon J1 at ISO 3,200
Sony NEX-C3 at ISO 3,200

The Sony NEX-C3 still shines even at ISO 3,200, maintaining more detail and truer color overall.



Detail: Nikon J1 vs. Canon G12, Nikon P7000, Nikon D3100, Olympus E-PM1, and Sony NEX-C3

N/A
Nikon
J1
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Canon
G12
ISO 80
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
P7000
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Nikon
D3100
ISO 100
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Olympus
E-PM1
ISO 200
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Sony
NEX-C3
ISO 200
ISO 3,200
ISO 6,400
Detail comparison. High-contrast details are often sharper as ISO rises, so they're worth a look as well. The Nikon J1 does exactly as you'd expect here, given the sensor size and resolution. Its larger sensor beats the G12 and P7000, gathering enough light to better render detail at ISO 3,200 and 6,400, then it loses to the larger sensors of higher resolutions, as expected. It's final proof that the Nikon 1 series is better compared to cameras like the Canon G12 than to other compact system cameras or SLRs.

 

Nikon J1 Print Quality

Print quality is an important measure for a camera like the Nikon J1, because pixel peeping onscreen doesn't tell the whole story. As a 10-megapixel camera, it's impressive that the Nikon J1 can output a 16x20-inch image at ISO 100. There's a little chroma noise in the shadows, as can be seen in the crops, but it's not bad. Reduction to 13x19 inches renders them negligible.

ISO 200 shots are usable at 16x20 inches, but print a little better at 13x19 inches. Chroma noise is visible only in the shadows on close inspection.

ISO 400 images also look quite good at 13x19 inches, and the appearance of chroma noise seems less than it was at ISO 200.

ISO 800 images are slightly soft in only a few areas at 13x19, mainly in red and shadow areas. Shadows appear blurry mostly due to noise suppression, but higher-contrast detail looks just fine. Reducing print size to 11x14 reduces this effect somewhat, but not completely.

ISO 1,600 shots are quite contrasty and oversaturated, and noise suppression has taken a toll on red detail, but they're easily usable at 11x14, and quite good at 8x10 inches.

ISO 3,200 images are also pretty good at 8x10, but you can see detail and nuance in solid colors disappear thanks to the increase in saturation. Higher contrast detail is good, though.

ISO 6,400 images print surprisingly well at 5x7, though they carry a slight yellow cast that wasn't as prominent at the other settings. Saturation is also quite pumped.

Note that these results are from printing JPEGs, and one could expect to get better quality from RAW images. It's a very good performance, an even-keeled descent in print size as ISO rises, a credit to Nikon's efforts with this new sensor.

 

In the Box

The Nikon J1 ships with the following items in the box:

 

Recommended Accessories

 

Nikon J1 Conclusion

Pro: Con:
  • Better image quality than one might expect given the sensor size
  • Good dynamic range in RAW files
  • Very small body relative to an SLR, and among the smallest CSCs
  • Smaller lenses than most CSCs
  • Reassuringly solid build quality, feels well-engineered
  • Nice 3-inch, 460k-dot LCD
  • Very good quality kit lens
  • Good color accuracy
  • Reliable exposure
  • Lightning fast AF with phase detect (unique for CSC)
  • Generous number of AF points
  • Very fast burst shooting with good buffer depths
  • Silent shutter
  • Generally snappy performance
  • Very capable Full HD video capture
  • Slow-motion movie modes are fun, albeit with very weird aspect ratio and low resolution
  • Simple, responsive menu system
  • Interval timer
  • Optional wireless remote
  • HDMI port
  • Not much smaller than APS-C and Micro Four Thirds system cameras
  • Noise performance not as good as some CSCs; some noise visible at base ISO
  • High ISO noise reduction can't be completely disabled, even in RAW files
  • Below-average battery life
  • No dust reduction
  • Lenses lack focus rings
  • Rather weak popup flash, no external or wireless flash
  • Flash won't fire at all if the camera thinks the subject is out of range
  • Very slow 1/60s flash sync due to electronic shutter
  • No viewfinder, even as an accessory
  • PASM modes don't get their own place on the sparsely-populated Mode dial
  • Feature button is confusing, makes it easy to forget how to switch drive or movie modes
  • No bracketing capability
  • Boxy design looks attractive, but isn't the most comfortable

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The Nikon J1's new sensor size was controversial even before it was announced, with most wondering why the company would produce a smaller sensor compact when the race is more toward greater quality at higher ISO. It's no secret that Micro Four Thirds cameras have struggled to compete with the high ISO image quality available from companies making mirrorless cameras with APS-C sized sensors. The new Nikon 1 sensor, though, is even smaller than the Four Thirds Sensor, so it's understandable that people would wonder. The practical answer is that the aim was smaller optics, a goal they achieved. Just as was the case with the Pentax Q, if you want to build smaller optics, you're stuck reducing sensor size. That doesn't diminish the concern about high ISO performance, but it explains why Nikon chose a smaller sensor. Major companies have to figure out how they'll differentiate themselves in the marketplace, and even the mighty Nikon would likely struggle to make a smaller set of lenses with an APS-C sensor, leaving them with lenses about as big and long as Sony's NEX system, for example. That's not bad, but it's not different. Nikon has thus differentiated its mirrorless line by reducing size and weight.

Still, as the comparison photos above show plainly, the Nikon J1 isn't that much smaller than its nearest rivals, and quite a bit larger than the Pentax Q. So while I assert that smaller optics and simple design was the main goal, ultimately competing with the Canon G12/Nikon P7000 in image quality, I also understand the complaints from journalists and enthusiasts alike. The bottom line is, when photographers think Nikon, they think high image and build quality, and photographer-centric design. So those in the know expected Nikon to come out swinging with a camera like the Nikon P7100, sized like a Sony NEX, and with interchangeable lenses; something built for true tinkerers, not snapshooters. Nikon went for tiny and simple. We'll see if the market exists for a tiny, simple, interchangeable lens camera in the coming months.

When compared to compact cameras like the Canon G12 and Nikon P7000, the J1 has significant advantages beyond just its image quality, although it does still lack a couple of points that would enamor it of enthusiasts. The absence of exposure bracketing or any provision for external flash are key examples of the latter, and experienced photographers may also find some user interface choices a little odd. For consumer photographers, though, the incredibly swift autofocus and very fast burst shooting are likely of greater importance, helping them to capture shots that they might otherwise miss, and the excellent video feature set makes a compelling case for leaving the camcorder at home altogether.

As one who doesn't mind using whatever camera I have to try to get the shot I want, I think a great many photographers will like the Nikon J1 just fine. Many of us have settled on simple pocket cameras for everywhere carry, and the Nikon J1 can be made to do just about everything most of us need in a pinch. The sensor size isn't much of an impediment, even if it's disappointing that they didn't go for larger. It delivers a good quality 16x20-inch image at ISO 100, and when boosted to its ISO 6,400 maximum still produces a good 5x7. Looking at the files at full size onscreen, it's clear that the Nikon J1's images are processed carefully, with even treatment of high and low-contrast detail, something we find particularly in Nikon SLRs. But make no mistake, the Nikon J1 isn't designed to compete with SLRs, nor with CSCs, except the most consumer-oriented, as its image quality shows.

If you're looking for an enthusiast system camera with the ultimate image quality, the Nikon J1's probably not for you, but for consumers looking to better compact camera image quality and performance, while gaining the versatility of interchangeable lenses, the Nikon J1 is right on target, and a worthy Dave's Pick.

 

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