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Nikon J3 Preview

by Mike Tomkins
Posted 01/07/2013

Nikon is serious about its 1-system compact system cameras; of that there can be no doubt. Want proof? You're looking at it. In an industry where product cycles are typically on the order of a year or so, the Nikon J3 marks the third generation of a design that first launched with the Nikon J1, just a little over 15 months earlier. Even more incredibly, the J2 -- the camera in whose footsteps the J3 is directly following -- was only revealed five months ago. That is a seriously quick development schedule, and the rate at which Nikon is turning out improvements to its designs shows just how keen the company is to succeed.

The Nikon J3, like its predecessors, has a very small body by mirrorless camera standards. It's been restyled a little since the J2, with the Mode dial moved to the top deck, directly behind the power button. (Sadly, it still doesn't offer PASM modes; accessing these requires a trip thru the menu system.) The two ports for the stereo microphone have also moved to the top deck. A few of the J2's features -- the receiver for the infrared remote control, playback zoom rocker, and the display / function buttons on the rear panel -- have been dropped from the new camera. The flash popup lever has also been removed, as the flash now has auto popup capability, although you can opt to raise it manually only if you prefer. Other external changes include a new thumb grip, different strap lugs, and a function change for the Up arrow button on the four-way controller in record mode. Previously this was used for AE / AF lock; now it serves to replace the dedicated Function button.

The J3's small body is achieved thanks to the use of a CX-format image sensor that's rather smaller than the APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensors in most mirrorless cameras. The chip itself is new since the J2, with a resolution of 14.2 megapixels, and is paired with an EXPEED 3A image processor. Both sensor and processor appeared previously in the Nikon V2, and with them they bring a number of improvements already seen in that camera.

Full-resolution burst performance is now a whopping 15 frames per second, just as in the V2, although the burst depth of 22 frames is only half that of the 1-series flagship. What's incredible is that this speed is achieved with autofocus active -- if you're willing to lock it, you can increase the full-res burst speed to as high as 60 fps, just as in the earlier cameras. (If you do so, the burst rate at 60 fps falls slightly to 20 frames.) Shutter lag is equally impressive, with Nikon claiming a release time of just 80 milliseconds.

As in previous 1-series models, this speed comes in large part thanks to a 73-point hybrid phase / contrast detection autofocus system, with phase detection pixels embedded in the main image sensor. As in the V2, sensitivity ranges from ISO 160 to 6,400 equivalents, a slightly narrower range at the bottom end than the ISO 100 offered by its predecessor.

On the rear panel of the Nikon J3 is a three-inch LCD panel, which serves as the sole method of framing and reviewing images and movies. (This is one of the main differentiators between the J-series models, and the flagship V2, which includes a built-in electronic viewfinder.) While the display itself is unchanged since the J2, Nikon says it has improved its menu navigation in the new camera.

Further changes can be found elsewhere in the Nikon J3's firmware. The unusual Motion Snapshot function -- which creates a brief slow-motion, high definition movie clip followed with a still frame from the action -- now records a longer initial video clip. The J3 also now offers a Slow View function, seen previously in the Nikon V2. This continuously buffers frames over a 1.3-second period while the shutter button is half-pressed. These images are then replayed in a continuous loop on the camera's display at one-fifth normal speed, letting you decide when is the best moment to hit the shutter button and save your final image. It's a clever use of the camera's speed, and a nice alternative to the existing Smart Photo Selector function, which captures a burst of twenty photos and then selects what the camera feels to be the best five. Other modes held over from earlier models include the Auto, Creative, and Easy Panorama modes. (Creative, incidentally, is where you'll need to go to access those Program, Priority, and Manual modes that still don't merit space on the mode dial.)

The Nikon J3's movie capabilities are basically ported over unchanged from the J2, with the exception of the slightly longer clip length for Motion Snapshot movies. It's possible to shoot movies at up to Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixel) resolution, with a frame rate of either 60 interlaced fields per second (1080i60) or 30 frames per second (1080p30), and H.264 compression is used. There are also still two slow-motion modes which allow 400 fps or 1,200 fps shooting, but with a strange 8:3 aspect ratio, and extremely low resolution.

Although it has no built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking capability, the Nikon 1 J3 is compatible with the same WU-1b Wi-Fi accessory as the latest Nikon DSLRs. This lets you transfer your images wirelessly to an iOS or Android smartphone or tablet, from whence you can share pics on social networking sites. You can also use your phone or tablet to take photos with the camera remotely.

The Nikon J3 ships from February 2013, in a bundle with a 10-30mm 1-mount lens. Suggested retail pricing is around US$600, some $50 above pricing for the preceding Nikon J2. Available body colors will include white, black, silver, burgundy, or beige, and each will be sold with a color-matched kit lens.

Alongside the new body, Nikon has also unveiled a compatible underwater case. The WP-N2 case will work either with the J3 or the simultaneously-announced S1, plus the 10-30mm kit lens, and will let you use optical zoom with the case sealed. It's waterproof to a depth of 131 feet (40m), and can be used with the camera's underwater white balance setting to shoot pleasing stills and video. Pricing for the case is set at approximately US$750, and it will be available at the same time as the J3 body.