Nikon J1 Image Quality
Nikon J1 Image Quality
Saturation & Hue Accuracy
Very good overall accuracy and saturation, with minor to moderate shifts in hue and intensity.
Saturation. The Nikon J1 pushes dark blues, reds, orange and some darker greens moderately, but not as much as many consumer cameras, and it actually undersaturates cyan tones slightly. Overall, saturation levels are fairly typical at 111.7% (11.7% oversaturated). That's higher than the Nikon D3100 entry-level DSLR (107.6%), but lower than some recent Nikon digicams like the Coolpix S9100 (114.6%). Most consumer digital cameras produce color that's more highly saturated (more intense) than found in the original subjects. This is simply because most people like their color a bit brighter than life.
Skin tones. Here, the Nikon J1 produced lighter Caucasian skin tones that looked natural in outdoor lighting when using auto white balance, with just a slightly pink tint, though darker skin tones were pushed toward orange. With manual white balance, skin tones were a little too warm and orange. Where oversaturation is most problematic is on Caucasian skin tones, as it's very easy for these "memory colors" to be seen as too bright, too pink, too yellow, etc.
Hue. The Nikon J1 showed a few small color shifts relative to the mathematically precise translation of colors in its subjects, but its overall color accuracy was very good. Reds were shifted slightly toward orange, cyan was shifted toward blue, and there were slight shifts in some oranges, greens and purples, but shifts were relatively minor. (The cyan to blue shift is very common among the digital cameras we test; we think it's a deliberate choice by camera engineers to produce better-looking sky colors.) With an average "delta-C" color error of only 4.82 after correction for saturation, overall hue accuracy was better than average. Hue is "what color" the color is.
The Nikon J1 offers six preset "Picture Control" options. You can adjust Sharpening, Contrast, Brightness, Saturation, and Hue for any of the settings. (For Monochrome, Saturation and Hue are replaced by Filter Effects and Toning settings.) There's also a "Quick adjust" setting between -2 and +2 to vary the overall effect, though it's not available for Neutral, Monochrome, or custom Picture Controls.
Mouse over the links above to see the effect of the presets on our Still Life target. Click on a link to load the full resolution image.
The Nikon J1 lets you adjust the image saturation and contrast in seven steps each, brightness in three steps, hue in seven steps and sharpening in ten steps. There are also Auto settings for saturation, contrast and sharpness. As can be seen below, the saturation adjustment worked very well, providing a reasonably fine-grained adjustment over a useful range of control. The saturation adjustment also has almost no impact on contrast. That's how a saturation control should work, but we've often found interactions between saturation adjustments and image contrast (and vice versa) on the cameras we test.
|Saturation Adjustment Examples|
The series of shots above shows results with several different saturation adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. See the Thumbnails index page for more (look for the files named J1OUTBSATx.JPG). Click on any thumbnail above to see the full-sized image.
| See full set of test images
See thumbnails of all test and gallery images
Exposure and White Balance
Indoors, incandescent lighting
Warm results with Auto and very warm with Incandescent white balance, though good color with Manual white balance setting. No exposure compensation required.
|Auto White Balance
|Incandescent White Balance
|Manual White Balance
Indoors, under normal incandescent lighting, color balance was a little warm and reddish with the Auto white balance setting, though not too bad. The Incandescent setting was quite warm and too yellowish for our tastes. (Some users may prefer this look, though, as being more representative of the original lighting.) The Manual white balance setting by far produced the most accurate results, if just a touch cool. The Nikon J1 does not offer a Kelvin color temperature setting. The J1 required no exposure compensation for this shot, which is better than average. The average needed among cameras we've tested for this shot is about +0.3 EV. Our test lighting for this shot is a mixture of 60 and 100 watt household incandescent bulbs, a pretty yellow light source, but a very common one in typical home settings here in the U.S.
Good color and exposure outdoors.
|Auto White Balance,
|Auto White Balance,
The Nikon J1 handled tough outdoor lighting under harsh sunlight well in terms of color and exposure. We found skin tones too warm in our "Sunlit" Portrait shot with Manual white balance, preferring the Auto white balance results here. Full Auto mode produces even more pleasing Caucasian skin tones (see below). The +0.3 EV exposure compensation required to keep the mannequin's face bright was slightly less than the +0.7 EV average for this scene, so exposure was better than average here. Color was also good in our far-field shot, just a touch cool. Exposure was very good, with just a few lost highlights in the white building, and few deep shadows in the foliage.
High resolution with ~1,500 - 1,600 lines of strong detail from JPEGs, slightly higher from RAW.
Our laboratory resolution chart revealed sharp, distinct line patterns down to about 1,500 lines per picture height in the horizontal direction, and about 1,600 lines per picture height in the vertical direction in JPEGs. (Some might argue for over 1,600 lines, but aliasing artifacts begin to appear before then.) Complete extinction didn't occur until around 2,500 lines in the horizontal direction, and 2,400 lines in the vertical. We were able extract slightly more resolution from RAW files processed through ViewNX 2 in the horizontal direction (about 1,600 lines), and the software was able to extend extinction of the pattern and suppress color moire better than the camera beyond the resolution limits. Adobe Camera Raw 6.6b produced similar results, though it produced noticeable color moire. Use these numbers to compare with other cameras of similar resolution, or use them to see just what higher resolution can mean in terms of potential detail.
Sharpness & Detail
Good detail but a hint soft straight from the camera, with relatively minor edge-enhancement on high-contrast subjects. Fairly low noise suppression at base ISO.
Sharpness. The Nikon J1 produced good detail for a 10-megapixel sensor, but there's a slight softness in its images overall. Some minor edge enhancement artifacts are visible on high-contrast subjects such as the branches in the crop above left, but overall results are still quite good. Edge enhancement creates the illusion of sharpness by enhancing color and tonal differences right at the edge of a rapid transition in color or tone.
Detail. The crop above right shows fairly low detail loss due to noise suppression, as the darker areas of the model's hair show quite a bit of detail. Individual strands are distinguishable even in the shadows, though they begin to merge as shadows deepen, and in places where the tone and color of adjacent strands is very close. Still, a pretty good performance here considering the sensor size. Noise-suppression systems in digital cameras tend to flatten-out detail in areas of subtle contrast. The effects can often be seen in shots of human hair, where the individual strands are lost and an almost "watercolor" look appears.
RAW vs In-Camera JPEGs
As noted above, the Nikon J1 does a pretty good job at capturing what detail is available in its JPEG, though images are slightly soft at the default settings. A little more detail can usually be obtained from carefully processing RAW files, though, without introducing additional artifacts. See below:
In the table above, mousing over a link at the bottom will load the corresponding crop in the area above, and clicking the link will load the full resolution image. Examples are shot at ISO 100, and include in-camera Fine JPEG, the matching RAW file processed through Nikon's free ViewNX 2 software at default settings, and the same NEF converted with dcraw then tweaked and sharpened in Photoshop with unsharp mask of 250%, radius 0.3 pixels and finally the same NEF converted Adobe Camera Raw 6.6 beta, then sharpened in Photoshop using the same settings as dcraw.
As you can see, the conversion using Nikon's bundled ViewNX 2 software produces results similar to the in-camera JPEG, with most of the difference being in contrast, color and default sharpening. On the other hand, dcraw produced much better detail than both, as it doesn't apply any noise reduction. Adobe Camera Raw also rendered better detail than the camera JPEG and View NX 2 conversion, and produced color and contrast similar to Nikon's rendering. We have however noticed that the Nikon J1 applies noise reduction to its high ISO NEF files, which is something we'd rather not see in RAW files. The good news is it appears to be fairly subtle when High ISO NR is set to "Off".
ISO & Noise Performance
Very good handling of noise vs detail to ISO 400, though stronger noise reduction applied at higher ISOs.
|High ISO Noise Reduction = On (default)|
|ISO 100||ISO 200||ISO 400|
|ISO 800||ISO 1,600||ISO 3,200|
Nikon J1 images show moderate amounts of luminance noise already at base ISO, and there's some chrominance noise visible in deeper shadows as well, though luminance noise "grain" is quite fine giving low ISO images a film-like appearance with very good detail. ISO 200 shows more of both kinds of noise, but noise reduction is still fairly light-handed, so fine detail remains intact. ISO 400 is similar, which slightly higher levels of noise but very good detail retention. At ISO 800, we start to see the effects of stronger noise reduction, which flattens out some of the finer detail, making images noticeably softer. Noise and the effects of noise reduction are naturally higher at ISO 1,600, further reducing fine detail. Chrominance noise is also stronger, with more visible purple and yellow blotches. As you'd expect, ISO 3,200 shows even stronger luminance nose, though chrominance noise is actually better controlled at the expense of slightly lower saturation and a slightly yellow cast. Noise reduction at ISO 6,400 is quite strong, blurring almost all fine detail while leaving quite a bit of chroma noise.
Of course, the impact of noise and detail loss are highly dependent on the size the photos are printed at, and pixel-peeping on-screen has surprisingly little relationship to how the images look when printed: See the Print Quality section below for recommended maximum print sizes at each ISO.
A note about focus for this shot: To insure that the hair detail we use for making critical judgements about camera noise processing and detail rendering is in sharp focus at the relatively wide aperture we're shooting at, the focus target at the center of the scene is on a movable stand. This lets us compensate for front- or back-focus by different camera bodies, even those that lack micro-focus adjustments. This does mean, though, that the focus target itself may appear soft or slightly out of focus for bodies that front- or back-focused with the reference lens. If you click to view the full-size image for one of these shots and notice that the focus target is fuzzy, you don't need to email and tell us about it; we already know it. :-) The focus target position will simply have been adjusted to insure that the rest of the scene is focused properly.
Extremes: Sunlit, dynamic range, and low light tests
Somewhat high default contrast. Dynamic range isn't as good as most DSLRs and some other CSCs, though pretty good given the size of the sensor. Good low-light performance, capable of capturing bright images in near darkness.
|0 EV||+0.3 EV||+0.7 EV|
The Nikon J1 struggled a bit with the deliberately harsh lighting in the above test, but not as much as you might expect from such a small sensor. Default contrast is a little high, and quite a few highlights were lost when exposure was adjusted for the mannequin's face. There are some very deep shadows as well, that are a little noisy compared to cameras with larger sensors. The camera's contrast adjustment however did a good job of decreasing overall contrast without producing strong color variations; see the section below. The +0.3 EV exposure did the best job here, as the model's face was still a bit dim at 0 EV and at +0.7 EV, too many highlights were blown. Note that these shots were captured with the Nikon J1's Active D-Lighting control set to "Off." See below for how Active D-Lighting and contrast settings help with hot highlights and deep shadows.
Because digital cameras are more like slide film than negative film (in that they tend to have a more limited tonal range), we test them in the harshest situations to see how they handle scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows, as well as what kind of sensitivity they have in low light. The shot above is designed to mimic the very harsh, contrasty effect of direct noonday sunlight, a very tough challenge for most digital cameras. (You can read details of this test here. In actual shooting conditions, be sure to use fill flash in situations like the one shown here; it's better to shoot in open shade whenever possible.)
We really like it when a camera gives us the ability to adjust contrast and saturation to our liking. It's even better when those adjustments cover a useful range, in steps small enough to allow for precise tweaks. Just as with its saturation adjustment, the Nikon J1's contrast setting meets both challenges, the contrast steps actually being a little finer than those for saturation, and thus even more to our liking.
|Contrast set to lowest,
|Contrast set to lowest,
At its lowest contrast setting, the Nikon J1 did a better job of preserving highlight detail while, maintaining fairly natural-looking skin tones. Overall, results here are very good for a compact camera, especially when the contrast setting is tweaked.
|Contrast Adjustment Examples|
The series of shots above shows results with several different contrast adjustment settings, showing the minimum step size around the default, as well as both extremes. There is also an Auto setting available. While you can see the extremes, it's hard to really evaluate contrast on small thumbnails like these, click on any thumbnail to go to the full-size image.
One very nice feature of Nikon's contrast adjustment is that it has little effect on color saturation. Contrast and saturation are actually fairly closely coupled, it's a good trick to be able to vary one with out the other changing as well. Nikon did a good job here.
Active D-Lighting attempts to preserve detail in both highlights and shadows in high-contrast situations, while maintaining moderate levels of contrast. The shots below show the effect of the Active D-Lighting setting available on the Nikon J1 on our high-contrast "Sunlit" Portrait scene. Unlike recent Nikon DSLRs, the J1 offers just On and Off settings for Active D-Lighting. Also note that Active D-Lighting is different from the Playback menu's D-Lighting option, as it is performed during image capture instead of after. (It does affect only JPEG images though, Nikon very properly doesn't apply tonal adjustments like this to RAW file data. NEF files, however, are tagged so that Nikon software can automatically apply the effect when converted.)
"Sunlit" Portrait Active D-Lighting (0 EV)
Mouse over the links to see how Active D-Lighting affects our "Sunlit" Portrait shot at default exposure. Click on a link to get to the full-res image.
As you can see, shadows and darker midtones have been boosted brightening the overall exposure, while brighter midtones have been attenuated, but there are slightly more very bright highlights clipped with Active D-Lighting enabled, as indicated by the histogram.
|Far-field Active D-Lighting (0 EV)|
Here are the results with our Far-field shot. Mouse over the links to compare the effect. We see similar results here with Active D-Lighting enabled, with brighter shadows and more even exposure, though more white highlights are clipped as well, especially in the blue and green channels.
Face Priority AF
Face Detection. Here, we can see the effects of the Nikon J1's Face Priority AF and Full Auto Exposure modes versus just Aperture Priority mode. As you can see from the shots above, both Face Priority AF and Full Auto resulted in brighter images. Full Auto selected Portrait mode with a larger aperture (f/5.6) for better subject isolation, and also enabled Active D-Lighting for better shadow and highlight retention.
A key parameter in a digital camera is its Dynamic Range, the range of brightness that can be faithfully recorded. At the upper end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is dictated by the point at which the RGB data "saturates" at values of 255, 255, 255. At the lower end of the tonal scale, dynamic range is determined by the point at which there ceases to be any useful difference between adjacent tonal steps. Note the use of the qualifier "useful" in there: While it's tempting to evaluate dynamic range as the maximum number of tonal steps that can be discerned at all, that measure of dynamic range has very little relevance to real-world photography. What we care about as photographers is how much detail we can pull out of the shadows before image noise becomes too objectionable. This, of course, is a very subjective matter, and will vary with the application and even the subject matter in question. (Noise will be much more visible in subjects with large areas of flat tints and subtle shading than it would in subjects with strong, highly contrasting surface texture.)
What makes most sense then, is to specify useful dynamic range in terms of the point at which image noise reaches some agreed-upon threshold. To this end, Imatest computes a number of different dynamic range measurements, based on a variety of image noise thresholds. The noise thresholds are specified in terms of f-stops of equivalent luminance variation in the final image file, and dynamic range is computed for noise thresholds of 1.0 (low image quality), 0.5 (medium image quality), 0.25 (medium-high image quality) and 0.1 (high image quality). For most photographers and most applications, the noise thresholds of 0.5 and 0.25 f-stops are probably the most relevant to the production of acceptable-quality finished images, but many noise-sensitive shooters will insist on the 0.1 f-stop limit for their most critical work. A full discussion of all the data Imatest produces is really beyond the scope of this review: Visit the Imatest website for details of what the program measures, how it performs its computations, and how to interpret its output.
JPEG. The graph at right (click for a larger version) was generated using Imatest's dynamic range analysis for an in-camera Nikon J1 JPEG file with a nominally-exposed density step target (Stouffer 4110). At default settings and base ISO, the graph shows 11.1 f-stops of total dynamic range, but with only 5.91 f-stops at the "High" quality level. While total dynamic range is actually very good for the sensor's size, the High quality score that we normally rank cameras by is quite poor, a result of the J1's higher noise levels compared to cameras with larger sensors. For example, the Nikon D5100 scored 7.74 f-stops at the highest quality level with its APS-C sensor, and the Panasonic GF3 scored 7.08 f-stops with its Micro Four Thirds sensor, both significantly better than the Nikon J1's High quality score. Still, not bad overall dynamic range results for such small sensor. Note though that this measurement has a margin of error of about 1/3 f-stop, so differences of less than 0.33 can be ignored.
RAW. The graph at right is from the same Stouffer 4110 stepchart image captured as a RAW (.NEF) file, processed with Adobe Camera Raw using the Auto setting. (Slightly better results are likely possible with manually tweaking, but we weren't able to do much better.) As can be seen, the score at the highest quality level increased from 5.91 to 8.39 f-stops, which is an almost 2.5 f-stops improvement over the in-camera JPEG, while total dynamic range increased almost two f-stops, from 11.1 to 13 f-stops. Again, total dynamic range is actually very good. This time, the High quality score (8.39 f-stops) that we normally rank cameras by is pretty good, better than the Panasonic GF3's 7.14 f-stop score for instance, though not as good as some APS-C models such as the Nikon D5100's 10.0 f-stop score. Also note that the increased High quality score is partially the a result of ACR's default noise reduction reducing overall noise significantly relative to the levels in the in-camera JPEG (compare the plots in the lower left-hand corners), which tends to boost the dynamic range numbers for the higher quality thresholds.
Low Light. The Nikon J1 performed fairly well here, able to capture usable images down to the 1/16 foot-candle light level (about 1/16 as bright as average city street lighting at night), at all ISO settings. As is often the case, the J1's metering system struggled a bit with getting the exposure right at the lowest levels though, so we used manual exposure for these shots. Color balance with auto white balance was just slightly cool at higher light levels, but took on an increasingly strong blue or magenta cast as light levels dropped. Noise was quite low up to ISO 800, though some chrominance noise was noticeable in the shadows. Noise levels were reasonable at 1,600 through 3,200, especially considering the size of the camera. We did not detect any significant banding or hot pixel issues.
The camera's hybrid autofocus system was able to focus on the subject to just below the 1/8 foot-candle light level unassisted with a 10mm f/2.8 lens, which is good. The Nikon J1 was able to autofocus in complete darkness with the AF assist enabled.
(Keep in mind that the longer shutter speeds here demand the use of a tripod to prevent any blurring from camera movement. A useful trick is to just prop the camera on a convenient surface, and use its self-timer to release the shutter. This avoids any jiggling from your finger pressing the shutter button, and can work quite well when you don't have a tripod handy.)
How bright is this? The one foot-candle light level that this test begins at roughly corresponds to the brightness of typical city street-lighting at night. Cameras performing well at that level should be able to snap good-looking photos of street-lit scenes.
NOTE: This low light test is conducted with a stationary subject, and the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Most digital cameras will fail miserably when faced with a moving subject in dim lighting. (For example, a child's ballet recital or a holiday pageant in a gymnasium.) Compact system cameras like the Nikon J1 do much better than point & shoots, but you still shouldn't expect a quick autofocus lock with moving subjects.
Very good print quality overall for 10 megapixels, with up to 16x20-inch prints at ISO 100 and good 5x7-inch prints at ISO 6,400.
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, 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.
Testing hundreds of digital cameras, we've found that you can only tell just so much about a camera's image quality by viewing its images on-screen. Ultimately, there's no substitute for printing a lot of images and examining them closely. For this reason, we now routinely print sample images from the cameras we test on our Canon Pro9000 Mark II studio printer, and on the Pixma MP610 here in the office. (See the Canon Pixma Pro9000 Mark II review for details on that model.)
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