Nikon 1 J1 Camera: A New CSC Format, And A New Line For Nikon

The diminutive Nikon 1 series of cameras, including the J1 reviewed here and the coming V1, introduces the new CX-format CMOS sensor to the interchangeable lens, mirrorless camera field, which we dub Compact System Cameras. The sensor is smaller than APS-C and Micro Four Thirds sensors, coming in at a 2.7x multiplication factor using standard 35mm focal length designations. The 10.1-megapixel sensor has a native speed of ISO 100, with speeds up to 3200, and 6400 with a 1 EV push.

The J1 comes in various colors; there are two 1 series manifestations, the J1 and V1, the main difference being the V1 having an electronic viewfinder and auxiliary flash.

The camera itself is about the size of an iPhone (sans 1 Nikkor series lens, at 4.2x2.4x1.2”) and weighs next to nothing, about 10 oz. The camera is available in numerous colors and in kit form with a 1 Nikkor 10-30mm lens ($649). And while the comparison to an iPhone with lens might be inevitable, even with the new 8-megapixel 4S, no camphone can hold up against this type of camera in terms of picture-taking facility and image quality.

The small J1 body is near smartphone-size, although the various lenses make it “unpocketable”; however, it weighs next to nothing and is perfect for purse, case, or backpack.

The camera back is dominated by the LCD screen, plus there are simplified button controls. The top dial is what I call the multimedia mode dial; the lower dial and toggle is for flash, AE and AF lock, exposure compensation, and various toggles and controls for playback and menu selections. Touch the menu button and you get all the user-controlled options. The “F” button can be programmed—I chose to use it for continuous playback options. The small tab on top is for selecting aperture and shutter speed in the user-controlled exposure modes. (See text for details.)
Photos courtesy of Nikon Inc.

But the question here is not whether the J1 and iPhone will compete, but whether this new CX format will be competitive in its associated class, inevitably being compared to the Sony, Samsung, Panasonic, and to an extent the Olympus interchangeable lens, mirrorless cameras. In short, we have to look at the J1 (and V1) as Nikon’s answer to those who no longer consider the classic 35mm form factor sacrosanct and who in fact see an advantage to the interchangeable lens, mirrorless design.

Fast shutter speeds, Auto ISO, 10 frames per second (fps) shooting capability, focusing that’s fast and spot-on, VR plus a 30-110mm lens (near 300mm equivalent at top end) combine to make this a good choice for soccer moms (and grandparents). Exposure here at ISO 100 was f/5 at 1/250 sec and 10 fps shooting rate.
All Photos © George Schaub

By the way, the main difference between the J1 and V1 is that the V1 has a high-quality electronic viewfinder with 1.4 million dots (the J1 is LCD only). While the V1 was not available for test at the time of this writing I did get to look through the finder of a pre-release camera and was mightily impressed. Plus, the V1 has an accessory port for GPS and, perhaps more important, an accessory flash, the new SB-N5, and higher flash sync speed. The V1 is $200 more, with same kit lens.

There is a tiny on-board flash that works for fill, but get to know the flash exposure compensation control as you will need it for close-ups. Here’s a shot without flash that was exposure locked on the top petals (bottom). Here’s the shot with the flash on (top), which certainly fills in the shadows but even at -1.5 EV is still too hot. Let’s face it, a tiny on-board flash has its limits, and even though this one pops up above the lens plane a bit it still should not be your first choice in lighting.

The J1 is one of the smallest and lightest of the CSC cameras I’ve tested, which has its rewards but also means that controls are fairly small. I have gotten used to this diminution of knobs and dials and tabs with cameras of the past, and perhaps I’ve adapted, or evolved, but I found them fairly easy to use on this camera. The “usual” control dials are replaced, to an extent, by shooting “mode” controls, which do not relate to procedures like aperture priority, but to different forms of imaging, making it more a multimedia selector than a mode dial.

Taken from a sequence of shots made at 10 frames per second, this shows just how responsive the J1 is with action shots. Emma Polgrean tees up and nails the shot down the field. Exposure remains the same from the first to last shot, but focus follows the first subject. Taken from way down the field with a 110mm setting, I cropped to maintain the subject in the same general frame position. I set Auto ISO to a limit of 400 for this overcast day, and exposure ended up as f/5.6 at 1/200 sec at ISO 400.

There are four main categories on this main control dial. The first is what Nikon dubs a “Motion Snapshot” mode. This is to me the most interesting of the lot in that it breaks new ground in what might be considered the “decisive gesture” in addition to the decisive moment. At first I thought it was gimmicky, but then I started using it and was fascinated by the results. When you press the shutter button you are recording a short movie (about 2 seconds, in MOV format, accessible through Nikon software or even Adobe Bridge and other image-based browsers) and a still; you get both files side by side when you open them in the image browser. It takes a few shots to get a feel for it, but it’s a pretty addictive mode.

This movie clip brings an enlivening feel to the moment, whether it is a person turning toward you, a busy traffic flow, or a flower in the wind. On playback in the camera you can watch that motion sort of dissolve into the still; in general software playback you get your choice and in Nikon software you can use their “short movie creator” to see the motion/still dissolve or even string a number of them together for a new kind of slide show. It’s visual/motion impressionism, if you will, and if this piques your interest check it out at a dealer and you’ll see why I think this is an interesting addition to our expressive kit. The still is JPEG only.

Noise is not apparent in most test shots I made up to ISO 800, but comes on with higher ISOs even with NR filtration ON, when shooting where there will be underexposed areas. Here’s a very rigorous test shot made through a window on a rainy night in New York City. Check the takeout shot for noise patterns, which show up in the stormy sky. This cleans up quite nicely, however, with some extra noise reduction applied in Adobe Camera Raw, so it’s not irredeemable.

The next option on the dial is what Nikon calls a “Smart Photo Selector,” and it’s an improved Best Shot Selector (BSS) that takes 10 shots and tosses out five of them and then picks the best shot (according to the on-board processor) based on more than just steadiness. You can access the remainders as a “stack” in Nikon software and keep them or toss them as you desire. I guess this is okay if you are really unsure of settings and how to make a good shot in difficult conditions, but I’m not sure this merited a place on this up-front dial, but then again this option (and to an extent, this camera) is for those who like making photographs and not necessarily for those who are into knowing about how to make them.

Because of its portability the J1 is a perfect hiking companion. Because of its controls you can make very personalized exposures right in the camera. These bright leaves sat against a dark background, a perfect setup for an exposure miscue. You can get a perfect exposure by either using exposure compensation (about -1.5 EV) or exposure lock on the brighter areas, which I did here (left) for a 110mm focal length setting shot at f/5.6 at 1/125 sec at ISO 500. To add color richness on an overcast sky I chose the Vivid color setting and cloudy white balance for this exposure (right) at ISO 100 at f/4 at 1/125 sec.

For those who want to use the J1 as more than a highly advanced snapshot machine the camera mode dial is where you get to set up all the exposure modes, image file formats, white balance, and more that you usually can access from on-camera dials. To get to the controls you have to go into the Menu using the LCD.

You can shoot in JPEG, Raw, and JPEG+Raw (Nikon’s NEF, a 12-bit file here). When you choose Aperture Priority mode, for example, you select aperture via the small tab on the upper right, pushing up to higher apertures and down for lower ones. For Manual exposure mode you get a very readable plus/minus scale on the LCD and move the tab for shutter speed and the toggle dial on the back for aperture. One good choice is Program, which is the “shift” type, meaning you can make aperture and shutter speed choices while maintaining equivalent exposure. There are also options for exposure compensation and flash exposure compensation (which is useful for close-ups, which the low power, on-board flash consistently overexposed at normal settings).

Left: Lest you think this camera’s only for soccer moms it proved itself very capable in reproducing these greenhouse plants beautifully in a 13x19” print. In fact, using photographer controls such as aperture priority, white balance, color space, and exposure compensation proved both easy and rewarding. Right: Who says you can’t make shallow depth of field effects using a compact camera? When you have interchangeable lenses all those constraints are gone. Here, with the 30-110mm lens at full extension and focus locked onto the translucent blossoms in the foreground, exposure at ISO 100 was f/5.6 at 1/400 sec in Aperture Priority mode.

Luckily the LCD is readable in all but the most glaring light, but having no viewfinder does have its limitations, most important being steadiness when making the shot. This is the Achilles heel of all non-viewfinder cameras. You can get around this somewhat by using the Smart Photo Selector, but this imposes JPEG only on the shot. You can also get help by using the Auto ISO function, which in this camera is quite helpful. You can select Auto, a specific ISO, or Auto with a range, here from 100 (the “native” ISO) to 400, to 800, or to 3200. This saves you the trouble of having to select a fast enough shutter speed in low light or when making fast action shots and helps get steadier shots. In some cameras this might be considered giving in to automation too much; here I think it aids in getting steadier shots because you are forced into the unsteady posture of LCD-only shooting anyway, and it’s any port in the storm when it comes to that. Also helping out is the lens-based VR system, which you can choose for “normal” or “active” (unsteady platform) shooting.

While the shutter lag here is very low, and applying light pressure right before exposure helps gather the necessary exposure and focusing sets, there are other options for ensuring righteous capture. One I used extensively was continuous exposure, which I set up to come onto the screen with the “F” button, at 10 frames per second (fps). This is a great option for soccer moms (and grandparents), photos of kids, and any situation where you might feel somewhat stifled in getting the shot you want due to camera (and your) reaction time. A bonus is that an adaptive AF system keeps right up with the action. Also helpful in getting focus right is the focus confirmation grid that shows you just what has been focused upon. There is a type of manual focus but like others of this ilk is quite cumbersome and is best left as an appreciated but underused option.

When light is low you can use Auto ISO to make spontaneous shots and not worry about too many settings. Indoors, Brynn Polgrean was standing under a bright tungsten light with her face in shadow. Just for a test I set the Auto ISO limit to 3200, put on auto white balance and let the camera handle the focus and exposure. It did its face recognition thing but also locked exposure on her face in shadow as well. Sure, the background is blown out, but it kind of works in this grab shot. Exposure at ISO 2200 (camera chosen) was f/4 at 1/15 sec, and shot is steady thanks to VR. No post-exposure work was done.

There are numerous settings for personalizing the capture, including RGB or Adobe RGB color space, custom white balance, AE and AF lock, slow and rear sync, and even electronic high-speed shutter options for up to 60 fps.

The last dial on the mode selector is video, which is really for setting up the HD movie capability and options like slow motion, various framing rates (such as slow mo at 400 and 1200 (!) fps), and more. You can simply press the red video button on top of the camera, placed right next to the shutter release, to initiate video recording, and you can also take a snapshot in the midst of the capture by pressing the shutter release button, which will not break the video recording.

The current zoom lenses (the kit 10-30mm, and the 30-110mm) are manual zoom, which to me is a great improvement over power zoom and really gets you involved in the action. They both allow for quick response to framing decisions, unlike power zooms, which really can slow you down. However, for video-centric types Nikon has also created a power zoom, a 10-100mm, with the ability to control zoom speeds, which aids greatly in reducing the vertigo non-governed zooms often induce in small camera-created videos. (Rounding out the current lens options is a 10mm f/2.8 “pancake” fixed focal length lens for those who want lower light capability, about a stop over the f/3.5 kit lens and f/3.8 30-110mm, and even more portability than with the zooms.) The newly designed VR zoom lenses are small enough, but not as unobtrusive as the pancake variety. And for those who insist, Nikon has an FT1 adapter for use with Nikon F mount lenses.

The 1 series Nikkor lenses are said by Nikon to be designed “from the ground up” for sharp and snappy images. Even the 10-30mm kit lens, which was used in this shot, came through strong. Notice the starburst where I let some of the sun peek around the branch, which did not cause any undue flare or contrast loss in the image. Exposure at ISO 100 was f/5.6 at 1/500 sec.

Image quality is excellent for the format size, and exhibits a “snap” that is pleasing to the eye. With D-Lighting (which opens shadow detail), exposure compensation, and exposure lock, there is no sacrifice due to the smaller format, at least in comparison with similar models. Noise is noticeable in the high ISO settings, despite an excellent image processor that keeps it low up until about ISO 800, but combine underexposed areas with high ISO and you have some noisy spots. See accompanying images for more comments on image quality.

The breaking away from the classic 35mm interchangeable lens, penta-prism design has produced various manifestations of new camera and lens designs. The 1 series from Nikon is the first from a more traditional camera company, given we accept the Konica/Minolta roots of Sony, and it has to make you wonder if the Canon shoe will next drop. After working with the J1 for a few weeks and making photographs and motion snaps and videos I can say that the camera exceeded expectations and opened some new doors to imaging modes and expressions. It is, in fact, a new breed of multimedia camera that all adds up to a fun image-making machine. It should appeal to those who like spontaneous snapshooting with the ability to customize each shot. A D-SLR it’s not, but it can certainly open up some interesting doors to those who might be curious why interchangeable lenses make photographic life so much more interesting.

For more information, contact Nikon Inc. at:

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