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Product Review: Nikon 1 J1

Is less more?

How does Nikon's bold new MILC system, with its small sensor, compare to the latest Micro Four Thirds cameras? Our field and lab test results may surprise you.


 

Pros:
Compact size, impressive build and image quality; lens swapping with legacy Nikkor lenses with the (“real soon now”) FT-1 F-mount adaptor.

Cons:
No analog dials on top to select camera modes, no viewfinder, smaller imaging chip than competitors.

Photographers looking for a compact, interchangeable-lens camera face a growing choice: They go can go with the Sony NEX, adopt the Micro Four-Thirds system used by Olympus and Panasonic, go with the tiny Pentax Q with its compact-camera-sized sensor, or jump onto a whole new bandwagon and format with Nikon’s 1 Series cameras—either the V1, or the J1 that I’ve been testing.

 

Related Video: Watch Mark Wallace's video review of the Nikon J1.

 

There are two main reasons to consider for buying any digital camera: The image quality produced by the imaging chip, and the optical quality of the lens. When comparing Nikon’s V1 against their J1 you’ll notice they both have the same 10.1 megapixel 13.2 x 8.8 mm CMOS sensor. Call it a draw. By comparison the Olympus E-P3 that I shoot has a 18 × 13.5mm CMOS sensor that Olympus calls “Live MOS.” This should give Olympus the point, especially vis-à-vis noise, but does it?

 

Let's Talk Sensors

 

The normal ISO range for the V1 and J1 is 100-3200 with a Hi 1 (ISO 6400) “expanded” setting that’s also available. I once asked a Nikon engineer about the use of expanded setting on their SLRs and here’s what he told me: “Expanded settings are just that, expanded beyond the range considered optimal or acceptable by our designers and engineers. These settings are labeled differently to indicate that these are for emergency purposes and clearly identify where noise and color distortion will affect picture quality.” I found that the performance of the J1 at ISO 3200 was impressive when shooting in low light, and using the Hi 1 setting produced results similar to the Olympus E-P3 at its 12,800 maximum, although the J1 produces noticeable JPEG artifacts at its Hi 1 setting.

 

Here are 100% enlarged sections with the J1 (left) shot at Hi 1 (ISO 6400) and the Olympus E-P3 (right), which has significantly less JPEG artifacts and slightly more noise but at a higher ISO setting. Shooting in Nikon’s RAW (NEF) format should eliminate these artifacts and the J1 offers a RAW + JPEG option. Tip: When using the Auto ISO settings the J1 always seemed to select the lowest possible ISO setting to minimize noise, sometime slightly underexposing to accomplish that goal. When doing night photography, you might have to use the camera’s exposure compensation feature to increase exposure, often as much as one stop. © 2011 Joe Farace


Lens choices for J1 and V1 include a 1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 lens or 27-81mm 35mm equivalent producing a 2.7x factor when compared to Oly’s 2X. I also got to test the 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens  (27mm equivalent) and 1 Nikkor VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 lens (81-297mm equivalent) that comes bundled with a color-coordinated lens hood. A
1 Nikkor VR 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 (27-270mm equivalent) power zoom lens should be available in the near future but since both 1 Series cameras use the same lenses, that’s a push. Much like Olympus's Pen series zooms, the Nikon 1 zoom lenses have a lock allowing them to compress into a smaller size but unlocking and extending the lens is easier than the Olympus lenses because of Nikon’s simpler and logical design. Attention to design prevails even in tiny details that include a thicker and easier to use and harder to lose (than Olympus’s) lens cap.

 

I love making pictures of gazebos and can’t walk past one without shooting some variation of this very shot. You can’t really tell if it was made with a Nikon V1 or J1 because the sensor and lens are the same creating identical images when shot under identical conditions. This photograph was shot in Vivid color mode using a 1 Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens and an exposure of 1/500 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 100. ©2011 Joe Farace

 

Night.jpg: The same gazebo shot at night and 26 degrees F giving the J1 some inadvertent cold weather testing. I used the J1’s Auto ISO setting that gave me a range from 100-3200 and the camera selected ISO 800 but it, I felt, created a one-stop underexposed images so I used the convenient Exposure Compensation control to add one stop creating an exposure of 1/20 sec at f/2.8. Noise? At ISO 800, there was none.

 


DxOMark.com lab test results

 

Three-way sensor comparison based on unbiased RAW image quality tests conducted by DxOMark.com, shown above, pits the Nikon 1 J1 and P1  cameras against the top-line Olympus E-P3. While the Olympus consistently scored about a third of a stop higher when it came to noise at higher ISOs, the Nikon 1s produced better color depth and a wider (by almost a full stop) dynamic range. As a result, the Nikon 1 system edged out Olympus on overall image quality. Given the Nikons' smaller sensor size, the image quality was surprisingly good, and kept up with Olympus at all common ISO settings. Given the sturm und drang of some online commenters over Nikon's choice to go with a smaller sensor, these results were a pleasant surprise. You can view complete comparison results here.

 

The Adorama Learning Center is a DxOMark.com Expert Partner site. Lab test results used by permission.



J1 or V1?

 

If the lens and sensor is identical for the J1 and V1, then what are the real differences between the two cameras that would make you choose one over the other? Here’s an overview:

Size: Measuring 4.42 x 2.4 x 1.2-inches, the J1 is slightly smaller than the V1 (4.4 x 3 x 1.7-inches) part of which has to do with the built-in V1’s viewfinder, which the J1 lacks. The Olympus E-P3 is slightly larger and measures 4.8 x 2.72 x 1.35-inches, while the Pen Mini aka E-PM1 is closer in size at 4.31 x 2.50 x 1.33 inches.

 

With a close focusing capability of 3.3-feet, the 1 Nikkor VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 isn’t exactly a macro lens but at 110mm you can get up close and personal with any subject, as I did with this old caboose. Exposure was 1/500 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 400 in Auto ISO (100-400) mode. © 2011 Joe Farace


Viewfinder: The V1 has a 0.47-inch electronic viewfinder that’s built in; the J1 doesn’t, even as an option (as it is on the E-P3.) When testing the E-P3 I tried the optional VF-2 viewfinder thinking I wanted an eye level finder but found in actual practice and based on the size of the camera that I used the large LCD screen 98% of the time. I didn’t miss the viewfinder but a few people with slight vision problems that tried the J1 felt it needed one.

LCD screen: Both V1 and J1 have a three-inch TFT LCD screen; the resolution of the J1’s is 460k, the V1 is 921k. The E-P3 has a three-inch OLED touch screen with 614,000 pixels and you can tap a point of focus on the screen just like an iPhone. One point for Oly because OLED is awesome.

Flash: The J1 has a built-in flash; the V1 does not but there’s a SB-N5 Speedlight ($149.95) that plugs into its multi-accessory hot shoe, something the J1 lacks. The Olympus E-P1 and E-P2 also lacked a pop-up flash but that omission was remedied with the E-P3. Score one for the E-P3. That said, the J1’s tiny flash is effective for fill when making photographs of people indoors or out—even at night. The V1 has a dual shutter system, allowing you to choose from Mechanic, Electronic or Electronic (HI) shutters depending on your shooting situation. The J1 uses an electronic shutter, so flash sync is faster (1/125 sec vs. 1/60 sec) on the V1. Point goes to the V1 on the Nikon 1 for flash but the E-P3 also has a hot shoe letting the user decide what kind of flash they want to use.

Auto Focus: Both J1 and V1 have single-point, auto-area, and subject tracking with 41 focus areas. I only have one thing to say about the J1’s autofocus: It’s fast! How fast is it? Point the camera at a subject and immediately various focus points appear and you can make a photograph. It all happens faster than you can read that last sentence. Both V1 and J1 use hybrid autofocus (phase detection/contrast-detect AF) and have a built-in AF-assist illuminator. The J1’s face detection feature worked well even if the head size was relatively small in the frame.

 

The Olympus E-P3 has a lag time of 60 milliseconds, while Nikon USA told me they did not have a lag time specification for the J1 but in practice it seems slightly longer. I noticed this while shooting behind-the-scenes of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Barry Staver creating images for his new lighting book. With higher light levels the J1’s lag time seems fast because the camera locks focus quicker but in low light conditions like this, I sometimes didn’t capture the shot I thought. © 2011 Joe Farace


Video: The 1 Series captures video using the MOV format with a frame size of 1,920 x 1,080/60i or 1,920 x 1,080/30p and the on-screen image quality is good for even the most picky You Tuber. Naturally there’s a Type C mini-pin HDMI connector. Video image quality was quite good but while the specifications show an output frame rate of 60 frames per second, my J2 footage was not as silky smooth as the E-P3’s. The Nikon is also so small that holding it steady to get acceptable (to me) video footage requires some kind of support to keep viewers from getting seasick. Unless you like the jerky-cam look. Hey, it worked for Cloverfield.

Construction: The V1 has a magnesium alloy body, while the J1 has a plastic skin over an aluminum alloy chassis. That said, the built quality of the J1 is impressive and has real heft to it. When you pick it up you know it’s a Nikon and a serious camera even though it’s available in pink…and white, red, silver and black. The J1 I tested was white, and so were the three lenses and I tried, although I didn’t care for the white cloth strap.

 

While doing cold weather testing with the J1 I was impressed by how it handled in the cold and snow and how was easy to wipe snowflakes off it later. This image was made with the VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 lens with an exposure of 1/125 sec at f/4.5 and ISO 125. © 2011 Joe Farace


Battery: Both 1 series cameras use a rechargeable Li-ion EN-EL20 battery, and no specs were provided for how many shots you can expect. For the my behind-the scenes shoot the battery was fully charged the day before and was able to get 215 no-flash shots and seven short video clips totaling less than ten minutes before the battery ran out of steam. I admit there was some chimping involved during the shoot, and I was shooting quickly most of the time. An additional Nikon brand battery is $62.95, while an “equivalent” Power2000 costs less than $25. No matter which option you choose, you should order one or more extra batteries when you purchase the camera.

Price: The J1 with 10-30mm VR Zoom Lens is $599.95 (including a $50 rebate as I write this.) The Nikon 1 V1 with 10-30mm VR Zoom Lens is $849.95 (including a $50.) The Olympus E-P3 with M. Zuiko Digital 14-42mm II R f/3.5-5.6 lens is $799.00, as I write this, right between both 1 Series cameras.

 

Flying Under the Radar

 

There is one intangible feature of this entire class of cameras: While capable of producing high quality images, they look more like point-and-shoot cameras than SLRs. This, I think, is an asset at a time when photographers are under fire more than at any time in recent memory. “That guy taking pictures with this tiny white camera? Oh him, he just some happy snapper.” Flying under the radar is a good thing these days.

“What’s a poor hippo to do?” This was written on an old beloved coffee mug but is the same question facing anyone looking to get into a small interchangeable lens camera. The J1 is the perfect compact interchangeable lens camera for Nikon users who want to use the FT-1 F-mount adaptor, when it’s available, to attach legacy lenses and expand the little camera’s capabilities. The J1 is slightly smaller and lighter, uses the same Nikon 1 series lenses as the V1 and costs less. When used with the Nikkor 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens it’s more pocketable due to its lower weight (9.8 oz vs. 13.5 oz.) As a happy E-P3 shooter, I didn’t expect to like the J1. But much like a visit to McDonald’s, “I’m lovin’ it.”

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