CAMERA: Nikon J1

Nikon J1 with 3 lenses

I like shallow depth of field and wide angle lenses, and initially the Nikon 1 system didn’t seem to offer me anything I would be interested in.  I tried one in a shop and I realised that is was actually a very nice camera, well built, easy to use, and small.  I read the reviews, both positive and negative, some of them raving about how good the camera was, but I still couldn’t find a use for it in my camera bag.

So what changed?  My Olympus E-P2 has two fantastic prime lenses, but an average image quality sensor.  The Sony NEX has a fantastic sensor but average lenses.  Both of these cameras suffer from a slow AF system, especially if you’re trying to take photos of family events with people and children bouncing around everywhere.  I started to realise that a camera with a fast reliable AF system might just be what I needed for shooting those family events where children rush around and you’re not really too bothered if you don’t have a very shallow DOF.  I took another good look at the One system in my favourite camera shop –  Wilkinson Cameras in Kendal.  After examining both I decided that for general photography the J1 with its lower price tag would be good enough for what I wanted the camera for.  I didn’t need the EVF – if I want that I’ll use the E-P2 with the EVF, and I knew I was likely to buy the OM-D with build-in EVF when it is released to satisfy my viewfinder needs!

J1 v V1 compared – The main differences.

Nikon V1 and J1

The V1 is magnesium construction rather than aluminium, it has a built in EVF, a larger buffer, a mechanical shutter (which means faster flash sync, and avoids issues with flickering for electronic shutters) and a higher resolution screen.  I held both cameras side by side and honestly couldn’t tell the difference between screens for general use.  The only time this tends to be useful is if you’re zooming in for manual focus, or checking focus after you’ve taken the shot.  The AF on the Nikon 1 is reliable and fast, I was unlikely to be manual focusing so decided I could live with out this.  The J1 is also quite a bit smaller than the V1, which meant I was more likely to carry it around, not to mention the significant price difference between the two models.

In use overview

The J1 is a great day-to-day camera, it starts up pretty much as fast as any dSLR, and focuses very quickly – I’ve had one missed focus in 500 shots and it literally focuses in the dark!

The Fuji X100 gets in the way of taking pictures, which ultimately makes it annoying to use no matter how good the image quality is.  The E-P2 and NEX, although better, can make it difficult in challenging conditions to focus fast to take the picture you want.  The J1 just lets you get on with the job of taking photos, it doesn’t make anything difficult it focuses without any drama and exposes perfectly.  That makes it great for every day use, especially at family events where you’re not necessarily too worried about things that would make you choose a system with a larger sensor.

It has a nice, if a little limited, set of lenses.  All of which give good sharp results and aside from the 10-100 are very good value for money.  The 30-110 is too long to be an all day walk around lens, but gives a long reach of nearly 300mm for when you need it, proving to perform well even when at the 300mm end.

We will have to wait and see what Nikon come up with in terms of faster lenses, the smaller sensor would certainly benefit from a faster set of primes to allow the enthusiast a wider range of compositional options, but for now, the 10-30 and 30-110 will probably suit 95% of most people’s needs.  If you know you’re wanting the 30-110 I suggest you buy it as part of the kit as right now, getting hold of that lens on its own is quite hard.

The auto-focus system on this camera is where it really comes into its own, combining both phase detection like a dSLR and contrast detection focusing systems to give lightening fast focusing for a compact camera.  It is super accurate and means you can snap away all without even having to think about it.  It is the perfect camera for families with kids (which lets face it are always the most difficult subject to get to stand still!) I leave it set to focus on the centre point so I can focus and re-compose as that is how I am used to working, but I also leave the face detection on, which automatically switches the focus point to a face if it detects on in the scene – a most useful feature.   Face detection is seen by many as a bit of a gimmick, but is starting to appear even in high end Nikon and Canon cameras now and is becoming more widely recognised as extremely useful as it means the camera focuses on the person (or people) you’re taking a photo of rather than some other random part of the frame, which is so often the case when you let the camera decide where to focus.

I use this camera in RAW, no question about it, it performs best that way.  I’ve never been a fan of Nikon JPEG processing, even in their dSLRs.  The Olympus PEN cameras process JPEGs brilliantly and there really is little advantage in shooting RAW, but shooting in RAW with the J1 is necessary to get the best out of this system.  I shot a series of images in RAW and JPEG to compare them directly and where the JPEGs looked flat and dull with a green tinge, the RAW files were crisp and vibrant, even before processing them.  I’m sure if you had time you could create a Custom Picture Control that works right for you to process the JPEGs in camera, or choose one of the Nikon defaults that you prefer, but for me it’s RAW every time with this camera.  This is probably the biggest disadvantage for regular users that don’t want to process RAW files, in that they will be missing out on the best this camera can produce.

Below are a couple of samples, the first shot is the JPEG and the second is the RAW file.  You can see the difference instantly.  Notice how the JPEG lacks contrast and has a slight green tinge to the colours, and how the RAW file seems to have so much more depth to it.  Both files are straight out of the camera and the RAW file unprocessed.

Nikon J1 image in JPEG

Nikon J1 image in JPEG

Nikon J1 in RAW

Nikon J1 image in RAW

Now, having said that and shown you the difference, I later discovered that if I set the camera into full auto mode “Scene auto selector” as Nikon call it, images come out much better in JPEG than having it in Aperture priority mode – the Nikon auto mode obviously works well at deciding how to process individual images, so leave it in full auto and you’ll end up with better JPEGs than using it in any of the more advanced PASM modes, which I guess kind of works well for anyone who never takes it out of auto mode anyway!

Active D-lighting is a pseudo HDR mode, but can leave images looking flat and in desperate need of a boost in contrast. If you’re shooting JPEG perhaps with a high contrast sky then it will help, otherwise in many situations it can leave images looking lifeless.

Below are two examples of where Active D-lighting can make a difference.  The first image is the RAW file with it off and the second the JPEG with it turned on.  Notice much better dynamic range in the sky in the JPEG.  Other than this type of image though, I’d strongly recommend you leave it off, I could most likely process the RAW file to look the same as the JPEG anyway.  Both images are straight out of the camera and unprocessed.

Nikon V1 Active D-lighting comparison

Nikon V1 Active D-lighting OFF

Nikon V1 Active D-lighting comparison

Nikon V1 Active D-lighting ON

Noise is well controlled, leave high ISO noise reduction off if you don’t want soft JPEG images unless a bit of noise really irritates you.  Personally I prefer a sharper image to a noiseless one.  Below is an image taken at ISO 3200 and 1/4s shutter speed, which also demonstrates just how good the VR in the 10-30mm lens is!  Check out those colours at ISO 3200 – this is the totally unprocessed RAW file!

Nikon J1 - ISO 3200 1/4s f/7.1 - RAW

Metering is pretty much spot on no matter what you throw at it.  I tend to leave it in matrix metering unless I know I’m doing something specific and want a particular effect.  Below are a couple of examples that are normally difficult to judge with strong backlighting, but the J1 nails it, metering for the subject and not the background despite the background being overwhelmingly bright in the second example, where many cameras would underexpose.  With the E-P2 and NEX systems I’m always using exposure compensation, but I’ve not once had to use it yet on the J1!  Both images below are taken using matrix metering, where I’d normally expect to use centre weighted or spot metering to get it right.

Nikon J1 metering example

Nikon J1 metering example 1

Nikon J1 metering example

Nikon J1 metering example 2

Night time shooting is a speciality of this camera, even with relatively slow lenses it copes well.  It was darker than it looked in the shots below, you could barely see the trees in the shot with the river and how it focused I have no idea – I know my dSLR wouldn’t have stood a chance in those conditions.  Again, check out the colours at ISO 3200 in the alleyway shot.  These are the RAW files with NO processing, ZERO noise reduction.

Nikon J1 night time shot

Nikon J1 night time shot - ISO 3200 1/10 f/5.6 (handheld)

Nikon J1 night time shot

Nikon J1 night time shot - ISO 1800 1/15 f/3.5

Nikon J1 night time shot

Nikon J1 night time shot - ISO 3200 0.5s f/5.6

Menu system

The menu system is very simple, though that’s not to say it is too basic.  All the options you need are on there without making it over complicated.  It’s a great compromise between the new photographer and someone who wants something a bit more advanced, though dSLR users may be a little underwhelmed, I think it’s about right for the market Nikon is aiming this at.

The control wheel is nice and easy to use, with a firm press required on each of the four points so you don’t end up accidentally pressing the buttons whilst you turn it around as you can on other cameras.

The Good

Metering – gets it pretty much spot on every time, typical reliable Nikon system that obviously owes a lot to their dSLR metering systems.

AF – fast and accurate, what more do you need!  Doesn’t get in the way of taking photos, just lets you get on with it.  Probably the closest I’ve used to a dSLR in a compact system, about a thousand times better than the P7000 and a million times better than the X100!  The Oly EP-3 and I presume the yet to be released OM-D also feature great AF systems, but the Nikon seems to do better in low light – I took it out at 11pm and was still able to focus on landscapes – don’t ask me how it did it, but it only messed up with one shot when I reviewed the images later on the computer.

Interval Timer – fantastic!!!  Something I’ve been missing from my dSLR when using CSC’s – great to see it on here, and a nice thing to use when on holiday taking time-lapse photography without having to lug around a dSLR.

Great high ISO, low light performance.  Useable images right up to ISO 3200.  Sure there is some grain, but it doesn’t get ugly.  Shoot RAW and post-process in Lightroom or Photoshop for best results as Nikon JPEG’s tend to get a little squishy!  Even straight out of the camera RAW files at ISO 3200 are quite useable, and with a little tweaking can come up great.  Grain in the shadows looks pleasant and not distracting even if you don’t process it out.

The Bad

The mode control dial is a bit easy to turn accidentally, leaving you in the wrong mode.  It isn’t as bad as on some other cameras I’ve used, but as I tend to only take photos I taped the dial up to stop it being moved accidentally.

Difficult to achieve shallow depth of field if you’re into that sort of thing (which I am!) which brings me onto – No fast lenses available – yet.  Nikon have promised some fast lenses to come, which should help with the shallow DOF problem somewhat.

No really wide angle option lens available – yet.

Shame there isn’t an option to restrict the camera to ISO 1600 for those who are a little more choosy.

The pink one?…!

 

Nikon 1 group shot

 

Compared to..

For my money it blows both the Nikon P7100 and Canon G12 out of the water, and choosing between the either of these and the J1 is a no-brainer for me as long as you don’t mind a little extra bulk from the lens.  It is a little harder to compare it to the Panasonic LX5 as that is quite a bit smaller so I can understand people being tempted by the LX5 over the J1 on that basis.  Comparing to the NEX-C3 is harder choice, but I’d say for someone who wants a simple to use camera the J1 is the better choice over the Sony, but the Sony is likely to give more options to people wanting something a bit more advanced.  Against an E-PL3 it is a little cheaper, but this one is probably the most difficult one to choose against – it would be down to personal taste after trying both, the Nikon has easy of use on its side, and Olympus has some great prime lenses!

Conclusion

A lovely little camera for what it is designed for.  After initial scepticism from the enthusiast community – myself included – this has turned out to be a great camera, and well thought of by those who have actually handled one and actually used it.

I think it has been helped by recent price drops as previously I would have said it was too expensive, but now that the street price has dropped I think Nikon will see more people taking it up as a better point-and-shoot alternative, or like me, an easier to carry around semi-serious camera with good IQ and one of the best AF systems around.

The J1 with 10-30mm lens retails around £400 as of Feb 2012, with a £50 cashback offer from Nikon running until April 2012 putting it firmly in the price band of high-end point-and-shoot categories.

For someone feeling generous it is the sort of camera you could buy for a family member who isn’t really into photography but wants something that takes top quality images without them having to think about anything and without the camera frustrating them by being slow, struggling to focus, exposing incorrectly etc.  You literally turn it on and it shoots great images straight away.

Buy here at Amazon UK

Nikon 1 J1 Compact System Camera – Black (10-30mm Lens Kit, 10MP) 3 inch LCD Screen
Nikon 1 J1 Compact System Camera – Black (10-30mm and 30-110mm Twin Kit, 10MP) 3 inch LCD Screen

More info

For more info on the Nikon 1, visit the dedicated Nikon site here.

Rating

My rating for this camera 4.5/5 – A superb buy if you’re looking for a camera do the job of taking pictures without getting in the way.  Leave it in full auto and enjoy, or shoot RAW for the advanced user and get great images every time.

If you own this product, please rate it. [kkratings]

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