So, Nikon finally has a mirrorless camera, after what was quite possibly the most dramatic launch event the company has ever conducted. Sure, competing models from Panasonic, Olympus and Sony have already reached the second, or even third generation before Nikon lifted the veil on its J1, but did last month's long-awaited announcement bring us the ILC to rule all ILCs? Well, no, not at all. Nikon isn't targeting pros or even advanced amateur shooters with its latest addition to the interchangeable lens camera family. Instead, the company is marketing its J1 to soccer moms (and dads), fashion-conscious young folk, and casual shooters who want some of the versatility of a DSLR, but are willing to sacrifice excellent image quality for a more compact design. But what about the rest of us? Will Nikon one day reward our patience with a true class competitor? Perhaps, but that's definitely not what we have here.

Nikon built the $650 J1 "from the ground up" -- a reference to its 10.1 megapixel, CX-size sensor with a 2.7x crop factor, along with a handful of quirky features that we probably won't use, but that some of you (or perhaps your family members) may love. Jump past the break to see what we really liked about the camera, and what left us rather unimpressed. And it you're dying to judge its performance for yourself, you can check out a handful of untouched images at the coverage link below the conclusion, along with a variety of sample videos spattered throughout.
Gallery | 37 Photos

Nikon 1 J1 review


Hardware

The J1 is cute. Like, fluffy white kitten cute. It brightens your day just by hanging around and being fun to play with, but you probably won't be impressed when it comes time to capture some serious photos (like trying to get that tiny kitty to snatch up a family of mice). The rounded edges, well-disguised components and overall clean finish make it clear that Nikon designers put a lot of care into this camera's physical appearance. It's just as much a fashion accessory as it is a relatively capable imaging device, and, depending on which color you choose, it's likely to make quite a statement.


There's no flip-up LCD, as there is on Sony's NEX series, so you'll be spending a lot of time holding the camera at eye level. Fortunately, the 460k-dot, three-inch LCD has a decent viewing angle, which will come in handy if shooting from below or above is an absolute must. The display occupies most of the two-tone plastic J1's rear, and is complemented by a healthy selection of dedicated controls. A mode dial lets you switch between Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, movie and still image modes (the latter of which enables exposure mode selections like the default Scene Auto Selector, programmed auto, shutter- and aperture-priority, along with the ever-so-critical manual). You'll find a playback zoom rocker above the main dial, which also doubles as the shutter speed control in manual mode. To the left is a function button, which serves a variety of purposes depending on your mode -- exactly what it controls is defined with a text overlay when you switch to a different mode.


Further down is a display button, playback button, a five-position wheel with dedicated self-timer, flash, exposure compensation and auto exposure/focus lock controls, along with an OK selector in the center. There are menu and trash can buttons at the bottom, and a physical flash slider, which releases the tiny (and rather bizarre looking) flash arm. On the colored top panel, a power button, a shutter release and a movie record button sit all to the right of the retractable flash. The video record button only works when the mode dial is set to video, so you can't simply press it to start recording in any mode. Some users may find the record button's positioning to be a bit awkward -- it's at the top right corner, where you'd normally find a power button or shutter release.


Up front there's a lens release button, which lets you swap out the included 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens for any of three other compatible 1-series optics, including a 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 ($250), 10mm f/2.8 "pancake" lens ($250), or a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6, which would be our lens of choice if it cost, say, a third of its $750 MSRP. Oh, and don't be fooled by those focal lengths -- Nikon opted to avoid including the CX sensor's 2.7x multiplication factor, making that last lens comparable to another manufacturer's 27-270mm, for example.


The camera itself is constructed almost entirely of plastic, but it still feels quite sturdy. You probably won't want to drop it on the street or even a football field, as you may have managed to do with one of Nikon's pro-level DSLRs, but we don't see it falling apart or even chipping with heavy use. We tossed the camera in the main compartment of a messenger bag (with the tiny lens cap attached, of course), and didn't notice any markings. The J1 is small and light enough to wear comfortably around your neck, but we opted to keep it out of sight more often than not, if only to avoid the bright white finish attracting awkward stares.


Performance

We certainly weren't blown away by the J1's performance. That $650 price tag may imply excellent, always consistent shooting, but that just wasn't the case. Instead, we found a camera that did quite well when shooting under a bright sun, but often had trouble selecting the correct white balance, exposing and focusing in dim light. Nikon designed this camera for less advanced photographers -- those making the jump from point-and-shoots to ILCs -- so we left most of the settings untouched during our test period (after disabling the annoying and unnecessary beep), considering many future J1 owners will probably stick to minor adjustments, staying away from things like manual white balance and exposure compensation.

We were, however, impressed with the J1's ability to capture sharp, smooth and vibrant video -- some of the time. We shot night scenes, a tricky pyrotechnics/fireworks display, and in bright sunlight. Unfortunately, as you'll see in the clip below, some conditions presented a challenge for the camera when it came to focusing and exposure, not to mention the bizarre flickering that we occasionally experienced, regardless of shutter speed (we reached out to Nikon regarding this issue and are awaiting comment).

Update: The flickering issue that we experienced was due to our failure to adjust the flicker reduction settings after arriving in Japan. Click here for more detail, and an updated sample video.


Surprisingly, the camera offers full manual control while shooting video, letting you adjust the aperture, shutter speed -- even the ISO sensitivity -- before capturing both HD and slow motion videos. Manual control can be tricky when shooting video when you pan between scenes with varying brightness in a single clip, but aperture priority is an option as well, and the J1 can compensate by adjusting ISO in this mode. The camera can also capture high-res stills while shooting video. But you are limited to 15 stills per video clip (you can reset the counter but stopping and resuming your recording), and the photos you snap in video mode will be captured in 16:9 format. There's also a pair of front-mounted mics for stereo audio capture.


Perhaps our favorite J1 feature is its silent shooting. Because the camera lacks a mechanical shutter (unlike its V1 sibling), you can snap photos undetected, just as you're able to do with a point and shoot. This certainly comes in handy for photographers who desire a bit of discretion in order to avoid attracting the attention of their subjects. From our experience, again, you're going to want to opt for a more traditional body color -- our sample's white finish made the camera stand out much more than an audible shutter ever could. The electronic shutter also enables the camera to capture an image exactly at the same moment that you press the shutter release. The mechanical shutter in traditional ILCs results in a slight, but noticeable delay, that the J1 has managed to eliminate.

Image quality

It's certainly safe to conclude that the J1 photographs well. That is to say, it made a mighty fine subject when posing before the lens of our NEX-C3. But we're more concerned with what happens when those cameras switch roles. Sadly, many of the photos we shot looked like they came from a Nikon point-and-shoot -- perhaps even a pricey superzoom -- not a mid-range interchangeable lens camera. The camera offers a native ISO range of 100-3200 with a "Hi 1" ISO 6400 option. Unfortunately, noise was visible not only at ISO 3200, but even creeped in at 100 as well.


That said, it's important to put the camera into perspective. The user base Nikon is going after here with its J1 may not have any qualms with image quality -- pics won't look like they came from a high-end DSLR, but J1 owners will generally be able to shoot the photos they're aiming to capture, albeit at a slightly lesser quality than some competing models. Hit up the more coverage link at the bottom for a meaty zip file chock full of untouched samples.
Gallery | 86 Photos

Nikon 1 J1 sample shots


Shooting modes

We were generally unimpressed with the J1's performance, but it's tough to argue that designers didn't put significant thought into Nikon's new ILCs. There are four main shooting modes, all controlled using a dedicated dial on the rear. You'll likely spend the majority of your time shooting in the familiar still image mode, marked by a green camera icon. From there you can select between five exposure modes, including Scene Auto Selector, programmed auto, shutter-priority, aperture-priority and manual. There's a RAW option when shooting in still photo mode as well. Nothing too fancy. Once you turn that main mode dial, however, things get pretty interesting.


There's a wavy icon representing Motion Snapshot mode. This feature lets you capture one-second silent clips to pair with each image, along with an audio theme (Beauty, Waves, Relaxation and Tenderness). Then it presents the video with a 16:9 still, captured simultaneously. When you go to view your photo, that video clip plays in slow motion (one second becomes two), along with the audio theme you selected before you hit the shutter release. Stills and vids appear together when played back on the camera, but are captured as two separate files (one .MOV and one .JPG) with the same name -- so they're easy to find when browsing your SD card from a computer.

Next up is Smart Photo Selector. As its name implies, this mode allows the camera to snap a handful of consecutive images of your subject, then identify the frame that's not only sharpest, but that also offers the best composition. Because of the camera's silent electronic shutter, you won't need to deal with a rapid-fire shutter sound either. This feature is particularly useful for shooting in low light, or if you have a moving subject. Still, we preferred to use the more familiar manual or aperture-priority shooting modes, which offers the highest level of control for advanced shooters.

We've already provided an overview of the HD video capture options, which include 1080/30p, 1080/60i and 720/60p with H.264 compression. The J1 offers a few unique slow motion modes as well, though, including a bizarrely wide 8:3 (think 16:6, not 16:9) slow motion mode that snaps up to five seconds of 640 x 240-pixel video at 400 fps, played back at 29.97 fps. And if you don't mind tiny video clips, you can bump that video capture speed all the way up to a whopping 1,200 fps at 320 x 120-pixel res. You can shoot for up to five seconds in that mode as well, which will net you a whopping three minutes and 20 seconds of footage. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done.


User Interface

Nikon completely redesigned its user interface for its 1 cameras, making it intuitive enough for newbies to navigate without digging through a manual. The menu is divided into options for playback, capture, and system settings. You'll only see options relevant to the current shooting mode -- you can't adjust still photo resolution while in video mode, for example. Sure, it's not ideal for changing a handful of settings at once, since you'll need to jump between modes, but it certainly helps to keep things simple. As we mentioned earlier, there are a variety of dedicated buttons, so you'll really only need to jump into the main menu to make top-level adjustments.


The competition

If you're a diehard Nikon fan who absolutely won't consider a camera from another manufacturer, then you may want to jump past this section. However, more reasonable consumers will definitely want to read on. If the J1 had made it to market two or three years ago, we would have said, hands-down, this is the camera you need to own. Fortunately, we now have a variety of excellent options -- perhaps none as sleek as the J1, but we wouldn't go so far as to call any of the competing models ugly.


If image quality is more important than looks, advanced photographers will probably want to search elsewhere. $650 is a lot to spend on any camera, and when you consider that Sony's NEX-C3 is selling for the exact same price (and is available now), that has been, and still remains, our first choice. The C3 excels in nearly every area -- pro-level control, color and exposure accuracy, and overall image quality -- though the J1 does offer a few unique and clever features, including slow-motion shooting and Motion Snapshot, along with that silent shutter. So does that make this camera a close second? Sadly, not by a long shot. That title would go to the Olympus E-P3, which offers class-leading focus speeds and consistent performance. Nikon's new ILC is more class competitive with, say, the novice-friendly Panasonic GF-3 or Pentax's Q (though we haven't yet had a chance to thoroughly test the latter).

Wrap-up

We really wanted to like the Nikon J1 -- we've certainly waited long enough for it. So can you blame us for building up some great expectations? Sadly, this isn't the camera we were hoping for. From a range of colorful body options to the cutesy marketing video playing at in-store displays, it's clear that the company is aiming to make the mirrorless category more mainstream, while perhaps overlooking the wants and needs of its loyal professional and advanced amateur customer base. That said, we can still see the J1 being a big hit, and would even consider recommending it to a few select friends and family members, if it weren't for that $650 price tag. This camera would be a more reasonable option at, say, $499 -- especially if Nikon opted to throw in two lenses -- but until that happens, it's difficult to suggest the J1 as a top pick even for beginners. For now, we're just going to have to accept that the Nikon ILC of our dreams has yet to arrive, as we hold on to our credit cards and keep on waiting.

Update: We previously experienced a mysterious flickering issue while recording video. Nikon suggested that we may not have changed the flicker reduction settings before testing the camera in Japan. While the United States uses 60Hz current, Japan and many other countries in Asia and Europe use 50Hz current, and an adjustment is often needed to compensate for this difference, which is particularly apparent with fluorescent lighting. We've added an updated video clip below, and apologize for the oversight. This issue was not factored into our review, however, so no further modifications are necessary.

Nikon

Nikon 1 J1

Pros

  • Compact, attractive design
  • Manual control in video mode
  • Built-in flash

Cons

  • Inconsistent performance
  • Average image quality
  • Expensive
Summary

Nikon's first mirrorless camera has a stylish design, but performance misses the mark for pro and other advanced users.