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.
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
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.
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.