Nikon 1 J1: The Fashionably Minimalist Traveler

Nikon 1 J1: The Fashionably Minimalist Traveler

Gregory Han
May 11, 2012

Product: Nikon 1 J1
Price: $649.95 ($549.00 via Amazon)
Rating: Recommend*

The Nikon 1 J1 is a new design direction for Nikon, a mirrorless compact CX format sensor with a proprietary Nikon 1 lens mount, all in a minimalist form factor aimed at the enthusiast looking to step up from a budget point and shoot, but not yet ready to commit to a full DSLR model. From the pared down menu UI, the absence of a view finder, to the J1's marble smooth unadorned body, everything about the J1 communicates simplicity, joining an ever-growing subcategory of cameras which purport to offer the best of both worlds of a DSLR's performance with the convenience of a point and shoot. But is the J1 just a fashion statement or can it replace carrying around a full-size DSLR?

As an avid amateur travel and hiking photographer, I normally carry two cameras with me: 1) a larger Nikon D7000 DSLR with an assortment of lenses, and 2) a pocket-sized Canon S90. To use a fantasy fiction analogy, it's like carrying a two-handed bastard sword for serious business, and a dagger for close-proximity strikes (I think I've been watching too much Game of Thrones). In tight quarters or when time is of the essence, it's often easier to use a capable point and shoot model, while other times the optics capabilities and sensor quality of a DSLR seem a necessity. But it can become a pain to go between the two, back and forth like a bickering pair trying to win my attention and favor.

Thus, I've always been curious about switching over to a mirrorless model, compromising a little bit from both sides for the all-in-one convenience of a lightweight camera with lens swapping options. The last several months, I've made the Nikon 1 J1 my primary travel camera, taking it along on hikes up into the Santa Monica Mountains, around my neck while investigating the Central Coast of California, and even across the Atlantic to Italy. Along the way, I learned not only about the benefits of migrating to a mirrorless model, but also was reminded why I'll probably remain a two camera user.

Detail of 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

Design/Hardware: the J1 is one of those designs which seem to tempt curiosity, the all glowing all-white body inviting strangers to ask "which camera is that?", questions about whether I liked it, and occasionally requests to hold it. That never happened with either the D7000 or the S90 except amongst camera nerds!

It's this mass appeal design which makes the J1 an undeniable fashion statement around the neck; it's cute and it knows it. But the design is also a little quirky to use because of its very slick front face. I never dropped the camera, even while hiking one handed up some steep terrain (thank goodness, as I wouldn't want to return the review unit wrecked). But this could have been because I was holding the J1 as careful as a mother with a baby while hiking, since the body lacks any textural grip. That being said, the camera isn't being marketed as an outdoor adventure camera, and in normal snapshot use in the likes of wandering the relaxed streets of Santa Barbara or roaming the fashionable streets of Milan, the J1's ergonomics worked out fine even one-handed.

Clean and simplified menus are visually pleasing, but somewhat frustrating to navigate

Modes/UI: Where I feel a little less forgiving is the J1's simplified controls, both physically and on its on-screen menu. I applaud Nikon's aim to clean up and simplify the user experience, eliminating many of the mystery buttons dotting the back and top of similar mid-range models. But in the process of throwing out the bathwater, the proverbial baby seems to have gone missing. Switching out of Auto and into programmed auto, shutter-priority, aperture-priority and manual requires jogging thru the options menu instead of a quick turn of the dial, ironically a more complicated process rather than the standard mode dial solution.

Most J1 users are likely to keep the camera in its still image Auto mode (RAW is nice, but we'd expect highest quality JPEGs will suffice for 95% of J1 owners), but anyone who wants to tweak settings will find themselves a