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.
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.
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 bit frustrated having to navigate a screen menu rather than use a no-look mechanical dial. The mode dial also offers users three additional shooting modes: Smart Photo Selector, HD Video, and Motion Snapshot.
The most interesting of the three for me was the HD Video...not because it could capture video in an assortment of resolutions (1080/30p, 1080/60i and 720/60p with H.264 compression), but specifically for it's gimmicky-fun super slow motion mode. Setting up shots can be difficult, as shown in the blunder below, but the results can be captivating. Just be sure to have your scene brightly lit if you want to enjoy those 400 fps at 640 x 240 (the 1,200 fps at 320 x 120-pixel resolution is too small to really matter). You have the option to mess around the the shutter speed, aperture and ISO sensitivity for your slow motion masterpiece.
Motion Snapshot mode allows users to capture a second of movie footage and a still image each time the shutter is pressed; the video shown in slow motion over the course of 2.5 seconds, ending with the still image, accompanied with optional music. To play back your Motion Snapshot on a computer, you have to download the files to your computer and use the included Short Movie Creator software to convert...a hassle for modest payoff.
The third, Smart Photo Selector, offers an actual useful feature. Press the shutter in this mode and the J1 captures up to five photos in one burst, with the option to manually chose the best of the bunch or have the camera determine the photo to keep based on composition, focus, blur, face detection, smile and blink detection. If you're prone to inconsistent quality photos and don't need to take a large batch in a short time, this could be an ideal mode to shoot in, especially snapshots/portraits of groups of friends (all without having to say, "Okay, just ONE more shot!").
Performance: While day time photos in the sun are remarkably clear with a responsive autofocus, the J1 can get a little noisy once the sun bids you farewell. Still, during the day, even in mixed lighting conditions, the J1 produced impressive images considering the inherent limitations of a CX sensor almost half the size of the Micro Four Thirds competition. I used the camera in many situations where stabilizing the camera was difficult, but blurry photos were the exception, not the rule. And the camera was able to pull acceptable detail (albeit with noise) while shooting at night, but the results were on par with my Canon S90 point and shoot rather than a step up (which isn't bad at all, just not an improvement despite the better glass).
What's hard to measure, but easy to report, is how fun the Nikon 1 J1 turned out to be while traveling to locales where my girlfriend and I would usually lug our DSLRs. The J1 is a camera with compromises, and the J1 wouldn't be my first option to replace my banged up S90, but somehow I kept reaching for it any time I knew it wasn't absolutely necessary to bring the arsenal of macro and ultra-wide lenses to arm the D7000. The 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens proved to be "good enough" for the majority of shots, though I would have much preferred the $250 10mm f/2.8 "pancake" lens for a smaller form factor and the joys of shooting a faster prime (a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 are the two other lens options).
Instead, the J1 is sort of your excuse to just forget about the details and enjoy the moment with a snapshot mentality...BUT with the option to get a little more involved if need be and if time permits. I'm hoping the next updated model will bring back a few of the mechanical controls, add some grip to the front, increase the sensor size, all for a lower price (not unreasonable considering the competition).
At original list price, the Nikon 1 J1 is difficult to recommend over comparable mirror less models from the likes of Sony and Olympus or Canon's super-dooper point and shoot, the S100. But with online prices for the J1 dipping down near $200 discounts, the camera's pros begin to outweigh its cons. Once the Nikon 1 J1 prices drop further on discount as new models are released, it will be an easier model to recommend as a first or secondary camera.
Pros: Surprisingly good outdoor photos despite CX sensor; body design wins a lot of curious inquiry; fast autofocus; portable size and weight makes it easy to travel with all day; very good 3" screen.
Cons: Simplified controls are too simplified, burying certain features and controls into a rabbit's hole of submenus; body can be slippery to hold; missing an electronic view finder; battery life is shorter than we'd like (carrying an extra battery is advisable)
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