Is three the magic number for Nikon and their third iteration of the J-series, a 14.2-megapixel compact interchangeable lens model with a few notable improvements over its J1 and J2 predecessors? From all appearances inside and out, this sequel looks like more of the same...but yet proves to be a little bit better.
The first all-white minimalist edition, the Nikon 1 J1, was one of those conversation starting, head turning product designs, eliciting questions from friends and admiring glances from strangers throughout our testing period. Nikon's design philosophy set out to ride the fine line of "less is more", from inside out. But what impresses visually doesn't always quite translate perfectly, and I was left wanting a few of the physical and menu-based features added back.
Which makes this third edition of the Nikon 1 J-series an interesting update: it looks and feels pretty much the same as before. Upon closer inspection, one may notice a few of the exterior controls have been moved around (most importantly the mode selector has been shifted over from the back to the top), while inside is a new 14.2-megapixel CMOS “CX” format sensor and EXPEED 3A image processor, an upgrade from the previous 10.1 megapixel resolution of version 1.0 and 2.0. But this interchangeable lens system camera looks like a refinement, akin to what Apple's iPhone 4s was to the iPhone 4 before it, where the differences are skin deep rather than apparent at quick glance.
- 14.2 CX-format CMOS image sensor
- EXPEED 3A image processor
- 3.0-inch LCD display
- Integrated Flash
- Advanced Hybrid AF (Autofocus) System
- 73-point AF Array
- 80-millisecond Release Time
- 15 frames-per-second continuous shooting with continuous AF
- ISO 160-6400
- Full 1080p HD Video Recording
- Auto Mode
- Creative Mode
- Full Manual Exposure Controls for Stills (P/S/A/M)
- Selective Color
- Night Landscape
- Night Portrait
- Advanced Movie
- Shoot Full HD Video & Stills at the same time
- Full Manual Exposure Controls for Video (P/S/A/M)
- Slow Motion Movies at 400 or 1200 fps
- Motion Snapshot
- Best Moment Capture
- Slow View
- Smart Photo Selector
- In-Camera electronic Vibration Reduction (eVR)
Available in white, black, silver, burgundy, and beige, the Nikon 1 J3's fashionable consumer intentions are clear, while the inclusion of features like Best Moment Capture Mode (which can either convert 1.33 seconds of live action down to 6.66 seconds of looped video with the option to pick out any frame, and also a rapid fire mode which captures 15 shots with a single press of the shutter button with five best photos chosen by the J3 based upon exposure, focus, and facial recognition) and Creative Mode give users an array of fun in-camera processing tools to alter photos (examples above).
On the other hand, more experienced shooters will be left scratching their heads upon glancing at the J3's command dial, where the usual Program/Shutter Priority/Aperture/Manual modes symbols are reconfigured to include Best Moment Capture and Motion Snapshot modes. Not necessarily bad, but different, and requiring certain more experienced users to change expectations of "where" and "what".
Sample video captured using the Nikon 1 J3 in handheld mode.
Out and about, the J3's improvements begin to reveal themselves. Where the first J1 wasn't necessarily a slowpoke, this 3rd upgrade sees a marked improvement of "on" to "capture" speeds thanks to the camera's 135-point contrast-detect AF, hybrid autofocus system. It almost seems overkill for a smaller sensor, but the 73-point on-sensor phase-detection AF system proved to have an acute ability to focus both quickly and accurately in both indoor and outdoor conditions, so I certainly wasn't complaining. And when you can shoot at 60 frames per second at shutter speeds up to 1/16,000, there's a greater chance of capturing fleeting moments like a bird flying overhead, your child catching their first baseball, or your puppy's first stumbling foray outdoors.
A flat, graphical 2D menu is both a blessing and a curse while navigating the J3 menu. But I suspect those not already indoctrinated in the habits of a DSLR will acclimate easier using Nikon's improved menu system.
In my case, without a puppy or newborn to document, I took the J3 along for photographic duties during two recent trips, one up the California coastline to Montaña de Oro State Park and the other to check springtime blooms out in Joshua Tree. Perhaps a risky proposition, considering the camera's smooth-slick exterior, but there were photographic opportunities aplenty along the crashing waves greeting the rugged shore, an array of nesting coastal birds flying overhead, and the bucolic rolling hills of nearby San Luis Obispo framing us all along our coastal escape, while Joshua Tree's desert landscape revealed macro opportunities all over, with fleeting lizards and snakes sunbathing aplenty, and the expansive desert landscape views to hopefully capture accurately.
Besides being resized for upload, these images are untouched examples of what the J3 is capable of in outdoor, full sunlight settings.
Exposure, contrast and color in auto setting is fantastic even in the brightest of conditions; auto is most likely where the J3 will be left by most users. Sharpness was rarely an issue thanks to the electronic vibration reduction integrated into the body partnered with an all-around acceptable 10-30mm kit lens with a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle and f/5.6 at furthest extended zoom. Tonal transitions were devoid of any artificially pronounced elements even when shooting in JPEG (RAW is available; I personally prefer shooting high quality JPEGs for travel/personal photos for ease/file sizes).
If you're partial to bokeh, the pleasant defocused, blurred background effect, you'll want to take note the J3 isn't stellar at producing creamy glows of shape and light...the results are more impressionistic than revealing the classic traits of ideal bokeh.
Conclusion: The Nikon 1 J3 embodies an example of evolution rather than revolution, shooting everything faster, clearer, and offering in-hand improvements which should entice buyers looking for an interchangeable lens compact camera with aesthetics and ease in mind. And as a sequel, the J3 thankfully proved to be more "The Empire Strikes Back" rather than "Return of the Jedi", only hampered by a price which doesn't quite fit its beginner upgrade camera specs.
Pros: Same beautiful minimalist case design and simplified menu makes the J3 an ideal step-up from point and shooters; proved yet again an able traveler's camera thanks to a quick and accurate auto-focus; small size and lightweight proved a blessing while traveling/testing; images are satisfyingly accurate thanks to 14-megapixel (4,608x3,072 pixels) sensor; mode dial has been moved to top.
Cons: Case design exhibits all the same moderately slippery feel issues as previous models with only a few control placement changes; crunchy bokeh; navigating menu system may require unlearning standardized expectations; in certain conditions JPEGs can exhibit mild halo; smaller 1" sensor; price is a bit high when comparing comparable interchangeable lens models.
(Images: Gregory Han)
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