Nikon 1 J1 first look review

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With the announcement of the Nikon 1 series of compact interchangeable-lens cameras, Nikon became the first of the 'big two' digital SLR makers (the other being Canon) to introduce a mirrorless-system model. Rumours and a countdown clock amped up the excitement surrounding Nikon's camera announcement, which finally happened in New York last week week.

After Nikon's unveiling, journalists left with early production units of the Nikon 1 J1 (the Nikon 1 V1 is still in preproduction) and a trio of lenses. I tested the J1 at a shoot set up by Nikon, complete with models and a dancer.

The Nikon 1 J1's Core Hardware Specs

The J1's sensor -- a 12-megapixel CMOS sensor that measures 0.52 by 0.34 inches -- is smaller than those in the Micro Four-Thirds System cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic (0.68 by 0.5 inches), as well as the APS-C sensors in interchangeable-lens cameras made by Samsung and Sony. However, the Nikon 1-series sensor is significantly bigger than the one in the interchangeable-lens Pentax Q (0.24 by 0.18 inches).

Like the Pentax Q, the Nikon 1 J1 is amazingly pint-size, measuring 4.2 by 2.4 by 1.2 inches. Despite the fact that it has neither a physical grip nor an electronic viewfinder (the Nikon 1 V1 does have an EVF), the J1 is small and light enough to hold and operate comfortably. A 3-inch LCD on the back lets you compose and review your shots.

UK pricing isn't available yet, but US pricing should give some indication of what it'll cost (US prices are without tax, so consider these ex VAT). The standard one-lens kit costs $650 (£419), two separate two-lens kit configurations for $900 (£580) each, and a two-lens kit with a pink (?!) camera body for $930 (£600).

Using the Nikon 1 J1

Because the J1 is geared toward ease of use, I didn't read the reviewer's guide before shooting with the small but well-constructed camera (no user manual was available, either). The J1's operation is pretty straightforward, although consumers will want to at least browse the user manual to understand what lies beneath the mode dial's four modes, Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, Still Image, and Movie. The occasional tip or hint will appear on the LCD, suggesting a trip to the F (function) button for mode-specific options.

I didn't take long to get up to speed on the J1, although initially I overlooked the tiny F (function) button. But the menus are easy -- if a little long -- to navigate. Fortunately, using the camera's command dial to scroll through the options speeds up the process.

Below the mode dial on the camera's rear panel is the typical control layout found on the majority of compact cameras, including display, playback, and menu buttons, as well as a dial for navigating, adjusting exposure compensation, accessing AE/AF lock, and setting the flash and self-timer. The top panel is home to the camera's tiny pop-up flash, on/off button, shutter button, and movie-recording button.

Although the control layout is pretty standard, the J1 requires a bit of menu-diving for anything beyond the basics, namely choosing exposure modes (full manual, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, scene auto selector, and program auto); switching between JPEG, RAW, and RAW + JPEG; selecting frame rates for video; and choosing from standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, and landscape picture controls, among other options.

The camera is nicely kitted out with unique features, and a few of them piqued my interest.

Perhaps one of the most interesting, and potentially useful, functions is the ability to take stills while shooting video--without any breaks in the video. The camera's high-definition video mode maxes out at a 1920-by-1080-pixel resolution at 60 interlaced fields per second (1080i/60fps), saving the results as MOV files.

Another still/video combo mode is Motion Snapshot, which produces a hybrid file. In Motion Snapshot, the camera buffers video and saves about 1 second of 1920-by-1080 video captured just before the shutter snaps. In this mode, video plays back in slow motion (so the clip is a little over 2 seconds long) and fades out, upon which the accompanying still image displays, with one of four themed music soundtracks.

Since I have no chance of ever owning a high-speed Phantom camera, I was happy to see the slow-motion video options on the J1, with frame-rate choices of 400 frames per second at 640-by-240 resolution or 1200 frames per second at 320-by-120 resolution. Yes, the files are physically small and low resolution, but they are fun. In fact, the models at the Nikon shoot--who were having as much, if not more, fun than the photographers using the J1--conducted a few impromptu shoots of their own using the slow-motion video option, with great enthusiasm and some creative results.

Apparently the correct way to shoot when using the J1 is while wearing a ballgown (photo by Theano Nikitas)

During the test shoot, I switched between the camera's 10mm and 10-30mm lenses. With the camera's 2.7X crop factor (10mm=27mm, 10mm-30mm=27mm-81mm), I elected to leave the 30mm-110mm in my camera bag since it was too long for the studio setup. The 10mm-30mm zoom lens, although small when retracted, extends out farther than I anticipated, but it's lightweight and it zooms smoothly.

The only drawback is that I found it too easy to lock the lens when trying to zoom to its widest field of view. Like the lenses of Olympus Pen cameras, the Nikon lens locks when it is retracted, and you must unlock it again before the camera will operate. If you don't get the hang of the procedure, it may make you miss a shot.

Unlike the V1, the J1 doesn't accommodate an external flash, although it should operate as a master and trigger a small third-party flash attached via the tripod mount. Unfortunately, I didn't discover the J1's flash-compensation option until after I tried to use the tiny pop-up flash as a fill flash. The specs indicate that the flash can reach up to 16 feet at ISO 100, but that didn't seem to be the case in my trials. Next time I'll bump up the flash intensity via the menu.

In addition to the J1's 71-point autofocus system, Nikon touts very fast autofocus, thanks to a hybrid autofocus system that switches between phase-detection and contrast-detection AF, depending on the lighting conditions. In low light, the camera uses contrast detection, because it activates an AF illuminator lamp.

True to Nikon's claims, the autofocus is generally pretty fast. Unfortunately, during the test shoot it sometimes locked AF in the wrong place, but I have to say that most of my shots were sharply focused. Face detection worked fairly well when I stepped closer to the models, and it kept the face-detection brackets on a model's face even when I moved the camera.

Continuous shooting starts at 5 frames per second at full resolution, and can zip along as fast as 60 frames per second when you use the camera's Electronic Hi mode. The Smart Photo Selector, similar to Nikon's Best Shot Selector, captures a burst of up to 20 frames and then saves the five best based on various criteria, including exposure and facial recognition.

(photo by Theano Nikitas)

The bottom line, as always, is image quality. During the studio session, I alternated between the Nikon J1 and my Nikon D3s DSLR (with a 70-200mm VR II lens). Of course, it's not fair to compare images between the two -- we all know which camera would win -- but I did see some shots from the J1 that exhibited the same spot-on exposure and rich, vibrant colours when the lighting was good.

I kept the J1's ISO as low as possible, pushing it only to around ISO 400 on a few occasions, with noise reduction turned off. Again, judging from a quick look, some shadowy areas exhibited image noise, even at lower ISOs. That isn't surprising considering the camera's physically small sensor, but according to PCWorld's chart of the best point-and-shoots for image quality, Nikon does know how to make a small-sensored camera that performs well.

I found the Nikon 1 J1 a lot of fun to shoot with, and I think the J1 has the potential to be more than just a cute camera for snapshots. The real deal-sweetener for existing Nikon owners will be when the FT-1 F mount adapter comes out in the coming months, allowing those with a selection of Nikkor lenses to use their existing DSLR lenses with the Nikon 1-series cameras.

As for formal results, we'll tell you what we find out in the upcoming full review.

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