Here in the United States, the advent of the mirrorless interchangeable lens digital camera dates back to mid-June 2009 and the Olympus PEN E-P1. By September of that year, Panasonic had entered the fray with the Lumix GF1, and since then Samsung, Sony, and Pentax have introduced products in this market segment. But while rumors swirled around Canon and Nikon, both Olympus and Panasonic introduced third-generation mirrorless models before either of the Big Two officially acknowledged their intent to enter the race.
All of that changed on September 21, 2011 with the announcement of the Nikon 1 system comprising J1 and V1 mirrorless models that become available on October 20. The J1 is the entry-level camera while the V1 contains a few extra features such as electronic viewfinder (EVF), higher dot composition LCD monitor and an i-TTL sensor that can accommodate an optional external flash unit.
Outwardly, the cameras appear very similar with the V1 being differentiated by a hump on the top of the body housing the EVF and a small ridge on the right front to afford a better grip. Internally, the image capture hardware is identical: a 10.1 megapixel resolution CMOS sensor measuring 13.2 x 8.8mm, designated as "CX" in Nikon terminology and providing a 2.7x crop factor. Nikon's new EXPEED 3 image processing engine drives the system and reportedly provides rapid response, fast AF and high-speed performance. In addition, the new dual core EXPEED 3 processor works to maximize battery efficiency while providing high-speed processing and faster transfer rates.
Both cameras feature a new AF system that, according to Nikon, provides "...incredibly fast, split-second response." Nikon goes on to describe it as a "...newly developed hybrid system that continuously evaluates the scene at hand for optimal results, and can switch between phase detection and contrast detect AF to best suit the scene." Nikon claims this new system is the "world's fastest autofocus," albeit under a set of conditions that we will discuss later.
The nominal continuous high-speed shooting rate is 5 frames per second (fps) at full resolution, but the electronic shutter offers 10, 30, or 60 fps rates at full resolution as well. The camera can capture still images in JPEG, NEF (RAW) or NEF/JPEG combinations. Full HD video can be captured at 30 or 60 fps, and there are rates of 400 and 1200 fps for slow motion work. ISO ranges from 100 to 3200, with a 6400 setting available.
The J1 is available in red, white, black, silver and pink bodies and will be offered in kit form: a single lens kit with a 10mm f/2.8 pancake lens at an MSRP of $649.95; a two lens wide angle kit with the pancake and a 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom and a two lens zoom kit offering the 10-30 and a 30-110 mm f/3.8-5.6. Both two lens kits retail for $899.95. Finally, there is a dedicated pink two lens zoom kit that lists for $929.95, but includes a pink leather hand strap as well as a pink wrapping cloth not found in the other zoom kits. Here's a look at the wide and telephoto ends of the 10-30 and the telephoto end of the 30-110; that covers the focal range extremes offered by these three lenses.
The basic kit menu is the easy part - not all camera body colors are available in every kit. White, black, silver and red bodies are available in the one lens kit; white, silver and red in the two lens kits and pink is only available in that special two lens zoom kit.
A fourth lens is also available - a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 power zoom developed specifically for movie capture. And just like Henry Ford's Model T it can be had in any color so long as it's black. The three zoom lenses are VR (stabilized), but in a departure from past practice activation is accomplished via camera menu rather than a switch on the lens itself. An adapter is in the works that will allow Nikon F mount lenses to be used on Nikon 1 bodies. The camera utilizes SD/SDHC/SDXC memory media - there is no internal memory. Nikon includes a lithium-ion battery and charger, USB cable, camera strap, printed user's manual and CD-ROM software with each camera.
Just about everybody else with horses in this race are on their second or third generation offerings - let's see how Nikon's initial foray stands up to this competition.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The J1's metal body is rectangular, rounded at each end with small-radius curves on the rest of the body's edges. The front and top of the camera body are quite simple and uncluttered, with body-colored panels for the pop-up flash and power on-off button along with silver shutter and dedicated movie capture buttons on the top. The front of the body has dual microphones, a focus assist lamp, infrared receiver and the lens release button as its primary structures.
The camera back could easily pass for a typical compact digital in design and layout, with the 3.0-inch monitor taking up most of the space. Arrayed vertically along the right rear of the camera body adjacent to the monitor are dedicated buttons for display, playback, menu and deleting images; there are also a rotary multi selector, mode dial, function and image zoom buttons. The flash deployment button is atop the left rear of the camera body above the monitor. The J1 body and accompanying lenses seem well-built and nicely finished.
The body itself measures approximately 4.2 x 2.4 x 1.2 inches and weighs approximately 8.3 ounces. With the 30-110mm lens attached and zoomed to full telephoto dimensions become 4.2 x 2.4 x 6 inches. In shooting configuration with this lens (battery and memory card onboard, camera strap attached) weight is approximately 17.5 ounces. Here's a look at the J1 with the 30-110 lens retracted and zoomed to full telephoto.
Ergonomics and Controls
Our J1 review unit was the white variant and the first impression upon picking it up was the shiny looking white paint was nowhere near as slippery as it appeared to be. I happen to be currently reviewing the Olympus E-PM1 Pen Mini as well, and its lightly textured matte black finish offers less grip than the Nikon paint. When shooting, fingers on the front of the Olympus tend to want to slide around a bit; not so with the J1.
The tip of the index finger fell naturally onto the shutter button when the camera was picked up. The thumb of the shooting hand overlies the rotary controller and the four lower buttons on the camera back but inadvertent control activations were rare. When shooting the camera two-handed, make sure to keep the left index finger atop the camera body rather than allowing it to wrap around the front where it is a good candidate to obscure the focus assist lamp. Nikon makes a GR-N2000 camera grip for the J1 as an accessory.
The mode dial on the camera back strikes me as having just about the right degree of resistance to minimize inadvertently moving it out of the chosen shooting mode and the buttons surrounding the multi-controller (and the multi-controller itself) are sized and inset just enough to make them easily accessible while at the same time being fairly resistant to being activated by operator error. The shutter button has a clearly defined half push for autofocus purposes, followed by a short additional push to complete capture.
Menus and Modes
Nikon's press release for the J1 speaks of targeting consumers that always carry a camera with them and indicates the design goals were to engineer a camera with maximum ease of use, featuring a clean button layout with a simple interface and easy-to-use camera controls intuitively placed for any user. To this end, menus in the J1 are relatively minimal and highly unlikely to surprise any user of a compact digital camera with respect to their layout or function. In addition, menu font size is relatively large, a big help in bright outdoor conditions. Here's a quick look at some typical J1 menus. With the camera set in the still image shooting mode pushing the menu button produces this screen:
Pushing the menu button takes you back to last menu and menu topic before the camera began its present shooting mode. Scrolling up or down to the playback or setup menus produces these screens:
Returning to the shooting menu, if we scroll right to enter the menu then scroll down one spot to the "exposure mode" selection and hit the "OK" button in the center of the multi-controller we are presented with this screen:
The screen indicates we have selected aperture priority as our shooting mode for still image capture. If instead of scrolling to the exposure mode selection we had gone further and chosen "picture control" we would have then been presented with a two-page submenu of color palette options. In this submenu we chose to highlight "standard" and then scrolled to enter this option which produced the following screen:
We can then do additional scrolls within the screen to change image parameters for the standard color palette. Once we've made changes on the screen they must be locked in by pressing the OK button on the multi-controller.
Menu size will vary depending on the particular shooting mode chosen on the mode dial - the shooting menu for the still image manual shooting modes runs to three pages; the same menu for the smart image selector mode is barely over one-page. Within menus some individual items may or may not be available depending on the particular shooting mode or other settings in the camera.
If menu offerings on the J1 were to be described as "minimalist" then capture modes are beyond that, something on the order of "Spartan." The J1 mode dial offers four icons and these comprise the four major shooting regimes for the J1: motion snapshot, smart photo selector, still image and movie. To be sure, the still image icon offers an automatic mode along with the four classic manual exposure methods, but compared to the non-Nikon cameras in this niche which typically offer a number of scene specific modes in addition to manual and automatic options the J1 is doing its part to not confuse new users with an overabundance of modes.
The 3.0-inch LCD monitor on the J1 has a 460,000 dot composition and is adjustable for seven levels of brightness. Area of coverage looks to be approximately 100%. Even with the brightness adjustment range the monitor can be difficult to use at times in bright outdoor conditions, and particularly if the camera has to be held at odd angles that don't offer a direct view of the screen. The monitor generated a peak brightness of 447 nits with a contrast ratio of 843:1, values which fall just a bit under the 500 nit threshold deemed desirable for peak brightness but above the 500 to 800:1 range we like to see for contrast ratios.
My experience has been that camera monitors with peak brightness scores below the 500 threshold but with contrast ratios at or above the upper range tend to do a bit better overall outdoors, and the J1 would fall into this category. Not the best monitor performance I've seen outdoors, but not the worst - and the prime reason I'm a big fan of viewfinders whenever a manufacturer can manage to fit one on their product, or an articulating monitor in the alternative.
Nikon provided us with the 10mm, 10-30mm and 30-100mm lenses for the J1 review, and that 10-30 lens is part of the equation giving rise to Nikon's claim of the "world's fastest autofocus." I mentioned earlier that there were conditions upon which the claim is based, and here they are: using the 10-30 lens at maximum wide-angle with the AF area mode set to single-point.
We've got a quiver of lenses and the battery is charged so let's get the J1 into the field and give that autofocus a try.
When site editor Allison Johnson got a preview of the new cameras in New York, she noted that a Nikon senior product manager remarked that the Nikon 1 system was not being promoted as an equal to the DSLR but rather as a means for users to take a lot of pictures spontaneously without having to resort to a large DSLR and set of lenses.
Any thoughts that the J1 is trying to play in the DSLR league begin to dissipate upon startup. The J1 powers up and presents a focus icon in about 1.5 seconds - I was able to get off a first shot in about 2 to 2.25 seconds. This is about average for cameras in this class, but lags well behind even entry-level DSLRs. Single shot-to-shot times (using a Delkin SDHC UHS-1 95MB/sec card) were basically as quick as you could reestablish focus and make a full push following previous capture. The J1 fired off 28 full resolution JPEG/fine quality captures at the nominal 5 fps continuous rate before the buffer took a break. Write times for these 28 captures ran about 20 seconds.
There are also electronic high-speed settings that allow captures at 10, 30, and 60 fps. The catch here is that these elevated shooting speeds load the buffer after 12 frames. Write times for these bursts ran about 7.5 seconds at 10 fps, with the 30 and 60 fps bursts taking about 9 seconds each. When shooting at the electronic high speed frame rates the J1 focuses on the center of the frame at 10 fps while focus is fixed for the first capture of the burst at the 30 and 60 fps rates. Flash is not available when shooting at the electronic high-speed rates.
Switching to a 45MB/sec card had no effect on the single shot to shot times, but write time for the 10 fps burst slowed to 9 seconds; write times for the 30 and 60 fps bursts were 9.5 seconds. Finally, a 30MB/sec class 10 SDHC card produced approximately 1 second write times on single shots; almost a 1 minute write time for the 28 image burst, and 22 to 23 second write times for the 10, 30, and 60 fps shooting rates. Clearly the J1 benefits from memory media with at least a 45MB/sec speed, although additional small gains can be realized in continuous shooting modes if users are willing to spend the extra money to equip the camera with 95MB/sec memory media.
Shutter lag time on the J1 was 0.01 seconds, as good as the best cameras in the class. AF acquisition time came in at 0.21 seconds, which trails the recently tested Olympus E-PL 3 by 0.08 seconds but is still fairly quick overall. I can say that when I shot the J1 with the set up Nikon claims produces the world's fastest autofocus the camera proved very quick.
Shutter Lag (press-to-capture, pre-focused)
|Nikon 1 J1||0.01|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3||0.01|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||0.05|
AF Acquisition (press-to-capture, no pre-focus)
|Nikon 1 J1||0.21|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3||0.22|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||0.39|
|Nikon 1 J1||28||5.1 fps|
|Olympus E-PL3||11||4.7 fps|
|Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3||20||4.2 fps|
|Sony alpha NEX-5||∞||2.6 fps|
*Note: Continuous shooting framerates are based on the camera's fastest full-resolution JPEG continuous shooting mode, using the fastest media type available (300x CF, SDHC, etc.). "Frames" notes the number of captures recorded per burst before the camera stops/slows to clear the buffer.
In any event, the J1 autofocus acquisition times are fairly speedy overall, and don't appear to suffer a significant drop-off as the camera is zoomed to long telephoto lengths in good light. AF times lengthened a bit in dimmer lighting conditions with the effect being more pronounced at telephoto versus wide-angle. The camera is equipped with a focus assist lamp.
When the J1 has a VR (stabilized) lens onboard both normal and active stabilization options are available. Normal applies to situations where the shooter is positioned on a nonmoving surface, while active is used when shooting from a moving vehicle or platform. Of the four lenses currently available for the J1 only the 10mm pancake lens is not stabilized.
The J1 built-in flash must be deployed manually and has a guide number of 16 feet at ISO 100, which equates to a maximum flash distance of about 5.7 feet using the 10mm pancake lens at maximum aperture, f/2.8. Slower lenses will offer even shorter range, but as we'll see later, ramping up ISO as a means to increase flash distance is a viable option with the J1. While the J1's electronic shutter can produce shutter speeds as quick as 1/16000 of a second, its flash sync speed is a relatively pedestrian 1/60 of a second or slower. Flash recycle times were quick - the J1 was basically able to fire the flash again as soon as writing was complete and focus was reacquired. The J1 will deactivate the flash and shutter should a series of rapid flash firings raise the flash temperature to the point where it might cause flash damage.
Nikon lists 230 shots as battery life using a CIPA standard. I tested the J1 battery to exhaustion at Disneyland and got the following results: 213 still shots and 20 video clips averaging about 20 seconds each. About 80 of the still shots were time exposures averaging anywhere from 2 to 8 seconds each; 78 stills were taken at the 10 FPS electronic high-speed shooting mode. No flash usage, but there was a lot of review (chimping) of images and videos during the course of the day. And night... here are daytime and nighttime stills of the Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Suffice it to say J1 users would be well advised to take at least one spare battery for all day shooting sessions. When the J1 battery indicator displays only a single segment remaining, it's time to start thinking about going to a fresh battery. The camera will shoot with the battery in that state for some time, but it won't be long before the next display you see is a gray screen with words essentially saying there's not enough battery power to continue taking pictures.
The 10mm pancake lens showed a tiny bit of barrel distortion (or perhaps just the slightest mustache distortion). The frame was fairly consistently sharp with just the slightest hint of softness in the corners. There was a bit of chromic aberration (purple fringing) in some high contrast boundary areas, but these areas generally required enlargement to the 300 to 400% range for the defect to become readily visible.
The 10-30mm zoom demonstrated a more pronounced, yet still small amount of barrel distortion at wide-angle. The telephoto end of the zoom appeared to be fairly distortion free. At the wide-angle end of the zoom there is some slight softness in the corners, but the frame looks fairly consistently sharp otherwise. At the telephoto end the lens seems uniformly sharp across the frame. There is a bit of chromic aberration at both ends of the zoom, but this defect is slight and only readily visible at enlargements of 400% or more.
The 30-110mm zoom produced barrel distortion to about the same degree as the 10-30 at wide-angle; there was just the slightest hint of pincushion distortion at telephoto, but I doubt that this defect would be apparent to any but the most hypercritical pixel peepers on rare occasions. Chromic aberration, while present at both ends of the zoom in this lens, was even better controlled than in the other lenses. Instances were rare and again required 300 to 400% enlargements to become visible, let alone objectionable.
The 1080 HD video produced by the J1 was quite good at both the 60 and 30 fps capture rates. The camera will record the sound of the manual zoom lenses being zoomed during video capture, and is also sensitive to wind noise - there is a wind cut feature available. Nikon reports that the 10-100mm power zoom is silent when being zoomed during capture. The 400 and 1200 fps slow motion capture modes in the 8:3 aspect ratio can have some interesting applications but the pictures pale in comparison with the true HD video quality.
Download Sample Video
Because the J1 is equipped with CMOS sensor, the possibility of rolling shutter effect on vertical straight lines could come into play during video capture when the camera is being panned, particularly at a rapid pace. The J1 turned in a very good performance in this regard, demonstrating little if any skewing.
I took the J1 on two major outings to test image quality - in the first instance I set the camera on automatic (scene auto selector) and spent the morning at the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park. The goal here was to produce default images that would be representative of what a user who was content to let the camera function fully automatically could achieve. Here are four examples:
Reviewing the metadata for each capture provided some insights into how the J1 goes about business automatically. For example, in the Auto 1 shot the camera set ISO at 250 and used face priority area autofocus and an automatic shooting mode. In Auto 2 ISO was 140 with automatic area autofocus and a landscape shooting mode. Despite the day being overcast and rainy, the J1 held ISO sensitivities in a range between 125 and 250, and seemed more content to accept lower shutter speeds rather than ramp-up ISO to higher noise producing levels.
Overall, default images were pleasing as to color fidelity and sharpness, but I also found in instances where the camera use the landscape shooting mode that those captures seemed just a tiny bit sharper, possibly the result of increased contrast and/ or sharpening.
The Wild Animal Park results set the stage for outing number two at Disneyland, taking the camera out of automatic mode and changing some settings from default values. For this shoot I set the camera to Program Auto, ISO to 100, increased sharpening and switched to center weighted exposure metering. As day turned to night I moved ISO up to 200 to cut down the length of the time exposures needed for the dark scenes and went to manual exposure. Here are four of the program auto shots and a manual exposure of the Castle in one of many light patterns it went through during the evening.
The J1 offers a typical Nikon color palette - here are the standard, neutral, vivid, landscape, portrait and monochrome variations.
The camera also offers Nikon's D-Lighting feature to expand the apparent dynamic range of images - it can be applied during image capture or in post-processing.
Auto white balance was used for all the images captured for this review and it did a good job across a wide variety of lighting conditions, including incandescent. In addition to auto there are incandescent, fluorescent, direct sun, flash, cloudy, shade, and custom preset manual modes available.
Auto White Balance, 5500k fluorescent light
Matrix metering was used for the Wild Animal Park shooting and did a good job overall in the overcast lighting conditions, but it could still clip highlights on occasion in scenes with large amounts of contrast. Center weighted metering was used for the daylight Disneyland shots and did a good job as well with late afternoon direct sunlight and more pronounced shadow areas - however, it too could clip highlights in high contrast scenes. There is a spot metering option available as well.
Back in the shooting performance section I mentioned that while the J1 flash has a relatively limited range at the nominal 100 ISO setting, ramping up ISO to gain additional flash range was a viable option. High ISO noise performance in the J1 turned out to be a pleasant surprise - even with Nikon holding the resolution at 10 megapixels, the small physical sensor size raised concerns in my mind that it might extract a fairly harsh noise penalty at the higher sensitivity ranges.
ISO 100 and 200 sensitivities are impossible to tell apart, and 400 is in a virtual tie with them - looking closely at some fine details, specifically the text in the pen box and the yellow drawstring on the bear's pouch, there's just a hint of a loss of detail, but it's safe to say for print purposes 100, 200 and 400 will be indistinguishable. ISO 800 is hard to tell from 400 at a quick glance, but again in the fine details there is a bit of loss, and this is beginning to show on the AutoZone coin as well.
ISO 100, 100% crop
ISO 200, 100% crop
ISO 400, 100% crop
ISO 800, 100% crop
ISO 1600, 100% crop
ISO 3200, 100% crop
ISO 1600 is more of the same - very similar to 800 at a quick glance, with color remaining vibrant and another minor loss of detail. ISO 3200 shows the greatest deviation in image quality between any two consecutive ISO settings, as there now begins to appear a faint overall element of graininess across the entire image along with another drop in fine detail quality.
Colors are still fairly vibrant but it's becoming clear that the sensor and processor are getting about all they can out of the hardware at this point. The overall impression is that the J1 images start out clean and then begin a slow, steady and slight progression of diminished image quality due to noise once ISO levels rise above 400. When I compared the image quality at 100 ISO with 3200 ISO in the studio shots the overall quality surprised me enough that I conducted my own comparison test. Here are the results at 100 and 3200.
The 3200 ISO shot is clearly grainier than the 100 due to noise, but the key word here is grainier - the 3200 shot does not remind me so much of image sensor noise as it does of a grainy, high-speed film image. And for me personally, if I have to accept a dose of image noise having it look like film grain is the way to go.
Additional Sample Images
When Nikon's new mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras finally saw the light of day there was some degree of angst generated over the sensor size - not resolution, but rather the physical dimensions of the sensor itself. With the rest of the non-Pentax cameras in the market segment carrying sensors of either APS-C or micro 4/3 dimensions, Nikon went in the other direction and produced a sensor falling into the gap between micro 4/3 and the 1/1.6 inch sensors of high-end compact digitals like the Canon G12.
The Nikon 1 series' 2.7x crop factor was a plus for telephoto shooters but did nothing to wow the folks who live for wide-angle. Back in Alaska in 2009, my 400 mm lens on a D300 was shooting at "only" six hundred millimeters, but with the J1 that would have been 1080mm. And with my new 600 mm lens, even those sheep 1000 yards away on the top of the mountain look fairly large at 1620mm.
Whether this camera gains traction against the competition remains to be seen, but the camera makes perfect sense when viewed as an addition to the Nikon line. The Nikon 1 system sensor is not so large as to pose a threat to Nikon's DSLR line, yet large enough that folks who want to go beyond Coolpix while stopping short of DSLR now have a Nikon to consider. The J1 is compact and light, with four available lenses spanning the 27 to 297mm focal range. The lenses themselves offer decent optical performance and three are stabilized. Shutter lag is minimal, autofocus acquisition times are good and continuous still image shooting rates can be as high as 60 fps (if only for a fraction of a second). High ISO noise performance was surprisingly good considering the diminutive physical size of the sensor.
The J1 is expensive, coming in at the price of an entry-level DSLR with kit lens, and at present, $150 above another competitor in the class offering more resolution on a larger sensor. The rated battery life of 230 shots is on the low end of that performance totem pole, and the absence of a viewfinder can make image composition and capture difficult on bright outdoor days. But, if you're in the market for a mirrorless interchangeable lens digital and would prefer the name on the front read "Nikon," then your ship has come in.