Nikon first introduced its small, mirrorless, interchangeable lens cameras, the 1 J1 and the 1 V1 (similar to the J1 but with the addition of a viewfinder) in 2011. Nikon was a little late in the game, as Olympus and Panasonic had already released more than one generation of 4/3 sensor cameras starting in 2009, and Samsung and Sony introduced cameras containing the larger APS-C sensor in 2010. The Nikon 1 cameras appear to have been designed to appeal to the point and shoot user who wanted a camera with better image quality, as the cameras were small and quick, with simplified controls. They received largely positive reviews, including one from this website. The J2 was released in 2012 and the J3 in January of 2013. When I opened the box I was surprised how small, sleek and lightweight the J3 was. But will the camera's performance and image quality live up to its attractive appearance?
The J3 improves on its predecessors with greater resolution, 14.2 megapixels vs. 10.1. As with the previous versions, the J3 can shoot in uncompressed (RAW) format as well as JPEGs. The camera has a 13.2mm x 8.8mm CMOS sensor (a 2.7 crop factor), a 921,000 dot, three-inch diagonal LCD monitor and 1080 HD video capability, along with the ability to record slow motion video. The camera uses Nikon's "hybrid" autofocus system, which uses a combination of phase detection and contrast detection to achieve quick and accurate focus under varied conditions. The J3 has several continuous shooting options. It can record up to five frames per second with the flash enabled and either 15, 30 or 60 frames per second for recording without the flash. The camera can be used in manual, shutter priority and aperture priority modes, though functions such as shutter speed and aperture can be set only by delving deep into the camera's menu. In addition to its manual modes the camera has some interesting creative shooting modes. It uses standard SD, SDHC and SDXC memory cards.
The camera I reviewed was accompanied by three of Nikon's lenses, the VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 (27-81mm, 35mm camera equivalent), 10mm f/2.8 (27mm equivalent) and 18.5mm f/1.8 (50mm equivalent).
At this time there are eight Nikon lenses made for the Nikon 1, plus an adapter can be purchased to permit the use of Nikon's F mount lenses. The camera comes with an abbreviated user manual, a body cap (for protecting the sensor when a lens is not attached), a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, a battery charger, a USB cable, a shoulder/neck strap and two CDs containing Nikon's ViewNX2 photo organizing software, a movie creator and a full user reference manual. The J3 is offered in five colors: white (the color I reviewed) plus black, silver, red and beige. The manufacturer's suggested retail price is $599.95 for the body plus the 10-30mm lens. The camera is also sold with two other lens combinations at different prices, with limited color availability. A wireless remote adapter and an underwater housing can be purchased from Nikon.
Build and Design
If not for its relatively large lens, you'd mistake the J3 for a point and shoot camera. The body is in the shape of a bar of soap, but with rounded edges. It fits nicely into a pocket or purse even with the 10mm pancake lens attached. When using the larger 10-30mm zoom lens I was able to carry the camera comfortably in the pocket of my jacket. The camera is constructed mostly of metal, with plastic latches. The camera feels solid in the hand, though the top control dial is thin. The pop-up flash closes into the camera's body but it is very fragile when opened so care must be taken with it. The large LCD screen is flush with the camera's body, which should protect it from damage most of the time, though it would be wise to use a screen protector or a camera case to make sure. The camera surprisingly small and lightweight. Its dimensions are 4.0 inches (101mm) wide, 2.4 inches (60.5mm) high and 1.1 inches (28.8mm) in depth and it weighs 201 grams (7.1 oz.) excluding the battery and memory card.
Ergonomics and Controls
The controls of the J3 are very limited. The front plate has only the lens opening, a metal button for releasing the lens and a combination autofocus assist and self-timer lamp. The camera's top contains the pop-up flash, a control dial with five settings (Motion Snapshot, Best Moment Capture, Auto, Creative and Advanced Movie), an on/off button, a metal shutter button and a dedicated video button, all of which are flush to the camera's surface. The on/off button does not need to be used when the zoom lens is attached, as turning the lens towards the telephoto position will automatically turn the camera on, while turning it in the other direction will turn the camera off. Two holes for the camera's stereo microphones are located at the top. The left side of the camera (looking back to front) has a manual switch for opening the flash, a covered HDMI port and a covered USB port. At the right of the LCD screen are, from top to bottom, a vertical thumb-rest, the playback button, a menu button, a circular menu controller and a delete button. The thumb-rest helps with gripping the camera, as it is smooth and slippery. Using a second hand to hold the camera is a good idea. The circular menu controller has shortcuts for exposure compensation, flash, continuous shooting/timer, and F (feature). The F selection brings up various menu items depending on the setting on the top control dial. When the control dial is set to Creative, pressing F will set out 11 possible shooting modes. On the camera's bottom plate there's a metal tripod mount and a memory card/battery compartment with a plastic cover.
The J3's limited controls are a mixed blessing. They do make the camera appear less intimidating, which is probably important for the point and shoot market the camera is geared towards. On the other hand, this makes it necessary to constantly access the menu to make adjustments or change modes, which could prevent the user from getting an important shot. Also, frequent reference to the menu will shorten battery life.
Menus and Modes
Pressing the J3's menu button brings up six possibilities, playback, shooting, movies, image processing, setup and history. The selections available for these functions depend on which of the five modes are selected on the top control dial. Here are the five modes:
Soft Miniature Effect
HD movies are recorded in a 16 x 9 aspect ratio, including 1080i at 60 frames per second, 1080p at 30 frames per second and 720p at 60 frames per second or 30 frames per second. Maximum recording time is 20 minutes for 1080i and 1080p movies and 29 minutes for 720p movies. Slow motion movies are recorded in an 8 x 3 aspect ratio, including 640 x 240 at 400 frames per second and 320 x 120 at 1200 frames per second. Maximum recording time is 40 seconds for 640 x 240 movies and two minutes for 320 x 120 movies.
When using modes that permit access to the selections in the image processing section of the menu, functions that can be adjusted by the user are white balance (seven selections plus manual), ISO (160-6400), picture control (standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, landscape), custom picture control (sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation, hue, filter effects, toning) and high ISO noise reduction.
The J3 has a sharp, three-inch diagonal LCD monitor with 921,000 dots of resolution in a 3 x 2 aspect ratio. The LCD monitor is fluid and easy to read with 100% coverage. It can be adjusted to seven levels of brightness. I found the LCD monitor to be difficult to see in the bright sunshine, though the same could be said for the monitors of most cameras. The camera lacks a viewfinder, which would help with visibility but would add bulk to the camera. If a viewfinder is required, the Nikon 1 V2 is still available, although it is considerably more expensive than the J3.
Nikon's website mentions the J3's "extraordinary speed." While I found the camera to be reliably quick, it's no quicker than other cameras in its class and many high quality point and shoots. Its startup time is from 1-2 seconds -- good but not great. It is quick to respond to menu selections, which is a good thing as using the J3 requires reference to the menu to change virtually every setting.
The J3 uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that has a CIPA rating of 220 shots. I found that number to be reasonably accurate. Battery life will be less depending on how often you consult the menu or shoot movies.
The J3 required about 1-2 seconds between shots, without the flash, and another second when the flash was used -- a good showing. I found the camera's hybrid autofocus to be quick and reliable. Nikon claims the camera automatically selects between two types of autofocus to capture sharp images. For sports and other fast action scenes, phase-detection autofocus is used with 73 points. When shooting in low light the camera uses contrast-detection autofocus, with 135 points of coverage. These are very impressive numbers and the camera's focusing is in fact reliable, though it occasionally fails to lock focus in low light.
The J3 has impressive continuous shooting ability. It can shoot at full resolution at 5 frames per second with the flash enabled and at 15 frames per second with continuous autofocus and up to 60 frames per second with fixed-point autofocus with the flash disabled.
The J3 and all three lenses produced sharp, largely distortion-free images with good color. Chromatic aberration was present in some high contrast shots, such as tree branches against a blue sky, but was not noticeable in normal use. Images were sharp throughout the frame, even in the corners. Barrel distortion was not a problem, even when using the 10mm pancake lens, nor was pincushion distortion.
The J3 produces HD video of very high quality. The 1080i video taken below at 60 frames per second is sharp and smooth, with realistic colors and good sound (yes the white water was roaring). Zooming during a video is possible but, as the video illustrates, it's hard to zoom smoothly when turning the small lens of the J3.
Image quality is excellent, with sharp definition, good dynamic range and strong colors. While the camera can shoot in RAW, chances are most J3 owners will be very content with the fine quality of the camera's JPEG images. I've always found the white balance in Nikon's cameras to be very realistic and the J3 is no exception. The auto white balance setting, which I used, worked well. Other white balance settings are incandescent, fluorescent, direct sunlight, flash, cloudy, shade, underwater and manual.
The J3 has a wide ISO range, with possible settings from 160 through 6400. Although the J3's sensor is not as large as that of most DSLRs its high ISO ability is similar. As demonstrated below, images from 160 ISO through 1600 ISO look almost identical, with little graininess and strong colors. At 3200 there's an increase in graininess and the image takes on a greenish hue. Grain increases at 6400 ISO but the image is still usable for small prints.
160 ISO 200 ISO
400 ISO 800 ISO
1600 ISO 3200 ISO
The J3's pop-up flash comes in several modes: auto, auto with red-eye reduction, fill-flash, fill-flash with slow sync (which uses a slow shutter speed), red-eye reduction, red-eye reduction with slow sync, rear curtain sync (flash fires before the shutter closes), rear curtain with slow sync, slow sync with red-eye reduction and off. When used with the VR 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, the camera's flash range is from approximately 2 - 23 feet (.6 to 7 meters) at minimum zoom and 2 - 13.8 feet (.6 to 4.2 meters) at maximum zoom.
Additional Sample Images
I enjoyed using the Nikon 1 J3. I like its small size, light weight feel and its modern, sleek appearance. The camera's buttons and controls, while small, work well and I appreciated the dedicated movie button. I was not fond of the camera's fragile pop-up flash, which could be a problem if used frequently. Performance is a strong point, as the J3 is reliably quick in all respects. It has very good image quality, even in low light, and excellent movie ability. The camera has quite a few advanced features, including a Motion Snapshot mode that combines movies and photos, and its innovative Slow View mode that lets the user select the best photo taken by the camera. It also has a broad array of settings that appeal to the more advanced user, such as manual exposure, shutter priority and aperture priority. However, advanced users may become frustrated by the need to constantly access the camera's menu, as there are few functions that can be enabled by buttons or dials. Also, since the camera's battery life is rather short, users should consider purchasing a back-up battery.