Where looks are concerned, the J3's a winner. The latest update to Nikon's enthusiast-led lens-swapping compact, it's a dead ringer for the J1 and J2, and retains the crown for the best looking camera of its class. It's also one of the smallest, thanks to a truly compact lens system.
You can pick this little beauty up online for around £510.
A significant upgrade
The praise doesn't stop there either, for where the J2 didn't offer much to tempt an upgrade from the J1, the J3 marks a significant step forward. The sensor has been hiked from a slightly unambitious 10.1 megapixels to a more satisfying 14.2 megapixels, shifting images up to 4,608x3,072 pixels. That gives you more opportunity to tightly crop your shots in post production, while still retaining sufficient data to output on canvas and posters using a commercial online printer.
You might expect this to impact one of the J- and V-series' key selling points, their high-speed burst modes. There's no need to worry though, as the J3 still shoots up to 20 frames at 60fps with fixed focus, and 22 frames at 15fps with auto-focus active. For anyone shooting sports, the ability to work at either end of this scale is a boon.
Build and design
The J3 comes in a more sober range of colours than its predecessor, with the orange and pink bodies disappearing, and a retro beige plugging the gap. The body itself is aluminium with a plastic top, while around the back you'll find one of the best LCDs on any camera. The refresh is smooth, and it's bright, so easy to use in sunlight.
Nikon's designers have done some housekeeping where the hardware controls are concerned, too. The mode selector has been moved from the back to the top plate to leave more space for your thumb on the rear. Previously, despite there being a rubber area beside this dial, it was still easier to hold the camera with your thumb on the dial.
The dedicated F button, which was used to select scenes and themes, has disappeared, along with the rocker that previously allowed you to zoom in during playback or change settings like shutter speed and aperture. These have all been moved to the thumbwheel, which is great where it really matters -- changing shooting settings -- but less successful when it comes to image playback, as it requires extra button presses to zero in on a particular part of the frame.
The refresh goes beyond the hardware, too, as you'll discover the first time you open the firmware menus. These have always been minimalist and understated, and that's also true of this new device. They're more extensive here though, and supplemented by a history option that keeps track of recent changes so you can quickly go back and adjust them again without digging through the full menus.
Where design is concerned, then, the J3 is a triumph, and shows the range maturing at a fairly decent pace. In terms of hardware design, it also makes for a very pleasant user experience. The only thing it feels like it's missing right now is an articulated screen, which would be the frosting on a particularly tasty cake. Fingers crossed that debuts with the J4.
I set the J3 to auto, shooting raw files with JPEG sidecars, and performed my analysis with reference to both the in-camera JPEGs and the raw files, processing the latter using the bundled Nikon ViewNX2 software to save them as 16-bit TIFFs.
Its colour reproduction really can't be faulted. I carried out the bulk of my tests on a fairly overcast day and the J3 made excellent use of the available light. Prime colours were vivid and punchy, pastels were more subtle, and in areas of tonal graduation the transition was smooth and accurate.
The fidelity of the in-camera JPEGs was also excellent, with very little degradation evident when comparing them to the processed raw files. However, extremely close examination did reveal some haloing around darker elements such as text on a light background, that was less pronounced in the TIFF files, which resulted in a slightly softer image.
Beyond this, there was no evidence of chromatic aberration in my tests using the bundled kit lens, with the J3 coping admirably with the kind of sharp, fine contrasts that frequently show up any imperfections. The rigging below is crisp and free of fringing.
The level of retained detail was excellent, with the J3's 14-megapixel sensor producing beautifully detailed shots, in which particularly complex subjects remained sharp and texture-packed throughout. In the image below, the shorter grass between the stakes, and the moss growing on them, along with the wood grain and, in the distance, the sand spit, are alive with texture, while the gentle fall-off towards the rear of the shot allows for a gentle softening of the beach huts. The aperture was set at f/5.6 here.
It had no problems coping with more extreme contrasts, either, even allowing me to shoot directly towards the sun without there being any undue flaring in the results. The shot below demonstrates this, with the J3 retaining a sharp edge on the silhouetted man in front of the reflected light on the water's surface.
I used the bundled 10-30mm lens in my tests, which with the Nikon 1 sensor's 2.7x crop factors acts like a 27-81mm unit on a conventional 35mm camera for a 3x zoom overall. This has a maximum aperture of f/3.5 at wide angle and f/5.6 at the longest end of the zoom.
Combined with a respectable 20cm minimum focusing distance, it allows for some beautiful shallow depths of field in detail shots with a sharp fall-off in the level of focus and an attractive bokeh effect surrounding the focal point.
The 1 system now comprises eight lenses -- up from five when I reviewed the J2 -- ranging from a wide-angle 6.7-13mm (equivalent to 18-35mm) to a 10-100mm zoom (27-270mm). In many respects their size makes them more convenient than a conventional dSLR lens, and more portable than the larger lenses found on a Sony NEX or Samsung NX system camera.
Still life test
Under studio lights the J3 put in a flawless performance in the still life test, which centres on shooting a range of everyday objects with different colours and surface textures. It self-selected a sensitivity of ISO 200 for a grain-free, sharp frame overall. Contrasts were striking and edges were crisp.
It did a similarly good job under ambient light, but when using the on-board flash, which has been repositioned in the J3 so that it springs forward (in the J1 and J2 it popped straight up) the result was a little too dark and the shadows cast by the flash were very strong.
The J3 shoots high-definition video at 1,920x1,080i, 60fps, or you can switch to 30fps progressive, as I did in my tests. If you want 60fps progressive, you can downsize to 1,280x720, while dropping the resolution further to 640x480 or 320x120 lets you shoot at super high-speed frame rates of 400fps and 1,200fps respectively.
As well as auto and off, the microphone has three sensitivity settings and a wind cut feature that will reduce the prevalence of wind noise on the soundtrack. Although it was active throughout my tests there remained a fair amount of wind noise on the results.
The soundtrack was otherwise detailed and true to the original however -- particularly when wind was low or non-existent.
The captured footage was sharp, coping well with significant changes to the level of incoming light, as well as with sharp movements on the part of the operator, without making the footage hard to view.
The J3 is a classy device -- just like its predecessors -- and if the way a camera looks is as important to you as what it can do, then you won't have any complaints.
Performance is good, and although it's still expensive the price is easier to swallow this time around, with a higher resolution sensor helping it compete more effectively with its rivals.
If you've been put off by the bulk of other compacts with interchangeable lenses, then the J3 is certainly where you ought to be looking. In this revision, the J line has come of age, while the rapidly expanding range of 1 Nikkor lenses makes it feel less niche and boutique than its predecessors.