Nikon claims that its engineers 'went back to the drawing board and re-imagined how cameras are designed' when sketching out the J1. We're inclined to believe the cliché. One of the classiest cameras we've used this year, the J1 has smart knocked-back menus, a beautiful retro body and a set of Lilliputian lenses sharp enough to give the most expensive dSLR a run for its money.
A whole new camera family
There are two cameras in the Nikon 1 line-up: the V1 and J1. The latter of which is reviewed here, along with the 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses, which are in this case sold as a three-part kit, typically for around £550.
The J1 looks great with the 10-30mm lens clipped to its body and it is a beautiful range to work with. It's perfect for landscapes at the widest setting; spot-on for portraits at the half-way mark; and delivers a mild zoom at full telephoto.
For travel photography though, you really need to pack both this and the 30-110mm lens, as either one on its own would be limiting. Why? Because although these lenses are designed specifically for the Nikon 1, their stated focal lengths must still be multiplied to work out how they relate to their 35mm equivalents.
So when you're working with the 10-30mm lens, consider it to be a 27-81mm device. You don't have as broad a wide angle as that delivered by the 18-55mm kit lens offered with Nikon's consumer-level dSLR, the D3000, but you do have a more powerful zoom.
At 30mm, the shortest focal length of the more powerful lens is too tight for most architectural and scenery photography, as it effectively starts at 81mm. To offset that it does offer an impressive 297mm zoom (35mm equivalent), in a very compact barrel.
These are two of Nikon's new 1 Nikkor lenses, of which there are currently four on offer, including a 10-100mm zoom. We would prefer to see the latter bundled with the J1 for ultimate flexibility, albeit with the sacrifice of a small amount of zoom at the longest end of the scale. There's also an adaptor to convert any existing Nikkor dSLR lenses for use with the 1-series cameras.
Nikon has implemented a simple locking mechanism on the native zoom lenses. This shortens the length of the lens barrel when not in use by holding the front half of the construction inside the rear, where it mounts on the camera. This is great for travelling with but it does mean you have to unlock it every time you switch on and want to take a picture, which could mean you'll miss a spontaneous shot.
There's no optical viewfinder, so all images are composed on the rear LCD. This is bright, and thanks to its high resolution, is a pleasure to use. The shooting information is kept to the very edges of the screen where it's less of a distraction.
There are separate buttons for stills and movie shooting. Although you can't use the movie button in stills mode for shooting videos using automatic settings -- as you can with many rival cameras -- you can use the shutter release in video mode to take stills without switching back to stills mode.
There are two stills shooting modes: regular automatic mode, which takes one or more shots, depending on whether you have burst shooting activated, and the smart photo selector mode. The latter mode is particularly clever; it starts capturing data before you've fully pressed the shutter release. Then it selects what it considers to be the best shot and saves this -- along with four other 'candidate' shots -- to the card for you to choose from.
The J1 has the fastest burst mode of any camera we have tested, running to 10, 30 or 60 frames per second. The buffer is capable of holding up to 100 shots to cope with slower memory cards.
The results were among the best we have seen from any camera. Colours were vibrant and, using the 30-110mm lens, images were sharp right across the frame. The focus was as crisp in the corners as it was in the centre.
The 30-110mm lens aperture range stretches from f/3.5 to f/16 in wide angle, and starts at f/5.6 at full telephoto. While this isn't particularly ambitious at the wider end of the scale, it's enough to produce a beautiful bokeh -- or out out-of-focus blur -- effect when opened to its fullest. In the below image of berries on a green bush, the focal point of the subject is pulled well forward of its surroundings. It is extremely crisp when zoomed to 100%, with individual hairs on the focused branch and strands of cobweb on the berries clearly visible.
The minimum focusing distance using this lens is 100cm; with the 10-30mm kit lens it is 20cm, so you have no macro mode per se.
In images dominated by a narrow gamut, such as the red leaves in the image below, its sharp focus made short work of pulling out plenty of detail from areas with little tonal variation. This shot was framed so that only the leaves on the right half of the frame were in focus. When zoomed to 100% it's easy to see the individual veins that make up their underlying structure. There is no evidence of clipped highlights on the leaves themselves, the J1 having accurately captured the colours on each surface despite the widely differing levels of illumination on each one caused by their different angles to the sun.
This level of detail characterised all of our test shots -- even when the J1 started to increase its sensitivity as we shot in dimmer surroundings. This image of a squirrel was shot with the lens turned to maximum telephoto, equivalent to 297mm on a conventional camera, at f/5.6. The J1 increased its sensitivity here to ISO 450, yet the results are remarkably clean. There is no noise on the image. Fine details such as the squirrel's whiskers and teeth holding the nut are very clearly rendered.
However hard we looked, we could find no evidence of chromatic aberration, which is an undesirable effect where the lens splits the various tones of light that combine to make the visible spectrum; this is commonly seen when light passes through a prism. Although the effect is never as pronounced in a camera lens, it isn't uncommon to find sharp contrasts between very light backgrounds and dark fine lines such as branches crossing a bright sky.
The J1's weak point is its flash, not because it doesn't have sufficient throw to illuminate a regular indoor set-up, but because the lens gets in the way. The flash itself pops up on a stalk from the top of the body when you slide a release catch above the rear LCD. Even with the shorter 10-30mm lens in place, it doesn't lift high enough to avoid casting a shadow when you have the camera slightly angled downwards. This won't be an issue when you're shooting portraits or general surroundings, but if you're using it for detail work then invest in a cheap pair of lights to illuminate the scene off-camera.
Professional photographers considering this as a portable supplement to their regular dSLR should beware -- at least in the short term -- that its raw files aren't currently supported by Apple Aperture or Adobe Photoshop. In the meantime, they can be opened using the bundled ViewNX 2 software.
We switched to the 10-30mm lens for our indoor still-life tests to increase the angle of view. As with all cameras, the J1 performed best under studio lighting. Not only were highly textured subjects such as peppercorns clearly picked out, but even the grain on the skin of an apple was impressively rendered with tiny pockmarks. Reflective surfaces were very well handled without burning out. Printed text was extremely clear with sharp, unfeathered edges.
The J1 self-selected 1/200-second exposure at ISO 100 for our studio lit test. It slowed this to 1/25 second at a fairly high ISO 800 when we switched off the studio lights and relied on the ambient light. This resulted in a distinct yellow caste. But we were impressed that the level of grain in the image, although visible at 100% zoom, was light and even.
The caste could be easily rectified by playing with the white point and exposure level which meant that, thanks to the light grain, our image was still perfectly useable. Sadly things were not so good when we switched on the flash. Not only did this introduce the lens shadow mentioned above, which can be seen in our test image below falling on the page of the book, but it also burned out some highlights, in particular the white pot at the back of the scene.
The J1's movie mode lived up to what we were expecting after a day of shooting stills. Colours were bright and true and the recorded images were sharp, with plenty of detail in each frame.
There's obviously no powered zoom as all zooming is performed manually -- as it is with a regular dSLR -- and so there's no motor noise to spoil the soundtrack. However, we were disappointed by the amount of wind noise that was picked up. This was despite enabling wind noise reduction.
When bought with the dual-lens bundle, the J1 represents excellent value for money. The cheapest prices we could source for its two lenses online were £165 for the 10-30mm and £209 for the 30-110mm unit. Together they account for over half of the £550 average asking price.
It is a lot of money and some buyers may be put off by the conservative resolution, which tops out at 10.1 megapixels. Look beyond the pixels because the J1 is about quality not quantity, and here it delivers in spades to fully justify its asking price.