This is an in-depth review of the Nikon 1 J1 mirrorless camera that came out on September 21, 2011 along with the Nikon 1 V1 camera and three 1 Nikkor lenses. The Nikon 1 J1 and V1 cameras are Nikon’s first attempt to produce a mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses, which took 5 years of careful design and development by Nikon’s engineers. Why did Nikon decide to enter the mirrorless market and where is the mirrorless technology positioned relative to the DSLR and point and shoot market? How does the Nikon 1 mirrorless system compare against the competition? In this review, I will provide answers to these questions, along with comparisons of the Nikon 1 J1 against the Sony NEX-5n and the Olympus E-PL3 mirrorless cameras.
The Nikon 1 J1 and V1 cameras, along with 1 Nikkor lenses were kindly provided by B&H – the largest photo reseller in the world that I personally use to buy my photography gear.
1) Nikon 1 J1 Specifications
- 10.1 Megapixel CX-format (2.7x crop factor) CMOS Image Sensor
- 13.2mm x 8.8mm sensor size
- Nikon 1 Lens Mount
- Compatible with SD, SDHC and SDXC cards
- 3:2 aspect ratio for still images
- 12-bit compressed RAW image support
- Full 1080p HD Cinematic Video at 1080/60i, 1080/30p, 720/60p video resolutions (16:9 aspect ratio)
- Slow-motion Video at 400fps / 640×240 resolution and 1200fps / 320×120 resolution
- Hybrid phase detection / contrast-detect Autofocus with up to 135 focus points and an AF-assist illuminator
- Subject and face tracking
- ISO sensitivity 100-3200, expandable to ISO 6400 equivalent
- 3-in. LCD monitor with with 460,000 dots
- Built-in HDMI and USB ports
- 5 Automatic Exposure Scene Modes – Portrait, Landscape, Night Portrait, Close-up and Auto
- 5 Shooting Modes – Still Image, Smart Photo Selector, Movie, Movie Slow Motion and Motion Snapshot
- 5 Exposure Modes – Programed Auto (P), Shutter Priority (S), Aperture Priority (A), Manual (M) and Scene Auto Selector
- Standard, Neutral, Vivid, Monochrome, Portrait and Landscape Picture Controls
- Compact and Lightweight Design
- Features Nikon’s new EXPEED 3 image processing engine
- Active D-Lighting for shadow highlight recovery
- Dust-reduction system
- Electronic lens aperture control
- Electronic shutter with up to 1/16,000 sec shutter speed
- Flash Sync Speed 1/60
- Built-in intervalometer
- Up to 5 fps in standard mode, up to 10, 30 or 60 fps in electronic [Hi] mode
- Spot, Center-weighted and Matrix metering modes
- Focus Modes – Auto (AF), Auto AF-S/AF-C selection (AF-A), Single-servo AF (AF-S), Continuous-servo (AF-C), Full-time Servo (AF-F), Manual Focus (MF)
- An FT1 adapter (must be purchased separately) allows using certain legacy F Mount Nikkor DSLR lenses on the camera
- Battery Life up to 230 shots per charge
- Dimensions 4.2″ x 2.4″ x 1.2″ / 106mm x 61mm x 29.8mm
- Weight: 8.3oz (234g)
Detailed technical specifications for the Nikon 1 J1 are available on Nikonusa.com.
2) The Mirrorless Market and the CX Sensor
I analysed the mirrorless market, why Nikon released the 1 series cameras and what the CX sensor is all about in my Nikon 1 V1 review. I won’t be repeating the same thing in this review, so I highly recommend that you check it out.
3) Camera Construction and Handling
The Nikon 1 cameras are built to be incredibly small and lightweight. The Nikon 1 J1 is only 106x61x29.8mm in size – even the smallest Nikon D3100 DSLR is much bulkier and thicker than this camera, measuring 124x97x74mm. Weight-wise, the J1 mirrorless is 230 grams (about 64 grams lighter than its bigger brother the V1), while the same D3100 DSLR weighs 455 grams. Here is a side by side comparison image between the two:
This is how the smallest Nikon DSLR fares against the J1. Any other Nikon DSLR, especially something like D300s or D700 looks and feels just massive in comparison. When compared to the mirrorless competition, the J1 is pretty comparable in size and weight (aside from the Sony NEX series camera bodies that are more compact and offer richer specs + less weight). The battery used by the J1 is compact and lightweight and offers a decent battery life of 230 shots. The same battery will probably be used in future versions of the camera, such as Nikon 1 J2, J3, etc.
When it comes to camera build and construction, the Nikon J1 is built quite well, despite the fact that it is not made of magnesium alloy like the V1. The camera body is mostly made from aluminum and plastic, with good-looking paint finish. Speaking of paint, you can buy the J1 in four different colors: White, Black, Red and Silver. The camera is not weather sealed and has no dust protection like some of the advanced DSLR cameras. As for handling, Nikon engineers did a poor job with the design – the camera lacks a grip and could easily slip out of your hand if you do not hold it tightly. Nikon should have added at least the same vertical “bump” from the V1 on the front of the J1. The deeply recessed grip on the NEX-5n feels much better in comparison.
Similar to the Olympus E-PL3 and the Sony NEX-5n, the J1 also lacks an electronic viewfinder. Coming from the DSLR world, I really dislike composing images by looking at the back of the camera. While the V1 comes with a built-in viewfinder and you can purchase a viewfinder for the other cameras separately, unfortunately, there is no such option for the J1. This alone makes the J1 look more like a point and shoot rather than a serious interchangeable camera for me (especially after handling the V1). So if you are considering buying one of these to complement your DSLR, keep this in mind.
As for the button placement and camera layout, Nikon has done a good job, although I do have a couple of complaints. Let’s start from the back of the camera. Most of the back buttons are where they should be and access to the important camera functions is provided with a very minimum number of extra and unnecessary buttons, which is good. Once I got used to the controls, operating the camera was easy. The function (F) button on the top of the camera does not get used as much, so it does not bother me. The up/down switch right next to it is very clever – it is used for zooming in/out during playback, changing aperture/shutter speed in various modes and for manual focus. My main complaint is on the rotary camera mode selector switch that I keep accidentally switching while using the camera. I wish there was some sort of a lock on this selector or some other way to switch between different camera modes without the need for this switch. On multiple occasions I found myself in a wrong mode, which was annoying. The popup flash can be opened by moving the slider that is located on the top left side of the camera back. It feels cheap and plasticky. It is OK for close distance shots and can be occasionally useful as fill-flash, but I would not count on it for anything serious. I personally did not bother using it at all, although some people might find it useful. I really wish Nikon added a standard hot shoe socket on its Nikon 1 cameras, rather than not having it at all (J1) or having a proprietary mount (V1) that requires Nikon speedlights. The Olympus E-PL3 is the only camera among the ones I reviewed that had a standard hot shoe.
Just like the Nikon 1 V1, this camera lacks a PASM exposure selector, so you will have to dig in the menu to change the camera mode, WB, ISO, etc. Newbies and those coming from the point and shoot world will rarely use it anyway, so it might not be a big deal for most people out there. What about the LCD? The good news is that the 3″ LCD is large and beautiful. The bad news is that it does not swivel like the NEX-5n and E-PL3 do, has less resolution (460,000 dots) and is not a touchscreen.