When Nikon unveiled its first mirrorless compact system camera (CSC) to the world in September, I was among a group of journalists who got to see it firsthand at a special event in New York City. The problem was, Nikon was so paranoid about any of us leaking info about the camera to the Internets, they confiscated our laptops, told us we couldn’t tweet until the official launch at 12:01 a.m. and then plied us with appetizers and booze and a concert by the Counting Crows until a few minutes before midnight. When the Nikon 1 camera system—including two models, the J1 and V1—was unveiled from under a white sheet, I couldn’t help but mutter “harrumph.”
These were cool little cameras, no doubt, but with a “CX-format” 10.1-megapixel sensor not much bigger than what you’d find in a point and shoot, many of us wondered what Nikon could possibly be thinking, considering Olympus and Panasonic already had CSCs with larger Micro Four Thirds sensors and Sony and Samsung had mirrorless models with even bigger APS-C size imaging chips.
When I got the camera in my hands to shoot with it, things started to become clearer. Unlike many other CSCs, Nikon’s small, interchangeable lens camera isn’t aimed at advanced users; it’s a style camera intended for photographers who just want to have fun. And in that way, it succeeds and offers a few things I’d like to see migrate up the line to Nikon’s more professional cameras.
For one, unlike some of Nikon’s Coolpix models, the J1 that I tried out was fast. The camera uses a new hybrid Autofocus system that allows it to switch between phase detection and contrast detection, depending on the scene, and I found it to be very adaptable and swift to focus for candid photography. I also liked the sleek, Spartan but elegant design of the J1. I tried out the white model—it also comes in black, red, silver and pink—and its sculpted, porcelain-like exterior gave it a, dare I say, Apple-esque simplicity. The J1’s fun to hold, looks chic, and the interface and menu system is among the clearest and best I’ve tried in a compact camera.
Here’s what I don’t like. For a camera designed for the on-the-go, mobile lifestyle photographer, there really isn’t anything here that makes it easy to wirelessly share pictures on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. The J1 isn’t even optimized for wireless Eye-Fi cards.
Also, as others have noted, the tiny control wheel has very limited functionality. While I like that the J1 is simple and fast to use, the wheel is dominated by two specialty modes that I didn’t really care for: Smart Photo Selector, which has the camera pick the best image for you (that’s no fun!) from a group of shots, and Motion Snapshot, which combines a still image with slow-motion video of a scene and adds a canned, in-camera audio soundtrack. Motion Snapshot might be kind of cool if there were some way to share the result with friends on Facebook but I couldn’t figure out how to do that.
In terms of image quality, I’d rate the J1 on par with the best of its CSC rivals in good, natural light. My outdoor street photography shots had great color, natural skintones, and the J1, thankfully, resisted the tendency of some consumer cams to oversaturate everything. In low light, the camera’s small sensor (13.2 x 8.8; 2.7x magnification) struggled with noise at higher ISOs. This is not really a surprise but still a disappointment, especially when you consider that most people who use a “lifestyle” camera will want to use it for nightlife purposes.
The Bottom Line
The Nikon J1 is a fine little mirrorless, interchangeable lens camera for fun photo ops but includes too many compromises in quality and usability to appeal to more advanced photographers.
Pros: Beautiful, simple design and impressive autofocus speed.
Cons: Poor performer in low light with a paucity of external control.
Price: $649; www.nikon.com
Read all of our camera reviews at www.pdnonline.com/cameras.