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.