Nikon 1 J3 review: Nikon 1 J3

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4.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

The Good Higher resolution sensor than predecessor; Good lens selection; Excellent image quality; Attractive design.

The Bad Wind noise on movies; Flash performance in still life test; Expensive.

The Bottom Line Nikon's J series comes of age in this revision, with a higher resolution sensor, more extensive menus and a redesigned chassis. The Nikon 1 J3 the best-looking lens-swapping compact you can buy, and one of the best performers, too.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

8.8 Overall
CNET Editors' Choice Feb '13

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.

Nikon 1 J3
The Nikon 1 J3 introduces a subtly redesigned chassis with the mode selector dial moved to the top plate and the flash now popping forwards.

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.

Nikon 1 J3
There are fewer buttons around the back, leaving more space for your thumb. You'll also find one of the best screens on any camera here.

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.

Stills performance

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.

Nikon 1 J3 test photo
Even in unfavourable light, the J3 did a great job of faithfully reproducing the colours in each scene (click image to enlarge).

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.

Nikon 1 J3 test photo
Zooming to 100 per cent revealed a softer result on the JPEG than the raw file, along with a fine halo surrounding the sharp contrasts on these signs.

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.

Nikon 1 J3 test photo
This kind of image frequently reveals the flaws in a lens, but the J3's kit lens put in a great performance (click image to enlarge).

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.

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