Nikon 1 J1 with 10-30mm lens review: Nikon 1 J1 with 10-30mm lens

The Good The Nikon 1 J1 delivers excellent video and low-ISO photo quality, plus some aspects of the camera's performance lead its class.

The Bad The CX lens system drops manual focus rings on the lenses; you can't use flash above 1/60 sec; and there's no option for an EVF.

The Bottom Line The Nikon 1 J1 is a fine camera, but there's nothing here that screams out "buy it" over similar competitors. It's also on the expensive side for a point-and-shoot upgrader, but has drawbacks for the more advanced user.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Image quality 8

Nikon took its time introducing its interchangeable-lens camera system, dubbed the Nikon 1 series, and though I don't agree with a lot of the choices the company made, it clearly put a lot of thought into the cameras before rushing out me-too versions of competitors' products. The entry-level model, the J1, firmly targets point-and-shoot upgraders with its feature set, but the implementation is a mixed bag and the price is a bit steep for that crowd.

Take for instance, the sensor, which is smaller and lower-resolution than all but the even-more-expensive Pentax Q. With a 2.7x focal-length magnification factor, that means the kit 10-30mm lens has the equivalent angle of view of 27-81mm. In practice, that will severely limit your options for real wide-angle shooting--even more than Micro Four Thirds does--as well as your ability to get even moderately shallow depth of field on typical portrait shots. That stuff may not matter to a person paying $400 for the camera, but it might to someone paying $600.

And I have to point out that as one of the companies pushing 16-megapixel sensors out to consumers, it takes guts for Nikon to try to sell them 10 megapixels in a higher-end camera (though it's quite sufficient for printing up to 8x12 on a Canon or HP printer or 10x16 on an Epson).

Ultimately, the photo quality is very good--and occasionally excellent. Its noise profile is just OK, though, at least for JPEGs. I started to see some stippling as low as ISO 200, but as with Panasonic's cameras I suspect they're the result of JPEG processing rather than native to the images; the only really clean setting is ISO 100 (I'll revisit the raw results when the Adobe Camera Raw codec becomes available). I started to see color noise at ISO 400, and by ISO 1600 detail began to degrade. I think the J1 handles color more accurately at the higher ISO sensitivities than many competitors, but I'm not sure this crowd is looking for color accuracy or the desaturation you see in low light so much as they are looking for pop.

However, in all other respects--notably lens sharpness, exposure and metering, and color--the J1 delivers consistently and accurately. The tonal range doesn't look particularly stronger than that of competitors, but I suspect it's compressed out of the JPEGs or may only be used for raw files.

The video quality is also quite good: sharp and saturated. And the autofocus system works exceptionally well--quickly, quietly, and accurately--when shooting video. The stereo mic acquits itself well, and there are a few sound-level options and a wind filter.

The performance rating of the J1 was a really tough call. Ultimately I came down on the side of excellent, because it really does feel pretty fast. On one hand, it's got the least shot lag--time to focus and shoot--of any camera in its class, plus a fast burst rate. But then it gets bogged down a bit on sequential shots, which slows down your overall shooting experience. It takes about a second to wake up and shoot, which is just OK. The roughly 0.2 second to focus and shoot in good light and 0.4 second in dim are both excellent times for any class of camera. And the center-point autofocus is quite accurate, as well as fast. But the shot-to-shot time rises to about 1.1 seconds--1.3 seconds if you're shooting raw--which isn't horrible but is comparatively slow. Add flash and that rises to 1.6 seconds. Its 5 frames per second in standard burst mode is also very good, and the camera allows you to start another burst quickly (rather than pausing while it saves to the card).

Other aspects of the performance drag it down a little, however. In the complete auto AF, it selects the focus points quickly, but inconsistently; for any given scene, it will choose different sets of points each time you prefocus. Plus, the battery life is pretty short. The LCD is typical--a little reflective in bright sunlight but otherwise fine.

Nikon 1 J1 Nikon 1 V1 Olympus E-PL3 Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 Sony Alpha NEX-5N
Sensor (effective resolution) 10-megapixel CMOS 10-megapixel CMOS 12.3-megapixel Live MOS 12.1-megapixel Live MOS 16.1-megapixel Exmor HD CMOS
13.2x8.8mm 13.2x8.8mm 17.3mmx13mm 17.3x13mm 23.5mmx15.6mm
Focal-length multiplier 2.7x 2.7x 2.0x 2.0x 1.5x
Sensitivity range ISO 100 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded) ISO 100 - ISO 3200/6400 (expanded) ISO 200 - ISO 12800 ISO 100 - ISO 6400 ISO 100 - ISO 25600
Continuous shooting 5fps
(60fps with fixed AF and electronic shutter)
(60fps with fixed AF and electronic shutter)
(5.5fps without image stabilization)
unlimited JPEG/7 raw
unlimited 10 JPEG/6 raw
(10fps with fixed exposure)
mag / effective magnification
None 0.47-inch
1.44 million dots
100% coverage
Optional None Optional
Autofocus 73-point
phase detection, 135-area contrast AF
phase detection, 135-area contrast AF
35-area contrast AF 23-area contrast AF 25-area contrast AF
Shutter speed 1/3 - 1/16,000; bulb; 1/60 sec x-sync 30 - 1/16,000; bulb; 1/250 sec x-sync 60-1/4,000 sec; bulb to 30 minutes; 1/4,000 FP sync 60-1/4,000 sec; 1/160 sec x-sync 30-1/4,000 sec.; bulb; 1/160 sec x-sync
Metering n/a n/a 324 area 144 zone 1,200 zone
Flash Yes Included optional Included optional Yes Included optional
Image stabilization Optical Optical Sensor shift Optical Optical
Video 1080/60i /30p, 720/60p H.264 MPEG-4 QuickTime MOV 1080/60/ 30pi; 720/60p H.264 MPEG-4 QuickTime MOV 1080/60i AVCHD @ 20, 17Mbps; 720/60p @ 13Mbps 1080/60i/ 50i @ 17Mbps
720/60p @17Mbps AVCHD or Motion JPEG QuickTime MOV
AVCHD 1080/60p @ 28, 24Mbps, 1080/24p @ 24, 17Mbps, 1080/60i @ 17Mbps; H.264 MPEG-4
Audio Stereo Stereo; mic input Stereo; mic input Mono Stereo; mic input
LCD size 3-inch fixed 460,000 dots 3-inch fixed
921,600 dots
3-inch tilting
460,000 dots
3-inch fixed touch screen
460,000 dots
3-inch tilting
921,600 dots
Battery life (CIPA rating) 230 shots 350 shots 300 shots 320 shots 430 shots
Dimensions (inches, WHD) 4.2x2.4x1.2 4.4x3x1.7 4.3x2.5x1.5 4.2x2.6x1.3 4.4x2.4x1.6
Body operating weight (ounces) 9.7 12 (est.) 11 9.3 9.3 (without flash)
Mfr. price n/a n/a n/a $499.95 (body only, est) $599.99 (body only)
$649.95 (with 10-30mm lens) $899.95 (with 10-30mm lens) $699.99 (with 14-42mm lens) $599.95 (with 14-42mm lens) $699.99 (with 18-55mm lens)
$899.95 (with 10-30mm and 30-110mm lenses) $1,149.95 (dual lens kit) $699.99 (est., with 17mm lens) $699.95 (with 14mm f2.5 lens) n/a
Ship date October 2011 October 2011 September 2011 July 2011 September 2011

Now we come to what I consider the weakest aspect of the camera: the design, and, to a certain extent, the feature set. A hair smaller than models like the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF3 and the Olympus E-PM1, it looks like an overgrown point-and-shoot with rounded sides and a rather featureless front view. One thing Nikon didn't seem to learn from its competitors' predecessors was the need for a grip. Though I wouldn't go so far as to call the glossy body slippery, there's nothing to use for leverage on the front. On top are the small power button, large, flat shutter and movie record buttons, and a pop-up flash that one of my coworkers likened to an old-fashioned mailbox flag.

The back looks quite busy, given how few direct-access controls it has. The four-way navigation dial controls exposure compensation, self-timer, flash, and AE/AF lock; an F button pulls up some context-sensitive options, such as continuous shooting (single, continuous, and electronic shutter) or movie (HD movie or slow motion); next to it is a vertical rocker labeled for playback zoom but which controls shutter speed; there are display, playback, menu, and delete buttons; and a small, partly filled mode dial takes you into Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, standard still options (where you choose from auto and PASM), and movie mode.