Since 2008, mirrorless digital cameras with interchangeable lenses have been gaining popularity. So far the major players include Olympus and Panasonic’s Micro Four-Thirds system and Sony’s NEX, plus the Pentax Q introduced in mid 2011. On September 21, 2011, Nikon announced its long awaited mirrorless entry called the Nikon One system. Initially this system consists of two bodies, the consumer-oriented J1 and the higher-end V1 plus four lenses and accessories. Along with this system, Nikon introduces a new digital sensor format called CX, which is 13.2×8.8mm in size with a 2.7x so called “crop factor” compared to traditional 35mm film, maintaining its 3:2 aspect ratio. In terms of sensor area, CX is about 48% of the 4/3 format and 30% of Nikon DX (APS-C), but it is considerably larger than the Pentax Q.
The primary reason Nikon chooses such a small sensor size is to keep the cameras and especially the lenses small, as a standard lens for CX is about 18 mm (equivalent to 18mm x 2.7 = 48.6 mm for FX); a 30mm lens would be a short tele. Initially some people were disappointed about this small sensor size as the small photosites would lead to mediocre high-ISO results. While there is some truth in that concern, most testers and early owners of the V1 and J1 are pleased with the results.
In early October, Nikon USA loaned us the J1 and three lenses for testing. Therefore, this review will focus on those items. Accompanying this review, I have a folder with images of the J1 and lenses as well as a number of images captured with the J1:
Since the J1 body is quite small, there is limited space for dedicated controls. Interestingly, Nikon has a Mode Dial to control between still image and video capture, including the Motion Snapshot mode and Smart Photo Selector mode selection.
In the Motion Snapshot mode, the J1 would capture a short video for about 2 seconds and also a still image in the middle of the video segment. In the Smart Photo Selector mode, it can capture a series of images and automatically select the best among them, while keeping all captured images available if you prefer to make the choice yourself. For casual photographers, these can be convenient features and that is why their selection is conveniently located.
There is one multi-selection pad/dial to select exposure compensation, self timers, etc. and a few buttons to control the display, image delete, etc. Everything else is on the menu system, including the exposure modes S, P, A, and M and ISO selection. So is image quality control, where NEF (RAW) and various JPEG options. RAW + JPEG is also available but JPEG is always fine in that combination. To the left of the controls is a 3" LCD for composition, image review, and the menus.
On the J1, there are only two output connections: HDMI output for video and still images and a mini USB 2.0 jack. There are no jacks for any external flash, remote control, microphone, and GPS. At the bottom of the camera, there is a conventional tripod socket.
Unlike a lot of digicams, including some Nikon Coolpix models, the J1 is a highly responsive camera. As soon as you switch it on, it is ready to capture images. There is not much shutter lag and auto focus is quite fast.
Nikon first added contrast-detection AF on their DSLRs back in 2007, on the D3 and D300’s live view mode. Since then, its capability has been improving steadily. On the J1, AF is quite fast and accurate, but I wouldn’t go as far as suggesting that they as fast as regular phase-detection AF on modern higher-end DSLRs such as the D3S, D300S, and D7000.
Another major improvement on the J1 is face-recognition AF. When capturing video, it is very clear that the J1 can lock onto faces quickly as people move around. However, so far this technology can mainly recognize the faces directly facing you. When their heads turn sideways, face-recognition AF will lose track of them.
At low ISOs such as 100 and 200, the J1’s results are great. I have made 8×10 prints from nearly identical images captured with the J1 and the D700, and the difference between the prints is subtle. The quality is still decent at ISO 800 but beyond that, it gets noisy. Fortunately, Nikon manages to control noise at ISO 1600 very well so that image quality only deteriorates slowly. The J1’s hightest rated ISO is 3200. My rule of thumb for Nikon cameras is I would only use that highest ISO if necessary, and that applies to the J1 also.
Attached is an ISO 800 sample with a pixel-level crop from a small section. In my Nikon One folder, I have additional ISO 400 to 3200 image samples from the same scene.
If you are coming from digicams, you should like the high-ISO results from the J1 very much. However, if you are accustomed to the excellent high-ISO results from the Nikon D3S or even the D700 and D7000, of course no one should expect the J1 to produce similar results. I would say the D700 has about a two-stop advantage over the J1; the D3S is in the 3+ stops range.
The J1 can capture 1080p full HD video. Similar to current Nikon DSLRs, each capture is limited to 20 minutes. That can be an issue if you need to capture a long video without any interrupt, such as a lot of wedding ceremonies from beginning to end. For most amateur use, 20 minutes is way more than enough. In particular, the J1 is very responsive. As soon as you complete a 20-minute segment, you can start another video capture immediately.
Video image quality is excellent. What is surprising is that the two built-in tiny stereo microphones can provide very decent sound quality. You can find a four-minute sample video where I used the J1 to capture a dancing rehearsal inside a dimly lit studio with fluorescent lights. A few days later, I used the J1 to capture still images at the actual performance in San Francisco.
One issue I noticed is that when I capture a longer video for like 4, 5 minutes, the entire J1 camera heats up and becomes uncomfortably warm on both the front and the back. I am not sure where the heat is coming from; it could be the sensor, the LCD display or both.
My wife is a serious amateur videographer. We saw a demo Nikon V1 (not J1) with the 10-100mm power zoom together and got to play around with it a little. She likes that set up but commented that she wish there were an articulated LCD screen as she uses that capability a lot for video capture. Hopefully that feature will be available on a future model.
The J1 has a built-in pop-up flash. This flash literally come up from the top of the camera, leaving a hollow opening below it. I am a bit concerned about this design as something can bump into the flash and break it; moreover, something such as rain drops can potentially fall into the cavity when the flash is up.
The built-in flash is small and understandably has limited power. It can only provide frontal flash without the capability of bouncing. In a small-room setting, this flash works ok and can illuminate the subjects, but since it is direct frontal flash, the shadows tend to be harsh.
The J1 has no hot shoe or any other options to connect an external flash. The higher-end V1 has a different design. It has no built-in flash but instead has a Nikon proprietary multi-purpose “mini hot shoe.” Nikon sells an optional SB-N5 flash whose flash head can tilt up and down as well as rotate. While its flash power is still limited, it is more versatile so that you can avoid the harsh direct flash. Unfortunately, the J1 is not compatible with the SB-N5 or any other Nikon external flashes.
Nikon One lenses are designed such that most of the controls are from the camera body. For example, there is no focus ring on any one of the lenses. If one would like to focus manually, the focusing control is from a dial on the camera body; for those of us who are familiar with a mechanical focus ring on the lens barrel, that operation takes some getting used to. Vibration reduction (VR, same as Image Stabilization (IS) for Canon) is optical on the lens, but switching VR on and off is from the menu on the camera body. Therefore, on most Nikon One zoom lenses, the only control on the lens barrel is the zoom ring. On the 10-100mm power zoom, there is a “rocker” type switch to control zoom motion (which is powered by a motor) instead of a mechanical zoom ring. On the fixed 10mm “pancake” lens, there is no control on the lens at all.
The initial installment of lenses for the Nikon One system includes four lenses:
I got to test the first three lenses thoroughly. Optically they are all very good and at $250 each (sometimes with further package discounts), I think they are reasonably priced. The zooms are on the slow side at f5.6 on their respective long ends.
This is the standard “kit lens” that is sold with the J1 and V1. The zoom range is equivalent to 27-80mm on the FX format and is therefore a versatile lens. This is the one lens I use most of the time on the Nikon J1. There is some distortion on both extremes (barrel on the wide end and pincushion on the long end, as you would expect), but it is not serious. There is a tiny amount of chromatic aberration and when I point this lens straight into the sun, it handles flare quite well.
This is the equivalent of a 80-300mm zoom for FX. For those who like the traditional 70-300mm f5.6 zoom on FX, this lens plays the same role on the Nikon One system.
On its wide 30mm lens, there is a tiny bit of barrel distortion and also a tiny bit of color fringing. On the long 110mm end, there is a tiny bit of pincushion distortion, as you would expect. Since the amount of distortion is so little, it is not a concern. When I tested it in a tripod, I was quite impressed by its sharpness. The built-in VR is helpful for hand-held usage.
10mm seems to be an unusual choice for Nikon to make its first (and so far only) fixed-focal-length lens for the Nikon One series. 10mm means it is the equivalent of a 27mm wide-angle for FX. Optically it is a good lens with a little bit of barrel distortion. Sharpness is fine even wide open at f2.8 into the corners.
I have only used a 10-100mm demo unit briefly. It is a power zoom so that there is no traditional zoom ring on the lens. You press on a rocker switch to zoom to the wide end or long end and the zoom motion is very smooth, making it particularly suitable for video work. The 10x zoom range is huge and this lens also costs about 3 times as much as the other Nikon One lenses, on par with the highly popular superzoom 18-200mm DX AF-S VR lens for Nikon DSLRs.
Since the Nikon One system is so new, it is understandable that lens selection is still limited at this point. The 10-30mm kit lens and the 30-110 tele zoom should form a very convenient set. I am a bit surprised that the first installment of a fixed “pancake” lens for the Nikon One system is a wide angle in the form of the 10mm/f2.8. While it is a fine lens, I think a standard or moderate wide around 15mm to 20mm is more important. Moreover, faster f4 zooms and f2 fixed lenses would also be useful for indoor use.
Nikon has made it clear that additional lenses will be added in the not-too-distant future. They have also announced an FT1 (Nikon-F-to-Nikon-1??) adapter to mount traditional Nikon F-mount lenses onto the V1 and J1.
The J1 is an excellent choice for amateur photographers who would like a compact casual camera with interchangeable lenses. For those who prefer an electronic viewfinder (EVF), which I like, and more accessories such an as external flash, external microphone and GPS, the V1 is clearly the better choice.
Mirrorless cameras from Olympus, Panasonic, and Sony have larger sensors so that they can have more pixels and perhaps somewhat better high-ISO results. Some of those mirrorless bodies from Sony and Olympus are also very compact but their lenses are definitely bigger due to the larger image circles and longer focal lengths required.
For those who prefer more sophisticated cameras, I wouldn’t overlook consumer DSLRs either. For example, I have seen Nikon D3100 kits with the 18-55 and 55-200 lenses at similar prices as the J1 with two lenses.
The new Nikon One system is targeted towards more sophisticated casual photographers, those who have been using Coolpix type digicams and would like to step up to the world of interchangeable lenses while keeping the size of the camera and lens compact. Nikon decided on a small 13.2×8.8mm sensor with a 2.7x crop factor such that the lenses can be quite small as a “normal” lens is about 18mm and their image circle is also quite small. As a result, except for the 10-100mm power zoom, all Nikon One lenses so far are very compact; even the 10-100 is not big. True to the Nikon tradition of high-quality optics, the Nikon One lenses available so far are very good.
However, as people say, size matters. While Nikon wisely puts only 10MP onto this fairly small CX-format sensor, and results are generally excellent at ISO 100, 200 and 400, noise is still an issue above ISO 800. But Nikon does an excellent job controlling noise so that image quality only deteriorates moderately as the ISO goes up to 1600. Additionally, due to the small camera body size, there is simply not much room on the camera body for dedicated controls. Therefore, a lot of common controls such as the A, S, P, and M exposure mode selection and ISO adjustment are only available from the menu.
Personally, having used SLRs for several decades, I prefer the electronic viewfinder (EVF) on the V1 as I find it easier to compose when I look through a viewfinder than holding the camera a few inches in front of my eyes. If you are accustomed to composing from a 3" LCD and do not need advanced flash capabilities, the J1 should be a good choice.
Finally, when the V1 and J1 were announced, a lot of us noticed that their prices were on the high side compared to established mirrorless cameras such as the Sony NEX system and Micro Four-Thirds from Olympus and Panasonic. Those established models from the competition have already moved past their initial high-demand phase so that discounts are common. I am glad to learn that within a month of its introduction, Nikon USA has already provided instant rebates ($50 for either the J1 or V1 with the 10-30 kit lens, and a very nice total $150 off for those who purchase a two-lens kit, adding either the 30-110 zoom or 10mm/f2.8). With such rebates, the prices for the J1 and V1 systems are a lot more favorable.
The J1 is available in five different colors with a matching 10-30mm kit zoom lens: white, black, silver, red, and pink. The 10mm/f2.8 and 30-110mm zoom are available as part of two-lens kits or separately. Those lenses are also available in matching colors.