Can the cheaper of Nikon's compact system cameras make a splash on the mirrorless market?
Nikon caused uproar among its faithful followers when its hotly anticipated interchangeable-lens compact system finally landed.
The controversy was over the small sensor size and the fact that the two cameras, the Nikon J1 and V1 (read our Nikon V1 review), are styled closely to the company's Coolpix compacts, bucking the recent trend for hardcore retro-ism.
The Nikon 1 series uses a teensy 13.2x8.8mm sensor, which is considerably smaller than those used by Micro Four Thirds cameras (17.3x13mm), and tiny compared to the APS-C sensors (23.5x15.6mm) adopted by Sony and Samsung.
The reason Nikon has opted for this compact sensor is speed – the vital ingredient in its recipe for models it calls "Advanced Cameras with Interchangeable Lenses (ACIL)".
Like the more expensive Nikon V1, the Nikon J1 is able to shoot 60fps continuously at its full 10.1-megapixel resolution, and features astounding autofocus speed.
Nikon 1 J1 – making advances
That high-speed burst is the basis for Nikon's Smart Photo Selector mode, one of the features aimed at proving Nikon's claims that this is an "advanced" system.
Turn the rear-mounted mode dial to the Smart Photo Selector icon and the J1 takes a hyper-fast burst of 20 shots when you press the shutter button. Clever processing gubbins select what it considers are the "best" five pics and stores them to the SD card so you can pick your favourite later.
Motion Snapshot is the other mode in Nikon's advanced armoury. It's a movie mode which takes a short clip in slow-motion and applies some music pre-selected from a list.
Nikon 1 J1 – how compact is too compact?
Aside from speed, the other benefit of a smaller sensor is the overall system size, and the Nikon J1 does boast a slim body, albeit not much smaller than the Olympus PEN E-PM1's.
The lenses are downsized, but not as much as you might hope. The standard 10-30mm (equivalent to 27-81mm) lens is collapsible, like the Olympus 14-42mm, but doesn't feel much smaller. It doesn't make for a pocketable package, that's for sure. The 10mm (27mm equivalent) f2.8 pancake is tiny, but not exactly versatile.
The most impressive of the launch lenses is the collapsible 30-110mm (81-297mm equivalent) – when collapsed, it's barely bigger than the 10-30mm, and the lens hood is reversible to keep the size down.
Sensor size aside, the other thing many grumpy Nikonites have moaned about is the compact-like styling and layout. There's no easy-to-reach control over ISO or EV, and no handy jog dial for setting aperture size and shutter speed. Ergonomically, this is very much a Coolpix compact camera with a lens mount. If you're upgrading from a compact the familiarity and simplicity could be welcome, but if you're downsizing from an SLR or are a compulsive settings tweaker you might find it all a bit frustrating.
Nikon 1 J1 review verdict
Smart Photo Selector is an excellent addition to the photographers' arsenal, offering even better odds of getting the right shot, but we're less sure Motion Snapshot will get used once the initial novelty wears off. The HD video quality, though, is good.
Image quality from the Nikon J1 is indistinguishable from the Nikon V1 – which is to say that it's impressive. Compared to the Olympus PEN E-P3 the shots are very good, and all the way up to ISO 3200 there's little noise and the colours are punchy. Trust us, if you were expecting that small sensor's images to be the downfall of this system, you'd be wrong. It can't compete with the Sony NEX series, but it definitely gives the MFT crowd a run for their money.
Of course, there's no denying the lack of fine control over depth of field, and the upper limit of ISO 3200 will be an issue if you're a low-light shooter – although the excellent pop-up flash is welcome.
Nikon has thrown a curveball with the 1 series, and it won't be to everyone's taste. But if you can get over your sizeist tendencies – and don't mind the high price tag – this will reward you with great photo performance.
Nikon 1 J1 review
Super-fast and capable of great results despite the small sensor