Nikon Mirrorless J1 Digital Camera Review$649.99
The Nikon J1 represents the first step for the company into the rapidly growing compact interchangeable lens camera world. While most of these cameras are designed to fit DSLR quality into a compact size, Nikon seems to be aiming at that goal from the opposite direction.
Instead of taking a chisel to your typical entry-level DSLR, the J1 and V1 cameras from Nikon seem to be designed as point-and-shoot cameras with upgrades. Whatever the design approach, the J1 is stuck competing with models from Olympus, Sony, Panasonic, and Samsung—but at a significant disadvantage.
That disadvantage is the J1’s image sensor, which is smaller than the sensors used by Micro Four Thirds cameras and Sony and Samsung mirrorless cameras. As a result, the Nikon J1 falls short in most areas of image quality when compared to other compact system cameras—let alone DSLRs. Image quality is certainly better than what you'll find on a point-and-shoot camera, but with so much competition in system cameras, that just isn't good enough.
If you're stepping up from a point-and-shoot to take on your first camera with interchangeable lenses, the J1 has a lot to offer: plenty of manual controls, fast shot-to-shot time, no shutter lag, less image noise in low light, and good overall image quality. Nikon even throws in some minor improvements over the mirrorless competition: incredibly fast autofocus, a clean and clear menu system, and some interesting (if gimmicky) features like slow motion video.
If the camera were released three years ago, that might be enough to hail the J1 as the conquering hero Nikon fans have all been waiting for. Instead, it wades into an already crowded pool with a feature set and image performance that is bested in most areas by other cameras already on the market. The J1 isn't a bad choice if you're not troubled by price and you simply want a reasonably stylish and compact camera with good video and great shot-to-shot speed. For all-around value in this part of the market, however, Nikon’s first effort is a few years behind the times.
Nikon hasn't traditionally been known as a speed-crazy camera brand, but the J1 is one of the most responsive cameras we've tested recently. It autofocuses as fast (if not faster) than the Olympus E-P3, and offers still shooting up to 60fps, and 5.21fps with continuous autofocus. Further, the camera even has a functional 1200fps video mode. Unfortunately, the J1 only offers mediocre performance otherwise, with decent color accuracy and noise results, but underwhelming sharpness and dynamic range.
Other than some handling issues, and some problems with low light sensitivity, the Nikon J1 handled our battery of video tests with relative ease. What we liked most was the J1's excellent set of manual controls in video mode, as well as the camera's strong autofocus system. Unfortunately, Nikon dropped the ball with the J1's odd manual focus setting, and we weren't crazy about the camera's handling or design for shooting video, but we were impressed with this effort from Nikon overall. This is a great camera if you want to shoot some quick and easy HD video, or if you like playing around with manual controls in video mode as well.
You'll have to give Nikon time to develop this lens system, but the camera itself is well-designed. We found the plastic body of the J1 to be quite well-balanced, with decent heft for what it's made out of. The lens mount on the body is metal, as are the mounts on the lenses themselves (only the 10mm f/2.8 lens had a metal body otherwise), which should aid durability. The camera isn't designed with enthusiasts in mind, as there's no hot shoe option for external flashes or electronic viewfinders. The rear 3-inch LCD screen is quite clear, though, and is perfectly suitable for making fine focus adjustments, though it darkens in direct sunlight.
The main issue we have with the J1 is the lack of grip on the body of the camera itself. The plastic shell on the front of the camera offers nothing to hold onto, with just a small patch of rubber for the thumb on the back. The entire shooting experience then becomes relatively unstable, especially when changing lenses on the fly. All in all the camera is difficult to hold onto with even the relatively small telephoto lens attached, meaning hooking up anything larger will be a real chore if and when Nikon releases an adapter for their full-size DSLR lenses.
We do reserve some praise for Nikon's menu design on the J1, which is clean, functional, and very easy to learn. Navigation is quick and concise, with few wasted keystrokes or movements. We would've greatly preferred if the mode dial were fully fleshed out (aperture and shutter priority modes are missing), but overall it shouldn't overshadow what is really one of the better menus Nikon has designed in recent memory. That the menus on many other compact system cameras are often a jumbled, byzantine mess—we're looking at you, Olympus E-PL2—certainly helps the J1's cause here.