Top positive review
865 people found this helpful
It's great, for what it is.
on October 27, 2011
There's been a lot of talk about Nikon's new 1 Series cameras, and a lot of disappointment over the CX sensor size, and the perceived lack of quality compared to Sony's larger APS-C NEX cameras. Many enthusiasts have been understandably frustrated by this move, wanting the best of all worlds - D3 quality in a point and shoot body. The J1 doesn't quite hit that mark, but if you understand what you're buying and play to the camera's strengths, it's a great piece of gear for the beginner, enthusiast, and the pro alike.
For clarification, I am primarily evaluating the J1 for its use *as a camera* - I won't touch much on the video or motion snapshot modes.
* As a part-time professional, I bought this camera primarily because of its size, and the ability (hopefully) to use my collection of F-mount lenses in the future. In this respect, the J1 is fantastic. My first mirrorless purchase was a Sony NEX-3, and I was overall very happy with it, but the size of the lens still made carrying it around a real chore. Unfortunately, this really comes down to physics - there are physical constraints on how small you can design a lens with a 55mm focal length (concretely, it can't really be much less than 55mm in length). Fundamentally, this is where the CX format helps the J1 significantly. Due to its smaller sensor size, it is possible to construct equivalent lenses which are significantly smaller and lighter than for the APS-C format. The promise of being able to use standard-range high-quality zoom lenses (think a 17-55 f2.8, for instance) as mid-range telephotos is certainly intriguing. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and obviously the wide end and depth of field suffer here, but I am hopeful that Nikon or third party manufacturers will address that concern as much as they can. At the moment, however, the J1 with its kit lens is a camera that is, while not pants-pocketable, certainly coat-pocketable.
* The autofocus system is fantastic, especially in good light. I've been particularly impressed at the ability of the J1 to track a subject around the frame. I've been a big fan of Nikon's 3D tracking AF since I first saw it in action on the D300, but the J1 really takes it to a new level. The subject tracking mode is fast and very responsive, and once you've locked it on something, it does a very good job of staying with your targeted subject. Nikon claims that the J1 and V1 focus faster than the D3, and while I haven't used a D3 in a while, the J1 focuses fast enough (in good light) that I wouldn't doubt the claim.
* Image quality is actually quite good. I was fearful of how bad the noise would be on a smaller sensor, but I've been reasonably impressed with the results so far. JPEG results out of the camera are not stellar at high ISO - there's certainly some aggressive noise reduction going on - so you will certainly want to switch to RAW for best results. At present, ACR will not open J1 files, but Capture NX2 will. The ACR 6.6 beta results posted on dpreview.com are encouraging, being close to on-par with previous generation sensors (D90, D300, etc). Without access to the files in my normal workflow (Lightroom), it's hard for me to make a direct comparison on how much you can eek out of a RAW file on the J1 compared to other cameras, but so far I've been pleased.
UPDATE: Lightroom version 3.6 (beta) is out, and I've had a chance to play around with several of the images I've taken over the past few weeks. Again, I've been reasonably impressed. This is not a D3. With standard noise reduction in LR, I think the image quality is easily better than my D200 was, which given the size of the sensor is quite impressive. It is certainly better than the higher end point and shoots I've owned (Panasonic LX-2, Canon S90 - which to be fair are a couple of years old).
Things that could be improved:
* The interface. The camera tries to take care of a lot of things for you, and for the most part it does an ok job. If you're trying to access things like you would on a DSLR, you may have some problems. It would be nice to see Nikon update the firmware with the ability to reassign some of the buttons to tasks that are more useful in manual mode, but as with any wish-list feature, it's not something you should plan on happening if you're buying the camera. Overall, the interface isn't worse than the NEX-3, so I'm not displeased. I'd like things to be more accessible, but the camera is perfectly usable as it is.
* The high-speed electronic shutter setting is very, very restrictive with regard to the settings you can change. Things you have no control of if you want to use the high-speed capture: Program mode only (no aperture, shutter or manual), ISO (Auto 100-3200 only), metering (matrix only), focus mode (AF-A only), and focus tracking (area mode only). I was rather looking forward to using the high-speed mode, but frankly these restrictions make it pretty difficult to use with any kind of creative control.
* There doesn't seem to be a way to turn off the image preview after you take a picture, which is somewhat problematic if you are trying to capture a string of pictures. You can take a single shot, or a burst of pictures, but in either case you can't use the camera again until the preview goes away, which generally takes 2-3 seconds. This won't be a big deal most of the time for most people, but it does make capturing any kind of action problematic. Simply adding an option to turn this off in firmware would go a long way.
Things that you might care about, but aren't strictly speaking critical to being a camera:
* Video seems to require more light than stills - at least if you are using the 720p60 and definitely if you are using the high-speed video. High-speed is somewhat gimmicky, perhaps, but don't plan on using it indoors. There simply won't be enough light. The 720p60 video is nice - certainly smother than a lot of SLR and mirrorless video out there, including my experience with the NEX-3. I don't know that you're going to get broadcast quality, but things have come a long way in just a couple of years.
* The smart selector function seems to work fairly well, but since you can't see the images it throws away, it's hard to really know. I haven't used this function extensively, but when I have, I've been happy with the pictures it's kept.
Should you buy a J1? It depends. If you're intrigued, but not completely sure you need one, I might wait for the next generation. If you want to be able to carry a small, light camera that offers fairly good image quality - especially if you have a set of Nikon lenses - this would be a good choice. If you're a parent who wants to take pictures of your kids at their sports games, when paired with a longer range zoom, the Nikon J1 will get you some great results. If you want a camera that weighs half a pound, can fit in your pocket, has a 25x f2.8 zoom, and gives you noise-free images at ISO 204,800... you'll need to look somewhere else.
At the end of the day, the J1 is a compromise, and it doesn't really pretend to be otherwise. You won't get the low light performance you would in an APS-C camera, but you won't be carrying ten pounds of gear with you either. When buying the J1, my personal philosophy was the following: if I'm in a situation where my primary concern is image quality, I'll bring my pro gear along. Otherwise, I'll carry the J1, and thereby have the possibility of capturing scenes, albeit at reduced (though still acceptable) quality, because my camera is with me, instead of sitting at home.