Nikon 1 J1 Review

My gear has evolved from P&S to DSLRs over the last five years, and each year I end up buying a new camera. The focus this year, was on reducing the size and weight of the camera gear, unlike previous years where I had been looking to acquire the latest sensor technology (although I was tempted to swap my D3100 with D3200!).

What started out as a quest for cheap backup P&S, ended up as a story about Nikon 1. But not before I had analyzed every single camera in the INR 10k to 25k price bracket. Thanks to Flipkart which has a decent range of cameras. But somehow I resisted the urge to order J1 from Flipkart, and instead went to a Nikon store in Lajpat Nagar, where to my surprise I got a better deal.

Nikon 1 J1

When Nikon launched the 1 series, I was one of those who ridiculed their decision to go for a piddly 1 inch sensor, with a meagre 10MP resolution. More so because of their outrageous pricing of the kits. Perhaps Nikon’s think tank never updated their market study which seems to have been based on the trends prevalent five years ago. Back then, these cameras would have been ground breaking, earth shattering, but things have changed since MFTs hit the market. Pricing has become a sensitive issue, in an already overcrowded CSC market. Thankfully Nikon acknowledged this fact, and dropped the price significantly for both its cameras, a move which seemed to work in their favor as J1 (and V1) dominated the CSC markets in Japan and Europe.

J1 in Action

J1

Form Factor : J1 is not Sony RX100 or Olympus XZ1, but its a sufficiently compact ILC, and light too
Prior to buying the J1, I had mostly been carrying my DSLR kit – D3100, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC, and Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR, to my leisure trips and social events. Throw in a battery charger, UV filter and polarizer (both of which fit snugly on either of the lenses), and the kit would weigh two kilograms or thereabout. Those who have carried so much weight to day long sightseeing trips would agree that the dead weight spoils the experience.

J1 is light and how! The body weighs in a mere 235g, add a couple of lenses 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR (115g) and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR (185g ONLY!) and you get a useful range of 18mm – 198mm (DX format) for just 535g. For the sake of comparision, D3100 weighs in a good 455g for body alone and similarly Olympus PEN E-PL1 weighs 335g and has a heavier kit lens by comparision.

In hands, the J1 is good to hold, its not feather light and that helps in keeping the hands steady. I have taken it to a few wedding events and it hasnt been a distraction, to say the least. The only gripe that I have is regarding the neck band that Nikon has provided in the kit. It would have made more sense to put a wrist band instead. I didnt even bother to put the otherwise flashy neck band, instead used an old wrist band that came with my Canon Powershot.

Nikon 1 J1 + 1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F/3.5-5.6

Look and Feel : Solid build quality
J1, like V1 has a solid build quality. Better than my D3100, and more reminiscent of my old D80. Both lenses have metal mount, and great rubber grip. The zoom rings are sufficiently smooth to operate and have no creep. In white avatar, the camera seems unimposing to the subjects, which is particularly good for clicking those natural, life-like photos where the subjects dont consciously pose for the camera. At weddings, I have often received cold stares and unwelcomed looks by the professional photograhers, even when I wasnt obstructing their field of view. Thankfully the J1 makes it easier for me to sneak in and take advantage of their lighting setup without the professionals bothering too much.

Nikon 1 J1 Rear

User Interface : A curious camera
After using it, I labelled Nikon 1 J1 as a curious camera. It is definitely not a DSLR and nor is it a P&S. The UI, button layout and handling are all different. Yes, you find similarities with DSLR when you zoom the lenses, and to P&S when you use the buttons, but there are subtle differences and unique features (like unlock lens to switch on the camera). It takes time to adjust to the new UI (which isnt a bad thing), it kept me engaged for a while before I became familiar with the controls. For example, there is no Fn button to control ISO, but if you exit the “Menu” after adjusting ISO, J1 remembers the last option, so the next time you hit “Menu” you are directly taken to ISO settings. The menu is extensive but intuitive and easy to remember. Not once have I felt that UI has come in my way while setting up the camera for that quick shot. Infact, the camera feels more like a point and shoot, once you set it up properly. I mostly use Shutter priority mode along with Auto ISO, in order to harness the brilliance of the EXPEED 3 technology. The EV comp and ISO settings are fairly easy to reach just incase I want a greater control over the output.

The absence of PSAM dial / shooting modes is inconsequential for me since I hardly use it even on my DSLR. For those shots, where I would like to use manual mode, I would generally have enough time to delve into the menu and change the settings – a fair compromise.

CX Sensor

Performance : Stellar metering and auto focus
J1’s start up times are fast, and continuous shooting mode is a delight. The metering is brilliant in most situations, and focus is fast enough even in low light. In broad daylight, J1 performs as expected, yes, the auto focus is the fastest that I have seen in this form factor, and dare I say the most accurate, even comparable to D3100. The LCD brightness is good, so much that it can be lowered a bit without affecting legibility, in order to conserve battery. Overall, I have been very pleased with J1’s performance.

Image Quality : Gritty but detailed output; Shoot RAW for best results
The JPEGs are generally pleasing with typical Nikon colors, and the RAW output is definitely a notch above the JPEGs. The images are gritty even at base ISO (even when compared to D3100, let alone D7000), but the 1inch sensor captures plenty of details. The sensor size is no excuse for poor low light performance, however J1 fares well in absolute terms, comparable to what I used to get from my old D80. IQ is decent until ISO1600, beyond that things go down hill and require careful processing to get acceptable results.

1 Nikkor VR 10-30mm F/3.5-5.6

Lenses : A lot of options to choose from
Although 10-30mm kit lens is sharp, it is still the weakest lens in the lineup. Following up with excellent results that I got from the kit lens, I decided to buy 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR and I must say this lens absolutely shines on J1. With a complex construction and different coatings, it is a must have for your Nikon 1. The VR works surprisingly well and the images come out sharper than Nikkor 18-200mm VR, and are mostly comparable to Nikkor 70-300mm VR II. Nikon has introduced a slew of lenses which include ultra wide zoom, pancake, fast prime, and travel zooms. The pricing however, remains to be a bit on the high side. I would have preferred the lenses to be atleast 25% cheaper than their DX counterparts. For those who would like to couple their Nikon DSLR glasses with J1 there is a handy FT1 adaptor, however, I have not seen it in action as yet, so I dont know for sure if it taxes the auto focus performance of the DX/FX lenses.

Battery Life :  Good enough, doesn’t warrant buying a spare
On my last run, I have been able to get 350+ shots with VR always on, flash fired on atleast 50 occasions and the battery status still shows 50% usage. Pretty decent.

Conclusion : Not just a sidekick
My quest for a back up camera, concluded with me buying a Nikon 1 J1 and replacing my old Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR with a shiny 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 VR. My revised kit now consists of Nikon 1 J1, 10-30mm VR, 30-110mm VR along with Nikon D3100, Tamron 17-50mm f/2.8 VC. With J1 taking a more active role of a pocket sized tele-shooter, and not just being a sidekick to D3100.

Impact of Sensor Size on Performance — a Contemporary Survey

I am in the middle of a choice between interchangeable lens systems and one of my pressing needs is the selection of a system that lets me have a smaller, lighter camera bag. Now is not a bad time to be shopping for cameras, with so much choice being available across price brackets and IQ variance. As always, having a lot to choose from is another way of getting confused, so I decided to do some objective data analysis to figure out what’s what.

The choice is between 35mm (full frame or FX in Nikon parlance), APS-C, Micro Four-Thirds (MFT) and 1″ (CX in Nikon parlance) sensor platforms. It’s worth noting that there isn’t any FX mirrorless interchangeable lens camera on the market so far, so going FX means using a DSLR with a mirror and built-in OVF. Similarly, there’s only the Nikon 1 system available in the 1″ format.

Crop Factors

Crop factor is the ratio of the field of view between FX and the sensor in question. One of the things it tells is the focal length required on a 35mm sensor for a given focal length on the sensor in question. E.g. the crop factor of APS-C sensors is usually 1.5, which means that a 100mm lens on APS-C would give the same kind of frame as a 150 mm lens on FX.

Crop factor also determines the increase in Depth of Field (DoF) for a given aperture value between FX and the sensor in question. E.g. a 100mm lens at f/4 on APS-C would give the same frame and DoF as a 150mm lens at f/6 on an FX sensor. One thing the crop factor doesn’t change, though, is the metering. A scene that requires 1/100s shutter speed at f/5.6, ISO200 on FX would still require 1/100s at f/5.6, ISO 200 on a CX sensor. I.e., a smaller sensor allows you to shoot at wider apertures and lower ISO or higher shutter speeds for the same DoF.

Lastly, the square of the crop factor indicates how much larger the FX sensor is compared to the sensor in question in terms of surface area. E.g. FX is 1.52 = 2.25 times larger than APS-C sensors.

So, let’s take a look at the crop factors across the systems and see how they compare. Here’s a chart:

CropFactors

 

As you can see, the biggest gap is between FX and APS-C. The smallest is between APS-C and MFT. All of them are fairly close to 1 stop (1.414) so you can assume that you change a stop’s worth of equivalent aperture while going across the spectrum.

These crop factors have interesting consequences. They mean, for example, that a 50mm f/1.8 “normal prime” would behave like a 135mm f/4.9 telephoto lens on a CX camera, except for exposure metrics.

Tonality

Tonality, or colour depth, is the ability of a sensor to distinguish very similar looking colours from one another. This metric is what gives photos from larger sensor cameras that “3D look” while the pictures form cellphones and small cameras look very “flat”. I have pulled the best in class tonality data from DxOMark scores for each format. The chart below shows how they compare.

Tonality

This chart shows an almost linear progression across formats, except that the best CX format sensor (Sony CyberShot RX100) is nearly as good as the best MFT sensor. The good news here is that if you’re looking for colour depth in your photos, you are much better off in 2013 than just 5 years ago. The colour depth of the RX100 (22.6 bits) is about the same as that of the Nikon D90 (22.7 bits), despite the latter having more than 3 times the sensor area.

The not-so-good news, of course, is that an FX sensor is still quite far ahead in terms of tonality, and this becomes especially important if you are a landscape photographer shooting in snow or haze. Portrait photographers would also get much better skin tone gradation with FX sensors.

Dynamic Range

Dynamic Range (DR) is a measure of the maximum variation of light and dark areas in a scene before the sensor loses the ability to resolve colour or tone, rendering the dark areas as greyish black and bright areas as white. DR is especially important for shooting outdoors in daylight or indoors with overhead lighting or spotlights. People who shoot Christian weddings would also want to be careful about the DR of their sensor since they often need to shoot the groom wearing a black suit along with the bride wearing a white dress.

The DR variance, again based on the segment topping sensor scores on DxOMark across formats is shown below.

DynamicRange

This is an interesting chart because the variance in DR doesn’t have any correspondence with the crop factors. The best FX and APS-C sensors are quite close to each other, but there is a huge gap from APS-C to MFT. In fact the RX100 outperforms its MFT siblings in DR despite a sensor that’s almost half as large.

Noise

Now we come to the most important metric for a sensor, i.e. noise performance. We all recognise noise as the speckles and freckles that we see all over a photograph. That is the most visible effect of noise, but it’s not the only one. Noise also reduces a sensor’s tonality and DR quite a bit. What’s even worse, a noisier sensor would also perform worse at its base ISO for long exposures compared to a less noisy sensor.

So what does the Noise progression look like across formats? Well, here it is. No surprises.

MaxISO

The chart above is based on DxOMark‘s listing of ISO measurement at which the degradation in image quality becomes perceptible. I have converted those numbers into “stops” for a more easy comparison. E.g. according to the chart above, the best CX sensor (Nikon 1 V2, in this case) is 3 stops noisier than the best FX sensor (Nikon D3s).

Sensor Performance Conclusions

Based on the above charts, we see that there’s a significant gap between every segment, except MFT and CX, wherein the RX100 is acting as a bit of a leveler, albeit with 1.14 stops poorer noise performance.

If you are an outdoors shooter, it’s probably not a bad idea to downsize since the key metrics for outdoor shooting (Tonality and DR) are far more level across the formats, while the kit size reduction is significant. If you shoot indoors without studio lighting, though, you should strongly consider having a large sensor system.

Another important thing to remember, though, is that today’s sensors in any segment match up to or outperform the sensors of the next segment from 5 years ago across all metrics. If you are satisfied with your 5 year old equipment’s IQ, you are ready to downsize without consequence.