Verity Burns
31/10/2011 15:00 | By Verity Burns, editor, MSN Tech & Gadgets

Nikon J1 review

Can Nikon's entry-level mirrorless compact system camera impress both beginners and pros?

Nikon J1 compact system camera (© Nikon)

What is it:

One of Nikon's first mirrorless compact system cameras, offering the quality and interchangeable lens functionality of a DSLR camera in a more compact body.

What's great: Stylish, compact and easy to use interchangeable lens system with great image quality at its heart.

What's not: Frustrating omissions and oversights make it tricky for more manual photography, there's no accessory port and it's slightly on the pricey side.

Bottom line: The J1 is a great introduction to a more sophisticated level of photography for beginners upgrading from a compact, but seasoned photographers will find it poorly set up for easy access to manual controls, and its lack of accessory port frustrating.

Nikon has joined the compact system party later than the likes of Olympus, Panasonic and Sony, but it's come out swinging with two cameras that it reckons are worth the wait, the J1 and the V1. Starting from £549 for a single lens kit, the J1 is the more affordable of the two.

Nikon has put ease of use and image quality at the forefront of its vision for the J1, and the Nikon 1 compact system as a whole. The J1 is strongly aimed at the more entry-level end of the market, making it a camera for those looking to move up from a compact or bridge, but aren't keen on the bulk of a DSLR.

The Nikon 1 system keeps its compact-form factor by, like other comparable systems, getting rid of the mirrors inside the camera body. It features Nikon's new smaller CX-format sensor - a sensor also smaller to that of its compact system rivals - but one that has been thoughtfully combined with a 10-megapixel resolution to offer a good balance between great image quality and speed.

In fact, Nikon claims its compact system offers the fastest autofocus in the world - and we'll vouch for its speed. Using a new hybrid system alongside a new EXPEED 3 image engine, it brings together two types of AF detection resulting in ultra-quick focusing so you'll never miss a shot. It's so fast, in fact, you can get full-resolution continuous shooting at up to 60fps.

One of the main differences between the J1 and its pricier V1 sibling is that it lacks an electronic viewfinder - and there's no accessory port to attach one either. Buyers moving from compact cameras may not immediately find this an issue, but we missed it when photographing in bright sunlight, which made viewing the screen more difficult, and when using the camera's longer, heavier lenses.

The lack of features such as this further proves the J1 is firmly aimed at a more point-and-shoot market. While there are manual controls, they are buried deep within the menu with no way to bring them to the forefront. You'll have to go digging for exposure modes, when they could've been easily included on the program dial - there's not even a quick way to tweak the ISO.

So what is on the program dial? Aside from camera and video modes, there are two special modes called smart photo selector and motion snapshot. The first captures 20 photos at a single press, analyses them and picks the five best based on factors such as on sharpness, light and composition. You are then able to choose your favourite at your leisure - great for when you want to capture something quickly and don't have time to tweak your settings.

The motion snapshot, on the other hand, is a bit more of a gimmick. It offers a 2.5-second slow-motion video set over rather cheesy music, with a still image captured at the same time and displayed at the end. And that's only if you watch it on the camera. View it back on your computer and it's played back at regular speed and without the music, which ultimately seems a little pointless. While it's a bit of fun, we found little use for it after a few trys, and were frustrated at its placing on the program dial over more useful options such as aperture or shutter priority modes.

Even more frustrating is the 'F' function button screaming out to be programmable, yet isn't. Instead it simply offers you quick switching between single and continuous shooting in camera mode and regular and slow-motion recording in video. A big opportunity missed, we think.

Speaking of video, the J1 is capable of both 1080p (30fps) and 1080i (60fps) full HD video, which we found to be smooth and sharp. There's a separate record button to the regular shutter button to allow you to skip straight into video without needing to change the dial, and these separate buttons also allow you to take full-resolution stills while you film, too.

Slow motion
The J1 also offers a 400fps slow-motion mode that enables you to catch all the detail of an action shot, with a 1200fps mode should you want to catch it even more slowly. However, the resolution of the 400fps means the footage is only really suitable for watching back on your computer rather than TV, while the resolution of the 1200fps mode means it'll be little more use than watching back on the camera itself.

The lack of an accessory port means the sound quality captured isn't up to much, but it does the job for capturing sound at close distances.

The omission of an accessory port also means there's no room for attaching a speedlight, either. Instead, the J1 has a built-in pop-up flash, which, although not as versatile as a separate flash unit, works well for most situations and avoids the need to carry around extra equipment.

All in all, the Nikon J1 is a great introduction for beginners to an interchangeable lens system, offering them ease of use and great image quality in a light and compact body. While we found some of its omissions and oversights frustrating, given its intended audience, Nikon has done a good job at making moving on from a compact a viable option for many.

That said, the J1 doesn't come cheap , and is up against stiff, less pricey competition from the likes of Olympus and Panasonic - not to mention Nikon's own larger system cameras too. Yet despite the premium price, we think the J1 remains a firm contender for your hard-earned cash if image quality, speed and ease of use are top of your must-have list.

3.5 stars (© MSN)

Essential info:
Megapixels: 10.1
Sensor: 13.2 mm x 8.8 mm CMOS sensor
LCD: three-inch, 460k dots TFT LCD
ISO range: ISO 100-3200 + ISO 6400 equivalent, auto ISO sensitivity control (ISO 100-3200, 100-800, 100-400) available
Video: Full HD 1080p (30fps), 1080i (60fps) and 720p (30fps)
Memory cards: SD/SDHC/SDXC
Weight: 277g (with battery and memory card)
Dimensions: 106.0 x 61.0 x 29.8mm
Price: £549.99 (single 10-30mm lens kit) , £599.99 (10mm pancake lens kit), £699.99 (double lens kit - 10-30mm and 30-110mm). Available in a choice of white, silver, black, pink and red.
See more: Nikon's website

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