Nikon 1 J3 Digital Camera Review
Nikon's latest midrange mirrorless is a very, very short step up for point-and-shoot users.
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Since late 2011, Nikon has been busy carving out its own mirrorless niche with the tiny, stylish 1 system. Where Micro Four Thirds and Sony NEX models try to go toe-to-toe with DSLRs, offering full control over all shooting parameters, Nikon's diminutive shooters cater to point-and-shoot users who want improved image quality but don't care to actually learn much about photography.
To the surprise of many industry insiders, the system has sold beyond expectations—particularly in Europe and Japan. In part, that's probably because of smart marketing (hello, Ashton) and a strong in-store presence, but there's more to it than that. The 1 series has been a success because it marries approachability with portability, and provides better image quality than all but one compact camera can provide.
The Nikon 1 J3 (MSRP $599.95) is the latest refinement of that distinctive formula, packing a newly designed 14.2-megapixel CX-format sensor and upgraded Expeed 3A processor into the now-familiar J-series body, removing a few manual controls, and jacking up the price by $50. Curiously, it arrives alongside the Nikon 1 S1, a cheaper, even further pared down 1-series model that marks a new low for mirrorless ambition. That makes the lowly J3 the de facto middle child in Nikon's compact system camera lineup, positioned below the new V2.
Design & Handling
Grip? What grip?
The Nikon 1 J3 isn't an ergonomic nightmare, but it's clear that Nikon's priorities were style and size—not user comfort. The body design is eye-catchingly minimalist, with clean lines and a sleek matte finish (in your choice of white, black, silver, red, or beige). That's great, as far as it goes, and there's no doubt that the white J3 pairs well with Ashton Kutcher's cream-colored tux.
Unfortunately for people interested in, y'know... taking photos, the stylish body features no grip whatsoever. The front face is entirely featureless, and the tiny afterthought of a thumb rest around back doesn't do you much good in real-world shooting situations. The smooth finish quickly gets semi-slick from routine handling, and the poorly placed strap lugs have a tendency to get in the way.
A couple weeks ago, we savaged the Pentax Q10 for its poor single-handed shooting. The camera was simply so small that it was impossible to manipulate its many manual controls without pausing to reposition it in your hands. The Nikon J3 would suffer the same fate if it had any settings worth changing, but since it's essentially a point-and-shoot with swappable lenses, it’s less of a problem.
The J3 boasts impressively solid build quality, with a pleasant sense of density and nary a creak or misaligned seam. It's a great first impression that is unfortunately immediately contrasted by the extremely light and flimsy 10-30mm VR kit lens. The few buttons and dials that do disturb the J3's serenely blank canvas possess decent tactile response, though the finnicky shutter button is one of our least favorite in recent memory. Its travel is far too shallow, meaning you'll often take a photo when you only meant to pre-focus.
The rear LCD is a 3-inch, 921k-dot affair pretty much on par with what you'd get with an average DSLR or high-end compact camera. It's not a touchscreen and it doesn't flip out or swivel, which makes it practically useless in direct sunlight. Out shooting along the sea shore on a bright spring afternoon, I missed numerous shots because I simply couldn't tell what was in the frame. The J3 doesn't have a built-in electronic viewfinder and there's no hope of an add-on, so your only real option is to crank the screen brightness up to max and wear strong sunglasses. Given the J3's disappointing 220-shot battery life, that’s not exactly a great solution.
Simple to a fault
While the Nikon J3 sports a traditional physical mode dial, the typical PASM shooting modes are strangely absent. It's not that the dial lacks for room, either; Nikon has simply decided that the average J3 user doesn't need those options. The five settings the mode dial does offer are as follows: Auto, Creative, Advanced Movie, Best Moment Capture, and Motion Snapshot. The good news is, you can still shoot in Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual if you want to. The bad news is, you have to choose the Creative mode, then press the F button (up on the d-pad) to access them.
Putting rarely-used features like Best Moment Capture and Motion Snapshot on the mode dial while leaving out such age-old photographic staples strikes us as a questionable choice, but it's perfectly in line with Nikon's overarching, newbie-targeting strategy.
The J3's menu system is among the simplest we've seen on a compact system camera. Pressing the main menu key brings up a screen with six large sub-menu icons labeled Playback, Shooting, Movies, Image processing, Setup, and History. The menu is just as stylish as the exterior of the camera: minimalist, extremely easy to navigate, and visually pleasing. For the most part, the menu items are arranged logically, though we feel that splitting up Shooting and Image processing is unnecessarily splitting hairs.
One quirk that really annoyed us in day-to-day use was the lack of a display toggle. To change the way information is shown on-screen, you have to go into the main menu, then the Setup menu, then the Display sub-sub-menu. Once there, you'll find options for simple and detailed info displays, with separate settings for shooting and playback.
For shooting, this isn't a problem—the simplified display gives nearly as much info as the detailed version—but in playback it's a real headache. Here, the simple version doesn't provide any useful data, while the detailed version gives plenty of info but relegates your shots to thumbnail-sized display. Hilariously, if you run a slideshow with detailed info turned on, the J3 isn't smart enough to switch back to the simplified image readout, so you just get a parade of info screens with postage stamp-sized images.
Plenty to keep the right shooter busy
In some traditional senses, the J3 is surprisingly feature-poor—at least when compared to other models targeting the same user base. On the software side, the selection of creative filters is extremely limited (Soft Focus, Miniature Effect, and Selective Color), and there are only a few scene modes (Portrait, Landscape, Night Landscape, Night Portrait, and Close-up). You can't choose alternative aspect ratios when shooting—you're stuck with 3:2—but you have the option of cropping to 4:3, 1:1, or 16:9 after the shot is taken. These are areas where consumer-oriented cameras typically put a lot of emphasis, but the 1 series expends basically no effort.
On the other hand, the J3's video credentials are quite strong. The camera can shoot at 1080/30p or 1080/60i with full-time autofocus and optical vibration reduction. The powerful Expeed 3A image processor enables extreme slow-motion recording at either 400 or 1200 fps, albeit at horribly low resolution. (Seriously, it doesn't look good, though it's undeniably fun to play with.) When the mode dial is set to Advanced Movie Mode, you can press the F button to choose between PASM and slow-motion shooting modes; in any other mode, you can simply press the dedicated red video recording button to start shooting on full automatic.
The J3's speed enables a few other cool features. Best Moment Capture mode offers a couple of particularly neat tricks that should appeal to soccer moms and hockey dads. Slow View takes up to 40 shots and then plays them back in order, letting you pick the one you want to keep. Smart Photo Selector takes 20 shots and then lets the camera pick the five best options for you. Granted, you can achieve the same result by using continuous shooting mode and sifting through the files yourself later. But overall, Best Moment Capture is a logical, useful, time-saving extension of the J3's impressive operational speed.
The quickest draw in the west
The mirrorless camera market is still young and and full of unexplored potential. As a result, most manufacturers have embraced at least one distinctive gimmick to set their cameras apart from the growing pack. Olympus PEN models ooze retro appeal, Fujifilm's X series has its rangefinder-style hybrid viewfinder, and the Pentax Q is so small that it looks like a DSLR system designed for lawn gnomes. Nikon's gimmick is speed.
Thanks to a combination of extremely quick hybrid phase/contrast-detect autofocus and the new image processor, the J3 shoots at 15 frames per second with full tracking autofocus, or at 60 fps with fixed-point AF. Yes, you heard that right: 60 fps at full resolution. Granted, a burst at that speed only lasts for about 20 shots, or a third of a second, but it's impressive speed nonetheless.
In practice, we found the J3's autofocus speed to be blazing quick and generally accurate, especially in good light. In dim situations, AF speed drops off only slightly, and accuracy remains excellent. Tracking a fast-moving subject also worked extremely well—pretty much as well as any given sub-$1,000 DSLR—provided we could see the screen well enough to frame the action accurately. While several other manufacturers have also jumped on the hybrid AF train in recent months (most notably Sony), few have gotten as much out of it as Nikon has.
In addition to excellent shot-to-shot and autofocus speed, the J3 is a snappy performer in regular use. Menu navigation is quick, with zero lag between button presses and on-screen response. Start-up time is negligible, and image playback is extremely fluid. While most cameras these days have plenty of horsepower for mundane tasks, it really feels like the J3 has juice to spare.
A cut above most point-and-shoots, but not a world-beater
Compared to the J2, the J3's CX-format sensor has been upgraded from 10.1 to 14.2 megapixels and now offers a native sensitivity range of ISO 160-6400. Images are full of detail at low ISO settings, and even the higher sensitivities are useful in adequate light, but blotchy image noise and washed-out colors reign in dimmer shooting environments. Even in good light, shots at ISO 3200 and 6400 show noticeable color shift that will be distracting in everyday photos, so we suggest keeping it to ISO 1600 and lower. The noise reduction setting does a pretty good job of balancing detail retention and noise suppression, though there's a lot more fine detail in shots taken with NR off (and in RAW files).
The 10-30mm kit lens is very sharp around full wide angle, but drops off a steadily the further you zoom in. As usual, images at all focal lengths are sharpest in the center and get a little blurrier toward the edges. Perhaps the coolest thing about the kit lens is its superb close focusing ability, which lets you get as close as 8 inches (0.2m) from your subject. Typically, smaller sensors limit the amount of background blur you can get, but when shooting the 10-30mm lens at full wide angle and its widest aperture, you can still get some fairly impressive bokeh.
While the J3 is capable of extremely accurate color reproduction, it's let down by an unreliable automatic white balance algorithm.
We expect to see big color temperature errors from incandescent light (which typically skews very warm) and sometimes compact white fluorescent (which lends a greenish cast), but the J3's daylight auto white balance is unusually awful. In certain situations, shots in broad daylight suffer from a distinct bluish tint. That's a serious problem, since typical Nikon 1 system users probably don't usually carry manual white balance cards.
Video quality is top notch for a consumer-oriented camera, with excellent sharpness that doesn't drop off when the light gets dim. The ability to manually control exposure is a nice surprise in a newbie-oriented camera, though we imagine most users will stick to full-auto shooting.
A lamb in wolf's clothing
In our recent reviews, we've spent a lot of time talking about the rise of the smartphone camera and the slow death of the point-and-shoot. Most manufacturers have reacted to the proliferation of iPhones and Android devices by creating more advanced compact cameras that do things smartphones can't—compacts with advanced manual controls, better handling, and, yes, superior image quality. Nikon itself has done this with the excellent Coolpix P7700, our Point-and-Shoot of the Year for 2012.
The latest 1-system model is a different solution to the same problem: The J3 takes a form factor that has inherent high-end appeal and equips it with the least threatening interface we've ever seen on an interchangeable lens camera. Buyers get to enjoy the feeling that they're shooting with a "real" camera, but one that doesn't take any more skill or effort to operate than their old $200 compact.
Of course, they also get solid image quality and a suite of blisteringly quick shooting modes ideal for capturing sports and action. Many users step up from point-and-shoots to their first system camera in hopes of getting better photos of unpredictable subjects like kids and pets, and frankly, there are few consumer system cameras better suited to that task than the 1 J3. Its fast, accurate hybrid autofocus, speedy continuous shooting, and smart special capture modes really do make it easy for anyone to capture critical, fleeting moments.
But the J3 doesn't earn superlatives across the board—not even close. In addition to its unthreatening user interface, the camera has an equally unthreatening external design. While the soap bar styling won’t scare anybody off, it’s not particularly good for capturing photos; there's no grip to speak of, the neck strap gets in the way, and the slippery finish is no help at all. Though the body is small, you can't fit it in a pants pocket or operate it one-handed, and a lack of physical controls means you'll be spending a lot of time rooting around in menus if you want to adjust any settings yourself. The lack of a viewfinder or adjustable screen is a real handicap, as well—especially outdoors on a sunny day.
Then there's the issue of price. The J3 costs more than the J2 before it, despite not offering many notable improvements. With the nearly identical Nikon 1 S1 now on the market for $500, there’s an even simpler, cheaper alternative as well. If you value image quality over style, simplicity, and lightning-fast burst shooting there are any number of better options in the same $600 price range, including the Olympus PEN E-PL5, Sony NEX-3N or NEX-5R, and the Nikon D3200. Those are all excellent cameras that will give you more room to grow and produce better shots than the J3.
If you're interested in the J3 but don't need the speed-oriented features and don't get the appeal of extra lenses, consider the Sony RX100. Also using a 1-inch sensor, Sony's advanced compact manages to pack in 20.2-megapixel resolution, giving it a considerable advantage in detail. The RX100 also offers a lot more in the way of creative shooting possibilities, from fun filters to alternative aspect ratios, and it can actually fit in your jeans pocket. That's a benefit that's hard to ignore.
To put it bluntly, unless your main prerequisite for a new camera is monstrously quick continuous shooting, there are at least a dozen better choices than the J3 in the $600 price range. But if you feel the need for speed, the J3 could be your ticket to ride.
By the Numbers
On the whole, the Nikon 1 J3's performance is on par with what you get from other 1-inch sensor cameras—meaning the other 1-system models, and to a certain extent the Sony RX100. We were particularly impressed with the camera's video sharpness, color accuracy, and noise control, all of which were at least in the same ballpark as Micro Four Thirds models despite the smaller sensor. Stills sharpness was a mixed bag with the 10-30mm VR kit lens, though we may have been using a decentered copy. Our biggest complaint with the J3's image quality was the atrocious automatic white balance, which produced a strong blue cast when shooting in natural light. Many of our sample shots ended up with a distinctly cool look that detracted from their otherwise appealing qualities.
While the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR kit lens isn't a world-class piece of glass, and while we're not particularly enamored of its build quality, it's still a very capable everyday lens for the average user.
Sharpness is very good from the get-go in the center of the image, though at full wide angle and max aperture, the corners suffer. Here we saw resolution of as high as 1930 lw/ph at MTF50 in the center of the image, while the top left corner could only eke out 886 lw/ph. Based on this result, along with some real-world notable softness in the same area of real-world shots, we suspect that our test sample had a slight decentering issue.
Stopping down to f/5 increases sharpness dramatically in the corners, while the center held fairly steady. Going to f/8 reduced resolution across the entire frame due to the effects of diffraction, but also evened it out—the corners were only marginally less sharp than the center. As you zoom in, resolution drops off ever so slightly in the center (1867 lw/ph at 20mm and 1675 lw/ph at 30mm), but picks up in the extreme corners of the frame.
By default, the J3 applies just a touch of software edge enhancement to its JPEGs to increase apparent sharpness. In most of the camera's color modes it's applied delicately and doesn't result in nasty haloing or darkened edges. Still, if you want to handle sharpness entirely on your own, you can always shoot RAW.
The Nikon 1 J3's noise reduction algorithm is more basic than most. You've got both high-ISO and long-exposure noise reduction, each with off and on options.
With all noise reduction turned off, the J3's JPEGs start off at 0.89% noise, hit 0.99% at ISO 200, and climb steadily from there to hit exactly 2% at ISO 6400. We typically use the 2% threshold as a cutoff for acceptable print quality, so the J3 is actually doing quite well to max out there. When you turn NR on, noise levels drop by 20 to 30% at each sensitivity setting. At the base ISO 160, you start with 0.72% noise. Noise levels only cross 1% at ISO 1600, and top out at 1.4% at ISO 6400.
For the most part, NR smoothing is applied intelligently; there's still a decent amount of detail in high-ISO shots with NR turned on, though those shots are affected by washed-out, tinted colors that are hard to correct with post-processing.
In our standard lab setup (using the Xyla-21 dynamic range test) the J3 recorded a maximum of 14.6 stops of range at base ISO. Of course, this number is the standard dynamic range figure used by most camera review sites, based on a signal-to-noise ratio of 1:1. At DCI, we use a more stringent 10:1 ratio to observe the number of "high-quality" stops each camera is capable of.
In these terms, the J3 was able to record 6.56 stops at ISO 160. While that's far from the best we've seen from a compact system camera, it's just about on par with what we've seen from other 1-inch sensors. The Sony RX100, for instance, recorded 6.55 stops at its base sensitivity of ISO 80.
As you ratchet up the sensitivity settings, dynamic range drops, though it manages to hang on to more than 6 stops of range up to ISO 400. This number drops to 5.56 stops at ISO 800, 5.11 stops at ISO 1600, 4.18 stops at ISO 3200, and 3.65 stops at the maximum sensitivity of ISO 6400.
It's worth bearing in mind that our dynamic range test is based on a signal-to-noise ratio, and thus when a camera applies more noise reduction, it gets a boost in its dynamic range score. In part, this helps explain why the J3 scores better in terms of dynamic range than the Nikon 1 V2 (it maxed out at 6.03 stops at ISO 160), which uses the same sensor but applies less aggressive noise reduction.
Color & White Balance
Nikon has made a cottage industry of excellent color accuracy over the last few years, and the J3 is no exception. In its most accurate color mode (Neutral), the J3 recorded a ∆C 00 chroma corrected color error of just 2.2. That's just about the best that we ever see from consumer cameras, beaten only by professional models like the Nikon D4 and Canon 1D X, as well as some Micro Four Thirds cameras from Panasonic. Saturation was also almost dead on, hitting 98.5% of ideal in the Neutral color mode.
The Portrait color mode is another viable option if perfect color is your aim. Its color error was just a scoche higher at 2.26, and its saturation 102.7%. The actual color aberrations with the two most accurate modes were nearly identical—yellows, blues, and teals were furthest off—so which one you prefer will likely be down to how much saturation you like in your images.
Unfortunately, the J3's automatic white balance puts a real dagger in color accuracy's back. Typically, Nikon consumer cameras get incandescent and compact white fluorescent lighting wrong, but do well in daylight. The J3, on the other hand, does better than usual under artificial light (average errors of 1737 K under incandescent and just 179 K under CWF), but screws the pooch in natural lighting. Daylight AWB white temps were off by a stunning 2687 K, lending a distinct blue cast to many outdoor shots.
Custom white balance performed as expected, though very slightly worse than many comparable cameras. Color temperature errors ranged from 100 K under incandescent to 294 K under CWF, to 226 K under daylight. That's certainly close enough for all but the harshest critics.
Video output is a strong suit for the Nikon 1 J3, as it has been for the other 1-system cameras. Sharpness is simply outstanding: In our standard motion sharpness test, we observed 750 lp/ph on both the vertical and horizontal. When we lowered the lights to 60 lux, we were surprised to find that the results remained every bit as sharp. Using our still life setup and the J3's maximum video quality setting of 1080/30p, we observed very little trailing or artifacting. Small text was clearly readable, there was little pixelation or moire, and playback was pleasantly smooth. Really, we could hardly ask for more.
That said, if the light gets much dimmer than 60 lux, video image quality deteriorates very quickly. The J3 required 19 lux of ambient illumination to achieve 50 IRE on a waveform monitor (a test commonly used to determine broadcast readiness), which is a seriously disappointing figure. We're accustomed to seeing some point-and-shoot models with 1/1.7-inch sensors manage this feat with just 5 lux. Adding insult to injury, the Pentax Q10 recently passed the same test with just 16 lux, despite its tiny 1/2.3-inch sensor. In layman's terms, this means that video shot in very low light won't be bright enough to show much detail, since the sensor isn't sensitive enough to gather the necessary light.