Nikon J1 and Nikon V1 Camera Review: Is this new format right for you?

The Nikon J1, left, and Nikon V1, two new entries in the sub-DSLR market. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The Nikon J1, left, and Nikon V1, two new entries in the sub-DSLR market. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

A New Format from Nikon

Thanks to my friends at Bennett’s Camera in New Orleans, I was able to ‘test-drive’ these two new Nikon offerings in the sub-DSLR camera category: the Nikon J1 and Nikon V1.  Like all of my camera reviews, I’ll give you my best ‘gut reaction’ after taking the cameras out and shooting with them: what it was really like to use them. You won’t find any ‘bench test data’ here, only the feelings of someone who uses cameras every day to make a living. That said, let’s get started!

Top view of the J1, top, and V1, bottom. The built-in viewfinder of the V1 makes it a bit bulkier to hold. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Top view of the J1, top, and V1, bottom. The built-in viewfinder of the V1 makes it a bit bulkier to hold. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Only slightly bigger than point-n-shoot cameras but with real interchangeable lenses, I was intrigued by these new machines and how I might find them to use. Obviously, these cameras are Nikon’s answer to the Micro Four Thirds camera movement, like the Lumix line from Panasonic and the Pen brand from Olympus.

Because the cameras use an identical 10.1 MP CMOS sensor, I’ve shot all of my test images with the Nikon V1 camera for this article. Here are the main differences in the two models:

  • J1 is slightly smaller than the bulkier V1 (both are still very small!)
  • J1 has a built-in pop-up flash, while the V1 requires the separate SB-N5 flash unit;
  • J1 is a plastic body while the V1 is a magnesium alloy;
  • J1 has a 460K dot LCD back screen while the V1 is twice that at 920K
  • J1 uses the back screen for everything, the V1 has a built-in electronic viewfinder
  • J1 retails for $599.99, the V1 for $849.99

My first impression about these little cameras is purely aesthetic: these cameras are pretty!  I mean this in the best possible sense: these are beautifully designed little machines. Nikon has done a great job with the body styling and as it turns out, the functionality.

The Nikon V1, left, with the optional SB-N5 strobe, and the Nikon J1, right, with it's built-in pop-up flash. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The Nikon V1, left, with the optional SB-N5 strobe, and the Nikon J1, right, with it's built-in pop-up flash. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The standard lens is a 10-30mm zoom.  With a 2.7x magnification factor, your equivalent in a standard 35mm format would be about 28-80mm, a very nice basic zoom range. (Nikon also sells a telephoto lens for the cameras. It’s a  30-110mm zoom which translates into about a 80-300 mm lens for a very modest retail price of $249.99.)

Camera controls and menu options are well laid-out and functional. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Camera controls and menu options are well laid-out and functional. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Camera Controls

I found the basic camera controls on the body to be well laid-out and easy to navigate.  Pressing ‘Menu’ takes you into the settings for the camera, which were well organized and easily deciphered. Pressing ‘Display’ gives you choices about how much information you wanted displayed on the rear screen while shooting. As with all digital cameras, the ‘Right Arrow’ button is your review for the images you’ve shot. No complaints with any of this setup.

But now let’s talk about the ‘Mode’ dial, top right, which has four options: Motion Snapshot Mode (a symbol that looks like a feather to me), Smart Photo Selector Mode (a camera icon with a + and – sign next to it), Still Image Mode and finally Movie Mode.

The Mode dial is at the heart of the camera's operating setup, both functional and goofy. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The Mode dial is at the heart of the camera's operating setup, both functional and goofy. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Movie Mode and Still Image Mode were exactly what you would expect them to be: you select one of these when you want to shoot video and stills, respectively. But I found the other two Modes were just plain goofy.

You ever feel like sometimes camera designers come up with a Solution in search of a Problem? That pretty much describes how I feel about these other two shooting modes. I’ll grant that they do exactly what they say they do, it’s just that neither of the things they do are things I would ever need or want a camera to do! See for yourself:

Here’s what the Nikon manual says about Motion Snapshot Mode:

“Choose Motion Snapshot Mode to record brief movie vignettes with your photographs. Each time the shutter is released, the cameras records a still image and about a second of movie footage. When the resulting ‘Motion Snapshot’ is viewed on the camera, the movie will play back in slow motion over approximately 2.5 seconds, followed by the still image.”

Huh?! Why in the world would I want to do that? It almost sounds like a bit of a video game, doesn’t it? But to dedicate an entire dedicated shooting mode to this bit of fluff? This looks like a Solution in search of a Problem.

Now lets look at the other goofy shooting mode: Smart Photo Selector Mode.

This is another weird one. Basically, Nikon suggests you put the camera in this mode if the best picture is going to be fleeting and hard to get, like a quick facial expression. In Smart Photo Selector Mode, when you press the shutter halfway down, the camera starts recording images to a buffer. Then, when you actually take the picture, it records that image plus a few more to the buffer for good measure. It then picks the best shot for you(!). You have the option of reviewing the choices and changing the one that’s saved. But gosh: wouldn’t it just be a whole lot better to learn to capture that fleeting moment yourself by developing the shooting chops to do that? Like I said, a Solution in search of a Problem.

Looking through the FIVE images that the camera took in 'Smart Photo Selector Mode'. Smart, indeed. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Looking through the FIVE images that the camera took in 'Smart Photo Selector Mode'. Smart, indeed. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Still Image Mode and Movie Mode do exactly what their names imply, and do it just fine.

I shot some photos with the V1 using the basic Program exposure mode, then some more images using full Manual exposure mode.  As I expected, the camera did a perfectly decent job in Program mode in coming up with a usable exposure.

Manual exposure shooting was a bit more of a challenge initially. Once you go into the Menu settings and choose Manual exposure, the ring around the Multi Selector button on the back of the camera becomes your aperture adjustment. You shutter speed is controlled by the little rectangular bar located at the top right corner of the camera’s back: you use your thumb to push this spring-loaded bar up or down to change shutter speed.

How to control manual exposure with the camera. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

How to control manual exposure with the camera. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

What I really did not like: while changing the manual exposure, the display on the camera back always remained perfectly exposed! In other words, the display is a video-generated auto exposure, even when you’re in Manual mode, so you can’t see at all what result you would get with a given exposure without actually shooting the frame and doing a review. This is awkward and irritating, to say the least.

The V1 viewfinder and LCD screen remain perfectly exposed regardless of the manual exposure settings. Here the actual exposure is 2 stops under, but that's not reflected in the finder. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

The V1 viewfinder and LCD screen remain perfectly exposed regardless of the manual exposure settings. Here the actual exposure is 2 stops under, but that's not reflected in the finder. (Copyright 2011 / Andrew Boyd)

Shooting Video

Movie shooting with the Nikon V1 was a joy. It’s simple: click the Mode dial over to the ‘Movie’ icon, and press the RED button on the top of the camera, located just to the right of the main shutter release button. The camera will shoot 1920 x 1080 video at both 60 and 30 frames per second. But the best part is the autofocus! It’s really quite superb in this little package. I shot some video of my elderly pooch, Genevieve, and you’ll see the camera do a pretty great job of keeping up with her doggy movements. The display on the back will show you the autofocus in real time as you shoot your movie. I liked this feature, very, very much.  Downside: no external mic jack, which means I can’t improve upon the internal stereo microphone with my Sennheiser MKE400 Shotgun Mic. Maybe not a big deal for many people, but a definite minus for me.

Nikon V1 and Nikon J1 Camera Video Test from Andrew Boyd on Vimeo.

Conclusion

Overall impressions: these are nicely-designed, beautiful little cameras. I like the functionality of the V1 especially with its built-in viewfinder and magnesium alloy construction. My biggest concern, compared to the Micro Four Thirds models available from Olympus and Panasonic, is the sensor size: at only 10.1 MP and 13.2mm x 8.8mm, it’s at the small end for these formats. Image quality looks pretty nice, although I did not try to make prints off any of my shots. As a carry-along camera for the person that’s looking for a small form factor addition to his gear, you should definitely check these out.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Or subscribe to our Facebook page or our Twitter feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Equipment

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

13 Comments on "Nikon J1 and Nikon V1 Camera Review: Is this new format right for you?"

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  1. Chuck says:

    I don’t think these cameras are designed for people who think that they — or others — need to “develop chops.” That’s a bit of an arroggant attitude I think.

    They’re designed for people wanting better quality than their phones and point-and-shoots. Some gimmicks work quite well, and the video-to-still is a nice one which looks great on Facebook and Flickr.

  2. Meg says:

    I gotta say the design’s beautiful! Very slick. But the control’s a bit confusing to me as I’m a Canon user. 😀

  3. Sorry, Chuck, no arrogance intended. I simply meant that if you’re spending 600-850 bucks on a camera, you might want to strive to capture those moments yourself. But you may be exactly right about that.

  4. Josh says:

    Nice article, thank you. I think this camera is perfect for a user like myself – taking pictures of the family and business trips. One question, do you know if the 0-360 Panoramic Optic (http://0-360.com) will work with the V1? Or will I need to wait for the Nikon FT1 Mount Adapter and if so, do you know the the adapter would even allow this to work. Thanks again.

  5. This looks like it probably WILL work, but I would urge you to contact the folks at 0-360 directly and ask. Good luck!

  6. Josh says:

    Thank you for taking the time to reply.

  7. Thomas Scott says:

    Thanks for posting this, Andrew.
    I’ve been taking a hard look at the V1 as an easy camera to lug on field assignments where taking photos and video clips for blogging / web use is not the main focus. Currently, I either bring a small lummox point and shoot or a big Nikon DSLR and carry a Kodak zi8 for video.
    You mentioned you couldn’t use an external mic on the V1 – I’ve read that it has a standard 3.5mm jack. Did the one you tested? If so, and you can really use a high quality external mic, this could be a great stopgap camera for the right situations.
    I was amazed at how fast it really is and I do think it is a really ‘pretty’ camera – reminds me of a rangefinder camera – small, quiet and unobtrusive.
    Glad to see your reviews getting good readership and keep posting.

  8. Thanks for your input, Tom. You sent me back to Nikon’s manual to take a look and lo and behold, they DO list a jack for an external mic. I’m going to have to run by my supplier to confirm this, but it looks like I missed this when I did the review! If it IS really there, I recommend a Sennheiser mic for this:
    http://www.amazon.com/Sennheiser-MKE-400-Shotgun-Microphone/dp/B0014YVAJG/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1324338519&sr=1-1
    I’ll check this out and post an update once I’ve had a look.
    Thanks!

  9. nur says:

    thank y0u f0r posting this…i really want DSLR but until n0w ddnt hav one c0z im c0ncern of the size and weight..h0w cud i enj0y my trips if my sh0ulder is achng frm DSLR? thank God they created this..at first i want s0ny Nex5 but it l0oks c0mplicated,,,n0w i saw this,,i will certainly be buying nik0n J1… i jas want t0 ask, d0es the packageing includes extra lens?

  10. You’ll need to buy that separately.

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