Since the introduction of the Olympus Pen E-P1 and Panasonic DMC-GF1 in 2009, which are generally recognised as the first examples of the type, the Compact System Camera or CSC has taken off in a big way. Samsung, Sony, Pentax, Fujifilm and Nikon have all jumped on the mirrorless interchangeable lens bandwagon, leaving Canon as the only major DSLR manufacturer not fielding a CSC as part of its current model range, although rumour is rife that Canon too will launch a CSC some time in 2012. They’ll have some catching up to do, because arch-rival Nikon launched its “Nikon 1″ mirrorless system in September last year with two models, the expensive but sophisticated V1 with its electronic viewfinder, and the cheaper and simpler J1, which I’m taking a look at today.
There are almost as many approaches to CSC design as there are camera companies making them. Panasonic and Olympus have both opted for the Micro Four-Thirds sensor and mount system; Sony, Samsung and Fujifilm have all developed new lens mounts but have opted for the well established APS-C sensor format, while Pentax has hedged its bets with the tiny compact-sized Q system as well as the K-01 with its APS-C sensor. Nikon has taken another approach altogether, developing an entirely new lens mount and a new size of sensor, which it’s calling the CX format.
The CX sensor is considerably smaller than those used by most of its rivals. It measures 13.2 x 8.8mm, giving it a little over half the surface area of a Four-Thirds sensor (17.3 x 13.0mm), and less than a third of the area of a typical APC-C sensor (23.7 x 15.7mm). From an enthusiast’s point of view this is slightly disappointing, since a smaller sensor will inevitably mean a risk of noise at higher resolutions, but since both the V1 and J1 have a resolution of only 10.1 megapixels this may not be too much of a problem, as we’ll see later.
One advantage of the smaller sensor size is the correspondingly smaller sizes of the required lenses, which have a crop conversion factor of approximately 2.7x, compared to the 2x crop of the Four-Thirds format. The Nikon 1 system currently has only four lenses available, although more are planned. There are the two zoom lenses seen here, a 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 wide-zoom roughly equivalent to 28-80mm, and a 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 telephoto zoom, equivalent to 80-300mm. There is also 10mm f/2.8 prime lens, and a 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6 powered zoom designed primarily for video recording.
The lenses are very small compared to APS-C optics, but compared to the Micro Four-Thirds lenses produced by Olympus and Panasonic the size difference isn’t all that great. The Nikon 10-30mm is 57mm in diameter, 41mm long and weighs 114g, while the 30-100mm is 59.4mm diameter, 61mm long and weighs 177g. By comparison the Olympus 14-42mm lens for the Pen system has a 56.5mm diameter, is 50mm long and weighs 113g, while the 40-150mm has a 63.5mm diameter, is 83mm long and weighs 190g. Panasonic has recently introduced a 14-42mm Four-Thirds lens that is even smaller than Nikon’s 10-30mm.
Both the Nikon 1 zooms have a folding design; you have to press a button on the barrel and twist the zoom ring to extend the lens into shooting position before a picture can be taken. This action also switches the camera on, which saves a little time, but it is still a bit fiddly at first. The lenses are fitted via a conventional bayonet mount, with a prominent silver ridge on the barrel to help align the lens when attaching it.
In terms of overall design the J1 owes more to compact cameras than to DSLRs, particularly some of the old Samsung NV compacts from 2006-2007. This isn’t bad news though; those were some good-looking cameras. Of its current rivals the one that it most closely matches in both style and size is the Olympus E-PM1. The J1 has a largely plastic body, although it has Nikon’s usual exemplary build quality, with tight panel seams and no embarrassing creaks when squeezed. The body is designed more for aesthetics than handling, and the round-ended shape is difficult to hold comfortably and securely. There is a small textured area on the back for your thumb, but nothing on the front to provide purchase for the fingers.
From the front the camera has a very clean and elegant look, with a flat and relatively featureless fascia, along with simple rounded ends and a flat top plate. Turn the camera round though and you’ll see that this is somewhat illusory; the rear panel is a lot more businesslike, with a mode dial, D-pad and a selection of buttons.
Users hoping for a DSLR-like level of control will be disappointed; the control layout is relatively sparse, bearing more resemblance to that of a mid-range compact. It has a mode dial, but rather than the range of exposure mode options one might expect it has only four settings; video recording, still shooting, still shooting in automatic scene selection mode, and “motion snapshot”, which records a brief video clip with accompanying cheesy background music. The other main external control is a D-pad with a rather loose and fiddly rotating bezel.
The secondary controls on the D-pad are an odd bunch too. Self-timer, flash mode and exposure compensation are common enough, but for some reason the AF lock and AE lock are also found on the D-pad. The camera has an “F” button positioned conveniently for the right thumb, where one would expect to find the AE-L and AF-L functions, but in still shooting mode this button is used for the continuous shooting modes.
The exposure modes, which for any enthusiast will be among the most often-used functions, are relegated to a menu option, and when you do select either aperture or shutter priority, the exposure adjustment is made not with the rotary control that is used to adjust everything else, but with the small and fiddly zoom control lever. It is so awkward and unintuitive it’s hard to believe that a camera company as experienced as Nikon could come up with it.
These design foibles are doubly annoying because if you can battle your way past the terrible control interface you’ll find that the J1 is actually a very capable camera. Despite the small size of the lenses they offer a maximum aperture of f/16, and the shutter speeds available range from 30 seconds plus B to an incredible 1/16,000th of a second, thanks to an innovative electronic shutter. This shutter also gives the J1 the ability to shoot burst of stills at full resolution at up to 60fps. The camera is well equipped for low-light shooting too, with a maximum ISO setting of 6400. The menu offers a wide range of picture customisation, with seven Picture Control presets, each one customisable with up to five steps of adjustment for sharpness, contrast, brightness, saturation and hue. Custom Picture Control settings can be saved to the memory card.
Any design problems that the J1 suffers can largely be forgiven in the light of the camera’s main selling point, which is its lightning-quick hybrid adaptive autofocus system. Nikon has always led the field in AF development, but even so it can be justifiably proud of this one. Most CSCs use contrast-detection AF, which is slow and doesn’t work well with moving subjects, while DSLRs use the faster phase detection AF system. The J1 (and the V1) has both, switching between the two as circumstances dictate, and as a result it can focus quickly and accurately on any subject in almost any lighting conditions. I tested it extensively with outdoor sports, indoor live music and a range of other situations, and it coped brilliantly every time, never producing an out-of-focus shot. It is without doubt one of the best AF systems I’ve used, topped only by Nikon’s own high-end DSLRs.
Apart from the slow and fiddly business of extending the lens the camera’s performance is very good. In continuous shooting mode it can maintain 10fps with continuous focus for 70 frames, although even with a fast card it does take nearly two minutes to fully empty the buffer. Focus tracking works extremely well even at the extreme end of the telephoto range.
The main reason for buying a CSC instead of an advanced compact is better image quality, and in most respects the J1 delivers the goods. Colour rendition is excellent, especially in raw mode where the extra depth really helps. Dynamic range is fairly good for a smaller sensor, but even with the Active D-Lighting feature the shadows and highlights could be better. Despite having only 10.1-megapixels of resolution the J1 captures a very high level of detail, and the JPEG fine image mode has very low compression, producing image files averaging around 6MB.
The optical quality of both the kit lenses is generally good, capturing plenty of sharp detail with good contrast. Centre sharpness is excellent, although the 10-30mm lens does suffer from slight softness and a little chromatic aberration toward the corners of the frame, but I’ve seen worse from some full-size DSLR lenses.
One image quality highlight is the high-ISO noise control, although it is not without a small caveat. In JPEG mode the high-ISO noise reduction is very heavy handed, producing an effect like a badly applied clone brush. By shooting in raw mode, or shooting with high-ISO noise reduction switched off, and then applying noise reduction in Adobe Camera Raw the results are much better, producing usable images even at 6400 ISO.
For a first-generation model, the J1 has a lot to commend it, not least its attractive and stylish design and outstanding autofocus system, but it is also beset by several problems. The handling is awkward, and the control interface does its best to conceal what is actually a versatile camera. It’s not the best CSC on the market, nor the cheapest, but it is capable of delivering reliably good results.