Nikon 1 J3 review

The Nikon J3 compact interchageable lens camera is a speedy performer, but it isn't the best in low light, and lacks expansion options when compared with the competition.
Photo of Nikon 1 J3

The J3 ($599.95 direct with 10-30mm lens) represents the third generation of Nikon’s compact interchangeable lens camera system. It’s a bit more mature in design than the J1, but no longer occupies the entry-level slot in the family. The smaller, less-expensive S1 is now the low-end body, ringing up at $100 less. The 14-megapixel J3 burst shoots at up to 60 frames per second, can capture slow-motion video, and has a couple of innovative shooting modes like Motion Snapshot and Slow View. It doesn’t beat our current Editors’ Choice Panasonic Lumix DMC-G5, which includes enthusiast-level features like a hot shoe and a built-in EVF, but casual shooters who are interested in a compact camera with some interesting features should give it some consideration.

Design and Features
Like its predecessor, the J3 is available in a number of colors. Out test camera was white, but it can also be had in black, silver, red, or beige. Regardless of the color you choose, the included 10-30mm (27-81mm equivalent) comes with the same finish. The camera measures a mere 2.4 by 4 by 1.1 inches (HWD), although the lens adds a couple of inches of depth when mounted. If you’re the type of shooter who is interested in the improved image quality offered by an interchangeable lens camera, but don’t think you’ll ever buy an additional lens, you should also consider our Editors’ Choice high-end point-and-shoot, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. Its image sensor is the same physical size, about 1-inch measured diagonally, and the lens is a faster 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 design—you’ll never be able to change lenses, but you can slide the camera into your pocket.

The J3 is designed for automatic operation, but it does give you access to some manual controls. On the top of the camera you’ll find the On/Off button, a Movie button, the shutter release, and a mode dial. Instead of the standard PASM modes, the dial has settings for Motion Snapshot, Best Moment Capture, Auto, Creative, and Advanced Movie modes. Auto Mode is just as you would expect—it lets the camera take control of shooting settings, although you will still be able to control the Drive Mode, adjust the Flash output, and control Exposure Compensation (which adjusts the brightness of shots).

Shooters who are less familiar with camera settings can tap the F button on the rear of the camera in Auto mode, it brings up a menu that lets you control Nikon’s Active D-Lighting system to adjust highlights and shadows, control background blur via the Background Softening setting, adjust the shutter speed via the Motion Control setting, and control the Exposure Compensation via a setting labeled Brightness Control. Aperture control and Shutter Speed are still available via traditional methods when shooting in one of the camera’s Creative modes, but for folks who aren’t intimately familiar with photographic terminology it’s nice to have these options presented in more basic terms.

Creative Mode opens up Shutter priority, Aperture priority, and full Manual shooting to advanced users, but there are also a number of scene modes contained within. These include preset modes for shooting in low light and when working against a strong backlight, as well as more interesting modes like in-camera panorama, a simulated miniature effect, and a selective color mode. The miniature effect blurs the areas above and below your subject, making the photo appear to be of a diorama, and the selective color mode lets you shoot photos that are black and white, with only one color of the spectrum present in your images.

The Best Moment Capture setting has two modes from which to choose. Smart Photo Selector debuted with the J1 and is unchanged—it captures a burst of photos at 60fps and chooses the best five.  Slow View starts when you press the shutter halfway down, slowing down the live view feed for about six seconds. This lets you capture an action shot at just the right moment. The Motion Snapshot mode is still there as well—it captures a still as well as a few seconds of surrounding video and combines them into a short slow-motion video and still shot with music.

You’re going to rely on the rear display to frame and review photos. At 3 inches in size it occupies most of the rear of the camera, and it’s extremely sharp thanks to a 921k-dot resolution. Unlike some other interchangeable lens cameras, like Sony’s NEX-F3, the screen is fixed—the NEX has a tilting display. The F3 also supports an external electronic viewfinder add-on, a capability that the J3 is lacking. You’ll have to move up to the more expensive Nikon V2 if you want an EVF.

The J3 uses an electronic shutter rather than a traditional mechanical one—again, you’ll have to move up to the V2 to get a Nikon 1 camera with a mechanical shutter. On one hand, the camera is silent when you shoot. But you do lose the ability to take flash photos at higher shutter speeds—the J3 tops out at 1/60-second when using the flash, while the V2 will let you snap photos with a flash at 1/250-second. This won’t be an issue for the majority of folks who are considering the J3.

There is a built-in pop-up flash, a feature missing from Olympus Micro Four Thirds cameras like the PEN Lite E-PL5. The J1 had a somewhat ridiculous looking flash that popped straight up from the body on a skinny neck. The J3 has a more traditional flash that raises using a dual-action hinge design. The nicest thing about it is its ability to fire from any position—if you want to avoid the harsh look of direct flash you can tilt it back and bounce it off of a ceiling for a softer, more pleasant look. The flash that is built into the Sony NEX-F3 has a similar hinged design.

There’s no Wi-Fi built into the camera, but you can add it by purchasing the WU-1b Wireless Mobile Adapter ($59.95). It plugs into the USB port on the side of the J3, so it does add some bulk, but makes it possible to transfer images to your smartphone. If you’re looking for a compact interchangeable lens camera with built-in Wi-Fi, take a close look at the Samsung NX1000 and Sony Alpha NEX-5R. Both let you transfer photos to your phone and to social networking sites, without having to plug in an adapter.

Performance and Conclusions
The J3 is a fast-shooting camera. Its start-up time of 1.4 seconds is plenty fast, its shutter lag is as close to 0 seconds as you can get, and it can shoot a burst of 20 photos at 60 frames per second—even in Raw shooting mode. The recovery time for the burst varies based on the format you are using, but isn’t egregious. It takes 8.9 seconds to write a JPG burst to a SanDisk 95MBps memory card. If you’re shooting Raw it’s a bit longer at 11.1 seconds, and Raw+JPG requires 17.4 seconds. You can start shooting again before the complete burst is saved to the card. The Olympus PEN Mini E-PM2 is just a tad bit slower, but uses a larger Micro Four Thirds image sensor. It requires 1.6 seconds to start up, fires shots at a mere 7.7 frames per second, and notches a 0.1-second shutter lag.

One of the reasons for the J3′s short shutter lag is its fast autofocus system. In good light it’s as close to instant as you can get, but it does slow to about 1.1-second to focus and fire in very dim light. The Panasonic Lumix G5 is a little slower to focus in bright light—requiring about 0.2-second—but manages to lock and fire in an impressive 0.8-second in dim conditions.

I used Imatest to check the sharpness of the included 1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens. We use 1,800 lines per picture height to mark a sharp photo, and the kit lens never quite gets there. At 10mm f/3.5 it hits 1,702 lines, which increases to 1,775 lines at f/5.6. Zooming to 20mm gives you 1,778 lines, and at 30mm the best it can manage is 1,696 lines. Like most kit zooms you’ll have to deal with a little bit—2 percent—of barrel distortion at the widest angle. This can cause straight lines to appear curved. The kit zoom that is included with Olympus PEN cameras is much better—the 14-42mm that is bundled with the E-PL5 delivers the same field of view, resolves a more impressive 2,263 lines at its widest angle, and does better than 1,800 lines throughout its zoom range.

Imatest also checks photos for noise, which can rob them of sharpness as the camera’s sensitivity to light, measured in ISO, is increased. The J3 keeps noise under 1.5 percent through ISO 3200, but JPG images shot at that setting are noticeably lacking in detail when compared with those at lower settings. It’s our recommendation to keep the camera at ISO 1600 and below, and in order to get the most sharpness out of your photos, ISO 800 or below is preferred. If low-light shooting is a major concern, consider a camera like the Sony NEX-F3, which does a great job balancing noise and detail through ISO 3200, or the Panasonic G5—it does a better job with detail at ISO 6400, although photos at that setting are somewhat noisy.

The J3 records video in QuickTime format at 1080i60, 1080p30, 720p60, and 720p30 quality. Footage looks quite good, and the camera can refocus with ease while recording. It’s possible to grab JPG stills during video recording, without interrupting the footage. There’s also a slow motion mode—although the resolution is lacking when compared with HD video, you’ll be able to shoot for a few seconds at 400fps or 1,200fps in order to capture impressive slow-motion clips that are perfectly suitable for sharing on the web. There’s a standard mini USB port as well as a mini HDMI connection, and the camera supports SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards.

If you’re in the market for a compact interchangeable lens camera, the J3′s compact size and speedy operation are compelling reasons to give it your consideration. It’s easy to use, even if you don’t know a lot about photography, and it offers unique shooting modes like Slow View and Motion Snapshot you won’t find elsewhere. The J3 does have a few knocks against it: The 1-inch sensor isn’t the best we’ve tested as far as low-light performance goes, the 10-30mm kit lens isn’t the sharpest we’ve seen, and you can’t add a viewfinder or external flash. The 1 lens system is more mature now than it was when the system launched two years ago, but it’s still lacking when compared with competing systems.

If you’re considering a compact interchangeable lens camera simply for improved image quality and don’t see yourself ever buying additional lenses, you may want to check out our Editors’ Choice high-end point-and-shoot, the Sony RX100, which features a similar 1-inch sensor and a longer, faster zoom lens, but sells for $50 more than the J3. More advanced users will likely appreciate the built-in viewfinder and SLR-style design of our Editors’ Choice in this category, the Panasonic Lumix G5—but at $800, it’s a more sizeable investment. The Sony Alpha NEX-F3 and Olympus PEN E-PM2 are similar in size and cost to the J3, do better in low light, and have more lenses and accessories available to enhance their functionality.

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Specifications
Dimensions 2.4 x 4 x 1.1 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI
Megapixels 14.2 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.02 seconds
LCD dots 921000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 1702
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 6400
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 3 x
Boot time 1.4 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 27 mm
Weight 7.1 oz
Lens Mount Nikon 1
Video Resolution 720p, 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 0 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 4
Image Stabilization In-Lens
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 81 mm
Shutter Lag 0.03 seconds
Sensor Size 13.2 x 8.8 (1") mm
GPS No
Viewfinder Type None

Verdict
The Nikon J3 compact interchageable lens camera is a speedy performer, but it isn't the best in low light, and lacks expansion options when compared with the competition.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc