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Review: Nikon's J1 and V1 cameras and 1 Nikkor lenses - Continued

Street Photography: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 93mm, ISO 100, I/800, f/5.3. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Impressions of the Nikon 1 system

Now that the main elements of the cameras, lenses and key accessories have been covered, this section looks at how well the Nikon 1 gear actually performs. The information will roll out in FAQ format. Unless otherwise noted, all comments apply equally to the J1 and V1, which are treated here as effectively one and the same camera except in the few areas where their performance or features diverge.

Q. Are the J1 and V1 really as quick to autofocus and as quick to shoot as Nikon says?

For the most part, the answer is a resounding yes. Autofocus is extremely quick, especially when the J1/V1 can rely on a portion of the 73 phase detect AF points embedded within the image sensor. With either the 10mm f/2.8 or the two manual zooms (I haven't done much with the 10-100mm), the total time it takes for the camera to first determine focus distance, and then drive the lens there, feels as fast as it could be. With the shutter button half-pressed and focus acquired, the camera fires decisively when the button is then squeezed the rest of the way down.

Given good light and a stationary subject, the J1/V1 are as quick to focus and shoot as a midrange digital SLR, on either AF-S or AF-C. As the light dims you can feel the transition take place from phase detect AF to contrast detect AF, at which point autofocus slows and there is a bit more contrast detect-style cycling of focus distance. But, autofocus performance remains decent and is still both faster and more assured than any point-and-shoot I've ever come across.

The J1/V1 are also quick to acquire focus and shoot when the subject is moving, just not as consistently so. This seems to be a byproduct of the camera's focus-priority bias; a lot of the time, the J1/V1 won't release the shutter until the AF system has been given a moment to try and lock onto the subject in motion. Plenty of digital SLRs work this same way too, but with the J1/V1, focus priority while tracking feels more strictly enforced. And, there's no true release-priority setting to choose as a workaround to keep the time-to-fire interval as consistently short as possible.

(Strictly speaking, when the camera is set to AF-C, it has in fact been designed by Nikon to give priority to taking a picture, even if it can't find focus. In practice, though, this is not really the behaviour you'll experience.)

So, sometimes the camera is quick to fire and sometimes there's a slight focus-related lag. This is the case when the ambient light is reasonably bright, while in lower light, the camera's tracking-then-firing ability is slowed considerably.

All of that said, Nikon has gotten far more right than not in the J1/V1's responsiveness. It's usually quick to autofocus and shoot and, with the shutter button held down, both Nikon 1 models will cruise along nicely at 5fps until the buffer limit is reached, tracking a moving subject as they go. Below you'll see some examples of fun moments captured with the new camera, of my older boy Fergus and friends.

I Win: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 30mm, ISO 1600, I/500, f/4. Click to enlarge
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Speeding Bullet: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 83mm, ISO 400, I/400, f/5. Click to enlarge Gutter Ball: Nikon 1 J1 + 10mm f/2.8, ISO 1600, I/100, f/2.8. Click to enlarge
Tight Turn: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 110mm, ISO 200, I/1500, f/5.6. Click to enlarge (All photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

I also hauled along the camera to soccer, football and rugby, shooting a few minutes of action at each sport to see how well it would track and whether there was a chance of snaring a peak moment. The answer? Absolutely. While I don't recommend trading in your D3S for a J1 or a V1 quite yet, some decent action pictures, that are also in focus, can be gotten. It's a testament to how well the autofocus works, and how short the shutter lag usually is, that the new camera could almost be used for sports. Almost.

(Click here to download a nine-picture sequence showing the camera tracking a moving subject.)

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Spiral: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 110mm, ISO 1600 (plus +0.5 stop software exposure compensation boost), I/500, f/5.6. Click to enlarge Header: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 110mm, ISO 200, I/1500, f/5.6. Click to enlarge
Backlit: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 66mm, ISO 400, I/1500, f/4.5. Click to enlarge (All photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

The Canon PowerShot G12, Nikon Coolpix P7100 or even the retro-styled Fujifilm X10 - none comes close to matching the efficiency with which the J1/V1 goes about taking a picture. After using the J1/V1, this trio of well-regarded point-and-shoots feel sluggish by comparison, at least at their main tasks of finding focus and making several exposures.

I'd be ready to say that, on average, the J1/V1's focus and shooting speed was at the level of perhaps an upper entry level digital SLR - faster with static subjects but sometimes slower to get going with moving subjects - if it weren't for two hiccups that constrain performance:
  • First, after shooting one picture or a sequence, the camera will automatically display the last shot frame. Right before that the rear LCD or EVF may briefly go dark too, particularly if a sequence of pictures has been taken. This switch away from shooting priority happens the instant you lift up on the shutter button and the camera stop firing, even if you lift up only to the half-press position. If the flash is on, it happens after each frame, regardless.

    Next, autofocus shuts down and won't restart until you release the shutter button entirely, pause for a moment, and then press the shutter button down again, either halfway or all the way. This is the only way to re-engage the AF system as well as coax the camera to snap more pictures.

  • Second, after you've released the shutter button fully and are now pausing, you have to resist the urge to not press the shutter button down again too soon. If you do, the camera won't recognize that the shutter button has been re-pressed and will not autofocus and not fire until you release the shutter button fully yet again. (You're likely to experience this second hiccup only when the camera is set to shoot continuously and you fire two or more frames in succession. It almost never happens if the camera has taken a single picture. Well, except if the flash is in use too.)
The delay before you can shoot again is a minimum of about 3/4s to 1.5s, and can be longer if you don't time the removing and re-pressing of the shutter button just right.

The solution, you may be thinking, would be to disable the automatic display of the last-shot picture. But the camera lacks this option, despite it being a common digital SLR feature. Plus, this might not be where things are going awry. The J1/V1 simply might not be designed to juggle shooting and processing as seamlessly as Nikon's bigger interchangeable lens cameras.

This J1/V1 behaviour mars the experience of using what is otherwise a delightfully responsive small camera. There is a workaround of sorts, at least when you're not using flash: first, set the camera to fire continuously at 5fps. Then, once you start shooting, don't stop. Not until the moment is well and truly over or the buffer is full.

The camera has several other performance-related traits worth noting, most of which are positive:
  • The camera starts up quickly. Press the on switch and, by the time you've moved your finger over to the shutter button and began to aim the camera, the rear LCD will be on and the camera will be ready to go. This is true of the J1 always, and the V1 too if you're talking about the time it takes for the camera to start and the rear LCD to turn on. If you instead power up the V1 with the camera at your eye, the total startup time is more than twice as long if you measure from the moment you press the power button to the moment the EVF is on and the camera is ready to autofocus and fire.

  • When set to NEF or NEF+JPEG, the V1 can rattle off more continuous frames than most digital cameras on the market. It's on par with pricey digital SLRs in this way. The total number varies with ISO and other camera settings, but in informal testing seems to be not less than 38-40 frames when the V1 is firing away at 5fps, recording NEF + full-resolution JPEG Fine pairs and a quicker-writing memory card is used. This number increases to 44-45 frames when the camera is switched to NEF only, while dialing in JPEG (full-resolution Fine quality) bumps the number up again, to about 55 or so.

    The J1's buffer is both much smaller than the V1 and still usefully large. At 5fps, the junior Nikon 1 model doesn't shoot less than about 13-14 NEF+JPEG pairs, about 18-19 NEFs and a minimum of about 28-30 JPEGs in a row.

  • The camera responds quickly when triggered by the Nikon ML-L3 or other compatible IR remote. The J1/V1 is limited to a single frame when triggered remotely, however, there's no burst option. Also missing is a wired remote trigger port, though there is a DIY workaround that will enable you to link up a wired cable release or a PocketWizard receiver. To do that, you need to modify your ML-L3.

  • There is almost no perceptible delay in the rear LCD or EVF live view, suggesting that they're being refreshed at an exceptionally high rate, higher than the typical 30fps and probably at or up to 60fps. Whatever the rate, it helps to give the live view the lag-free feel of an optical viewfinder, except in the following two circumstances:

    First, while tracking a moving subject and shooting a continuous 5fps burst, each picture freezes the otherwise fluid live display very, very briefly. Not enough to prevent keeping the subject properly framed, but it is slightly jarring. Moreso than the mirror blackout of an SLR.

    Second, the automatic display of pictures problem already described, which definitely serves to remind that the view through the lens is electronic and not single lens reflex.

  • The V1 is designed to automatically switch from the rear LCD to the EVF when it detects an eyeball peering through the viewfinder. Or, if the rear LCD is off, to turn on the EVF. This is all fine as a default behaviour. But, the camera can't instead be set to keep the EVF on perpetually, which means that when you bring the camera to your face there is a momentary delay before the EVF comes on. While brief, it's long enough to interfere with the act of very quickly putting the V1 to your eye, composing and grabbing a frame.

    An always-on setting for the EVF is mandatory, and I hope this will come to the V1 through a future firmware update. In the meantime, placing a small piece of gaffer tape over the proximity sensor on the left side of the viewfinder accomplishes the same thing (though to then use the rear LCD requires that the tape be peeled away).

  • There is little to no delay when switching from shooting mode to playback mode and back, or switching in and out of the menu system, or entering a menu and making a menu selection. This is all as fast as it needs to be.

  • You can speed up your picture-selection process on the computer by selecting J1/V1 keepers using the ratings tool in the camera. While in playback mode, pressing the Feature (F) button on the back of the camera brings up a ratings graphic. From there, use the multi selector to assign a star rating (one to five plus reject) to a photo. The rating is embedded in the file itself and is recognized by compatible software such as Camera Bits Photo Mechanic and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. The camera embeds the rating into JPEGs and NEFs (and both when capturing NEF+JPEG pairs).
Q. I read that the J1/V1 can continuously autofocus and shoot at 10fps. Why are you choosing to shoot at 5fps instead?

At 5fps, the camera provides full control over the camera's configuration. From the AF mode to white balance and everything in between, you can tailor it all to your liking. At 10fps, however, the camera takes over control of key settings. At this frame rate you get Programmed Auto (P) exposure mode, no exposure compensation, the ISO is set automatically (between 100-3200), a single, centre AF point is used and the AF mode is AF-A (wherein the camera decides between static subject focus and tracking focus on the fly). This doesn't preclude the use of the J1/V1's 10fps option, but it does limit its usefulness and is the reason why I've chosen to keep the camera at 5fps most of the time.

On the flip side, when the camera is shooting a sequence at 10fps, one undesirable trait of the camera's 5fps mode goes away: the live view no longer freezes momentarily as each frame in the sequence is captured. The brief interruptions that occur at the slower frame rate disappear almost entirely at the higher frame rate. With the V1, it's possible to rattle off in excess of 34 or so NEF+JPEG frames, at 10fps, and have the live view show either no interruption or only the tiniest hiccups here and there. It would be great if the camera would operate the same way at 5fps too, at least as an option.

The building implosion animation below was created from 19 frames shot at 5fps.

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Boom: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 71mm, ISO 400, I/60, f/5.6. Click left photo to enlarge (Photos by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Q. Is the autofocus accurate?


I've mainly been using the camera set to AF-S (single) or AF-C (continuous) autofocus with Auto-Area AF (the system selects the active points) on, and sometimes with Face-Priority AF enabled as well. Configured this way, both static and moving subject autofocus has been spot on, most of the time.

In brighter light, tracking accuracy approaches but does not match the level of the D7000, which means it's a few notches down from a pro model like the D3S, but still impressive. It's freaking awesome if compared to a point-and-shoot.

I'd prefer if the camera would allow the choosing of the starting AF point cluster before it begins its automatic selection; instead, with the camera on Auto-Area AF it picks the points from the outset, with a closest subject priority emphasis (and of course a face priority emphasis too if that feature is on). Still, it seems to make mostly intelligent decisions about what to focus on.

The Single-Point AF option can be dicey, particularly when trying to track or when focusing on a subject that isn't holding fairly still. The AF system hunts and misses too much when it's relying on just one AF point, even in good light and a contrasty subject, if there is any sort of subject movement. This is why I opted to standardize on Auto-Area AF early in the process of learning the camera.

Countering that is the near-perfect and repeatable accuracy I've seen when relying on a lone AF point to focus on a static subject, where the light levels are low and the bright built-in AF assist light is used. The sure-footedness of the AF system surpasses the D7000 in side-by-side testing of this specific thing.

Overall, you'll be hard pressed to find another really small camera system that autofocuses as correctly and as rapidly as the J1/V1, including when following a moving target. It's miles better than any point-and-shoot I've ever put my hands on, and easily better than certain other small mirrorless systems we've tried this year such as the Olympus E-P3. The J1/V1's use of phase detect AF sensors, and Nikon's expertise in developing autofocus algorithms, gives the new camera a considerable edge.

If you'd rather focus manually most of the time, the J1/V1 is not for you. The lenses lack a focus ring, for one, plus the implementation of the camera's manual focus function is mediocre at best. This is mainly because the magnified view is strangely fuzzy, which in turn makes it difficult to determine, as you move the camera's rear toggle switch to change the distance, when the subject has snapped into focus. The moment of snap never comes.

Q. How is the image quality?

The standout attribute of J1/V1 photos is pleasing colour, either from in-camera JPEGs or NEFs processed through Nikon software. Colour is rich with natural gradations and tonality, and without the sorts of negative colour traits that can plague tiny-pixel point-and-shoots, such as a lack of realistic shading in brighter hues and ugly tonal transitions, even at their base ISO.

Oh Canada: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 110mm, ISO 400, I/1250, f/5.6. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Skin tones seems to have gotten special attention from Nikon: ruddy faces are rendered as being more even and flattering than reality, and while my sons' young skin doesn't need the help, my weathered 44-year-old mug is better for it, certainly.

Based on colour alone, you'd never know that the J1/V1's sensor is sporting small (by digital SLR standards) 3.41μm pixels. I'm a sucker for colour that just looks right, and so far the camera has been delivering exactly that.

I've spotted only one colour-related quibble that rates a mention: muted shades, in darker or backlit areas of a photo, tend to be drained of saturation and natural shading. This is an ever-present problem in pictures from point-and-shoots, including at lower ISO settings, and in J1/V1 files the characteristic is less pronounced, but it is there. Particularly as the ISO is turned up or shadows are opened up (the backlit soccer action photo earlier in the article is good example).

Fresh-Faced: Nikon 1 J1 + VR 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 at 110mm, ISO 100, I/60, f/8.0. Click to enlarge (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)

Image quality is a blend of attributes, and while colour is arguably the most important, it's not the only one that matters. Image detail and noise levels are also part of the overall quality equation, and it's where the J1/V1 story gets more complicated. Consider the following points:
  • The level of fine detail captured in RAW files is very good or even excellent. It's a testament to the lenses and to the sensor's design that small objects in a scene are recorded quite crisply.

  • Even at ISO 100, the camera's base sensitivity setting, the sensor generates somewhat noisy pictures. The noise manifests itself as traditional chrominance speckles and a slight roughness in open shadows and other darker areas.

  • Noise levels increase with ISO, but the increase is comparatively gradual as the ISO is bumped up, more gradual than is typical when the base ISO files show noticeable noise, as the J1/V1's do. Higher ISO pictures looking surprisingly good for a camera with such small pixels, and we've shot fearlessly at ISO 800 or so and gotten good results. Compared to the P7100, there is no comparison: the J1/V1 clobbers that camera at ISO 400 and above, thanks to much lower noise levels and less posterized shadows. In turn, the D7000 handily surpasses the high ISO picture quality of the J1/V1.

  • Converted J1/V1 RAW files respond well to carefully-tuned software noise reduction, mainly because with the noise out of the way the underlying strong colour, tonality and fine detail can shine through.

  • Nikon's always-on noise reduction processing is a bit heavy-handed. It tackles noise effectively, but it also smears the image slightly, even at ISO 100. The red channel seems to be hardest hit, followed by the blue channel, and it leaves pictures looking less sharp than the camera actually captured. This noise processing is applied to in-camera JPEGs, regardless of its noise reduction settings, as well as NEFs converted in Nikon software (and where it can't be disabled either; turning off noise reduction in Capture NX2, for instance, doesn't stop some noise-related processing from taking place).

  • This particular noise reduction processing is not being applied to the actual RAW data, so by shooting NEFs and then converting them in a third party application, one that offers fuller control over noise reduction, it becomes possible to see the real level of detail.

    The list of publicly-available RAW converters that can handle J1/V1 NEFs is short at the moment, but includes Raw Photo Processor. This Mac application can convert RAW files from the camera without applying any noise reduction. It reveals that the camera is capturing crisp but slight noisy pictures, even when the ISO is turned down.

    The frame below illustrates the impact of Nikon's noise reduction at ISO 100. Roll over the buttons beneath the photo to see a 100% magnification view of three different renderings of the picture. They are a JPEG straight out of the camera, Capture NX2 processing with the Noise Reduction palette disabled and sharpening off, plus Raw Photo Processor with all noise reduction and sharpening off as well. The JPEG was sharpened in the camera, while the Capture NX2 and Raw Photo Processor versions were sharpened using Smart Sharpen in Photoshop.
Capture NX2
Raw Photo Processor
As you can see, there is a noticeable difference between each rendering. Comparing the RAW versions, the Capture NX2 version could use more contrast, but the trait that's most visible is the slight detail smearing. The Raw Photo Processor version is more detailed, but is also somewhat harsh and noisy.

I'm not pitching Raw Photo Processor as a great RAW converter per se, or that I think its conversions of J1/V1 files are the best overall. The program does help reveal, though, that there is a better balance to be struck between noise removal and detail retention than Nikon has achieved in the camera and its own software, even at ISO 100.

Note: On the last page, you'll find downloadable full-resolution J1/V1 pictures shot at different sensitivities right up to ISO 6400 with the new camera, several of which have been converted with both Capture NX2 and Raw Photo Processor.

Summing up, the new Nikons produce photos with really nice colour and - when processed outside of Nikon software - NEFs convert to reveal equally fine detail. Noise is ever-present, though, less so than cameras with even smaller sensors but more than ones whose sensors are considerably larger, such as the DX Format D7000 being referenced for SLR comparisons in this article. Put another way, J1/V1 image quality lands right about where you'd expect, given its sensor size: somewhere in between the best point-and-shoot cameras and better digital SLRs, and because of the sweet colour quality in particular, I'd put it as closer to the latter than the former.

Other things to note that are loosely on the topic of image quality:
  • Unlike many point-and-shoots, the J1/V1 allows you to set a custom white balance for flash. The reason is simple: instead of doing a live reading of white balance from a neutral object, which necessarily limits the measurement to continuous light only, the J1/V1 takes an actual picture and analyses that (the process is much the same as shooting a Preset WB with a Nikon digital SLR, and in fact the J1/V1 use the same Preset terminology to describe the custom white balance setting). I've set multiple custom white balances for flash now, with the Paul C. Buff Einstein 640 monolight and SB-700, and it has worked like a charm. (It's trickier to get a studio flash to sync, with the J1 in particular - more on how that can be done is later in the article.)

    The J1/V1 is different from most point-and-shoots in another way too. The camera's sensor has the same 3:2 proportions of a digital SLR, rather than the typical 4:3 ratio of point-and-shoot digital cameras and, as their names suggest, Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds systems.

  • There is only a single Preset WB slot in the J1/V1, it can't store several as some Nikon digital SLRs can. Plus, there's no colour temperature option within the white balance menu, so you can't dial in a specific Kelvin value to set white balance.

  • In the world of small digital cameras, it's common for things to really slow down when RAW is selected. The burst rate, the wait time before you can shoot again or the pace at which pictures can be reviewed, any or all of these things can be affected dramatically and negatively when set to the camera's mostly-unprocessed file format option.

    Not so with Nikon's new camera. The number of frames that can be shot in a burst is lower, and the card space required to store those frames increases, but these things are common to all cameras. Aside from that, the J1/V1 zips along just as if it were still shooting JPEGs. The only tangible sign that NEFs are being captured is a slightly longer pause when the camera switches from shooting to automatic playback of the most recent frame.

  • When set to NEF+JPEG, the JPEG half of the pair can be any of the camera's three resolution settings but only the Fine (best quality) compression setting. This sort of limitation can pose a problem in an Eye-Fi card-to-iPad workflow, by making the JPEG's file size too big to efficiently send wirelessly. Fortunately, it doesn't. A J1/V1 JPEG, shot on Fine compression and at the lowest-available resolution (1936 x 1296 pixels), weighs in at about 1.5-2.5MB usually. This results in acceptably short transmit times over a good 802.11n network.

  • The camera's High ISO NR menu has two settings, On and Off, but they would be better labeled as Strong and Moderate since there is no way to stop high ISO noise processing from being applied to in-camera JPEGs. The fact that Off doesn't really mean Off isn't a problem, though, since the Off setting does a decent job of removing some noise while not beating up on the image's fine detail. The On, setting, by comparison, begins to smear detail severely at ISO 1600 and up.

    (Unlike the always-on noise processing discussed several paragraphs back, High ISO NR can be bypassed altogether by shooting NEF and then performing conversions in any software, either Nikon's own Capture NX2 or a third party RAW converter).

  • The camera offers the option of creating in-camera JPEGs in either the sRGB or AdobeRGB colour space.

Out the Window: Nikon 1 J1 + 10mm f/2.8, ISO 800, I/800, f/4.5 (Photo by Rob Galbraith/Little Guy Media)
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