Review: Nikon 1 J3 Mirrorless Camera Review

Our score: 4/5
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December 10, 2013 11:40 AM
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Published: February 19, 2013 11:00 AM
By Bruno Labarbere
Translated by: Catherine Barraclough
I am ... able to start shooting before you've even pressed the shutter-release. I am ... available in black, white, silver, red and champagne. I am ... built with a Nikon CX-format sensor (2.7x crop factor) with 14 million pixels. I am ... loaded with a buffer that's as impressively massive as my body is compact. I am ... the third model in my product generation. I am ... the Nikon 1 J3.

Handling4/5



The Nikon 1 series of interchangeable lens cameras (sub-divided into the V, S and J ranges) has made up for its relatively late arrival in the mirrorless camera market by offering users a host of fancy new functions (e.g. Smart Photo Selector, Motion Snapshot, etc.) all backed up with a strong and seemingly omnipresent advertising campaign. Honestly—before Nikon invaded TV screens, websites, magazines and billboards with its "I am" ads, can anyone remember seeing such a ubiquitous advertising campaign for a digital camera—especially a compact (even if it does have interchangeable lenses)? We certainly can't.

Anyway, it seems to have succeeded in getting the Nikon 1 range well and truly out there. In turn, Nikon has had the excellent idea of actually listening to user feedback and experiences, and building on them to improve its cameras. The Nikon 1 J3 therefore makes a big leap forwards in terms of its design, handling and interface. Although there's still some room for improvement, the camera finally feels like it's organised logically. Navigating through the controls and menus generally feels more user-friendly. Plus, you no longer need to keep diving into the manual for help finding all the settings.


Nikon 1 J3 compared with J2 - side by side
The pictures above show the main differences in design between the Nikon 1 J2 (which is due to stay on sale for a while yet) and the new Nikon 1 J3. The camera's overall size has been trimmed by about 8%, making the J3 barely any bigger than a standard compact camera (i.e. without interchangeable lenses). The general design is quite minimalist on the whole, and some users (especially with larger hands) may not like the fact that there's no grip handle or thumb-rest on the camera body.

The control layout has changed quite a bit. The not-so-practical mode-selection dial on the back of the J2 has been moved onto the upper edge of the J3, making it much easier to use and see while also freeing up some room on the back of the camera. The pop-up flash button has been moved to the left-hand edge, and is so sleekly built into the camera's black casing that you might not spot it at first. On the back, moving the mode dial has made room to space out the rest of the controls, which means you're much less likely to end up hitting several buttons at once. While this was definitely an excellent idea, we're disappointed to see that Nikon has done away entirely with the "Disp" (Display) button. To change the display settings you therefore have to go to Menu > Set Up > Display > Shooting/Playback. That's a bit of a shame. Another slight let-down is the fact that the F button (a stand-alone button in the J2) is now one of your four options on the four-way arrow pad. This is a button that some users will no doubt need to press more frequently than others, as it's used to select the various Creative Modes. What's more, it can be difficult to understand at first glance exactly what this button does, with just a short line of text and a tiny icon that flash up on the screen all too quickly. Anyone who's not familiar with Nikon 1 cameras could therefore completely overlook a major feature of the camera and a lot of its potential ... if those are the kind of functions that float your boat.

Nikon has made real progress in organising its menus too. The main menu feels fresh and modern with six big icons on the homescreen for "Playback", "Shooting", "Movies", "Image processing", "Set up" and "History". History displays your recently used settings and can be very handy if you accidentally change something you didn't mean to. Although some settings seem to be arranged in inappropriate parts of the menu (ISO sensitivity and white balance are in "Image processing" rather than "Shooting"), that didn't bother us too much in the end—just don't say you haven't been warned. On the whole, Nikon has finally managed to design a user-friendly, easy to read and pleasant user menu. That's definitely worth a big pat on the back. And it gets better, as the good people at Nikon have ensured us that this kind of menu should soon be coming to all of the firm's cameras. Thank you Nikon for finally hearing our pleas! What's more, the strange "PSAM" setting has finally been replaced with separate "Programme", "Aperture priority" and "Shutter priority" modes in the Creative Modes section.

On top of all that lot, the Nikon 1 J3 has a high-quality 910,000-dot screen. In fact, it's really very good. Both the vertical and horizontal viewing angels are excellent. The gamma works out at a nice, even average of 2.2. The average Delta E of 1.7 makes for accurate onscreen colours and is particularly impressive for this kind of product (and in general, in fact). Only the coolish colour temperature of 7000K could be slightly better, but it's still not that problematic. All in all, the screen is first-rate, but we still think that touchscreen controls would make it even better. How about next time, Nikon?


Responsiveness5/5



The Nikon 1 J3 may look like a dainty little snapper but it's one seriously speedy piece of kit. It's a bit like shoving the turbo-charged engine from a Ford Mustang into a matchbox (a bit like an AC Cobra, in fact). In our tests, the J3 only faltered slightly on its photo-to-photo turnaround time.


Nikon 1 J3 review - responsiveness compared with j3
Left: Nikon 1 J2 // Right: Nikon 1 J3

The start-up time for the Nikon 1 J3 is perfectly fine for this kind of camera. We took two sets of readings here, as like all of Nikon's 1-series cameras, you can switch on the J3 via the classic ON/OFF button or by starting to zoom (unusual, but pretty cool).
 
The new hybrid autofocus with phase detection brings a serious boost in performance compared with the previous model. The AF is twice as fast in low light and at telephoto, and three times as fast at wide-angle. The new model is also half a second faster to start up.

On top of that, the Nikon 1 J3 comes loaded with a secret weapon—a buffer that can handle no less than 810,000,000 pixels per second. No that's not a typo—those are millions! That's equivalent to 22 times the resolution of a Nikon D800 pro SLR, or an area just over the size of a tennis court covered in 50" Full HD TVs (391 TVs to be precise). This camera handles such an incredible number of pixels that we ended up testing the burst modes over and over again just to make sure it wasn't a fluke. The Nikon 1 J3 offers continuous shooting at 5, 15, 30 and 60 frames per second. We couldn't believe it at first, but the Nikon 1 J3 does indeed shoot 60 frames per second—60 of them, all there, in full resolution, no matter whether you shoot in JPG or in RAW+JPG! That's an incredible level of performance that easily bags the J3 a five-star score in this part of the review—even if the usefulness of this kind of mode is debatable (see inset).


Picture Quality4/5



With the 14-Megapixel CX-format sensor seen in the V2, the Nikon 1 J3 logically takes very similar quality pictures to that model. The fact that there's no anti-aliasing filter here doesn't really do anything to improve sharpness levels.

Nikon 1 J3 iso test results, picturte quality
ISO test results from the Nikon 1 J3

Nikon 1 J2 iso test results, picturte quality
ISO test results from the Nikon 1 J2

Some progress has been made here compared with the J2. The J3 takes pictures with deeper, richer blacks, although in real terms the gain is slight. Finer detail is still visible at 1600 ISO, but you really shouldn't bother with the two highest ISO settings unless you really need to. Otherwise, the stabilisation system used in the J3 is incredibly effective.

Anyone looking to work with high ISO settings will no doubt prefer a competitor with an APS-C sensor, or even micro four-thirds camera if size is an issue. Head over to our camera Face-Off to compare test shots from the Nikon 1 J3 with those of its main rivals.

Video3/5



The Nikon 1 J3 lets you take a photo while filming video, which is handy for us, as it means we can compare picture quality between video and photo modes directly.

Nikon 1 J3 review - video
Left: photo taken while filming a video // Right: video frame
 
Comparing the two images side by side, we can see that:
  • the camera has the rather annoying habit of shooting videos that look darker, denser and more saturated;
  • videos are highly contrasted, with overexposed whites and blacks that block up;
  • anti-aliasing doesn't work as well with moving objects in video mode (see the kind of serrated effect on the metronome above).
Finally, the screen suffers from moiré effects and tends to judder and glitch with moving subjects. That may not be hugely serious, but it can be quite annoying.

In spite of these few blips, the video mode is otherwise OK. The continuous autofocus does a fantastic job, sound quality is decent enough, and video is filmed in Full HD. All in all, the J3 will be fine for a bit of day-to-day family-style filming.
4/5 Nikon 1 J3 DigitalVersus 2013-02-19 12:00:00

Pros

  • Excellent autofocus
  • Burst mode shoots up to 60 fames per second in RAW mode!
  • Nice new design and layout
  • Good general picture quality
  • Stabilisation system effective up to 1/8 ths

Cons

  • Still no Wi-Fi
  • Still no touchscreen
  • "Display" button has gone
  • All those fancy "Best Moment Capture" type modes are actually pretty inconsequential
  • Camera body may be a bit too compact for users with larger hands

Conclusion

Nikon has updated its 1 J-series mirrorless camera nicely with the J3. What were once cute little snappers with fancy high-tech features but picture quality and pure specs that weren't always on par, the Nikon 1 series has finally become credible and convincing when it comes to the simple business of taking pictures. This year's model is very good, even if its super-speedy responsiveness can feel a bit disproportionate in this kind of camera. Plus, we think Wi-Fi and a touchscreen would have made nice additions.

OUR SCORE 4/5
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