Nikon arrived a bit later to the Mirrorless party with the Nikon 1 V1 and Nikon 1 J1 compact interchangeable lens cameras. What sets both mirrorless cams apart from the Micro Four Thirds crowd (pioneered by Olympus and Panasonic) is that they both feature a brand new sensor size: the 1-inch CX type sensor. Hence the name Nikon 1. The Nikon 1-inch CX sensor is slightly smaller than the Four Thirds size sensor, yet plenty larger than a 1/1.7-inch advanced point-and-shoot chip. But in the end, the Nikon 1 J1 produced image quality that was on par with the Olympus E-PM1, and in some cases it was even more impressive. The J1's sleek, minimalist design and sexy color options will appeal to beginners and…girls. Yes, I could not go anywhere with the J1 without being mobbed by girls asking me how I liked the "Ashton Kutcher camera." In the end, the Nikon 1 J1 proved itself as a solid digital imaging device with a performance any advanced shooter would admire. But is the J1 enough to trump the Olympus E-PM1? Read on to find out.
The Ashton Kutcher Camera
There's no denying the fact that the Nikon 1 J1 is a sexy animal. Its body is rounded and glossy with very few external controls to speak of. The J1 was slightly heavier than I expected, but the quality of the camera's construction was top notch. Everything on the J1 felt solid and polished. There's a cute little popup flash that looks like eye of the Dianoga monster from Star Wars, though unlike the Olympus E-PM1, the J1 is devoid of a hot shoe. The J1's flash performed quite alright, but without that hot shoe, there's no way to add a more powerful aftermarket flash or an external microphone. The J1's only controls are the in the form of a circular 4-way directional pad and small tab that dictates certain manual controls and zooming in playback. There's also a Function button for setting the capture frame rate and an Auto Exposure/Auto Focus Lock shortcut on the directional pad. Compared to the Olympus E-PM1, the Nikon 1 J1 is about the same when it comes to external controls, though its lack of a hot shoe might deter some shooters. On the flip side, the Nikon J1's LCD screen resolution was superior to the E-PM1's.
The Nikon 1 J1 ships with a 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom lens, though Nikon sent me a 10mm f/2.8 AF Prime and 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 to broaden the testing horizons. If you happen to have a drawer full of Nikon F-mount DSLR lenses, Nikon offers the FT1 adaptor, which allows them to be grafted onto either of the new Nikon 1 cameras. The best part about the adaptor is that it supports AF-S lens mechanics like VR Optical image stabilization, Auto Focus and different shooting modes such as Aperture Priority and Auto. Like the camera body, I was highly impressed with the quality of the CX-format NIKKOR optics, which offered VR Image Stabilization and Auto Focus and played a significant hand in the J1's overall image performance. One great thing about the lenses is that you can buy them in different colors to mix and match with the body of your J1.
Under the Hood
The White Storm Trooper does not offer much in the way of shooting features. Instead, the J1 specializes in quality control over volume of tricks. For instance, the camera's phase-detection AF system was one of the fastest and most accurate Auto Focus tools I've ever used. The system detects up to 73 AF points and recognizes moving subjects as individual planes. Manual Focus has three levels of focus assist magnifications and is easily controlled via the circular dial. The J1 also has an excellent burst shooting mode, capable of 10fps at full resolution. Shutter Speed can reach down to 30 seconds with a Bulb mode and ISO can shoot up to Hi 1 (6400). The Nikon 1 J1 does not have fancy Art filters found on the Olympus E-PM1, nor does it offer a gaggle of Scene modes.
Instead, the camera relies on a highly accurate Scene Auto Selector mode that chooses the best settings depending on the environment and has basic Picture Controls like Vivid, Neutral and Monochrome that are highly customizable via a grid control. There's Interval shooting for documenting sunsets and the like, in addition to a Smart Photo Selector mode that captures a slew of images and allows you to pick which one is best. In the gimmick department, the Nikon 1 J1 has a Motion Snapshot mode that captures roughly four seconds of video and a still image that will be accompanied by delightful music in Playback mode. The camera even offers ISO, Shutter, Aperture, White Balance and Vibration Reduction in video mode, which trumps the Olympus E-PM1's capabilities. For bare bones, quality camera controls, the Nikon 1 J1 is about as good as you can get in this class.
Impressive Pixel Performance
So how did that 10-megapixel 1-inch Nikon CX-type sensor do? Much better than I had anticipated. In fact, the Nikon 1 J1 gave the Olympus E-PM1 a run for its money in nearly every shooting environment. I was blown away with the Nikon 1 J1's RAW image quality. It was almost impossible to tell JPEGs and RAWs apart in bright or low light, aside from the fact that the RAW colors were slightly more vibrant. The camera's High ISO Noise Reduction worked exceedingly well, as evidenced in the ISO test below. The Nikon 1 J1 shoots 1080 60i, 1080p 30fps and 720 60p HD videos, which are diverse options to have. The camera also captures slow motion video at 400fps and 1200fps, though the resolutions are tiny, which is the case on all consumer cameras. I found the 1080 60i to appear a bit too interlaced when reviewing the .MOV video files, but the 1080 30p quality was just right. Unfortunately I could not dip below a 60-second shutter in video mode unless I shot in Scene Auto Selector. Because of that, I didn't achieve the low light sensitivity I wanted, but it was still impressive nonetheless. As far as image quality on the Nikon 1 J1, this camera will challenge the best of the Micro Four Third warriors.
The Buffalo Call
I was concerned for the Nikon 1 lineup, given the fact that Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Samsung have been doing this for quite a while now. But after spending some quality time with the Nikon 1 J1, all apprehensions and fears have been vanquished by a quality performance from Ashton Kutcher's White Storm Trooper. Although the camera is simple on the outside and sticks to the basics on the inside, its top notch performance and stellar image quality more than compensate. The Nikon 1 J1 is better suited for beginners and lady shooters, as the camera's funky design and fun colors are tailored more for the female persuasion. Advanced shooters will want to look at the Nikon 1 V1, Olympus E-P3 and Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH2.