The Nikon J1 is unique and wonderful and frustrating and stupid. All at once. It’s the bastard child of a brilliant engineer and a retarded UI designer. It’s the best digicam ever built for using classic and exotic lenses, yet is deliberately crippled when you mount them. It’s the only digicam on the market that can do 60 frames/second at 10 MPixel resolution, yet it has only enough buffer to do it for half a second. And the user interface seems designed to deliberately frustrate.
It’s conflicted enough to make my head want to explode.
I’m just going to to talk about the J1 because that’s what I have. It’s sister camera the V1 is (even) more expensive and has an EVF and a higher resolution LCD screen but seems to be otherwise identical. So I assume it’s the same in all the things that delight and enrage.
NIKON CX FORMAT HITS THE SPOT
Nikon has taken a lot of heat for their choice of a 1″ sensor for the CX format (Nikon’s name for their 1″ sensor size and mount); most reviewers think it’s too small.
I strongly disagree. I think it was a brilliant choice. Look at this table of sensor sizes:
|Pentax 645 (medium format)||1452||3.6|
|35mm (“full frame”)||864||2.9|
|1/1.7″ (Canon G12)||43||-1.4|
|1/2.3″ (Pentax Q)||28||-2.0|
All else being equal, light sensitivity is proportional to the area of the sensor. There’s a big gap between sensor sizes of compact cameras (1/1.7″ and below) and “DSLR” sensors (4/3″ and bigger). The CX sensor size is smack in the middle. It allows lenses and cameras much smaller, lighter, and cheaper than do APS-C or larger formats, but with a vast image quality improvement over compact sensor cameras – a full 2 stops better than the (tiny sensor) Pentax Q.
Camera size is really important – if the camera is too bulky to take with you, you’re not going to get any pictures at all. Yet we want quality images, so we have to compromise.
When image quality is all-important, there are plenty of DSLRs on the market for that. And if size is all that matters, there are plenty of cameras the size of a deck of cards (as well as mobile phones with cameras). But the Nikon 1 offers a unique compromise.
Unfortunately Nikon didn’t exploit this very well when designing the (four) lenses available in CX format – they’re hardly any smaller than Micro 4/3 lenses. But that’s not the fault of the sensor choice. And lens design is far from Nikon’s worst mistake here.
FLANGE FOCAL DISTANCE AND LENSES
The 1″ sensor format is also a good match for the image circle produced by many classic cine and video lenses. Many really interesting lenses meant for 16mm cinema film, or for broadcast television sensors are available on eBay. And these lenses can be easily adapted to the CX mount, while still focusing to infinity, because the CX mount has the smallest flange focal distance of any digicam on the market (excepting the Pentax Q). At just 17.0 mm, any lens designed for a longer flange distance can be easily adapted: C-mount film and video lenses, the Fuji X mount lenses (X-Pro1; 17.7 mm), Sony E mount (NEX; 18.0 mm), Micro 4/3 (19.3 mm), Samsung NX (25.5 mm), RED ONE (27.3 mm), Leica M (27.8 mm), M39 (Leica screwmount; 28.8 mm), Contax G (38.7 mm), Canon FD and FL, Minolta SR, Canon EF-S and EF, Minolta/Sony A mount, M42, and Nikon F mount – just to name some of the more popular ones.
NIKON SHOOTS ITSELF IN THE FOOT
The ability to use all these different lenses is unique to the Nikon 1 (again, the Pentax Q excepted). But did Nikon make the J1/V1 an attractive platform for these lenses? No, just the opposite. The firmware turns off all modes except full manual when any manual lens is mounted. Even the light meter is disabled. Worse, when any manual lens is mounted, the “focus assist” mode – where the central part of the image is magnified to make critical manual focusing possible – is disabled. Yet it is precisely these manual-focus lenses that need this function!
Think about that. Some Nikon firmware engineer wrote code specifically to turn off the focus assist and light meter that were already there.
They’re selling a camera that can mount more classic and exotic lenses than any other in the world, but they deliberately spent effort to make it difficult to use those lenses. And this wasn’t done to “protect” some other, more expensive, camera that has that feature – they don’t offer one. WTF, Nikon? Are you trying to make this camera fail?
A BRILLIANT SENSOR BY APTINA
But let’s go back to the positives. The camera has what I think is the only phase-detect focus system on a mirrorless camera on the market; this lets it focus fast, even during video.
Nikon also made a brilliant choice in their sensor supplier - Aptina. The Aptina sensor has super high speed readout, which makes possible a fast all-electronic shutter with no moving parts. And that enables features no other camera on the market can touch:
- Absolutely silent shutter operation
- Shutter speeds as short as 1/16,000 second (freezes motion like no other camera!)
- Full 10 MPixel output at 60 frames/second (!)
- Smaller resolutions at up to 1200 fps
- Almost no “rolling shutter” effect
These are huge advantages for certain kinds of photography, and part of what makes me love this camera.
Unfortunately, Nikon chose to put in a tiny RAM buffer, so the camera can do the full-resolution 60 fps for less than 500 milliseconds. Yes, you read that right – 28 frames to be exact (JPEG fine mode). Then the buffer is full.
Similarly with the 400 and 1200 fps “slow motion” modes – it can sustain them for only 5 seconds.
[Edit: I'm told the V1 has a larger buffer than the J1; it will supposedly hold about 60 frames instead of 30. Not a huge difference but an improvement. The 5 second limit on slow motion is the same.]
USER INTERFACE INSANITY
But this is not the end of frustrations with the Nikon 1.
The camera has a simple but adequate control set – three buttons on top for power, shutter, and video recording start/stop. On the back there is an up/down toggle switch, a mode dial with just 4 positions, a 4-way controller combined with a control wheel and OK button, a dedicated “F” button, plus the usual menu, display, playback, and trash buttons.
You’d think that there are plenty of options there for a simple and consistent control set – they could use the wheel to control aperture, the 4-way controller to control shutter speed and ISO, and still have plenty of controls left over for other things.
But no. Nothing so simple or straightforward as that.
The first of the four modes is “Motion Snapshot”. The camera takes a half-second or so of video followed by a still. OK, possibly useful. But that’s not all. You have to press the F button and choose a “Theme” for the motion snapshot – “Beauty”, “Waves”, “Relaxation”, or “Tenderness”. (I’m not joking.) The only difference between the four “themes” is which cheesy pre-canned musical “theme” it will stick on the audio track of the half-second of video – which gets played back at about 1/5th speed. WTF?
As for the controls, in Manual the up/down toggle controls shutter speed and the wheel controls aperture. The ISO gain can’t be adjusted at all except in a menu. OK. But in Aperture-priority, the up/down toggle controls aperture and the wheel does nothing. Huh? In Shutter-priority, it’s just the opposite – up/down controls shutter speed and the wheel does nothing.
Could this possibly be more inconsistent and impossible to learn? Did Nikon give any thought at all to the poor user?
The second mode is “Smart Photo Selector”. When you press the shutter it takes a bunch of pictures (they don’t say how many), and it picks the best five and saves them (they don’t say how it picks them). Everything is fully automatic, you can’t control aperture, shutter speed, ISO gain, or focus at all. I’m surprised they let you decide when to take the picture – it really ought to just have you wave the camera around until it sees something “pretty” and decides for itself when to shoot. The F button doesn’t do anything in this mode. This is the ultimate “point and shoot” mode. I suppose it might be useful for some people, but not for me.
The third mode is a useful still-picture mode. Exposure control is the same dog’s breakfast as in Motion Snapshot. Here the F button does something useful – press it and the up/down toggle chooses between “Single frame”, “Continuous” (5 fps), or “Electronic” shutter mode. But to choose whether the electronic mode will do 10, 30, or 60 frames/second (which is great until the buffer fills up after just 28 frames, as mentioned), you have to go into the menu. WTF? There are only 5 modes – single, 5, 10, 30, or 60 frames/sec. Why the heck can’t they just let you choose from all 5 modes with the up/down toggle? This stuff makes me want to pull my hair out!
The fourth and last mode is for video recording. A great thing here is the camera offers full manual control in video mode – you can adjust aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to taste. Press the F button and the up/down toggle lets you choose “HD” video or “Slow motion” (really, high frame rate). But there are 3 “HD” modes (1080i/60, 1080p/30, and 720p/60) and 2 “slow motion” modes (400 and 1200 frames/second). And just as with the frame rate for stills, you have to go into the menu and choose one of each. There are only 5 modes here - why don’t they let you choose all 5 and skip the menu? Sheer incompetence of the UI designer is all I can think of.
The video bitrate is only 16 Mbps in 720p/60 mode, which is really too low for good quality. Still frames from 720p video show horrible muddy artifacts in areas of motion. The bitrate is 24 Mbps for the 1080 modes; I haven’t tried it to see if it looks better; I want the 720p/60 mode for the 60 progressive frames/second.
In the video mode, both the shutter button and the video start/stop button work – you can take a still anytime, regardless of whether or not you’re recording video. But this is the case only in the video mode. In all the other modes pressing the video button does nothing – the camera gives an error message if you press it. So what is the point of have separate shutter and video buttons if you can’t press either one and get what you wanted? And if they can make them both work in the video mode, why can’t they do the same in the other modes? Arrgh!! ! !! More hair lost.
OTHER THINGS ON MY WISH LIST
The J1/V1 could have been a really fantastic, breakthrough camera, but Nikon blew the opportunity. The hardware is there (except for buffer RAM), but the firmware is actively fighting the user every step of the way.
Despite that, I’m keeping it, at least until something better comes along. It can do things no other camera can.
There are a few other things I wish Nikon had included to make it better – none of them would have been difficult:
- A tilt-and-swivel screen, similar to the Nikon D5100. The V1 has an EVF, but the J1 has no viewfinder of any kind – not even a cheap optical tunnel like on the Canon G1X. I’m going to mostly use this camera on a tripod, but how are you supposed to use it handheld? With a tilt-and-swivel screen, you could nestle it against your belly (Hasselblad style) for a steady view. I’d prefer this to a viewfinder of any kind.
- Optional cropping of video from the center of the sensor, ala the Panasonic GH2′s “ETC” and “Movie Crop” mode on the Canon 60D. I wish every digicam had this for video; if you could make the full-resolution video (1080, 720, whatever) come from a selectable area of the sensor, you could adjust for the limited image circles of unusual lenses. Cropping stills is easy; with video you lose a lot of resolution doing it in post.
- A removable (or external) IR filter. There are times when it would be interesting to shoot in the IR or UV bands, but the fixed filter in front of the sensor makes this impossible. Nikon’s filter is stronger than Canon’s – I can see the IR LEDs of my remote controls on my Canon G11, but I can’t see a thing on the J1. With the small lenses used by the J1/V1, an external IR filter on the front (or back) of each lens (when you want it) wouldn’t be a big burden.
- A built-in GPS for automatic geotagging of images.
- A VGA video mode (640×480) at 120 frames/second, and a QVGA mode (320×240) at 240 frames/second. There is too large a gap in frame rate between the ones offered in video mode (30, 60, 400, or 1200 fps).
- Pre-trigger of high frame rate capture (both still and video). The Casio Exilim cameras have done this for years – it’s easy to implement, and would make the high speed capabilities of this camera far more useful. Casio runs the sensor at full speed as soon as you half-press the shutter, running the data through the buffer. When you fully press the shutter, the previous few dozen frames in the buffer get saved together with new frames as they’re captured. So when you press the shutter as soon as some event happens, your video starts a little bit before the event, instead of a little too late. [Edit: The J1 actually does this in Motion Snapshot mode - it stores video from about 1/2 second before the shutter press until about 1/2 second after. Which makes it all the more frustrating that Nikon doesn't offer this in the other modes.]
Enough ranting. Here’s my summary:
|17 mm flange focal distance||Nearly any lens can be mounted||“Focus assist” and light meter deliberately disabled for manual lenses|
|1″ sensor||Small camera & lens, better image quality than compacts||Lenses not much smaller than Micro 4/3|
|720p/60 video||60 progressive frames/second||16 Mbps is not enough for good quality video|
|10 MPixel stills at 60 frames/s||High-quality image capture at this rate can’t be matched by any other current camera||Buffer only holds 28 frames (< 1/2 second), no pre-triggering, UI forces you into the menu to select frame rate completely needlessly. Can’t select shutter speed.|
|400 and 1200 fps “slow motion” video||Ability to capture fast-moving events||Limited to 5 seconds, no pre-triggering|
|5 different video modes||Large range of spatial vs. temporal resolutions to choose from||No 120 Hz VGA mode or 240 Hz QVGA mode (Canon was able to do these in the S100), UI forces you into the menu to choose them, completely needlessly|
|Fully electronic shutter||Shutter speeds as short as 1/16,000 second, almost no rolling shutter||No buts. Really a good thing.|
|Good manual control of stills and video||Obvious||UI totally inconsistent and crazy|
|F button||Gives quick access for mode changing||Inconsistent user interface function; not customizable|
|Fast phase-detect AF||Fast!||No buts. Really a good thing.|
|Intervalometer built-in||Could be useful; haven’t tried it yet||Somehow I suspect they found a way to cripple it…|
I love the hardware capabilities of this camera, but find it difficult to fathom the depths of Nikon’s stupidity in failing to exploit them.
They are offering a unique camera with capabilities no competitor can touch, yet they go out of their way to cripple it to make those capabilities difficult or impossible to use. That might be understandable if they offered a higher-priced un-crippled model, but they don’t.
Some will say “wait – Nikon designed this camera as a shiny fashion accessory for yuppies with more money than brains, not for photographers or nerds into high-speed photography”. That may be true. But it wouldn’t cost Nikon a penny extra to not disable the focus assist mode and light meter, or implement a UI that didn’t make things difficult for no reason at all. Then they could have sold the camera to photographers and nerds in addition to brainless yuppies. So I still call it stupidity.
Perhaps the market agrees – the photo manager at my local Best Buy told me she hasn’t sold a single Nikon 1 camera since Christmas (this was in April!).
Please – try harder next time, Nikon.