Hands on with the Nikon 1

We get a hands on quick review of the new Nikon 1 camera system

The Nikon 1 J1 with a 10-100mm f3.5-5.6 VR lens.

The Nikon 1 J1 with a 10-100mm f3.5-5.6 VR lens.

With the announcement of the Nikon 1 series of compact interchangeable-lens cameras, Nikon became the first of the “big two” DSLR makers (the other being Canon) to introduce a mirrorless-system model. Rumors and a countdown clock amped up the excitement surrounding Nikon’s camera announcement, which finally happened in New York earlier this week.

After Nikon’s unveiling, journalists left with early production units of the Nikon 1 J1 (the Nikon 1 V1 is still in preproduction) and a trio of lenses. I tested the J1 at a shoot set up by Nikon, complete with glam models and a dancer.

The Nikon 1 J1’s Core Hardware Specs

The J1’s sensor — a 12-megapixel CMOS sensor that measures 0.52 by 0.34 inches — is smaller than those in the Micro Four-Thirds System cameras made by Olympus and Panasonic (0.68 by 0.5 inches), as well as the APS-C sensors in interchangeable-lens cameras made by Samsung and Sony. However, the Nikon 1-series sensor is significantly bigger than the one in the interchangeable-lens Pentax Q (0.24 by 0.18 inches).

Like the Pentax Q, the Nikon 1 J1 is amazingly pint-size, measuring 4.2 by 2.4 by 1.2 inches. Despite the fact that it has neither a physical grip nor an electronic viewfinder (the Nikon 1 V1 does have an EVF), the J1 is small and light enough to hold and operate comfortably. A 3-inch LCD on the back lets you compose and review your shots.

A number of different kit configurations are available, including a standard US$650 one-lens kit, two separate two-lens kit configurations for US$900 each, and a two-lens kit with a pink camera body for US$930.

Using the Nikon 1 J1

Because the J1 is geared toward ease of use, I didn’t read the reviewer’s guide before shooting with the small but well-constructed camera (no user manual was available, either). The J1’s operation is pretty straightforward, although consumers will want to at least browse the user manual to understand what lies beneath the mode dial's four modes, Motion Snapshot, Smart Photo Selector, Still Image, and Movie. The occasional tip or hint will appear on the LCD, suggesting a trip to the F (function) button for mode-specific options.

I didn’t take long to get up to speed on the J1, although initially I overlooked the tiny F (function) button. But the menus are easy — if a little long — to navigate. Fortunately, using the camera’s command dial to scroll through the options speeds up the process.

Below the mode dial on the camera’s rear panel is the typical control layout found on the majority of compact cameras, including display, playback, and menu buttons, as well as a dial for navigating, adjusting exposure compensation, accessing AE/AF lock, and setting the flash and self-timer. The top panel is home to the camera's tiny pop-up flash, on/off button, shutter button, and movie-recording button.

Although the control layout is pretty standard, the J1 requires a bit of menu-diving for anything beyond the basics, namely choosing exposure modes (full manual, shutter-priority, aperture-priority, scene auto selector, and program auto); switching between JPEG, RAW, and RAW + JPEG; selecting frame rates for video; and choosing from standard, neutral, vivid, monochrome, portrait, and landscape picture controls, among other options.

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