Nikon 1 J3 at a glance:

  • 14.2-million-pixel CX-format (13.2×8.8mm) CMOS sensor
  • No anti-aliasing filter
  • 15fps shooting rate with continuous autofocus
  • Expeed 3A processor
  • Smallest CSC with CX-sized or larger sensor
  • Street price £579.99 with 10-30mm lens

Nikon 1 J3 review – Introduction

Just six months after the launch of the Nikon 1 J2, the J3 has arrived featuring a number of improvements. The J3 is no longer the entry-level model in the Nikon 1 compact system camera line-up, as this place has now been taken by the S1, which was announced at the same time as the J3 and which we will be testing in AP 16 March.

Consequently, Nikon has included some of the features from the top-of-the-range Nikon 1 V2 into the J3 to differentiate it from the new entry-level model. On the face of it, then, the Nikon 1 J3 offers the same sensor and advanced shooting modes as the V2, but it is packed into a compact and simple body similar to the J2.

Nikon 1 J3 review  – Features

All the cameras in the Nikon 1 range feature a CX-format sensor, which at 13.2×8.8mm (or 1in) is the same size as the sensor found in the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100. The CX sensor is small when compared to those used in most other CSCs, being roughly half the surface area of a four thirds-sized sensor and less than one third the size of an APS-C sensor. A CX-sensor has a crop factor (focal length magnification) of 2.7x, which means that the 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens available with the J3 is equivalent to a 27-81mm on a 35mm camera.

A smaller sensor means the Nikon 1 body and lens system can be made more compact than other CSCs. Also, with a focal length magnification of 2.7x, Nikon SLR users can fit their F-mount lenses to Nikon 1 cameras via the F-to-1-mount FT1 mount adapter. In this instance, a low-cost 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DX lens would, for example, become a 190-810mm lens.

The main concern with a small sensor is the impact it has on image quality. In this third-generation Nikon 1 camera, the company has introduced a new 14.2-million-pixel sensor, which is also used in the V2. Interestingly, in both cameras Nikon has opted not to include an anti-aliasing filter. Nikon must believe that any effects from not including the filter, such as moiré patterning, are acceptable in order to achieve sharper images.

Although the J3 is not classed as an entry-level model, it is still targeted at the casual user rather than the enthusiast, with auto modes aplenty for no-fuss shooting. Many of the shooting modes make use of the fast processing power of the Expeed 3A processor. Nikon claims this processor is capable of processing up to 850MB/s, which is more than three times the speed of a top DSLR, such as Nikon’s D4. The result is an impressive array of high-speed shooting modes, including standard drive modes of up to 15fps with continuous AF for up to 22 frames, or up to 60fps without continuous AF for up to 20 frames. There are other less common shooting modes, too, such as the ‘best moment capture’ modes of slow view and smart photo selector. Both are designed to make picking out the best shot from a 20-frame sequence easier.

There is also a degree of manual control possible. This is mostly found through the ‘creative’ menu, where modes such as manual, aperture and shutter priority can be found, as well as modes such as Easy Panorama. All in all, the camera is geared for point-and-shoot photographers.

Image: The Easy Panorama mode is silent in operation and consistently easy to use, which is more than can be said for this type of mode in other systems 

Nikon 1 J3 review – Build and handling

Although the Nikon 1 S1 is now the entry-level model, the J3 is the smallest and lightest Nikon 1 system camera so far – but only just. Nikon’s claim that the J3 is the smallest CSC has the stipulation ‘with CX-format sensor or larger’. The camera measures 101×60.5×28.8mm, so it can virtually fit in the palm of your hand, and it weighs a mere 244g with battery and memory card inserted.

The top and front of the camera are finished with a slick, brushed-metal effect. This finish is more professional-looking than the smooth, shiny, plastic-looking surface of the J2. A few buttons have been moved around, including the shooting-mode dial, which is now on the top-plate. The result is a much less cluttered rear. However, I am disappointed there is no thumb grip, given that the rear of the camera is smooth and can prove to be slippery. Instead, there is a raised edge to rest the thumb against, which is less effective.

Like its J2 predecessor, the J3 does not have a viewfinder or hotshoe. It does, however, include a built-in flash, which has a redesigned crane mechanism.

The J3 has a respectable start-up time, with the camera ready to shoot in just under 3secs. The on/off switch can be skipped when using a Nikon 1 lens, because rotating the lens from its locked position starts up the camera.

Battery life is modest, especially with the camera’s power-hungry shooting modes. While testing the camera, on most days I was restricted to half a day’s shooting before needing to recharge the battery.

Most images are processed speedily and do not slow down the use of the camera, which is impressive given that some of the modes are data hungry. However, there are shooting modes, including motion snapshot and some creative modes such as night landscape, that take more than 10secs to process.

The in-camera rating system works well. When in playback, pressing the F button on the rear control wheel accesses the 1-5 star rating system. I would like to see this sort of set-up introduced in Nikon DSLRs.

Overall, the camera is well designed for simple point-and-shoot operation. However, getting one’s head around the shooting modes is less straightforward. A mode such as slow view is both difficult to handle and surplus to requirements, given the easier to use smart photo selector.

Nikon 1 J3 review  – White balance and colour

Image: The colour rendition when using AWB is too cool in this scene, but the sunny white balance setting keeps the warmth from the sunlight

Given that most of the Nikon 1 J3’s auto modes do not allow manual control over white balance and colour, I was particularly keen to see what the colours are like straight out of the camera. Thankfully, they are generally accurate, punchy and print-ready.

When using one of the manual-exposure modes – which is possible when the shooting mode dial is set to creative – one can take manual control of white balance and colour.

In the picture control menu, there are the usual modes such as standard, vivid and monochrome, with the option to tweak sharpening, contrast, brightness and, in the case of the monochrome mode, add filter effects and toning.

On a bright sunny day I find the standard mode renders bright greens and blues very well, while the vivid and landscape modes are too saturated. As for white balance, there are times when the colour rendition is a little cool, so I found myself switching between AWB and the presets to maintain some warmth of tone.

Nikon 1 J3 review – Metering

Given that most of the shooting modes are automatic, the Nikon 1 J3 can usually be left to take control of the metering. By and large, the J3 meters for an exposure in a similar way to a Nikon DSLR, with a preference for midtone and shadow luminance. Therefore, if the scene has a wide range of tones, the chances are the brighter areas, such as the sky, will be a little too bright. In this case, it is worth activating the Active D-Lighting (if this is possible in the shooting mode), because it makes tonal detail at either end of the dynamic range more obvious. As one would expect of a CSC, the J3 has a choice of matrix (evaluative), centreweighted and spot metering. Spot metering is linked directly to the active AF point, so it is only truly available when using spot AF. Introducing touch functionality to the LCD screen to choose the AF point would speed up this metering process.

Nikon 1 J3 review – Noise, resolution and sensitivity

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the Nikon 10-30mm lens set to 18mm (50mm effective) and f/5.6. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.

We would expect an imaging sensor that does not have an anti-aliasing filter, such as that found in the Nikon 1 J3, to punch above its weight when it comes to resolved detail. In fact, the camera resolves the level of detail that we would expect from a 14.2-million-pixel camera, reaching the 24 marker on our resolution charts. This is a marked improvement from the 10-million-pixel J2, but against the higher-resolution competition of today this level of performance is, at best, average. There is actually an impression of detail further along from the 24 marker, but moiré patterning interrupts a clear impression of all nine lines separately.

What is impressive, though, is that detail is still resolved up to the 24 marker even at ISO 3200. However, images are not ‘clean’, as the presence of luminance noise in unprocessed 12-bit raw files can be seen at every ISO setting, which steadily becomes more obvious higher up the ISO range. Chroma (colour) noise can be found in unprocessed raw files at any ISO setting, being more obvious in shadow detail and often in the form of purple patches.

As a default, a rather aggressive degree of noise reduction is applied to JPEG files. This may smooth out luminance noise, but it also means that detail becomes less crisp. Overall, the feel and depth of images prove to be a little flat, being more akin to those from a compact camera than from a DSLR.

All the comments in this section of the review are made about images taken with the 10-30mm lens and viewed at 100%. Images can, of course, be produced on a smaller scale – which there is scope to do given the improved resolution – and detail appears sharper and cleaner. Therefore, it is possible to achieve good-quality images.

Nikon 1 J3 review – Autofocus

Speed is a key selling point of the Nikon 1 J3, thanks to its powerful Expeed 3A processor. The impressive high-speed continuous burst modes are backed up very well by what is an excellent hybrid AF system, which uses both phase and contrast-detection AF. In good-contrast light, focusing on static subjects is, to the eye, instant. Even in low-contrast light focusing is speedy, although contrast detection appears to be employed because a quick hunt is often required. Most other CSC systems require a longer hunt in such conditions, which can often be unsuccessful, so here the J3 shines.

If you set the camera up to use subject tracking AF for a high-speed scene, such as a runner competing in a race, you can expect most images from a 15fps burst to be in focus on the tracked subject. I would be interested to test the J3 against the Nikon D4 in various action situations to see how it fares.

It is possible to use continuous AF for video capture without it being distracting. A quick snap from one focus point to another is fairly subtle and made without hunting or a loss of focus.

Nikon 1 J3 review – LCD, viewfinder and video

With no viewfinder or hotshoe to attach an optional viewfinder, the Nikon 1 J3 fully relies on its rear screen to compose and view images. Just like the V2 and J2, the J3 uses a 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen, with durable glass exterior. Its display is bright, crisp and has a wide viewing angle. Even in bright light it is possible to compose a scene using the screen, although accurate evaluations on exposure in such a situation are not possible. Given the casual-user target audience, perhaps a screen with touch functionality or articulation would be welcome.

Video recording is possible in full HD (1920×1080 pixels) at an impressive 60i or 30p, in MOV format and using the H.264/MPEG-4 compression. Stereo sound is possible, although there is no option to attach an external microphone.

Nikon 1 J3 review – Dynamic range

The Nikon 1 J3 has a dynamic range of approximately 11EV, which by today’s standards is rather modest. However, in most real-world situations, such as a high-contrast landscape, it is difficult to note real differences between this camera and some entry-level DSLRs that officially test more favourably. Some highlight clipping can occur, so it is worth making use of the settings to increase tonal detail, such as Active D-Lighting.

A creative mode I regularly used is ‘backlighting’, to which HDR can be added. This is ideal for high-contrast landscapes because the tonal detail in the sky can be kept, but the midtone and shadow details are brightened. Rather than the overall exposure looking dull, it looks – for want of a better word – dynamic.

Nikon 1 J3 review – Our verdict

Compared to its Nikon 1 J2 predecessor, the J3 is a much improved camera. In essence, the J3 is the V2 in a compact, viewfinder-less body, geared to the casual user. It can take a while to work your way around the camera, with manual control tucked away and some auto shooting modes that could do with a little more explanation. Where the J3 shines, though, is in its speedy operation, thanks to its powerful Expeed 3A processor. Fast shooting modes and responsive AF make for excellent handling.

However, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed with the J3 when it comes to image quality. The 14.2-million-pixel sensor is capable of producing decent A4 prints, but go much bigger and the soft detail – certainly from the 10-30mm kit lens – is more apparent. The launch of three new lenses, including a 50mm f/1.8 and 18-35mm f/3.5-5.6 (both 35mm equivalents), at the same time as the camera is promising, and the improvements to image quality from the last generation are plain to see. The camera is up to speed operationally, but its image quality has some catching up to do.

See more sample images taken with the Nikon 1 J3.