Nikon 1 J3

The Nikon 1 J3 came as something of a surprise when it was announced little over four months after we first saw the J2 model. Clearly it's not only the camera's burst mode that's fast, it's also the whole series' apparent shelf life too.

READ: Nikon 1 J2 review

The J3 pulls the same 14.2-megapixel 1-inch sensor for the top-spec V2 model, but also hones in on tidying up the menu system compared to its predecessors. Does it amount to enough to warrant another release so soon in the cycle, or will the J3 leave nothing but miffed J2 owners in its wake?

Learning The Ropes

The J3 fits in to the compact system camera category as its lenses can be swapped out with other 1-series-mount glass to provide different views onto the world or various zoom options.

If you're new to photography then you've probably seen a Nikon advert for the 1-series and thought to investigate further. Such a target market makes good sense as the J3's mix of compact-like controls merged with Nikon's own quirky layout, menu system and special shooting modes is easy enough to learn and it will, at least by and large, deliver what you're after.

There are also dozens of other compact system cameras out there that each offer slightly different solutions so it's well worth taking a look at which mirrorless system camera is right for you. Sizes vary, as does resulting image quality, price points, features and so forth. Nikon's card is, we think, that "family appeal" - the J3 is a lot like a pepped-up point-and-shoot in many respects .

Problem with the J3 is that if you already know a thing or two about photography then the strange icons on the mode dial - which represent Motion Snapshot and Best Moment Capture - and the labour-intestive menu system are definite drawbacks to this system. What happened to the usual "P/S/A/M" settings for full manual control? Well they are available, but you'll need to select the creative option from the mode dial, click the "F" key on the rear d-pad and then select the shooting option from within here.

Which is a bit of a nuisance really, if only because the J3's overhauled menu system was supposed to be a total revamp of the painfully limited experience of the original model. It's definitely better, in that it's more logical than before, but does now feel rather like how the Sony NEX-series was when that first launched - everything's just too tucked away, although the division into six distinct menu areas makes navigation logical.

The external design of the J3 has been rejigged too. The abundance of dials compressed on to the rear of 2012's Nikon J2 has now gone, but rather than be spread out - excusing the better-placed mode dial atop the camera - some of the buttons have vanished into thin air. It may feel less condensed, but that's inevitable really. However the J3 therefore also feels more basic than its J2 counterpart - it's heading down the scale to be a more entry-level product. Yet with a price hurtling towards the £600 mark it seems to be suggesting anything but. We're not sure this all adds up at all.

The launch of the new Nikon 1 S1 should have been the model left to cater for the entry-level market in our view.

Petite Powerhouse

While basic by appearance and in its menu settings, behind the scenes the J3 is a whole different beast; it would be insulting to suggest that it's not one powerful bit of kit. There's a lot of tech fast at work here.

Fast is the operative word too. It's really bloomin' quick off the mark. The hybrid autofocus system - which combines a 135-point contrast-detect AF system with a 73-point on-sensor phase-detection AF system - is as speedy as they come. It's faster than the J2 so Nikon claims, and even though we don't have any super scientific measuring tools to test this out we sure do believe them. It's fast in both the auto-area and user-defined single point area modes to the point that in good light it feels near-instant. Dimmer conditions will cause a notable slow-down, but not to the point that it grinds to a halt.

Face priority autofocus is highly effective to latch on to subjects' faces or, if that's not your thing, it can be deactivated from within the menus. The main focus types are divided between single (AF-S) for one point of focus, continuous (AF-C) where the camera will continue to adapt focus which is useful for moving subjects, AF-A which is a mix of the previous two, and manual focus. Switching between them means more menu digging which can be a little slow as there's no body- or lens-based focus switch.

As the J3 doesn't have a mechanical shutter - it instead uses an electronic one - it can offer extremely fast shutter speeds up to 1/16,000 and a burst mode that can hurtle out images at 5, 15, 30 or 60 frames per second at full size. We were able to snap 40 raw & JPEG files in one burst without any slowdown, or 460MB of data in under a second. It might not be as impressive as the Nikon V2, but that's still a lot faster than the J2 was. It's red hot performance.

READ: Nikon 1 V2 review

But despite decent performance the J3 sticks to its entry-level guns and avoids a hotshoe or accessory port which means no electronic viewfinder or additional flash could ever be added.

The Pictures

With the same sensor as found in the Nikon 1 V2, it's little surprise that the J3's results are a match.

In some respects that's a great thing: images are well exposed, colourful and don't reveal image noise to worry about at the ISO 160-200 sensitivities. They're reasonably sharp too.

ISO 160 image sample

But on the other hand the 1-inch sensor size - which has almost half the surface area of a Micro Four Thirds camera, such as the Panasonic Lumix G5 - which means each sensor-level "pixel" is smaller than on a respective larger sensor with the same resolution and, as a result, light has a tougher job on its hands. Signals tend to need to be boosted more to produce an image and it's this amplification that renders what's known as image noise - that speckled grain-like interference that can show as flecks of white and/or colour.

READ: Panasonic Lumix G5 review

Image noise is an issue for any given digital camera, irrelevant of sensor size, but the 1-series' choice of a 1-inch sensor means noise is that bit more pronounced in raw files at the highest of ISO settings. We think the J3 is at least a stop behind the best-in-class rivals out there.

ISO 900 image sample (100 per cent crop) reveals colour noise in dark areas

However, in the J3's defence the JPEG processing is well on top of the worst of it, so even JPEG shots in the four-figure sensitivities look pretty top notch to our eyes. We wouldn't worry too much about using ISO 3200 in dimmer conditions - and that's a definite positive. But for those that want an interchangeable lens camera for the best of the best in image quality terms, there are lots of other options out there that are that one step better than the J3.

One thing most of those competitors don't have on their side is truly size of course. While the J3's body is barely smaller than much else on the market, it's the lenses which are, by equivalent, smaller than much of the competition. That does make for a good balance of size- vs image quality in very this package.

Verdict

The J3 may be slightly smaller, lighter and faster than its J2 predecessor but the change is all too slight, despite the exterior design rejig and menu overhaul.

The camera definitely wins in the speed department and it takes decent pictures too. But the increase in resolution from 10- to 14-megapixels in this update hasn't pushed forward image quality as the 1-series still sits slightly behind current Micro Four Thirds cameras in this department.

For these slight improvements there's a noticeable price push for the latest model which, at the current £575 pre-release asking price, puts it well outside of its apparently entry-level appeal.

But there is some attraction, mainly in the camera's quirky special shooting modes. There's a lot going on under the hood too but, despite all its hidden techy gems, we feel that the J3 doesn't advance the series at a price point that's pushing it.