Nikon 1 J4 Review

Nikon 1 J4 with 10-30mm PD Zoom

Introduction

Nikon’s 1 series of mirrorless compacts in general have not got a lot of respect outside of those who have actually used the cameras, but even the most ardent of fans have to admit that these cameras have their own issues, ranging from quirky UI, sensors optimised for speed over dynamic range, to just some bad marketing mistakes in general (like the insane prices that the J1 and V1 debuted with).

 Does the J4 finally get it alright? We take a look.

 Design and Hardware

The Nikon 1 is basically a continuation of the J series line, with a more boxy form factor this time. The camera now sports a brushed metal look, and the buttons and dials are adorned with the concentric circle pattern that seems to be everywhere all of a sudden. It still looks pretty good though, and this time, the J4 is complimented with a new lens, the 10-30mm PD Zoom, a smaller version of the collapsible kit zoom.

Note I did not use words like “tiny” or “pancake” or similar; it is not really that much smalle. Here is how it looks next to the old kit zoom.

Nikon 1 CX 10-30mm PD Zoom and Nikon 1 CX 10-30mm size comparison
The new PD Zoom is a little smaller but in practice it is not very significant.

Not really that much smaller, is it? I suppose it is a testament to the older lens size; the 10-30mm was a pretty small lens to begin with. Though for its target demographic not having to deal with lens caps and futzing around with the collapsing mechanism are probably plus points.

The new lens zooms via an zoom ring rocker in the traditional place. Like most electronic zooms it has a variable speed, so pushing the zoom ring towards the extreme ends will make the lens zoom faster. The zoom ring itself has a fairly light touch.

 The LCD is now an improved VGA (640×480 pixels) screen, compared to the HVGA (480×320 pixels) screens of its predecessors, and it is sharp and bright enough to use in most situations, except maybe in Singapore’s midday sun. It is definitely good enough to check sharpness with.

Overall the J4 is an attractive camera with few issues. Orange is a strange choice of colour though; I think a nice fire engine red would be more attractive to those who want something loud and striking.

Operation and Handling

CK: The J4 is a smallish camera, with not much of a grip. Along with the very smooth (and nice to look at) brushed aluminium body, it can be a little slippery to hold. Much of the rear is taken up by the 3” touch-screen LCD, but for someone with biggish hands like mine, this means that i tend to touch the LCD as I pick it up. The controls are a little small and fiddly to use for me, but I think it’s still nicer to operate compared to the V1.

Also, interestingly, our review unit came with a nice big fingerprint on the sensor. I wonder how the previous reviewer got it there, but it’s still amusing. I cleaned it off with some Eclipse PEC-PADs.

Fingerprint on sensor!
Fingerprint on sensor!

YS: Not our fault, honest!

Back to CK’s point on the control scheme: It really is so much better. For one, the “F” (Feature) button is actually useful. It now functions more like a Quck Menu in most of the modes, allowing you to quickly change settings and switch exposure modes. It makes the still somewhat lacking mode dial less aggravating to use (which merely adds a Creative mode since the J1). For instance in the Creative mode pressing the F button brings up a quick menu showing settings including exposure (or filter) mode, the various exposure settings, metering and drive modes, as well as other setings like the Picture Controls that set up the look of the in-camera JPEGs. In filter effects mode there will be various options to tweak the various filters like the colours used. Best Moment Capture and Motion Snapshot even let you place the camera in manual exposure modes now, making at least Best Moment Capture a useful tool.

The addition of the touchscreen also makes the camera so much better to use. This is one of the better implementations of a touchscreen user interface. Just about everything on screen can be interacted with. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO, the quick settings menu, the main settings menu, and so on. The ISO touch button is right at the middle bottom edge of the screen, which allows for easy changes of ISO, and for the J4 to get away with not having a dedicated button for it, unlike the V1 or J1.

Thanks to the touchscreen, shooting with the J4 was in some ways faster and easier than using the V2. Of course when using an EVF the convenience of a touchscreen does not really apply, so a camera with a viewfinder has a different style of operation and it will still need a number of dedicated buttons.

Speaking of buttons, a curious omission was the DISP (display) button. In most cameras this lets you cycle through the different viewing modes and electronic overlays on the LCD. While it might not sound very useful in a consumer camera, I would think even consumers would like to at least switch between a minimalist view and one with some useful basic information, like battery life while in shooting mode, and the date and time while in playback mode. Cycling between the overlays in the J4 requires a very troublesome trip to the menu.

CK: The J4 has no mechanical shutter, only an electronic one. This means that the camera is totally silent when shooting, which lends itself very well to street photography or other discreet shooting. You can enable the shutter sound in the menu, but this plays a horrible-sounding fake shutter sound, so it’s best left silent.

YS: Maybe the next big thing: Custom shutter sounds. Just like MP3 ringtones.

CK: That’s an interesting idea! It’s never gonna sound like the real thing though, due to the tiny speakers.

YS: Custom autofocus confirmation noises. That will spark a trend. Think of all the uses! Get the attention of distracted kids, surprise strangers in the street.

Performance

CK: Like the other 1-series cameras, the J4 is very fast. This is particularly noticeable in its AF speed. However, the 10-30mm PD Zoom seems to focus a little slower than the older 10-30mm, and definitely feels slower than the 10mm f/2.8 pancake.

ISO 160, 1/500 @ f/5.0
ISO 160, 1/500 @ f/5.0

The shutter lag on the J4 is very low. Combined with the super-fast AF speeds and the totally silent operation, this means that you can accidentally take several shots of the same thing accidentally. With playback review turned off, there’s virtually no indication that a picture has been taken, especially if you are on the continuous shooting mode where you can easily end up with a bunch of photos of the same thing!

YS: Another thing about the J4 (and by extension, the V3) is that the new arrangement of the phase detect pixels on the sensor has allowed for a smaller focus box. While we all know that what a camera shows as the autofocus region never exactly matches the actual autofocus region, it definitely is smaller and more precise than the one on earlier cameras. I had a lot less “accidents” with the autofocus focusing on things that it should not have focused on, like the background in a scene.

Incidentally this issue is why I never bought an Olympus E-M5 when it first came out: As nice as the images were, the original imprecise autofocus points just drove me up the wall.

The new autofocus system also benefits from another change Nikon did to the live view of the camera: The J4 applies much greater gain to it in low-light situations. On my V2 when the light level approaches 1-2 EV the live view would be rather dim, which also made autofocus very unreliable. The J4 is so much better here. While doing the low-light tests the J4 got an autofocus lock on the first try. The V2 needed a couple of attempts before it managed to focus.

Live view between Nikon 1 J4 and V2
The live view feed from the J4 is much brighter, which makes it easier to compose, and the focusing actually works.

In good light, the phase detect autofocus works a treat, as always. There really is no faster mirrorless camera out there. Not even the much-hyped Sony a6000 matches it, as impressively fast as it is. I sat down for a little kickabout with the J4, the FT1, and the Nikon AF-S 70-300mm f/3.5-5.6G VR for a test on how the J4 and its autofocus would fare at 20 FPS. The autofocus worked well, though using the FT1 restricted me to just the centre point.

Shot from a friendly kickabout

CK: I’d say this is the most impressive feature of the Nikon 1 series. I love that super fast AF that my V1 provides, and this is maintained on the J4. This is very possibly one of the fastest focussing mirrorless cameras I’ve ever come across. Both the Sony a6000 and the Fujifilm X-T1 with their claims of “fastest autofocus” didn’t come close.

Image Quality

YS: Image quality is where the Nikon 1 cameras were heavily criticised for, and while they were never as bad as some made it out to be, they certainly were never near the top compared to the competition. This includes cameras with similar-sized sensors like the Sony RX100 cameras. Part of the problem could well be due to the optimisations for speed. The latest incarnation of the 1 camera sensor does little to change that.

Nikon 1 J4, ISO 800, 1/60 at f/8
Nikon 1 J4, ISO 800, 1/60 at f/8

At base ISO the J4 performs pretty well, with the usual great Nikon look that makes for good-looking colours without the contrast levels being too strong or the saturation levels being too punchy. However like the other Nikon 1 cameras it does not take long for its lack of dynamic range to be an issue, especially in post-processing. There is always some shadow noise lurking around, and careless post-processing will bring that noise up to the fore.

Nikon 1 J4, ISO 400, 1/160 @ f/8
Nikon 1 J4, ISO 400, 1/160 @ f/8

CK: The camera produces clean and nice colours at the lower ISOs, not overly saturated like some other consumer-level cameras (and phones as well.) The shots above are straight out of the camera without any processing, and you can see that colours are very well captured. The exposure is also pretty spot on, with a good dynamic range.

YS: Testing the ISO performance against my V2 brought a surprise: Nikon have rated the J4’s ISO settings differently, and the result is at equivalent ISO settings, the J4’s images appear to be two-thirds of a stop darker. Equalising the images in Lightroom bring the truth home: The 18 megapixel sensor is undoubtedly noisier than the previous 14 megapixel sensor. By ISO 3200 there is a shift in colour as the background noise seeps into the image.

The noise is not exactly bad, but given the improvement in the competition, it is a little disappointing that Nikon were not able to give the 1 system that little push it needs. With that little extra I could imagine it going from “good camera with a few flaws” to “great camera for the most of us why are you even looking at a Sony”.

I got a bit lazy this time so here are some 100% crops from Lightroom’s comparison tool. The J4’s exposures have been increased by 2/3 a stop to match the V2’s. Click on them for the 100% view.

ISO 160. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 160. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 200. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 200. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 400. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 400. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 800. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 800. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 1600. V2 on the right, J4 on the left.
ISO 1600. V2 on the right, J4 on the left.
ISO 3200. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.
ISO 3200. V2 on the left, J4 on the right.

CK: The high ISO files look pretty good up to about ISO 1600. Think it’s a nice improvement over the V2, despite the slight differences in the actual ISO sensitivities. The ISO 3200 would need a little more work to make it usable, though.

YS: The J4 also comes with the new power zoom kit lens, which as mentioned is a little smaller than the older one. Comparing the both of them, there are some minor differences. The new lens has slightly more chromatic aberration and geometric distortion and also appears to be slightly sharper at the widest focal length wide open. It makes the new kit lens a good starter lens.

CK: Yes, the PD Zoom does  have a fair bit of distortion at the wide end, but this is easily corrected in Lightroom 5, which does have a profile for that lens!

1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD Zoom (Uncorrected)
1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD Zoom (Uncorrected)
1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD Zoom (Distortion corrected in Lightroom 5.6)
1 Nikkor 10-30mm f/3.5-5.6 PD Zoom (Distortion corrected in Lightroom 5.6)

Other Points of Note

YS: Everyone says built-in effects are silly and not needed, but I did have some guilty pleasure in using some of them, in particular the artsy stuff and the fake tilt effects.

CK: Yeah, I had some fun with the fake tilt-shift, also known as the “miniature” mode. It’s quite fun to play with but like most other filters and techniques, can quickly become cliché if overused. The “toy camera” effect increases the saturation and contrast, and also applies heavy vignetting reminiscent of the Lomo/Holga cameras.

Nikon J4 “Miniature” Effect
Nikon J4 “Miniature” Effect
Nikon J4 “Toy Camera” Effect
Nikon J4 “Toy Camera” Effect
Picture showing Cross Process effect of J4
Nikon J4 “Cross Process” Effect

YS: Wifi – Someone needs to tell Nikon to re-write WMU, the Nikon app to support their Wifi cameras, especially on Android. After starting it up it seems to register itself as a service and WON’T LEAVE MY NOTIFICATION BAR. Why do that? Are you trying to annoy me into not using the Wifi feature?

Android screenshot
That thing on the left – why won’t it go away?

CK: Looks like the Android version needs some more work compared to the iOS version. The latter, while a little quirky, is still fairly usable. I’d say the Fuji one is quite a bit better.

YS: As mentioned in our D5300 review, Wifi works but is very basic. You can view and transfer your images (JPEG only) or use your smart device as a viewfinder and remote. That’s it. No changing of settings. It’s usable, but it feels like more can be done in this age of connected devices.

Night shot with Nikon J4 - ISO 160, 4s @ f/8.
Night shot with Nikon J4 – ISO 160, 4s @ f/8.

Conclusion

If it seemed I didn’t like the camera, that’s not really how I felt. The Nikon 1 cameras have built a reputation for being absolute speed monsters, and the J4 doesn’t let that reputation down. Together with the improvements to the controls and the addition of a touchscreen, using the J4 is no longer a frustrating experience, and is actually pretty fun. It’d make a great family camera: Small, easy to bring around, incredibly fast autofocus, and a few tricks that make getting moments possible.

However, the Nikon 1 cameras also have a bit of a reputation as somewhat noisy cameras, and here the J4 also keeps that reputation, and quite convincingly too. While it could be argued that consumers don’t care, the truth is that the average person tends to use cameras in the worst places for photography: Dim indoor lighting, even dimmer restaurants, evening street lights, and so on. Furthermore most people will want to buy the best camera they can get for their money, so many will not give the J4 the chance it deserves.

CK: Unfortunately, the Nikon 1 series have a rather bad reputation from the poorly marketed models which are not very well marketed and priced too high for what it does. They are otherwise pretty decent cameras. I love my V1, especially for long lens work with the FT-1 adaptor which gives me a 2.7x crop factor on my lenses. The same advantage is applicable for the J4 as well. It’d be interesting to test out a V3, but unfortunately Nikon Singapore doesn’t bring it in due to “low demand”, so the J4 is possibly the highest-end Nikon 1-series camera one can get.

Uncropped shot of the moon taken on the J4 using the Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/4G VR mounted via the FT-1 adaptor.
Uncropped shot of the moon taken on the J4 using the Nikkor AF-S 70-200mm f/4G VR mounted via the FT-1 adaptor.

YS: Speaking of price, this is one area where Nikon are finally competitive, at least in Singapore. The J4 debuted at about S$600 for the kit, which came to slightly under US$480, and it is now under S$550 (US$440), making it a good buy. While it is possible to get a mirrorless camera that is around that price, none of them can match the J4’s speed and size, and in some cases, barely beat it on image quality.

Even the 1″ compact cameras like the Sony RX100M3 and Canon G7X, are more expensive and are simply not as fast as the Nikon, though they do have compact lenses that, on paper, are brighter, but require extremely heavy software corrections, especially for the latter.

In the US there is currently a $100 instant rebate, making the J4 kit come in at US$497 (~S$620), which may or may not be competitive, as the deals in the USA can vary a lot for all the brands, making it less clear cut.

In the end, what we have is a flawed gem, with some amazing capabilities that is likely to be overlooked by a large number of people because it fails to tick one of the perceived important feature, which is the sensor size. While the sensor itself, outside of sensor size, is a little behind its peers in image quality, it is still capable of taking good photos, and the small size and fast operation makes the J4 a unique proposition in the market, especially if it is available at a competitive price. If so, you should at least owe it to yourself to check it out.

Sunset - ISO 400, 1/80 @ f/5.3
Sunset – ISO 400, 1/80 @ f/5.3
Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmailby feather