Gadling Gear Review: Nikon 1 J2 Digital Camera

The Nikon 1 J2 Compact Interchangeable Lens SystemOver the past couple of years, one of the fastest growing segments of the digital camera market has been the compact interchangeable lens systems. These cameras feature the small bodies of a traditional point-and-shoot with the ability to swap lenses like a DSLR, giving them plenty of versatility without adding undue size or weight. Options from Sony, Panasonic and Samsung have been extremely popular, but it was Nikon’s first entry, the 1 J1, that really caught the attention of the mainstream market. Now, a year later, the company has updated the diminutive shooter, making some minor but welcome changes to an already impressive and fun camera.

The Nikon 1 J2 retains its predecessor’s small body and classic good looks, while upgrading the built-in screen with a much higher resolution display. Considering the camera doesn’t have a viewfinder of any kind, this revamped screen is definitely a nice addition. Featuring richer colors and a higher level of illumination, the new display gives a better indication of what your photos will look like, while also performing better in bright, outdoor conditions. Other improvements include a new metallic body available in several colors, and updates to the 1 system’s internal software that gives photographers more creative control over their images.

When the J1, and its big brother the V1, were released last year, they were soundly criticized for Nikon’s choice of sensor. While most of its competitors used sensors with sizes ranging from 12 to 16 megapixels, Nikon elected to employ a smaller 10.1 MP option. That hasn’t changed at all in the J2, even as competitors have continued to improve their sensors. But the smaller CX-format that Nikon uses still takes excellent photos with great color reproduction, even if the resulting images aren’t as large as those captured by other ILS cameras. The smaller sensor allows for the more compact body found on the 1 system and any photographer will tell you that the number of megapixels is a bit overrated anyway. Smaller sensors do suffer poorer performance in low light conditions, however, so keep that in mind when deciding which camera best fits your needs.If there is one area that all of the Nikon 1 cameras excel, it is in their speed. They are amazingly fast at focusing on subjects and they are capable of shooting in bursts of 5 fps on their quickest settings. That performance isn’t matched by the competition just yet and comes in handy when shooting travel photos, particularly when you want to quickly capture those oh so fleeting moments. While using the J2, I was continually impressed with how fast it performed, never failing to capture the image I was hoping for. It even does a fantastic job at shooting photos of wildlife and fast moving sporting events, two subjects that can put demands on even the best cameras.

The Nikon 1 J2 Camera in a variety of colorsMuch like the camera body itself, the lenses designed for the Nikon 1 system are compact, lightweight and perform well. Nikon has long been known for making excellent lenses and that heritage shines through here. I tested both the 10-30mm kit lens and the 30-110mm telephoto zoom. Both take great photos, focus exceedingly quickly and have built-in vibration reduction, which helps in keeping images sharp even when at full zoom. Both lenses cleverly incorporate a small button on the focus ring that allows you to turn the camera on simply by twisting them into position. This comes in very handy when trying to quickly capture shots without fumbling for the tiny power button on the top of the camera.

Nikon has designed the 1 system to be incredibly easy to use and as such, those advancing from a point-and-shoot camera are likely to feel right at home. But if you’re a DSLR user who enjoys the full control that those cameras offer, you may feel a bit frustrated with the options for controlling shutter speeds or aperture priority offered here. Those controls are available of course, but they aren’t on a mode dial as you might expect. You’ll find them instead buried on menus and you’ll have to use the screen to access them. It can be a bit ponderous to change those settings at times, particularly if you’re doing it often or have to do it quickly. It seems clear that Nikon saw this camera as an upgrade for those who are use to shooting in automatic mode rather than fiddling with the settings. But those of us who have been using a DSLR for awhile, and simply want a good option that can shave weight from our packs without sacrificing control, will find these limitations a bit challenging at first.

I’d be remiss in writing a review of the J2 if I didn’t mention that it is an excellent option for shooting video as well. The camera is capable of capturing 1080p HD video at 30 fps or 1080i at 60 fps. Quality is excellent and when used with the variety of lenses available for the 1 system, the camera provides performance that exceeds that of a dedicated video camera, allowing us to save further room in our bags. Just make sure you have extra memory cards along on your trip, as HD video can eat up storage space very quickly.

As someone who likes to travel light, and is always looking for ways to save weight in my bags, the thought of a small and lightweight camera system with interchangeable lenses has always been intriguing. The Nikon 1 V2 definitely lives up to my hopes for the category, making it one of the best travel cameras I have ever used. I love that it is fast, takes beautiful photos and is actually fun to use. The fact that it tips the scale at about a half-pound, with the battery and kit lens installed, doesn’t hurt either. While that is obviously considerably more than your average point-and-shoot, it is also a lot less than a DSLR.

Not that there isn’t room for improvement in the J2. The 10.1 MP sensor is very good, but a larger sensor would improve performance in a variety of key areas. The built-in flash is also rather flimsy and feels fragile as well and I would have preferred better overall battery life. The J2’s battery isn’t necessarily terrible, but when you’re used to using a DSLR, it was a bit disappointing. I’d also prefer an actual viewfinder of some type, but we’ll need to jump up to the larger and more expensive V1, or the newly announced V2, for that option.

Travelers looking for a great option for capturing their latest adventures are likely to love the Nikon 1 J2. Its combination of image quality, ease of use and compact size makes it a perfect choice for those trips in which you want to travel light without compromising your photography. The options for choosing different lenses gives this camera a level of versatility that can’t be found in a point-and-shoot, while its light weight is a huge plus over bulkier DSLRs. The camera even comes with a lightweight price tag. Nikon starts the J2 out at just $549.95 including the 10-30mm lens. That is a competitive price for a camera that will accompany you on many fantastic trips ahead.

[Photos credit: Nikon]