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Review Nikon 1 J5 - new sensor, much better

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The Nikon J5 is the latest model from the "middle" of the Nikon 1 series. The model differs from its predecessor (J4) by a different design, a folding touchscreen and especially with a new sensor. A back side illuminated (BSI) sensor, in which the wiring lies behind the pixels instead of on top of it, has, according to the factory, better resolution and a higher dynamic range. We tested the Nikon 1 J5 with the 10-30 VR kit lens, and—because of the resolution—with a fixed focal point: Nikon 1 18.5 mm f/1.8. Does Nikon fulfill the J5's claims? Do they ever!

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A very old Veluw oak tree, photographed with a very modern camera. Beautiful resolution, you can count the leaves. With the kit lens in wide-angle mode, 1/125 seconds at f/6.3, ISO 160. Click on the image for a larger version
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Nikon 1 J5

The Nikon 1 series has three sub-models:

  • Nikon 1 S series, the entry-level model
  • Nikon 1 J series, the intermediate model with additional capabilities
  • Nikon 1 V series, with optional electronic viewfinder.

All three of them use a 1-inch sensor in CX-format: longest side 13.8 mm. With the introduction of the Nikon 1 series, there was some criticism of this mini-size in a time in which the competitors chose the universal micro Four Thirds standard (17.3mm) or the even larger APS-C format. The image quality of the first generation Nikon 1's was good, but not spectacular, certainly not in the higher ISO regions.

The Nikon J5, which (how could you guess) replaces the J4, has a completely new 20.8 megapixel sensor. The Nikon J4 had 18. However, the difference lies not so much in the pixel count but in the construction of the sensor. The J5 makes use of the 'back light' technology, and the wiring from the sensor is on the back instead of between the pixels. The pixels are thus larger, and this translates into higher image quality, higher sensitivity (high ISO) and higher dynamic range. Without giving away too much from our measurement results in advance, we can say that the picture quality of the J5 really is better than that of the J4. Other important changes are: better video capabilities, a folding screen and a "classic" appearance.

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Nikon 1 J5 and its competitors

The Nikon 1 J5 is difficult to compare directly with a competitor, due to the small size of the sensor and the body. The tech specs are also fairly unique, with a lot of emphasis on speed, AF and video capabilities. The biggest competition probably comes from the Micro Four Thirds bodies, such as those of Olympus (PL7) and Panasonic (GM5). Don't forget the Canon M3 (APS-C size) either, although it is more expensive and used much larger lenses.
I think that a disadvantage of the Nikon 1 series is that it has a unique lens mount on which no foreign brands fit. You are bound by what Nikon itself provides. Fortunately, the selection is a good deal larger than it was at the introduction (including a very compact Nikon 1 telephoto zoom up to 300 mm).
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Build and operation

The J5, in the version in which we tested it (black with silver), looks like a mini Leica M3. It is a fraction thicker and also heavier than the J4; that is largely due to the LCD screen that now can fold up and down (not turn sideways). You can thus easily photograph on the ground or above your head, and when you turned the screen completely around, it's handy for the now so essential selfies. With a not too heavy lens, the camera fits in a jacket pocket.

Fair is fair: for landscape shots, such a LCD screen is still a bit awkward. You can simply cannot see well! The same applies for action and sports shots. For those applications, we would prefer the V-series with pop-up viewfinder. In the quest for compactness, Nikon made the battery smaller; it now has 850 mAh capacity (J4: 1050) and that is on the narrow side. In our intensive test work, we got 270 shots from a charge, and we think that is lean. The J3, J4 and J5 all now have different batteries, and thus different battery chargers as well. Just like the J4, the J5 uses a micro SD card, the benefits of which really escaped us: the insertion is awkward, and you need a special adapter to read it.

The first J-models had a minimum of buttons, which looked sleek but certainly did not simplify the operation. The setting of the ISO and the PSAM-mode set-up were thus hidden in the menu for the creative settings. With the J5, you set the PSAM-mode with the setting dial on top of the camera housing. Every serious photographer is used to that. The number of buttons increased, but these are inevitably mini-sized. There is a kind of thumb rest so that you can pick it up with one hand. The connections (mini-HDMI and USB) are behind the side door, without any special seal. The J5 has a built-in flash (guide number 5) but no hotshoe. A separate electronic viewfinder will not fit. And, although that is almost a standard today, there is WiFi and NFC.

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The Nikon J5 shooting its own target audience: cheerful tourists at the windmills in Kinderdijk. Made with 1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 400.

Auto focus

The auto focus of the Nikon 1 series works with a combination of phase detection pixels and contrast detection. It is really lightning fast: with a little bit of light, the shutter goes off within 100 milliseconds, which is about 5x faster than a good SLR. There is also nothing to criticize about the accuracy of the AF. Of course it helps that the depth of field is very large due to the short focal lengths of the Nikon 1 format. With f/5.6 and set to the hyperfocal distance, everything from 1.5 meters to infinity is in focus (see here, 1/1000 f/ 5). Unfortunately our test lenses had no distance scale, and the zoom lens had no scale for the focal distance.

We also extensively tested the speed and accuracy of the AF in low light (lighting value 0 and below), and we will come back to that soon in a separate article. It is sufficient to say that the J5 also focuses well in low light.

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Transport speed

One of the "selling points" of the Nikon 1 system is the speed. The J5 has an electronic shutter (up to 1/16000!) and with that fast shutter and a fast processor it achieves a fantastic number of frames per second. Even in full resolution in RAW it takes 20 shots in 0.3 seconds (over 60 bps!). There are few cameras that can match the Nikon. On the other hand, you don't get that much from such a short burst; we prefer to work with 10 fps so that you have a series of two seconds. It is also great that the camera can focus in between as well. With 4K you shoot a continuous series of 8 megapixels with a speed of 15 images per second.

In addition to the "normal" speed, the J5 has a "Motion snapshot" mode, a kind of mini-video of 1.6 seconds that can be played back in slow motion. You can then isolate photos from it, as shown here.

There is also a "smart selection" where the camera chooses the best shot from a series of 20 shots taken immediately after each other. The basis for this selection is not clear to us.

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Image quality

 
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The image quality of the J5 is significantly better than that of its predecessors. The dynamic range is very good. On resolution, we can say that it scores well, but that Nikon has achieved that by applying rather a lot of digital sharpening. It does not matter whether you look at the in-camera JPEGs or the RAWs that you have converted with the included Nikon software.

The noise remains relatively the weakest point of this camera, which is logical because the sensor is small, just 13% of the surface of a full-frame sensor. As long as you are not a real "pixel peeper," you can be more than satisfied with the quality of the pictures from the J5. The picture on the right is a detail from the photo above, 200% in Photoshop. You can count the hairs on the flower stems. In the dark background, there is noise visible in the original, but this shot was also taken at 1/1000 second with 800 ISO. We needed that because the flowers were swaying back and forth in the wind.

Overall, the picture quality gives little up to that of a less-expensive digital SLR.

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Practice shots, old and new sensor

 

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Nikon J3 vs J5: The Nikon J3 is good; the Nikon J5 is visibly better.

Practice shots sometimes say more than laboratory numbers. The upper half of the shot above is made with the J5; below that, with the J3, which has the same sensor as the J4. The J5 shows more detail and a wider dynamic range. With the J3, the broken branch is "bleached out." The J3 exposes more than the J5, and for the comparison, we adjusted the curve a bit downwards. Shot with 1/160 at f/5.6, ISO 800.

The shot below shows the same comparison: J5 above, J3 below. The difference in color saturation is also striking.

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Noise

 

The ISO range of the J5 runs up through 12800, one step more than its predecessor. Starting with ISO 400, you can see the noise already increasing in the practice shots. This is a difference from a FF or APS-C camera, where you can generally not find a difference between 100 and 800. Here you pay the price for the small sensor size.

Up through 1600 ISO, we assessed the practice shots as very good; above that the noise became noticeable. We found it very logical and practical that you engage the noise reduction via the ISO menu. The series thus runs: ... 3200 - 6400 without; 6400 with; 12800 without; 12800 with noise reduction. The noise reduction in particular removes the color noise. The shot on the right at 12800 without noise reduction is an excerpt from a photo of our bookcase, 200% in Photoshop.

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Image styles and filters

There are more than 20 picture styles, such as sports, fish-eye, soft-focus (photo shown here)—too many to discuss them all. The most useful of these we found to be the HDR-mode (makes an HDR photo from 2 sequential shots) and the panoramic mode. You have to choose all styles and filters in advance; you cannot edit already-taken pictures.

We also liked using the panoramic mode. It takes a little practice, but then you get a panoramic photo with little effort. In the 30 seconds mode, you can turn completely around your own position, although we use a tripod. Fun on a trip!!

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Video

 

You can photograph normally while filming; the film does not stop.

NNikon has made a great effort in the video capabilities. The J5 can film with the usual 1080p 60 fps format and with the new 4K format. The front of the body even has a special 4K decal, so that you will definitely not miss this. The frame rate in 4K is limited to 15 fps, and that is less than the 4K of Panasonic or Samsung. For us, video only gets really interesting at 25 fps. 4K on the Nikon 1 J5 is very useful for a series.

In video mode, there are a number of creative possibilities like interval films and slow motion (3 seconds). The body has a stereo microphone.

Lenses: Nikon 1 10-30 VR and Nikon 1 18.5 mm f/1.8

We got to borrow the Nikon J5 as a kit with the Nikon 10-30 VR lens (f/3.5-5.6),and with the Nikon 18.5 mm f/1.8. Both lenses are compact and weigh almost nothing. The 10-30 distorts a good bit when you do not use the automatic correction in the body. He has no filter threads and no loose lens cap. There are two thin lamellae that close electrically. We did not dare put the camera together with our keys in a pocket. A lens hood does not fit, but the lens does not need one. We found no trace of flare; the housing itself acts as a sun shield

Because the focal distances of the Nikon 1 system are short, the depth of field is large. Sometimes that is an advantage, sometimes a problem. For the latter cases, there is the 18.5 mm f/1.8 lens (35 mm-equivalent: 50 mm). At full aperture, you can blur a background nicely (as in the photo here). Especially when filming that can be important.

If you already have Nikon telephoto lenses with an F-mount, the purchase of the FT1 adapter is very interesting. With a crop factor of 2.7, you get a super-telephoto for relatively little money. The stork taking off above was shot with a FT1 plus Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 in 200 mode, effectively 540 mm.

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Conclusion Nikon 1 J5 review

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Pros

  • Compact and light
  • Fast AF
  • High image quality
  • 20 RAW images of 20.8 megapixels per second while retaining AF
  • Large depth of field

Cons

  • No foreign-brand lenses for sale
  • More noise than with Four Thirds or APS-C
  • Awkward micro-SD card
  • Battery capacity on the low side
  • Large depth of field

Too long, didn't read (TL/DR)? The Nikon 1 J5 is a terrific compact system camera with extremely fast AF and a remarkably good sensor.

The Nikon J5 is a compact and lightweight camera with a picture quality that, except on the point of image noise at high ISOs, approaches the quality of an SLR. There are now a number of great lenses with the Nikon-1 mount available, and with the (optional) FT1 adapter, you can use lenses with an F-mount. Due to the high speed of both auto focus and transport, it is a good action camera, although we think for this application the lack of a viewfinder is a flaw. For that, you can go better turn to the Nikon 1 V3.
The Nikon 1 J5 seems to us to be a good camera for travel: handy to take with you, higher image quality and more extra options than, for example, a compact camera with super zoom, which is rather highly praised for this purpose.

Jop Steenhof de Jong
Author: Jop Steenhof de Jong
Photography has been a hobby of mine for many years. For me, it's about the joy of creating. I like to find and share knowledge in depth topics again. After years of having fun with contributions made to the Dutch magazine "Camera Magazine", I test now with at least as much pleasure for CameraStuffReview.

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