Although they differ in size, both the J1 and its larger sibling, the V1 share a nearly identical control layout, and both work in basically the same way. Nikon has designed these cameras to be easy to use, and in a broad sense they are, to the extent that unlike some of the more enthusiast-oriented cameras on the market, neither the J1 nor V1 feature masses of custom and control options. Nothing that might potentially be confusing, in other words.
Nikon 1 V1
The V1 is not a particularly light camera, but its extra weight and bulk compared to the J1 make it feel more solid and comfortable to hold - the thin 'finger grip' on the front of the camera helps too. The V1 balances very well in one-handed operation with all of the available 1 series lenses except the massive Nikkor VR 10-100mm power zoom, where supporting the lens with one hand, and the camera the other, is the most natural way to support both in combination.
Nikon 1 J1
|Despite its flat, glossy front, the J1 is fairly comfortable to hold, although the lack of a handgrip means that the V1 is a more sensible companion for the large, heavy 1 NIKKOR VR PD-Zoom 10-100mm f/4.5-5.6.|
The J1 is a comfortable camera to hold, even in a one-handed shooting position. Although the camera lacks a grip of any type, its aluminum front panel - though smooth in appearance - provides a surface with just enough tack to minimize slippage (assuming dry, ungloved hands of course). The camera balances extremely well in hand with the 10-30mm lens. The rear mode dial is well-sized and (on our sample at least) has enough resistance to minimize the likelihood of changing the shooting mode inadvertently.
Overall Handling and Operation (J1/V1)
There are many things to like about the V1 and J1 in normal use. Both are a nice size and are pleasant to hold, although the V1 provides a noticeably more secure grip when used one-handed. The chunkier, matte-finished V1 has the greater 'heft', which makes handling easier in some situations - particularly when the camera is paired with the equally corpulent 10-100mm video lens - but does make its presence felt around your neck at the end of a day's shooting.
Their interfaces are extremely simple, and although it might take a little getting used to, using the rear jog-switch to control exposure settings quickly becomes very natural. Both cameras are pleasantly responsive too, and common operations like menu activation and dismissal, focus acquisition and startup/shutdown are nice and quick.
Nikon's simplicity-oriented approach to the design of the V1 and J1, however, means that neither camera offers anything at all in the way of meaningful customization, which seems like a missed opportunity. It seems obvious that these cameras are primarily designed to be used essentially as oversized point-and-shoot compacts, which is all well and good, but more advanced users might be frustrated by the amount of 'menu diving' necessary to do relatively simple things like setting exposure mode or ISO sensitivity.
Something that would really help would be some sort of 'quick menu' of common shooting settings - effectively a standard feature in everything from $200 compacts and upwards. Apart from the options which are accessed directly via the J1/V1's four-way controllers and the (non-customizable) 'F' button, you'll have to dive into the main menu system for anything else.
Specific handling issues
If you've read this far you'll already know that the J1 and V1 aren't really set up well for manual operation. In PAS modes you can quickly access exposure compensation settings via a dedicated cardinal point on the control dial, but there is, inexplicably, no real-time exposure preview as you do so. Instead you have to confirm an exposure compensation value with the 'OK' button before seeing its effect, then invariably repeat the process to 'fine tune' the amount of compensation required. Likewise, whilst setting shutter speed and aperture values manually is straightforward, the lack of either onscreen exposure simulation or live histogram make shooting in manual exposure mode much less straightforward than it should (and easily could) be. Fortunately, there is a -/+2EV exposure scale on the base of the cameras' LCD screens.
Manual focussing on the other hand is simply a dead loss. Although the rear control dial allows for reasonably 'granular' control over focus (remember that 1 System lenses do not have manual focussing rings), the magnified manual focussing view on the cameras' rear LCD screens simply provides too little resolution to be useful.
|When set to MF, you are provided with a rudimentary focus scale (shown above) and the first of three available magnification views. You cycle through these views using the jog-switch.||Focus is adjusted by rotating the rear control dial. Yet the low resolution of the screen image (shown here at maximum magnification) makes achieving precise focus essentially a matter of trial and error.|
During our testing we constantly found ourselves longing for an on-screen 'quick menu' to allow access to frequently-changed settings, and remove the need to dive into the (admittedly not very long) main menu to make simple function changes. Given that Nikon was one of the pioneers of this approach with its entry-level SLRs, its omission from the J1 and V1 is disappointing. Likewise a touch-sensitive display, of the sort used to great affect by Panasonic in the Lumix DMC-GF3, would allow much easier control of the camera (including quick focus point selection) while keeping the camera's body relatively free from buttons and dials. The addition of either would make the J1 and V1 more usable.