Dec. 8, 2011 -- Why are SLR cameras all the size and shape they are, with a long, flat back and a viewfinder housing at top center? They let you take great pictures, if you have a good eye for them, even in the toughest circumstances, but they're big and clunky to many users. Why, in the digital age with no film to be drawn behind a shutter, can't cameras be smaller and more ergonomic?
There are many reasons (among them, cameras look the way they do because that's the way they've looked for a long time), but manufacturers are experimenting with alternatives. Olympus and Panasonic, with their Micro Four Thirds format, and Sony, with its NEX line, are already major players.
Which brings us to the Nikon 1 line. We tried the J1 (under $600 with a 3X zoom lens). It's not pocket-sized, but it's a small, flat camera with interchangeable lenses, substantially better image quality than most point-and-shoot cameras (color rendition in low flourescent light was impressive), and a lot of bells and whistles hidden inside.
The J1 comes in black or silver -- or red or pink or white, which tells you Nikon is thinking of casual users who might see a camera as a fashion statement. If you're a serious amateur, or a professional photographer who wants a camera handy for unexpected shots, there's also the Nikon 1 V1 (about $850 with the same 10-30-mm zoom), which has an electronic viewfinder and comes only in industrial black.
Two other very small lenses are offered in the Nikon 1 mount: a 10mm f/2.8 fixed lens (the equivalent of a 28mm lens in 35mm film photography; very good for indoor shooting) and a 30-110mm telephoto (equivalent to an 85-310mm zoom). An adapter allows you to use older, bigger Nikkor lenses.
The J1 has a 3-inch LCD screen on the back, 10 megapixel resolution, the ability to shoot HD video and -- here's what separates it from the point-and-shoot cameras it resembles -- it's fast in several ways.
Autofocus is clearly quicker than you'll find on most small cameras; Nikon talks about a 73-point focusing array inside to find the subject of the shot and make sure it's clear. Shutter lag, a pain in many small cameras, is all but gone, at least in bright light.
That done -- are you sitting down? -- Nikon claims the camera is capable of shooting 10, 30, even 60 frames per second in what Nikon calls Electronic mode. Even if you use manual settings, you can shoot five frames per second. Those aren't videos. Those are individual, high-resolution still pictures. The company says the camera's fastest shutter speed is 1/16,000 of a second.
There is also a feature called Motion Snapshot. Press the shutter release and you get a sequence of shots, appropriate, say, if you're shooting your Little Leaguer taking a swing at the ball. Another feature, called Smart Photo Selector, will let you fire several frames at once -- and the camera will tell you which one it thinks came out best.
That's a lotta stuff. And there are more settings buried in the menus you can access through the rear screen.
But the J1 has a neither-here-nor-there quality to it. Though it's loaded with features, there aren't a lot of controls on the body. There's a small pop-up flash; it looks a little like a metal flag on an old-fashioned mailbox. And the J1 has no viewfinder, something you'll miss if you sometimes want to look through the camera, not hold it in midair, and be alone with your image to compose it just the way you want.
Is it a serious amateur's camera, as its features -- and price -- would imply? Or is it a point-and-shoot camera, as you might guess from the designer colors and simplified controls? If you're just after snapshots, you can get pocket cameras for less than half the price. If you're really into photography, you may go for the V1 -- but a full-sized SLR may give you more control, and a wider choice of lenses, for less money.