Nikon J5 and Nikkor 18.5mm f/1.8 : The Last Review

When the Nikon 1 line was launched in 2011, I scorned it. I paid attention to digital cameras then. A mirrorless system with a one-inch sensor? Nothing wrong with that in principle, but the 10-megapixel Aptina sensor that Nikon used in the J1 and V1 launch cameras was underwhelming to a measurebator like myself. Poor low-light performance, unimpressive resolution considering 16-megapixel sensors were already standard. I never even looked at the J1, since it seemed aimed at the “girl photographer” that Nikon has been fantasizing about since the EM launched in 1979. The enthusiast-focused V1 (and I definitely considered myself an enthusiast) was bigger, blacker, and more button-and-wheely—but did I mention it was bigger? It weighed more than the lighter members of Sony’s APS-C NEX line, which had more capable sensors (at least in terms of image quality). It wasn’t much smaller than many Micro Four Thirds cameras, which had a far better selection of small lenses (including primes — imagine that!).

The Nikon J5 alongside the Nikon F2. The F2 will stop a bullet but only fires at 5 frames per second with the pictured MD-2 motor drive. The J5 should survive an impact from an errant ping-pong ball and can shoot at 60 frames per second. The F2 makes you feel like a conflict photographer until your shoulder starts to hurt and you realize you wouldn’t last five minutes in the shit. The J5 is so light you forget you’re carrying it.

The Nikon J5 alongside the Nikon F2. The F2 will stop a bullet but only fires at 5 frames per second with the pictured MD-2 motor drive. The J5 should survive an impact from an errant ping-pong ball and can shoot at 60 frames per second. The F2 makes you feel like a conflict photographer until your shoulder starts to hurt and you realize you wouldn’t last five minutes in the shit. The J5 is so light you forget you’re carrying it.

A cynical enthusiast likely wondered if the 1 system wasn’t hobbled by design to protect Nikon’s DSLR sales. Remember DSLRs? Those big things that ordinary people who wanted a “real camera” to take to Rome or Paris were tricked into buying for years and years? There was a time, hard to countenance now, when the DSLR money train looked like it was it going to clack along forever, assuming you were too myopic to see the one-two punch of mirrorless and cell phones looming down the line. Sure, phones were already lopping the head off the consumer compact digicam market and lapping up the arterial spray . But people who wanted a real camera would always want a flipping mirror. Sony? Don’t they make TVs? If Nikon and Canon could agree on anything, it was that, and fuck the haters.

But maybe, as our confused world plowed into the second decade of the millennium, Nikon was having doubts. Maybe they saw the writing on the wall but misread it. And so, the 1 system. 

The Loneliest Number

I was far from the only person scratching their head. My feeling is that the commentariat was unimpressed, but that makes sense since the system wasn’t really aimed at people who talk about cameras. The J1 and V1 were considered together on DPreview and scored in the 60s, which is not great. The reviews got better as the system matured, but first impressions are hard to break. 

Fast focus is something any girl photographer can appreciate, since they need to take pictures of their fast moving children, which as we know is all females care about (incidently, DPreview said the V1 was good for “soccer moms,” their quotes. I guess the quotes made it OK?).

DPreview thought that moms would like the 1 system.

DPreview thought that moms would like the 1 system.

But what enthusiast will buy into a camera system with a handful of slow zooms and not much else? The lens I bought, the normal-equivalent 18.5mm f 1.8, wasn’t even available at launch. Nikon had the temerity to offer an expensive AF-enabled adapter to cobble its DSLR lenses to the 1 cameras, which all of seven people must have bought. It’s hard to imagine anyone but bird photographers thinking that a 2.7 crop factor would make adapted lenses useful.

So I pretty much forgot about the 1 system. It sputtered along for four years, culminating in the J5 in 2015. Contemporary reviews of the J5 were fairly positive, noting that the new BSI 20.1 megapixel sensor was actually up to scratch image quality-wise while still packing the blistering read-out speeds and whip-snap phase detect AF that first set the 1 system apart. Some reviewers wrote hopefully about an anticipated enthusiast-oriented V4, the presumed successor to 2014’s V3. Their hopes would have withered. As months and then years passed with no new announcements, it became obvious that Nikon had disowned its mini mirrorless offspring. “All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes.” The company finally confirmed it in 2018. Not long after, it released a full frame mirrorless line, just like everyone else. Woohoo.

J is for Justifications

So why buy a J5 in 2019? I’ve been mainly shooting film for my “personal work” and using my phone (a Pixel, sometimes with a lens add-on that doubles the focal length to provide a normalish field of view) for the snaps that I take as the family chronicler. Thing is, lately I’ve been enjoying that chronicaling a bit too much to fit it into a phone. I wanted a real digital camera with a normal field of view and a sensor big enough to deliver good quality and a bit of subject separation for my kid pics. But it had to be small and light enough to fit in my man-purse along with a 35mm film camera, and ideally in a jacket pocket by itself, and it had to be relatively cheap. 

The list of contenders was surprisingly small. The Sony R100s are super-portable, but not cheap. Worse, their zooms slow down quickly as you leave the wide end, and in any case using a zoom to do a prime’s job is inelegant, not to mention that zooms lead to impure thoughts and moral decay. Ricoh’s GRs are interesting but too wide (and expensive). The Panasonic GM5 with the 20mm 1.7 or Olympus 25mm 1.8 mostly fits the bill, but it’s becoming expensive if you’re not an extremely patient auction watcher, and it has an assortment of other quirks mostly linked to its innovative stepper-motor micro-shutter (it DOES have a viewfinder, which is nice, but that makes its screen very small). And then my mind and my googling drifted to the 1 series. 

ISO 800, f/1.8, 1/80 sec. My first APS-C DSLR looked pretty crap at ISO 800, and it only offered half the resolution.

ISO 800, f/1.8, 1/80 sec. My first APS-C DSLR looked pretty crap at ISO 800, and it only offered half the resolution.

The J line might have started out as a point-and-shoot with interchangeable lenses, but by the J5’s time, things had changed. Nikon had introduced the entry-level S line, pushing the J up. So the J5 has a PASM dial (along with a bunch of inscrutable little pictures), two control wheels, a nub of a finger grip, and a flip-out screen (a big bonus for me, since I love TLR-style shooting as long as the image isn’t reversed). In other words, the J5 looks a lot like an enthusiast’s camera — it’s at least semi-enthusiastic. Maybe Nikon already knew that there’d be no V4 and positioned the J5 to have something for everyone. I was intrigued.

They must be dirt cheap, I figured, being unloved from birth and orphaned now. Not so much, I discovered — the J5, being last of the line, has held its value surprisingly well, and even the older models are still worth some scratch. I got a black J5 body in nice shape from a Japanese seller for $240. If you wait for an auction, you can do better. The 18.5mm 1.8 ran me $130 from a US seller. It rarely seems to come up for auction, and you’ll be hard-pressed to get one for much under a hunge. So, $370 all in. Not nothing, but I justified it because the value has presumably flattened out for a while — if we don’t get along, I can send it off without much of a loss.

Something Like a Review, Finally

That Aptina sensor that left me so nonplused in 2011 was actually a bit of a wonder. The first on-sensor phase detect autofocus at this scale, and they nailed it — focus was blazingly fast. Continuous shooting at 20 FPS with AF enabled, and an astounding 60 FPS with focus locked. I don’t recall it ever being mentioned in the marketing and I didn’t even realize it until I got my J5, but the J cameras have no mechanical shutter, so they’re perfectly silent (once you disable the fake shutter noise). It’s that electronic shutter that gets you up to 1/16,000 of a second (and limits you to a flash sync speed of 1/60 sec, but never mind — it was good enough for Leica).

That sensor/shutter actually has a big impact on how I shoot the J5: I use it like a phone. Cell phones are basically aperture priority cameras with a fixed aperture — the phone picks a shutter speed and ISO to get the job done. The J5’s lightning shutter lets it be used the same way, just without the suck of handling a slippery glass slab. I can shoot my 18.5mm lens wide open in full sun and not worry about overexposure, even with the J5’s base ISO of 160. That wouldn’t make sense for general photography, but for the kid pics that I’m doing, it’s almost always nice to have a little subject separation. Stopping action is good, too. 

ISO 1600, f/1.8, 1/40 sec. Even at this relatively high sensitivity, there’s plenty of detail in this dark scene. The J5’s silent operation allowed me to get right next to the water buffalo.

ISO 1600, f/1.8, 1/40 sec. Even at this relatively high sensitivity, there’s plenty of detail in this dark scene. The J5’s silent operation allowed me to get right next to the water buffalo.

Since I’ve turned off all the beeps and blurps, the J5 is effectively silent (the aperture and focus motor must make little clicks but they’re normally inaudible). This has obvious advantages in terms of not bothering my subjects, but it also gives me the feeling that I’m not really taking pictures as I repeatedly mash the shutter button. This sounds like a complaint, but it’s more liberating than anything else. Rationally, the J5 is not more frictionless than a digital camera with a conventional mechanical shutter, but it feels that way. When your “other camera” is loaded with film, the total separation of the act of photographing from the physical world can actually be relaxing. People often run this argument in reverse to justify the appeal of shooting film, but it works in both directions.

Insert Need For Speed Joke Here

You know the J5 is supposed to be fast. But is it really? Does it slam you into your seat? Does it make your cheeks ripple? Is it the blue meth, the mantis shrimp, the Amazon Prime of cameras? 

Well, the autofocus is pretty goddamn fast with the 18.5mm lens. It feels as close to instantaneous as any camera I’ve used. If you’re expecting it to be fast, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Unless you’re the kind of person who’s inevitably disappointed, in which case you should work on that. AF is also accurate, which is nice. It’s so fast that the J5 thinks it can get away with not taking a photo if it hasn’t locked focus in AF-S mode. I disagree, but apparently adding menu options is expensive in the imaginary world where the 1 system was a roaring success.

What exactly are your supposed to look at with these things?

What exactly are your supposed to look at with these things?

And the burstastic burst mode? It bursts, no doubt about it. You know that movie trope where a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing fires a machine gun and it jerks wildly in his hands and ends up stitching the ceiling with a dozen holes before he can get his finger off the trigger? That’s what the J5’s continuous drive feels like. You really can’t squeeze off less than three or four frames, and if you lean on it you’ll fill the buffer with nearly-identical shots in no time. I think it’s a neat thing to have and there are probably some use cases where it’s invaluable, but for me personally, the work involved in whittling down the extravaganza of files it kicks out is rarely worth the upside.

I guess I should also mention the J5’s best shot feature now, which purports to continually buffer 20 images and then picks the best recent one when you press the shutter. I’m sure you can think of a thousand reasons why this shouldn’t work, and in my limited messing around with it I haven’t found much that would refute you. My guess is that if you’re shooting a group it will try to pick a shot where everyone’s eyes are open, but I haven’t put that to the test. 

The rest of the camera is mostly normal, speed-wise. Average start-up, normally responsive. There is one strangely sluggish behavior: if you have image review on (that is, the screen automatically shows the photo you just took), there’s a lag between shooting and when the image flashes onto the screen. It’s way too long, but since I leave image review off anyway, this doesn’t bother me. (I’ve seen complaints about slow shot-to-shot times in reviews, but I think it’s really this pinch point that’s bothering people — the camera can take pictures about as fast as you can mash the button).   

Image Quantity

Let me address the fear many potential J5 buyers will have: is a 1-inch sensor big enough to capture the vast scope of my creative vision? Will this relatively paltry slab of silicon be able to grab enough photons to transmute my artistic will into eye-slashing files? Is it large enough to assuage long-standing doubts of self-worth? Everyone must answer that last one on their own, but on the first two counts you needn’t worry. 

The 20.1 BSI sensor in the J5 can slice bread and fart rainbows. Or not, but it certainly gets the job done.

The 20.1 BSI sensor in the J5 can slice bread and fart rainbows. Or not, but it certainly gets the job done.

The 20.1 backside-illuminated sensor is not appreciably noisier than a good Micro Four Thirds sensor of similar vintage. Its dynamic range has tested at over 12 stops, and I see nothing in practice to make me doubt it. It’s a fine little sensor.  If you want exhaustive image quality details, go back to some of the contemporary reviews (but don’t start at DPreview, which passed on the camera — maybe they smelled the stink of death on it). It’s my humble opinion that from around 2014 on, most sensors were pretty damn good. Sufficient, let’s say. Within any given format, “sensor quality” starts to take a backseat to other considerations for all but the most basement-bound measurebator. The J5’s sensor supports that world view. I have no problem with it at normal ISOs, and while detail suffers as you climb through four-digit ISO territory, I find that with the 18.5mm 1.8, you can take a technically satisfying picture under most any lighting condition in which you’re likely to find humans living their lives. I just leave ISO set to automatic and capped at 6400, and don’t much think about it. Noise is nicely fine-grained and even.

The more ineffable qualities of the image are fine for me too. Color is good. The automatic white balance is too cool in the shade for my taste, but this is the case with every digital camera I’ve ever used. I typically leave WB set to cloudy or shade when outside, and use auto when I’m under artificial lighting (it does a good enough job with that). 

There’s apparently no antialiasing filter, but I don’t notice a big difference, either on the upside (sharpness) or the down (moire). I’m a bit suspicious of the practice of nixing AA filters because it feels like gaming a benchmark, but whatevs.

Gripes

One gripe I have is that the J5 tends to underexpose when there are bright parts in a scene. Yes, this is better than overexposing, but it seems like a silly problem to have in this day and age. If there’s a bright window in the background, get read to spin up the exposure compensation. I notice this tendency in both matrix and center-weighted modes. The spot meter is kind of useless outside of manual mode since you can’t lock exposure and focus separately. 

On a related note, the Face Priority feature does a good job of finding peoples’ mugs and locking focus (without too many false alarms), but strangely, the camera doesn’t seem to bias exposure towards the faces. Got two faces smiling right into the lens with a bright window between them? Get ready for a nicely exposed picture of what’s outside, with some shadows flanking it.

Another thing. On paper the J5 has dual control wheels. Yay! But in practice it has one (1) very nice control wheel on the top plate, with a broad ridged surface and satisfying knob feel, and one (1) kind-of-crappy little dink-ass wheel on the back surrounding the OK button. One controls shutter speed, one controls aperture. Which one is assigned to aperture, making it one of the most important controls for an aperture priority shooter like myself? The wrong one. Can you swap them? No.

This problem is emblematic of the J5’s UI as whole, which feels a lot less flexible than I’m used to on an enthusiast-targeted camera. You have minimal control of what’s displayed on the screen in shooting mode, for example. There are two settings: the “high” setting buries the preview image in mostly irrelevant icons, while the “low” setting still eats up a lot of edge.

Let me digress for a second and get something off my chest. I think ALL digital cameras should offer the option of seeing a preview image with no information overlays. I find that I really have to think about including what’s under that transparency in the composition, especially when using a poorly visible screen in bright light. 

Other stuff you can’t do that I wish you could: go between zoomed-in images in review mode without zooming out. Toggle info levels without deep diving into the menu system. Repurpose the useless wireless button. Lock exposure without locking focus.

What About That Lens?

I like the Nikkor 18.5mm 1.8. It’s your basic moderately fast normal, kind of hard to screw up I suppose. It’s sharp from wide open. It only flares if you savagely provoke it, and even then veiling glare is pretty minimal. I haven’t noticed any vignetting. Focus is silent. As far as optics goes, you can basically ignore it.

You can get the Nikkor 18.5mm to flare if you’re a dick about it.

You can get the Nikkor 18.5mm to flare if you’re a dick about it.

But nothing cheap is perfect except for french fries. The lens has a marked potential for purple fringing, which can be pretty intense on high-contrast edges when wide open. I think the J5 tries to hide this in post, but occasionally some slips by. There’s presumably not a ton of ED glass in this low-cost, lightweight lens, which probably explains the less-than-total longitudinal chromatic aberration correction. And if I could shoot fancier lenses wide-open in full sun at 1/16,000 sec, they might get fringe-y too.

The other thing is bokeh. I’ve tried pretty hard not to become a connoisseur of bokeh because I mostly believe that any photograph that depends on the quality of out of focus areas for impact is probably artistically bankrupt. But I do use shallow depth of field in my family “documentary” photos to keep attention on the main subject, and then I find myself looking at the blurry bits, and it’s nice if they don’t stand out or look funky. Unfortunately, this lens’ bokeh tends to be pretty busy and jittery. It’s not hideous, but it’s far from great. Anyway, I can live with it.

Should I Buy a J5?

If you’ve wandered in here by mistake looking for a generally good compact system camera, then the answer is “NO.” If you aim to invest in a variety of lenses, nope. If you’re a normal person, basically, no.

But if you found this review at all it probably means you’re a bit of a weirdo, and if you’re weird in a very specific way, then you should seriously consider the J5 and its 18.5mm normal lens.

If you want just about the smallest, lightest camera with a larger-than-campact sensor and a fast normal lens that won’t break the bank, then the J5, a four-year-old camera from a failed system, merits a serious look. If you take a perverse pleasure in making contrarian consumer choices, all the better. Also consider the Panasonic GM5 and Olympus EP-M2, especially if you might want to expand your lens collection beyond that fast normal.

Besides the above-mentioned qualities these cameras all share one other thing: they’re positively geriatric in digital terms. I’m not a camera cougar. It’s just that mid-decade, camera makers decided that people wanted bigger, not smaller. If you want something that’s both small and capable, you are part of an underserved minority. The market has cut you off. The market is roiling with full-frame cameras, with 50mm f 1.4 lenses that weigh more than your head. Even Micro Four Thirds bodies have been bloating. They’re still the best option for most people who want an ILC system, but they’re bigger than they need to be. 

The camera market is no longer interested in most people, because most people aren’t interested in cameras. They have a phone that does that. (If you want a long-form mulling-over of where the camera market is going make sure to check out this post. And congratulations, you’re part of an even smaller underserved minority). The not-most people who have convinced themselves they need a real camera have shown a strange willingness to pay enormous premiums for enormous hardware. And camera makers don’t do what makes sense, photography-wise — they do what pumps up the margins in a shrinking market. 

So here we are, you and I. Small camera weirdos. Good luck. Let me know if you dig up something interesting that fits the bill.