For all of you who are fans of the Nikon 1 camera system, or are considering it, there is good news afoot. It looks like Nikon has finally addressed the performance of the CX sensor used in this family of cameras.
With the sale of Aptina it has been rumoured for a little while now that any new Nikon 1 models would likely have a Sony CX sensor in them. Sony sensors have been rated quite a bit better than Aptina sensors so this was something I had been hoping would happen.
Well, the DxOMark test scores are in for the new Nikon 1 J5 and it finally looks like we’ll see some noticeable improvement with the CX sensors in the Nikon 1 family of cameras. And, this should impact image quality very positively!
The overall DxO score has jumped up to 65 which puts it in the range of many M4/3 cameras and it is a significant improvement from the low to mid-50’s score that Nikon 1 cameras have managed in the past. It will also put the Nikon 1 J5 in the range of some entry level Canon DSLR’s like the EOS 1200D.
The most significant improvements with the CX sensor in the Nikon 1 J5 are with dynamic range and colour depth.
In simple terms, dynamic range is the ability of a sensor to capture a range of contrasts, from bright highlights to dark shadows. Dynamic range is measured in EV with a difference of 0.5 EV usually needed to be noticeable for most people. DxO considers a score of 12 EV to be excellent.
Many full frame cameras have fantastic dynamic range. For example the D810 is rated at 14.8 EV. Other full frame cameras, notably Canon, do not fair nearly as well with dynamic range. For example, the Canon 5D Mark III only scores 11.7 EV. This becomes very noticeable when working with RAW files when trying to retrieve both highlight and shadow detail.
My Nikon 1 V2’s dynamic range is rated at 10.8 EV which is why it was quite easy to clip highlights when shooting landscapes, and care had to be taken to get the best exposure possible. I often purposely underexposed high contrast landscape images in order to hold on to highlight details. The new Nikon 1 J5 is rated at 12 EV. This will mean a significant improvement with landscape photography.
To get the most benefit from this improvement you’ll need to shoot at base ISO as the dynamic range drops off quickly at higher ISOs. This is the case with all cameras of course. The gap in dynamic range performance with older Nikon 1 models becomes less pronounced after ISO-400 but should still be noticeable as there is a difference above 0.5 EV+ throughout the ISO range.
Colour depth is another area where the new BSI CX sensor in the Nikon 1 J5 shows significant improvement. Think of colour depth as the ability of a sensor to capture a range of colours and to discern subtle differences between colour shades. Camera sensors with high colour depth scores will do a much better job with colour rendition than will sensors with lower scores. This is often very important for portrait photography where capturing subtle differences in skin shading can be critical.
Colour depth is measured in ‘bits’ with DxO considering 22 bits and higher as excellent. A difference of 1.0 bits is needed to be noticeable for most people.
The sensor in my Nikon 1 V2 is rated at 20.2 bits. This meant that I often needed to do some additional work with RAW files to try and boost some colour details as best I could. The sensor in the J5 is rated at 22.1 bits. Again, this is a significant improvement which should impact image quality very positively. As with dynamic range, to get the most benefit it will be important to shoot at base ISO, although the J5 does maintain a minimum 1.0 bit+ advantage over older Nikon 1 models throughout the ISO range which is impressive.
Low light performance has not improved much with the J5 rated at ISO-479 compared to my V2’s rating of ISO-403. Low light performance wasn’t my biggest concern in terms of Nikon 1 image quality as the PRIME noise reduction function in OpticsPro 10 does a great job dealing with noise.
I have been shooting my Nikon 1 V2’s at ISO-3200 without any hesitation. A minor improvement with the low light performance of the new BSI sensor is welcome… but I am much more excited about the improvements with colour depth and dynamic range.
I did some comparisons on another key test measurement done by DxO, this being with measured ISO. My Nikon 1 V2’s have almost identical measured ISO when compared to my Nikon D800. This means when shooting with full manual settings (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO) that I could set both types of cameras identically and not have to worry about making exposure corrections in post when shooting video.
There is about a 2/5 of a stop difference between the V2 and V3, with the V3 being noticeably darker at identical manual settings which would be problematic for my video work.
So, how does the sensor in the J5 compare? It is very similar to the performance of the sensor in the V3. Here are some comparison numbers for you. The first is the manufacturer’s stated ISO, then the measured ISO with the new J5, then the measured ISO of the V2. You’ll see close to a 2/5 of a stop difference between the sensors.
ISO-160: 92, 122
ISO-200: 116, 153
ISO-400: 231, 304
ISO-800: 459, 619
ISO-1600: 929, 1236
ISO-3200: 1853, 2416
ISO-6400: 3777, 4973
For most folks this difference will be a non-issue since they seldom, if ever, need to match up exposures between different cameras.
The new sensor in the Nikon 1 J5 will likely find its way into a future V4 which many folks who want to shoot with an EVF equipped camera will see as an important improvement. It remains to be seen whether Nikon will address the rather strange design decisions it made with the V3 in terms of a detachable EVF and grip. If they do, the V4 will likely get a lot more market acceptance than previous V-series models. Since the J5 still uses micro-SD cards I think the V4 will also use this format.
The new BSI CX sensor in the Nikon 1 J5 removes one of the biggest knocks against the Nikon 1 product line as future Nikon 1 cameras will now be able to better compete against M4/3 cameras and some entry level DSLR’s from Canon in terms of image quality. There are also some interesting potential Nikon 1 lenses in the pipeline based on patents filed by Nikon. For example, a 9-30 mm f/1.8-2.8 VR zoom, and a 10-600 mm f/3.5-6.7 VR zoom.
Nikon certainly stumbled out of the gate with the Nikon 1 line when it was first launched and the company has been a bit like a drunken sailor trying to find their way with subsequent model releases. At this point the future of the Nikon 1 product line looks quite promising indeed.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the Nikon 1 system, you may want to have a look at our eBook, The Little Camera That Could. It illustrates the capability of the Nikon 1 system through hundreds of original photographs. There is also commentary and tips about the Nikon 1 system.
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