Cameras Act Like a Pro, but Are as Easy as Pie

Digital cameras are a pain in the neck — literally.

Every time I lug around my camera, which tips the scale at three pounds with its zoom lens, I feel as if I am swinging a fragile barbell on a strap around my neck.

For years, hobbyist digital photographers had two options: heavy SLR cameras that can capture creative effects, and pocket-sized point-and-shoots that take pedestrian photos. Now, camera makers are exploring a genre of cameras that seeks a happy medium between size and capability. Necks can relax now.

Nikon and Sony recently have introduced new models in this emerging category: the Nikon J1 and Sony NEX-5N. The devices offer many of the features of much larger cameras in a form that might slip into a purse or cargo pants pocket. Sony and Nikon make a range of small detachable lenses for these cameras so users can switch between zoom and wider-angle shots, just like those on full-sized SLR cameras. Even with the biggest lenses attached, they weigh only slightly more than a pound.

Coming in at about $700 each for packages that include a lens, these marvels of miniaturization cost $100 more than an entry-level digital SLR kit. But after testing them, I liked the Sony NEX-5N enough to contemplate making it my new walk-about camera. The Nikon J1 took some great photos, but offered less creative control.

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An apple pie as seen in a photo taken by the Nikon J1.
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The same pie as seen in a photo taken by the Sony NEX-5N, which has a simple way to make only the pie appear in focus, for example.

Both cameras dispense with the internal mirror and the old-fashioned viewfinder that SLRs use. Instead, they show you what you’re photographing via large LCD screens. (Sony sells a $350 viewfinder add-on if you like to squint.)

One reason these cameras take better photos than point-and-shoots is that they have much larger sensors, which record more light. Nikon created a whole new kind of midrange sensor for its new “1″ line, which are similar to what other camera makers call “micro four-thirds.” Sony managed to stuff a midsize SLR sensor into the small NEX-5N.

The image quality of both cameras was excellent. Though the Sony’s photos had a higher resolution, the Nikon’s had slightly richer tones. Both can take stunning, Blu-ray-quality video.

Larger sensors allow the cameras to tap the creative capabilities of lenses. They can take photos in low light without a flash or let users select which elements are in sharp focus and which are blurry (known as “depth of field”).

The differences between the two are in the controls. The Sony NEX-5N comes with a large touch screen to access settings and controls, including a main screen to select the focus point of the image. The intuitive interface offers a simple way to manipulate the depth of field — without having to know the science of aperture (involving the amount of light that reaches a sensor) and shutter speed, which is required on most digital SLRs.

I took a photo of an apple pie in sharp focus with the background blurry by moving a slider on the touch screen to “background defocus” and then clicking on the part of the pie I wanted in focus.

The Nikon J1 doesn’t have a touch screen, requiring users to control the camera through a series of hard buttons. Adjusting depth of field requires the user to understand aperture, and even if you do, the settings to adjust the specific focus point are buried inside several menus, and aren’t turned on by default.

Nikon’s philosophy is that users stepping up from a point-and-shoot would prefer to trust its software. One feature is called “smart photo selector,” which takes advantage of the camera’s ultra-fast focus and shutter speed to take a series of photos and then selects what it thinks are the best shot and four possible best-shot candidates, based on composition, facial recognition and motion. This feature is appealing if you don’t want to think about your photo settings, but want to know what other options might have looked like.

The Sony NEX-5N has a set-it-and-forget-it, “intelligent auto” shooting mode, and also a host of features that solve common photo frustrations. An “anti-motion blur” option keeps dinner-party photos from looking fuzzy or being filled with film noise by quickly taking six photos and merging them into one better photo.

Another mode merges several shots into what’s known as an HDR (high-dynamic range) photo that can merge the most interesting bits from the foreground and background when they are of different brightness levels. The NEX-5N even has a simple panorama option that automates taking very wide shots both for print and in 3-D (for compatible TVs).

The Nikon J1′s most interesting artistic option creates a “motion snapshot,” which blends a still image and about one second of movie footage into a slow-motion video accompanied by music. It is cute, but not useful enough to make the J1 a top choice.

Neither camera came with two features that should now be standard in such expensive gadgets: automatic tagging the GPS location where photos are taken, and the ability to wirelessly upload images.

While the Nikon J1, which features a clean retro-style design, won the most oohs and ahhs from friends, the Sony NEX-5N, whose larger sensor requires slightly larger and clunkier lenses, made it easier to figure out how to make photos more interesting.

Walt Mossberg and Mossberg’s Mailbox will return next week. Write to Geoffrey Fowler at geoffrey.fowler@wsj.com.


Quick Snapshot
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Nikon J1

Nikon J1

• Price: $650, including10-30 mm lens

• Sensor: 13.2 mm x 8.8 mm

• Resolution: 10.1 megapixels

• Flash: Built-in

• Weight: 9.8 oz


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Sony NEX-5N

Sony NEX-5N

• Price: $700, including18-55 mm lens

• Sensor: 23.5 mm x 15.6 mm

• Resolution: 16.1 megapixels

• Flash: Add-on comes with camera

• Weight: 9.5 oz


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