Monday, December 2, 2013

Nikon 1 AW1 Review

When considering a vacation camera, the first choice for the shooter is to decide between quality or portability, with many people concluding that a DSLR is too heavy to bring on a family vacation. However, when it comes to durability and ruggedness, there isn't much choice at all. Almost all of the waterproof cameras on the market are small point-and-shoots like the Pentax WG-3, Canon D20 or the Nikon AW110. For better image quality, there aren't a lot (if any) choices, except to use a specialized underwater case with a DSLR. The Nikon 1 AW1 comfortably bridges that gap, being a completely submersible camera that is also somewhat drop proof as well. It has two compatible waterproof lenses, an 11-17mm f/3.5-5.6 standard zoom and a 10mm f/2.8 prime. The camera itself will also take standard Nikon 1 lenses, with the provisio that the camera would no longer be waterproof. The headline specs are:

  • 14.2mp sensor
  • 15 fps burst rate
  • Waterproof to 15m for up to 60min
  • Can operate in temperatures to ‐10°C 
  • Can be dropped from a height of 2m

Needless to say, there are a lot of caveats surrounding how much abuse this camera can take. Nikon does not guarantee that the camera will be completely damage-proof if you do take it into these conditions. Complete details regarding the durability of the camera can be found on Nikon USA's website.

Body and Design

The thing of note about the water-worthiness of this camera: it's a sinker, not a floater. The camera and kit lens are made of rather sturdy metal. The weight of the complete kit is in-fact, similar to the larger Fujifilm X-E2 with kit lens. Size-wise, the body is similar to the Sony NEX cameras, with the bulk of the weight going into the long-ish waterproof lens. It's not big by mirrorless cameras standards, it's just that it's on the large size for a Nikon 1 camera. However, like all of the Nikon 1 cameras, the built quality and fit and finish are quite well done; for all of the knocks that the 1 system has taken, this is probably one of the most under appreciated things about these cameras.

As mentioned, the kit lens on the longish side, being fulling sealer and submersible. There's a wide zoom ring to hold on to, but rather than being rubber, it's a mesh-cut metal surface. Even though the camera system is metal, it is designed for saltwater use just the same as freshwater. Hanauma Bay, here we come!

As with all Nikon 1 cameras, the controls are on the simple side. In the AW1's case, it's even simpler as the P/A/S/M modes have to be adjusted within the menu system. This isn't a huge loss, as its unlikely that the user would be fiddling with camera adjustments with an action oriented camera like this. Overall, the button layout and controls are clearly laid out and within easy reach.

Removing the lens a bit more force than what an interchangeable-lens user would be used to. Because the lens mount is sealed by a rubber gasket, air is forced out of the camera when a lens is mounted, creating a partial vacuum. Removing the lens requires steady and constant pressure. Nikon says that the lens mount was designed this way to reduce the chance of the lens being accidentally removed while the camera is underwater.

Despite it's conventional-looking flash housing, the flash unit can be deployed while the camera is underwater. Flash power is merely average at 5 meters at ISO 100, but there is word that Nikon is working on an underwater speedlight. How it will work with the AW1 remains to be seen, as the camera does not have a hotshoe.

All of the compartments have gaskets and locks to seal the camera and prevent accidental opening. The camera uses the same EN-EL20 battery as other Nikon 1 cameras, and is rated to 220 shots.

Image Quality

As with the Sony RX100 II and the RX10, the 1" sensor in the AW1 is closer to being a very good compact camera sensor than it is to being a m4/3 competitor. The results are competent, even excellent in good light, but you are inevitably giving up some quality in terms of image noise, dynamic range and diffraction effects compared to a camera using a larger sensor. Here is what the upper end of the AW1's ISO range looks like (Click to view at 100%):

ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400

As with the Sony cameras, ISO 800 is the limit before noise suppression starts becoming objectionable with the smearing of fine detail. However, the camera is capable of producing a sharper image than this; these are shot at f/8, and on a camera of this sort, peak image resolution would be around f/4 to f/5.6. Do note that when used underwater, higher ISO's will become an necessity.

In terms of overall operation, though, the AW1 is like other Nikon 1 cameras in that the autofocus is quick and precise, thanks to the on-sensor phase detection elements. However, the lens is not VR stabilized, meaning that the safe hand-holding shutter speed is not as user-friendly as it is with the other cameras in this family.


Alas, there is one aspect to this camera that can't be tested, but which should be, and that is its underwater capability. There is a limit to the hospitality of our good hosts.... taking the camera for a dip was completely out of the question. However, I did have a chance to use a test unit at a launch event, and that camera had been dunked in a pitcher of water for a good portion of the night before we got to play with it. For good measure it had also been tossed onto a table a few times as well, and without caveats, the camera operated as it should have.

Overall, the Nikon the Nikon AW1 is a well thought out high quality camera. It's not necessarily the highest quality camera in terms of picture quality, but for its intended purpose, the designers have created a premium feeling waterproof camera that doesn't look like a waterproof camera. The quality and feel of the metal body is right in keeping with the best of the other mirrorless cameras on the market. However, the price does give pause for thought. The camera with kit lens is $850 CDN at launch, which is more than what APS-C mirrorless sensor cameras are going for. This price point (so far) seems to be turning away the casual vacation shooters who would be more comfortable spending money on the smaller AW110, but the sort of consumer who has looked at the AW1 seems to be of a different mentality.

When you mention "waterproof", people think of the beach, sand, tourists.... they think "disposable." Hence, the gravitation towards the lower end of the price spectrum... since the camera is going into a tough environment, there is an expectation that it should be inexpensive in case it doesn't survive. The AW1 isn't giving the consumer that... it's offering better image quality with the expectation that you would use it just as you would with your main camera. To that end, it would be quite the camera for a snorkelling trip in the tropics. The price is still a problem, especially when you consider that its Nikon 1 siblings are selling at half the cost. However, it comes back to that most unique of selling propositions: there isn't anything else on the market that's like it.

With thanks to Broadway Camera.

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