Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nikon Coolpix AW120 Review

For many people, summer means sand surf, the beach and lots of water. There are a few waterproof/shock resistant cameras available on the market for those occasions, the AW110 being possibly the best received of the previous generation. Nikon's AW series has been successful enough to bifurcate the branding into two lines: the AW120 and the more upscale Nikon 1 AW1. The AW120 improves upon the the AW110 with a few key features:

  • Same 16mp 1/2.3" BSI sensor
  • Lens is 24-120mm equiv (28-140mm for the AW110)
  • Maximum aperture is now f/2.8-4.9 (previously f/3.9-4.8)
  • Higher resolution OLED EVF
  • Improved battery life

The AW110 wasn't a camera that you expected much of in terms of image quality, but for most people that wasn't the point.  Does the AW120, then, raise photographic expectations?

Body and Design

The overall chassis and control layout remains similar to the AW110; however, the camera body is now slightly thicker than before. The durability rating is the same: waterproof to 18 meters, shockproof from a drop of 2 meters, and  freezeproof to -10C. For reference, the 18m waterproof rating is based on a static camera submerged in water for 1 hour. For all intents and purposes, this is a great surf/snorkeling camera, but not one that is rugged enough for scuba excursions. Pictured at left is the lock for the battery/memory card chamber. Before use in the water, it is imperative to check that the seals are completely clean and free of grit or sand before locking the chamber. As a means of best practice, it is advisable to set the camera up ahead of time in controlled circumstances before taking it out into the field. The consequences aren't always catastrophic, as it is possible to end up with a functioning camera with a case of internal condensation.

The AW120 uses the Nikon EN-EL12 battery, which is commonly used in other Nikon compact cameras like the Coolpix P340, S9700 and the previous AW110. GPS and Wi-Fi connectivity remain as before. The Don't expect miracles with Nikon's WiFi app, but at the very least it lets you use your phone as a remote trigger and lets you copy pictures from the camera into your phone. That's not all: there is also a depth gauge that displays ambient pressure information, which also can be logged into the EXIF data.

The AW120 will support SDXC memory cards, meaning that it will accept SD cards larger than 32GB.

Unfortunately, for a camera that is meant to be operated underwater, the buttons and controls are rather small; otherwise the size of the controls would be adequate for dry land use. The menu layout is clean and has a large-ish text read-out that is easy to read.

Image Quality

The entire lens mechanism sits behind  a flush window. There isn't any moving part to zoom in and out. This isn't a lens that you will want to use in aperture priority mode, as the aperture control is not precise owing to the limited space of the lens housing. The flash unit sits to the right of the lens housing. The flash on the AW110 was not particularly strong, and was rated to a maximum distance of 5.2-4.2 meters (wide-telephoto) at auto ISO. The AW120 is a slight improvement: telephoto range is now 4.5m.

This is an out of camera JPEG with the lens at it's widest position. There's a fair bit of electronic correction being applied, as the lines are undistorted and vignetting is not visibly intrusive. Note that images of the mall courtyard are not comparable to samples from other cameras on this blog, as the skylight in the courtyard makes for variable lighting conditions. Overall, the image is well exposed but the white-balance isn't quite there. The overall colour-cast is a bit on the warm side.

Here is a sample of the lens at its longest position, which is the equivalent of 120mm on full frame, or 5 times zoom in marketing speak. Though this isn't perfect output, the AW120 produces images that would be considered stellar by advanced compact camera standards from just a few years ago. Such is the march of technology.

All is not well if you look too closely, which the AW120 can do, as it close-focuses to 1cm. This is the corner of a Canadian $20 bill. You can see the blurring and drop off in contrast at the corners; the center remains sharp. This amount of image degradation won't show up in typical shooting distances.

Though it is only a 1/2.3" sized sensor, the AW120 uses back-side illumination to make the most of its 16mp. Here is the ad hoc test of the camera's JPEG image quality through the ISO range. Look for noise in the colour patches, edge retention, and the harshness of the reflections and highlights as the dynamic range drops at higher ISO's.

ISO 125
ISO 200
ISO 400
ISO 800
ISO 1600
ISO 3200
ISO 6400
ISO 400 is still the last setting to use for carefree shooting; this doesn't seem to change for the sub 1/1.7" sensors. Though ISO is smooth looking, the amount of smearing from noise reduction is visible and unavoidable. IS0 1600 would be for dire emergencies; anything higher would be problematic to salvage photos for anything other than web-viewing at small sizes.

Concluding Thoughts

Left: Canon D30        Right: Nikon AW120

Though the AW110 was the deep-diving champion of its year, the most submersible camera of 2014 is now the Canon D30, at a rating of 24 meters. The control layout of the Canon is a bit more conventional than the Nikon, but some people will find the relationship between the thumb-rest and buttons to be somewhat awkward. In terms of underwater usage, both cameras will do the trick for vacationing: durability specs aren't as important as they seem as the greatest consideration of a functioning underwater camera is that the user operates it as intended.

The Nikon AW120 takes up where the AW100 left off. In many areas, the camera is just a little bit better than its predecessor. All of those improvements make for a camera that isn't just an underwater novelty, but one that could be used as a primary camera in dry situations. There's no escaping the fact that this is small-sensor compact, but it's a camera that you can literally take with you almost everywhere. And yes, the bright orange casing is useful: accidentally drop your camera while snorkeling and you'll understand why immediately.

With thanks to Broadway Camera