Don't expect a lightweight camera when you pick up the AW1. It means business — waterproof business.
That's right — this is the first totally waterproof and shockproof interchangeable lens camera (ILC). Take it down to 15 metres beneath the sea or drop it from 2 metres, and it will be just fine. Snow bunnies will welcome the camera's freeze-proof nature that can withstand temperatures down to -10 degrees Celsius. You sure can't say that about most of the delicate ILC bundles on the market.
Just remember, even though this camera is pretty resistant to the elements, you can't change lenses underwater and should avoid getting anything lodged on the sensor — it's not that hardy.
Design and features
In the hand, the AW1 feels incredibly rugged. The chunky, rectangular body features a small grip at the front to avoid it slipping out of the hand, while a textured, smooth-moving zoom ring on the 11-27.5mm lens adds to the industrial feel. This lens comes in a kit configuration with the camera and is completely waterproof and shockproof like the body. There is only one other waterproof lens available at the time of writing, a 10mm f/2.8. Naturally, the camera is also backwards compatible with all other Nikon 1 lenses that have come before, though they won't survive a plunge underwater like the camera body will.
Buttons require a firm press to register commands, which adds to the sturdy feel. The 11-27.5mm lens has a rubberised front that still allows you to attach filters to the front of the lens. It has a nice finish that makes it soft to the touch as well.
Shooting controls are geared towards those who prefer automatic mode. Like the earlier Nikon 1 cameras, such as the J1 and V1, it is very difficult to find the manual controls on the AW1. This is because there is no physical mode dial. Instead, to access the controls they are hidden inside the creative effects menu.
Other modes that the AW1 is supplied with include Best Moment Capture and Motion Snapshot that puts music underneath a short video when the shutter button is pressed.
For action adventurers who find controlling a camera difficult while wearing ski gloves, Nikon has introduced a feature called Action Control. Press the dedicated button, and then tilt or swing the camera from side to side to change the shooting options.
The AW1 doesn't get the benefit of built-in Wi-Fi, that's via an optional adapter, but it does have a built-in GPS, altimeter and barometer.
The 14-megapixel CMOS sensor shares the same size and format as earlier Nikon 1 cameras. Nikon calls it their CX format, and it is smaller than the DX (APS-C) and FX (full-frame) models in its range. For comparison purposes, the AW1's sensor is 1 inch: one of the smallest sensors found on an ILC and is on par with some high-end compacts, like the Sony RX100 II.
Around the back, the 3-inch screen is relatively high resolution at 921,000 dots. It's covered by a thick plastic shield to protect it from water and drops, although this barrier makes it difficult to see what the screen is showing you in direct sunlight. Unfortunately, there is no provision to attach an electronic viewfinder to the AW1.
The pop-up flash is also waterproof and can be fired underwater for extra illumination. Nikon also has a dedicated underwater Speedlight specifically designed for the AW1. To top things off, the AW1 has a maximum shutter speed of 1/16,000 second.
General shooting metrics (in seconds)
- Start-up to first shot
- JPEG shot-to-shot time
- RAW shot-to-shot time
- Shutter lag
Olympus Pen Lite E-PL5
Panasonic Lumix GM1
Nikon 1 V2
Nikon 1 AW1
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Continuous shooting speed (in frames per second)
Nikon 1 AW1
Nikon 1 V2
Olympus Pen Lite E-PL5
Panasonic Lumix GM1
Canon EOS M
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
The Nikon 1 range has always delivered some of the best performing ILCs on the market, with the AW1 being no exception to this rule. The camera can deliver 15 frames per second in continuous shooting mode — that is with continuous AF and tracking active. It is also able to shoot at 30 or 60fps with focus locked on the first frame, up to a maximum of 22 or 20 shots in one burst, respectively.
With a 73-point AF array, the AW1 is quick and accurate with its autofocus capabilities, hardly missing a beat. Nikon rates the battery at 220 shots.
The AW1 managed to withstand all the drops and blows we could throw at it — or should that be, throw it at. There were no major issues to report at all in the durability stakes, except that if you drop the camera while switched on, you may need to restart the camera to recalibrate the autofocus.
All the buttons are usable underwater thanks to their chunky, sturdy consistency. The screen is easy to see underwater, which is a pleasant surprise given that it is difficult to see in direct sunlight.
We tested the AW1 in conjunction with the 11-27.5mm lens, so all comments about image quality are specific to this configuration.
Colour rendition on default settings when shooting JPEG is conservative. Reds and oranges in particular appear a bit more muted than they do in reality. The lens displays a slight degree of chromatic aberration, though not overly pronounced.
The lens is quite sharp, especially considering the performance of some of the earlier Nikon 1 lenses. There is a fair amount of barrel distortion at the widest end, most noticeable when photographing architecture or objects with straight lines. White balance is accurate under artificial lighting conditions and a touch cool in outdoor situations.
Despite the small sensor, the AW1 can produce some decent-looking bokeh with the kit lens.
In terms of noise, the AW1 does a decent job of keeping it under control until ISO 800, where speckles start to become visible on images at 100 per cent magnification.
Underwater, the AW1 delivers good results, though you may find that you need the extra illumination of the flash in order to get a more usable photo because of the lack of image stabilisation. An optional, separate underwater flash unit will be available from March 2014.
Video quality is fine, although the AW1 has a tendency to blow out highlights in areas where there are strong differences between light and dark. The lack of image stabilisation in either the body or the lens makes taking a steady video rather difficult, so you may want to limit video recording to situations where you can have a steady hand or tripod to use. Audio quality is decent but not stellar quality. Fortunately, there are a few manually selectable audio levels to choose from, as well as a wind-cut feature. The AW1 can record in 1080/60i/30p, 720/60p/30p, 240/400p or 120/1200p. Yes, that's right — 1200 frames per second. However, you can only record footage up to three seconds in length with the 400 or 1200fps mode.
Exposure: 1/125, f/3.8, ISO 500
Exposure: 1/800, f/5.6, ISO 160
Exposure: 1/800, f/5, ISO 160
Exposure: 1/200, f/5.6, ISO 200
In its primary capacity as an underwater camera, the AW1 performs very well. Does it deliver the best photos from an ILC? No. But it is the only rugged model that will withstand whatever you can throw at it and give you the flexibility of changing between lenses. As a feat of pure engineering, the AW1 is a marvel.