Nikon 1 AW1 £699

28th Oct 2013 | 05:02

Nikon 1 AW1

Waterproof wonder

TechRadar rating:

4 stars

The AW1 performs well, produces acceptable shots in most conditions and has unparalleled go-anywhere abilities. It's certainly a fine choice for those who'll value it's toughness over the lack of manual controls and current lens-based compromises.

Like:

Waterproof and tough; Reliable exposure metering; Bright, high res monitor

Dislike:

Only two toughened lenses available; Rear controls fiddly; Essential settings hidden in menus

Introduction

Until now, if you wanted a digital camera that you could use underwater, your choice was to plump for one of the many ruggedized compact cameras on the market, or you could shell out for a DSLR underwater housing with a four-figure price tag.

Ratings in depthDesign - 4 out of 5Features - 4 out of 5Performance - 4 out of 5Usability - 3 out of 5Value - 3 out of 5

This makes the arrival of the Nikon 1 AW1 a pretty significant moment in the digital camera's history.

What we're looking at is the first compact system camera that's not only waterproof to 15m depths, but shock- and freeze-proof as well. With internals taken from the existing Nikon 1 J3, including its 14.2MP CX-format sensor, you get this ruggedness without the usual image quality compromises associated with a toughened compact snapper.

Nikon is actually an old hand at waterproof interchangeable lens cameras, with its long-running Nikonos series of 35mm film cameras famed for their underwater shooting capabilities at depths as low as 50m. Whilst the AW1 isn't in the same league as this, it's nevertheless a fresh and compelling camera for action photographers wanting toughness and image quality without sacrificing compactness.

Features

Headline specs for the AW1 are, of course, its ability to survive some rough and tumble. That 15m-deep waterproof rating will certainly make it a snorkeler's perfect partner, but it's the AW1's ability to bounce, rather than smash, when dropped from a height of two metres which is likely to appeal more often.

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These specs apply to the AW1 body and both of the current toughened AW-series lenses, which include a 10mm, f/2.8 prime (equivalent to 27mm), and the 11-27.5mm (30-74mm equivalent), f/3.5-5.6 kit zoom optic.

The AW1 still uses the Nikon 1 lens mount design, so is compatible with any current one-mount lens, although fitting non-ruggedized glass will make the camera body's toughness as good as useless.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Unfortunately, since neither the AW1 nor its companion toughened-lenses include Vibration Reduction, your only option for a handheld stabilised image is to fit a standard VR-equipped lens and tread carefully.

Aside from the lack of image stabilisation, the AW1 includes almost every other feature you could want when you're on the go. There's GPS and its Russian GLONASS equivalent to record image locations, as well as Nikon's Action Control system that'll let you tilt the camera to adjust settings so you won't have to fumble around trying to press buttons whilst wearing gloves.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

An altimeter and underwater depth gauge are also welcome inclusions for an action camera, as are the AW1's electronic compass and virtual horizon level. Disappointingly, there's no inbuilt Wi-Fi, but you can hook up Nikon's WU-1b Wi-Fi dongle to transfer or share images wirelessly.

Nikon's choice to base the AW1 on the tech inside the Nikon 1 J3 makes it fairly sleek for a system camera, especially when compacts given the toughness treatment often look like a Fisher Price toy camera on steroids.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

This family link also means the AW1 packs the same CX-format sensor boasting 14.2 million effective pixels and a sensitivity range of ISO 160-6400. That's certainly a welcome boost over the sensor size you'll find in a rugged compact camera, but the relatively small 1-inch size of the CX sensor format means the AW1 is still playing catch-up to larger APS-C or even Micro Four Thirds designs.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

On the plus side, the AW1 does share the same powerful Expeed 3A processing chip as the J3, hence it inherits raw capture and an impressive 60fps shooting mode (albeit limited to a 20-shot burst). If that's not long enough, then there's always Full HD 1080p video recording at 30fps with stereo sound.

Another benefit of sharing the J3's technology is that the AW1 also gets its impressive hybrid autofocus system. By utilising both phase-detect and contrast-detect AF, the AW1 promises rapid autofocussing in a wide range of shooting conditions.

Build and handling

A bulky, heavy camera is rarely a good thing, least of all when you're up on the ski slopes or mixing it with aquatic life forms.

Thankfully, the AW1's body is only marginally larger than the svelte dimensions of the J3, though at 357g equipped with a battery and memory card, the AW1 is around 50% heavier. This does at least give it a reassuring air of solidity, whilst the pronounced front finger-ridge and rubberised rear thumb-grip make the camera feel secure when shooting one-handed.

Controlling the AW1 is a bit of a mixed bag though. We've got no complaints with the large shutter release, power and video record buttons atop the camera, but many of the smaller rear-mounted controls are far less accessible.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Those immediately above and below the raised thumb grip are hardest to press, especially when wearing gloves. Luckily, the AW1's Action Control feature can help you adjust basic options by simply tilting the camera.

It's also a disappointment that the AW1 lacks a dedicated mode dial, especially given this is a camera targeted at enthusiastic photographers.

It does have aperture and shutter priority modes, plus full manual control, but you'll have to hunt through two menu levels to find them and once there you'll still have to grapple with the fiddly selection buttons to make any alterations. This isn't too much hassle on dry land, but when underwater there's just no substitute for traditional dials.

Some have criticised the J3 for omitting a touch-sensitive screen, and Nikon hasn't seen fit to add one to the AW1 either. However, that's not such a bad thing since touchscreens (at least of the capacitive variety) won't work underwater. Instead, the AW1's 3-inch LCD monitor nails the basics, with good screen brightness and a high 921k-dot resolution for accurate shot composition.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Nikon has gone to great lengths to keep water at bay, adding rubber seals between the front and rear body panels, inside the pop-up flash housing and behind all the buttons.

The flaps hiding the battery compartment and input ports are protected with more seals and are double-locked to prevent accidental opening when underwater.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Rubber gaskets also seal the joins between the lens casing and protective front glass element, as well as the edges of the zoom ring.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Finally, a large O-ring sits around the lens mount to prevent water seeping between the body and the lens.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

This can add considerable friction when mounting a lens, so Nikon offers silicone grease to reduce any long-term damage. Replacement O-rings are available separately should the original ever get damaged or perish.

Performance

Forget image quality and normal camera performance measures for a moment. The first thing that blows your mind when you encounter the AW1 is how an interchangeable lens camera can survive being dropped from head-height onto concrete. This certainly gets a few worried glances from onlookers, as does dunking the camera underwater without a bulky great housing around it.

Strangely, nobody on the digital camera team here was thrilled at the idea of diving in Britain's chilly coastal waters to test Nikon's 15m depth rating, but the AW1 sailed through more modest underwater excursions. It also survived plenty of gratuitous drops, though one did redesign the front edge of the lens casing with a small dent, whilst a couple of impacts caused the pop-up flash to eject itself.

When you've finished abusing it and are ready to shoot, the AW1 is up for action in around two seconds. The swift hybrid autofocus system maintains this nippy pace, locking on to well-lit subjects almost immediately. In lower light this slows fractionally, but is still impressively fast.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Exposure metering is another strong aspect of the AW1, accurately exposing in backlit and high-contrast scenarios, especially when the Backlighting mode is activated. In normal conditions Nikon's Active D-Lighting can increase dynamic range to varying degrees by holding back highlights and boosting shadow areas.

Image quality from the J3-derived sensor is decent enough, but the AW1's price hike over the J3 puts it up against rivals more accomplished in this area.

The camera's fortés are its accurate yet punchy colour reproduction and respectable JPEG dynamic range.

However, the relatively small CX-format sensor can't quite resolve the detail of larger, more pixel-packed designs and it also increases image noise levels across the sensitivity scale. Even at the base ISO160 setting some noise is visible in shadow areas of well-lit shots, though you do have to be an ardent pixel peeper to spot it.

By ISO800 there's more grain than you'd expect for a camera in this price bracket and, whilst both luminance and chroma noise are still under control at ISO3200, detail takes a noticeable turn for the worst. This would be less problematic if the AW1 had some form of image stabilisation, but without it ISO3200 is regularly required to keep handheld shots sharp without resorting to the flash.

Image quality and sensitivity

As part of our image quality testing for the Nikon 1 AW1, we've shot our resolution chart.

If you view our crops of the resolution chart's central section at 100% (or Actual Pixels) you will see that, for example, at ISO 160 the Nikon 1 AW1 is capable of resolving up to around 22 (line widths per picture height x100) in its highest quality JPEG files.

For a full explanation of what our resolution charts mean, and how to read them, check out our full explanation of our camera testing resolution charts.

Examining images of the chart taken at each sensitivity setting reveals the following resolution scores in line widths per picture height x100:

JPEG

Nikon 1 AW1

Full ISO 160 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 160. Score: 22. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 200. Score: 22. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 400. Score: 22. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 800. Score: 20. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 1600. Score: 18. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 3200. Score: 16. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 6400. Score: 14. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Raw

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 160. Score: 22. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 200. Score: 22. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 400. Score: 22. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 800. Score: 20. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 1600. Score: 18. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 3200. Score: 16. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 6400. Score: 16. Click here to see full-resolution image.

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

JPEG signal to noise ratio

Nikon 1 AW1 review

The Nikon 1 AW1 produces images with a similar level of noise to the Olympus OM-D E-M1, at least at the lower sensitivity settings, but it's beaten by the Sony NEX-6 and and Panasonic G6.

Raw signal to noise ratio

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Nikon's smaller sensor reveals its shortcomings for signal to noise ratio here as the raw files (after conversion to TIFF) are the noisiest of the group.

JPEG dynamic range

Nikon 1 aw1

The Dynamic range of the JPEG files is respectable, indicating that images have a good range of tones and pleasant contrast.

Raw dynamic range

Nikon 1 aw1 review

Dynamic range is quite limited in comparison with the cameras with a larger sensor, but it is still respectable in comparison with the average rugged compact camera.

Sample Images

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

The AW1 has captured the rich autumnal colours in this scene well and has also avoided smudging background detail.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Tricky lighting could have confused the exposure metering here, but the AW1 wasn't fazed and has produced a well-balanced image with good colour reproduction.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

A stop of negative exposure compensation helped preserve the highlights in the sky, though some shadow detail has inevitably been obscured.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

The matrix metering did well to avoid blowing the highlights in this shot and has helped retain decent midtone and shadow detail.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

The AW1's metering system again getting things bang on.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

This shot required the camera to be partially immersed underwater - no problem for the AW1.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

This shot required the camera to be partially immersed underwater - no problem for the AW1.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Keeping this low light shot crisp required ISO3200. Grain is well controlled and colour speckling isn't distracting either, but some detail has been lost through noise reduction.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Despite the dim lighting in this scene, the AW1's hybrid autofocus system had no trouble finding its mark.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

This is about as close as you can get to a subject with the AW1's kit lens. It's still enough to capture decent detail though.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

The 11-27.5mm kit lens produces images with good sharpness across the frame, though its focal length range isn't particularly impressive.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Shot at the maximum f/4 aperture for the corresponding focal length. It's produced a little background blur, but a larger sensor would have given a more creamy effect.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Nikon's Backlighting mode has coped very well to give a decent exposure here, especially since the camera was aimed directly at the sun.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

As with many current cameras, the AW1's Easy Panorama mode does a decent job of stitching the composite images, if only it didn't resize the final output to a mere 920 vertical pixels.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

The camera has kept a balanced exposure across the width of this panorama and has avoided any noticeable stitching artefacts or distortion.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Keep the sensor sensitivity low and the AW1 is capable of resolving a reasonable amount of detail, even in tricky lighting conditions like this.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Auto ISO chose ISO900 for this shot. Noise is well controlled, though it can be spotted if you zoom in past 50% image size.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

Click here to see full-resolution image.

Evidently Banksy just can't get enough of his smartphone apps.

Sensitivity and noise images

JPEG

Nikon 1 AW1

Full ISO 160 image, see the cropped (100%) versions below.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 160. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 200. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 400. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 800. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 1600. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 3200. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 6400. Click here for full-resolution image.

Raw

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 160. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 200. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 400. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 800. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 1600. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 3200. Click here for full-resolution image.

Nikon 1 AW1

ISO 6400. Click here for full-resolution image.

Verdict

We have to hand it to Nikon for introducing a toughened, yet attractive, waterproof system camera with plenty of features and decent performance.

Sure, other cameras will give you better image quality for the money, but some compromises have to be made to make this kind of versatility available at a relatively accessible price point.

Only the Olympus OM-D EM-1 manages to be splash-, dust- and freeze-proof, but it's still not fully waterproof or indeed as rugged as the AW1, plus it costs significantly more.

However, you can't ignore the competition from cheaper ruggedized compact cameras such as the Panasonic FT5 with its more versatile focal length range and respectable image quality.

The compactness of these cameras is invariably more appealing for action photography, as are common features like image stabilisation. The AW1's 30cm minimum focus distance is also no match for the super-close 1cm macro modes available on several toughened compacts. It's not as if the AW1 gives you any extra features or any more manual controls than Nikon's own AW110 waterproof compact either.

Of course you could solve any lens and stabilisation shortcomings by playing the AW1's interchangeable lens trump card, but then you'll compromise the camera's rugged abilities and in doing so lose the key benefit it has over the cheaper J3.

In the end the AW1's appeal hinges almost entirely on how much you'll use its toughness, and whether Nikon releases more toughened lenses with a greater focal length range and Vibration Reduction.

But as it stands the AW1 performs well, produces acceptable shots in most conditions and has unparalleled go-anywhere abilities. It's certainly a fine choice for those who'll value it's toughness over the lack of manual controls and current lens-based compromises.

Nikon 1 AW1 review

We liked

The AW1 is a fresh and unique entry into the digital camera market and impresses not only with its toughness, but also its shooting performance and improved image quality over a rugged compact camera.

The useful action-orientated features come in handy and the camera is even blessed with some good looks.

We disliked

A limited selection of toughened lenses is the camera's biggest drawback, as it limits focal length range and maximum aperture, and rules out any image stabilisation.

Ditching a mode dial and hiding essential settings away in menus are more minor niggles but they still irritate, as do some fiddly rear controls.

Final verdict

The AW1 will get you decent shots well off the beaten track. The limited selection of toughened lenses are its biggest drawback, so we're hoping Nikon will expand the range soon.

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