Back in the film days the Nikonos, Nikon’s interchangeable lens camera system, was synonymous with underwater photography and was used extensively by both amateurs and professionals. Unfortunately the Nikonos system stopped being produced around 2001 and since then photographers had to either buy housings for their digital cameras or use compact point-and-shoot cameras if they wanted to photograph underwater. However, Nikon is now back in the underwater photography game with the development of the Nikon 1 AW1 waterproof and shockproof interchangeable lens digital camera and two new waterproof and shockproof lenses. One big difference between the old Nikonos system and the new Nikon 1 AW1 is that the AW1 is designed for photographers who snorkel, swim or spend time in or around water or wet environments, like canoeists, kayakers, fisherman, etc., rather than serious scuba divers.
The Nikon 1 AW1 features a 14.2 MP one-inch CX-format CMOS sensor (2.7X crop factor) and Nikon’s EXPEED 3a image processor and is essentially a larger, more rugged version of the Nikon 1 J3 camera; their specifications, with a few exceptions, are identical. One of the big differences between the two cameras is that the AW1 has additional waterproof seals and gaskets, including the special lens mount, to keep the water out of the camera and lenses. Nikon states that the Nikon 1 AW1 is waterproof down to a depth of 14.9 m, shockproof, being able to withstand drops up to two metres, and freezeproof down to -10°C. I’m not sure what they mean by freezeproof. Since living in Canada I’ve used many different digital cameras — from compact point-and-shot to professional DSLRs — in the winter in temperatures that have been -30°C or lower and had no problems other than shorter battery life. Although I didn’t do much underwater testing with the AW1, I found that it performed very well and showed no issues with the rough conditions that I exposed it to while reviewing.
Another difference between the AW1 and J3 is that some of the external controls are different; the most notable being that the AW1 doesn’t have a mode dial on the top of the camera, so almost all controls must be done via the AW1’s menus. On the back of the AW1 is the Action Control button, which the J3 doesn’t have, that allows users to adjust certain camera functions simply by swinging the camera in the air or underwater so that the photographer doesn’t have to go into the menus. It’s an interesting function, but I really didn’t find it that useful.
The AW1 has a 135-focus point hybrid auto-focus system (phase detection/contrast-detect AF) that gives fast and accurate results on both stationary and moving subjects. Combined with an electronic shutter that’s capable of frame rates up to 15 frames-per-second (fps) with continuous AF and up to 60 fps when the focus is locked, it’s pretty impressive and should allow you to capture just about any action that you encounter.
A key feature that serious amateur and professional photographers look for in a camera is its ability to capture images in RAW format, which allows them to get the highest image quality possible. The AW1 doesn’t disappoint as it can capture JPEG, NEF (RAW-12 bit compressed) and NEF+JPEG images. The quality of the default JPEG files was very good and with some fine tuning made even better. Noise starts to become noticeable at ISO 800, but is still acceptable up to ISO 1600.
The AW1 can record HD videos in a number of formats and frame rates up to a maximum of 1920×1080/60i, and it has a number of other video-related features. Video image quality is excellent; I was really impressed.
The Nikon 1 AW1 has a bright and clear 7.5 cm (3”) LCD monitor with a 921k-dot resolution, which is important since it doesn’t have a viewfinder, nor can one be added on. It also doesn’t have a hotshoe, but it does have a built-in pop-up flash (GN 5 m @ ISO 100) and it’s waterproof so it can be used underwater. There are lots of other features contained within the AW1; a few that are of particular interest to outdoor photographers are its built-in GPS, an altimeter, a depth gauge, an electronic compass and a virtual horizon indicator.
The Nikon 1 AW1 was released with two NIKKOR AW lenses, the 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5 f/3.5-5.6 lens (30-74mm equivalent) and the AW 10mm f/2.8 (27mm equivalent). Both of these lenses are waterproof, shockproof and freezeproof and are designed to mount on only the AW1 and can’t be used on any other of the Nikon 1 camera bodies. However, all the other Nikon 1 lenses can be used on the AW1, albeit not underwater. Current Nikon DSLR owners will be happy to know that by adding the FT-1 F-mount Adapter ($269.95) they can use their Nikon F-mount lenses with the AW1 with only a few limitations on functionality. Using the FT-1 with a 70-300mm DSLR lens means it now becomes a 189-810mm lens on the AW1.
I only had the opportunity to use the AW 11-27.5 f/3.5-5.6 lens with the AW1 and was quite impressed with its image quality. It’s sharp in the centre, falling off a little towards the edges, but still relatively good, and there was a little barrel distortion at 11mm but that quickly disappeared. Neither the AW1 or the two AW lenses have built-in vibration reduction, which is unfortunate, but some of the other Nikon 1 lenses have VR built-in that will work with the AW1. I was a little disappointed that the AW 11-27.5 f/3.5-5.6 lens can’t focus very close, only to 0.3 m.
I did most of my shooting with the Nikon 1 AW1 camera and the 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5 f/3.5-5.6 lens in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest with hot temperatures (35+°C), high humidity (80-100% R.H.), torrential downpours, mud and other conditions that challenge most digital cameras. I also went to the high Andes of Ecuador, where the conditions were just about the total opposite; cool temperatures (8-12°C), low humidity and high winds with lots of blowing sand. I used this combination for all of my non-wildlife and non-macro images over the course of 16 days and it worked flawlessly. I was overall very happy with the results; both still images and videos that I took were very good, although in low light conditions where I had to go above ISO 800 were a little weaker than I would have liked. Since I could shoot in RAW format, I was able to get the most out of my image files. Despite some of its limitations the Nikon 1 AW1 is a wonderful camera and perfect for active outdoor photographers who do a lot of shooting around and in the water. The high image quality, its numerous features and versatility definitely make it superior to using one of the several different rugged, waterproof, compact point-and-shoot cameras that are currently available.
The Nikon 1 AW1 is available as a one-lens kit with the 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5 f/3.5-5.6 lens for $849.95 and comes in three colours (black, silver and white). The 1 NIKKOR AW 10 f/2.8 lens is available separately for $329.95.
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