Nikon 1 AW1 review

The Nikon 1 AW1 is the first interchangeable lens camera that you can take deep underwater, but it's best left in automatic mode.
Photo of Nikon 1 AW1

The Nikon 1 AW1 ($799.95 direct) is the first interchangeable lens digital camera that can survive a trip underwater. It’s rated to work in water as deep as 49 feet, survive drops from 6.6 feet, and shoot in extreme cold—14°F above ground and 32°F underwater. Like other cameras in the Nikon 1 mirrorless system, it prides itself on speedy performance, but the manual controls are a bit hard to get at, which may frustrate photographers who live in manual mode. Its 1-inch, 14-megapixel image sensor is capable of capturing some good-looking photos, and its price is less than many waterproof housings for competing cameras. If you’re an underwater shooter and feel limited by the image quality that a compact delivers, but aren’t willing to spend the money required to acquire a housing for your D-SLR or large-sensor mirrorless camera, the AW1 has a certain appeal. But our Editors’ Choice rugged camera is still the compact Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS, in part thanks to its lower price point, wide-aperture lens, and impressive macro capability.

Design and Features
The AW1 is designed much like other cameras in the Nikon 1 series, including the J3, but its rugged exterior makes it a bit bulkier all around. Measuring 2.9 by 4.5 by 1.5 inches and weighing 11.1 ounces without a lens, the AW1 is compatible with all Nikon 1 lenses, but there are only two available that can go underwater. (They have a special extended design that completely covers the lens mount, and the mount itself is protected by a replaceable rubber O-ring.) Removing the lens shows that the image sensor is protected by a sealed cover several millimeters above it. The battery and data connection ports are protected by sealed double-locking doors.

We reviewed the camera with the 1 Nikkor AW 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6, but the AW1 is also sold in a two-lens kit that also includes the 1 Nikkor AW 10mm f/2.8 ($999.95). There’s no cost savings there, as the 10mm sells for $199.95 on its own. The AW1 is available in white, silver, or black. If those colors don’t suit you, you can add a silicone jacket set for the camera and zoom lens. They’re available in orange, khaki, or black and sell for $39.95 each.

While 11mm might seem like a pretty wide angle when thinking in terms of a full-frame camera, its field of view here is that of a 30mm lens thanks to the 2.7x crop factor that the 1-inch CX sensor introduces. While 30mm is plenty wide above ground, underwater shooters may feel a bit limited by its field of view and 11.8-inch minimum focus distance. When shooting underwater you’ll want to get as close to your subject as possible in order to get the clearest images. The 10mm f/2.8 lens is a worthwhile add-on, as it is just a bit wider and focuses to 7.9 inches, but neither lets you get as close to your subject as the Olympus TG-2—it has a 25mm wide-angle lens and can focus as close as 3.9 inches in standard macro mode and can get as close as 1 centimeter in the Microscopic Macro mode. But the TG-2 has a comparatively microscopic image 1/2.3-inch image sensor, and that has its own set of limitations. Photographers who are looking at the AW1 are going to be attracted by its sensor size and ability to change lenses.

The AW1′s control scheme is not the most intuitive. There’s no mode dial, instead you have to either dive into the menu to adjust it, or hold down the action button that sits next to the rear thumb rest. Doing so brings up a menu that requires you to tilt the camera to select modes; each is represented by a wedge. From here you can set the camera to shoot in Motion Snapshot, Best Moment Capture, Auto, Creative, or Advanced Movie mode. This method of changing modes is great for those times when you only have one hand available to operate the camera, but if you’re not a fan of the contortions it requires, you can change the mode via the standard menu.

Aside from the power button, shutter release, and movie record button, all of which are located on the top plate, the AW1′s shooting controls are located on its rear. At the top, above the thumb rest, are two buttons that are only marked as playback zoom out and zoom in, but actually control the shutter speed or aperture when shooting in a priority or full manual mode. If you’re shooting in Program mode the controls adjust aperture, but I found that they were sometimes unresponsive—you may need to press them a few times before the f-stop is adjusted. This intermittent response, and the lack of traditional mode and control dials, is likely to frustrate you if you’re used to shooting with an interchangeable lens system.

There’s a four-way controller on the back that controls the drive mode (left), flash output (down), and exposure compensation (right). The top direction is labeled with a single letter, F, which stands for Feature. It lets you change the submode of the current mode—for example, if you’re shooting in Creative you can use it to switch from aperture priority to shutter priority, and if you’re shooting in Best Moment Capture you can select the Slow View or Smart Photo Selector functions.

If you haven’t used a Nikon 1 camera before, the Best Moment Capture modes aren’t going to be familiar. Slow View is useful for capturing action; holding the shutter button halfway slows down the Live View feed so that you can fire the shutter at the exact right moment, while the Smart Photo Selector captures a large burst of images and saves what the camera considers to be the five best. The other oddball mode is Motion Shapshot; it captures a short slow-motion video clip and a still image and edits them together into a short video clip—complete with one of four background music tracks. It can be a neat effect, but be prepared to wait a seeming eternity (13 seconds) as the camera processes and saves the finished movie which you can view on the AW1. You’ll need to use the included Nikon software to properly transfer the clip over to your computer; simply importing the memory card into iPhoto, Picasa, or Lightroom just gives you a separate QuickTime clip (minus the audio) and JPG still image.

Nikon has gone with a tile-based menu system for this entry in the 1 series. The menu is broken up into six panes: Shooting mode, Playback, Shooting, Movies, Image processing, and Setup. There are a couple of quirks. The options that are displayed in the Shooting pane vary based on which mode the camera is in, but still translate from one mode to the next. If you set the image quality to Raw in the Creative shooting mode, it will still be set to Raw when you shoot in Auto. But that option isn’t displayed if you’re in Motion Snapshot, as Raw shooting isn’t supported in that mode. For some reason Nikon has put ISO and white balance settings in the Image processing pane; that’s not the first place I’d think to look, but that’s where you need to go to adjust them.

The rear display is your viewfinder, as there’s no EVF built-in and the sealed design precludes an add-on EVF. Thankfully it’s a good size, 3 inches, and is quite sharp at 920k dots. That’s twice the pixels as Nikon’s entry into the rugged compact space, the Coolpix AW110, and is also sharper than some midrange mirrorelss cameras like the Olympus PEN Lite E-PL5, which like the AW110 sports a 460k-dot display. You do miss out on a tilting LCD, like the E-PL5 has, but so far only one underwater camera, the Olympus Tough TG-850, has a hinged display.

Unlike the display, the pop-up flash is hinged. That’s a rarity for a rugged camera, and the AW1 does support bounce flash. Just pull the flash back with your finger before taking a photo and the light will shoot upward, bouncing off of a ceiling (assuming that you’re indoors), and delivering softer illumination than you’d get by pointing it directly at your subject. Bounce flash isn’t appropriate for every situation, but it’s good to know you have the option.

The AW1 has a built-in GPS that automatically adds your geographic location to photos. It’s a great feature for a camera that’s likely to spend some time traveling; with the right software or Web service (Lightroom, Flickr, and Picasa will do fine) you can view photos as pins on a world map. There’s no Wi-Fi in the camera, but the AW1 does support the  WU-1b add-on.  You can’t take that accessory underwater, and we found that its functional twin (the WU-1a) had some issues when we reviewed it. If you want to add wireless transfer, consider our Editors’ Choice Eye-Fi Mobi memory card; it works seamlessly and you won’t have to open or close any doors in order to beam images from the camera to your smartphone or tablet.

Performance and Conclusions
Nikon has billed the 1 series as a fast shooting system since its launch. The AW1 lives up to that claim; it starts and shoots in about 1.4 seconds and records a minimal 0.05-second shutter lag in bright light. In very dim light the focus slows a bit, extending that lag to about 0.9-second. More impressive is the burst mode: The AW1 can capture a 20-shot burst at 60fps or 30fps, and it supports these rates in Raw+JPG, Raw, or JPG mode. Focus is locked at those rates, but you can shoot at 15fps (25 shots Raw+JPG, 28 shots Raw, or 29 shots JPG) or 5fps (100 shots, regardless of format) with focus adjusting for each shot.

You won’t hear a rat-a-tat-tat noise from the shutter because there is no shutter—at least in the traditional sense. The electronic shutter provides silent operation, and can capture an exposure as short at 1/6,000-second, but is limited to a rather slow 1/60-second flash sync speed. Our Editors’ Choice mirrrorless camera, the Samsung NX300, makes a lot of nosie with its mechanical shutter, even though its 7.2fps shooting rate doesn’t match the AW1. The NX300 is a bit speedier to start at 1.1 seconds, it focuses and fires in a respectable 0.1-second in good light and about 1.4 seconds in dim light. But the NX300′s APS-C image sensor is about three times the size of the AW1′s 1-inch sensor; that delivers great control over depth of field, and also makes nailing focus a more difficult task. It’s not impossible to get a very shallow depth of field when using a 1-inch sensor, as demonstrated by the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10; Nikon does have a 32mm f/1.2 lens available for the system, but it’s for above-ground use only. But what’s lacking from the system is an f/2.8 telezoom available to match the integrated lens of the RX10.

I used Imatest to check the image quality delivered by the included 11-27.5mm zoom lens. It’s an underwater version of an existing 1 series lens; it doesn’t support the Nikon VR system, and the camera doesn’t offer any sort of in-body stabilization. At 11mm the maximum aperture is f/3.5 and the lens manages 1,939 lines per picture height using a center-weighted score. We consider an image that hits 1,800 lines using this metric to be acceptably sharp. Edges are just a little soft at 1,698 lines. This is likely due to the camera removing some purple and green chromatic aberration from the edges of the frame; if you shoot in Raw this color fringing can be an issue at the edges of the frame. Stopping down doesn’t do anything to improve image quality, and sharpness actually suffers at f/8 due to diffraction. There’s noticeable barrel distortion, about 3.2 percent, which causes straight lines to appear curved. In-camera correction can eliminate this when shooting in JPG, but if you work in Raw you’ll have to make an adjustment in Lightroom to compensate for the distortion.

At the 19.3mm focal length the distortion is only about 1.6 percent, which is much less noticeable in field conditions. The lens is still sharp at the maximum f/4.8 aperture, managing 1,928 lines with edges that are only a little soft (1,749 lines). There is still some chromatic aberration at the edges of the frame when shooting Raw, but it’s diminished compared to the 11mm setting. At the maximum zoom, 27.5mm f/5.6, there’s no noticeable distortion. The average sharpness across the frame is 1,817 lines, but the edges are a bit softer here at 1,607 lines. Chromatic aberration isn’t at fault, it’s about the same as it was at 19.3mm; the edges of the frame just aren’t quite as sharp as they are at other focal lengths.

Imatest also checks for noise, which can rob a picture of detail and introduce an unwanted graininess as the sensitivity to light (ISO) is increased. The AW1 keeps noise below the 1.5 percent mark through ISO 3200 when shooting JPG images at default settings. There is some loss of detail here, but it’s not overwhelming; if you prefer to apply noise reduction yourself (or eschew it entirely) you can disable that function when shooting JPGs, or simply shoot in Raw format and tackle noise using Lightroom or another workflow application. When viewed on a calibrated NEC MultiSync PA271W display, Raw images are impressive to my eye even at the top setting of ISO 6400, but fine lines are smudged away when shooting JPGs at that setting. The AW1 isn’t a world beater when compared with other mirrorless cameras, but it does run circles around compact underwater cameras like the Canon PowerShot D20 at high ISO settings; the D20 only controls noise through ISO 800.

The AW1 records video at up to 1080i60 quality in QuickTime format. You also have the option of shooting at 1080p30, 720p60, or 720p30. And, like other cameras in the 1 series, you can capture low-resolution footage at 400fps (240p) or 1200fps (120p); these extreme frame rates play back at a more reasonable 30fps rate, which results in extreme slow motion capture.  The footage that the camera captures is colorful and crisp, and the audio is quite decent, despite its microphone being sealed so that it can go underwater. Focus is speedy, and there is no evidence of the rolling shutter effect when shooting at 60i. There is a mini HDMI port, covered by a double locking door, so you can connect the camera to an HDTV. And a mini USB port is there; it connects to a PC, and also supports the WU-1b Wi-Fi adapter. Another double locking door protects the battery (an external wall charger is included) and the SD/SDHC/SDXC memory card slot.

What you think about the Nikon 1 AW1 depends on what you are trying to get out of it. Compared with other mirrorless cameras, like our favorite APS-C model the Samsung NX300 or even a midrange Micro Four Thirds body like the Olympus PEN E-PL5, you’re paying a premium for a camera that doesn’t offer as much control over depth of field, doesn’t have as mature of a lens library, and comes with some ergonomic struggles when used in a mode other than Auto or Program. If you’re the type of photographer who doesn’t want to cede a lot of control to the camera and wants the depth of field control that an APS-C sensor delivers, it makes for a frustrating shooting experience.

On the other hand, its 1-inch image sensor is a lot bigger than you’ll find in any rugged compact, including our Editors’ Choice Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS, and there’s an inherent advantage in image quality when a larger sensor enters the picture. The AW1′s image sensor certainly trumps the 1/2.3-inch chip in the TG-2 and other go-anywhere compacts, but there’s definitely a gap in the underwater lens lineup. The 10mm prime is a better option for aquatic shooting than the included zoom lens thanks to its more impressive close-focus capability, but it’s a $200 add-on and it’s still no match for the macro capabilities and f/2 aperture the TG-2 delivers. If underwater photography is a serious hobby, but you don’t have the budget for the dedicated housings and underwater strobes that are required to take an SLR scuba diving, the AW1 is a camera that’s undoubtedly on your radar. It’s still hampered by the lack of an ultra-wide zoom with close focusing, a type of lens that lets you get very close to underwater subjects without sacrificing a sense of the environment, but thanks to its interchangeable lens design, that is something that can change in the future; Nikon does have a 6.7-13mm zoom (18-35mm equivalent) in its 1 series lineup, it’s just not available in a version that you can take underwater at this time.

(Sample images shot by Sal Cangeloso)

Dimensions 2.9 x 4.5 x 1.5 inches
Interface Ports mini USB, mini HDMI
Megapixels 14 MP
Battery Type Supported Lithium Ion
Recycle time 0.017 seconds
LCD dots 921000
LCD size 3 inches
Lines Per Picture Height 1939
Touch Screen No
Media Format Secure Digital, Secure Digital High Capacity, Secure Digital Extended Capacity
Maximum ISO 6400
Type Compact Interchangeable Lens
Sensor Type CMOS
Optical Zoom 2.5 x
Boot time 1.4 seconds
35-mm Equivalent (Wide) 30 mm
Weight 11.1 oz
Lens Mount Nikon 1
Video Resolution 720p, 1080i, 1080p
Waterproof Depth (Mfr. Rated) 49 feet
LCD Aspect Ratio 3
Image Stabilization None
35-mm Equivalent (Telephoto) 74 mm
Shutter Lag 0.05 seconds
Sensor Size 1" (13.2 x 8.8mm) mm
Viewfinder Type None

The Nikon 1 AW1 is the first interchangeable lens camera that you can take deep underwater, but it's best left in automatic mode.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc