Swimming with the Nikon 1 AW1
Back in June, I took six compact underwater cameras along with me on a Hawaiian vacation. Upon my return, I was disappointed to see that none of them blew me away in terms of performance or photo quality.
When the Nikon 1 AW1 was announced, I was pretty excited - finally, someone made a rugged camera with a larger sensor (that doesn't require a special housing to take it underwater). To top it off, the AW1 is built on Nikon's 1 System, which means that it's a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera with super-fast autofocus and subject tracking.
As you might expect, such a camera does not come cheap. The AW1 bundled with a 11-27.5mm (30-74mm equiv.) F3.5-5.7 lens for $800/£750 , or with the 11.5-27mm plus the compact 10mm (27mm equiv.) F2.8 lens for $1000/£950.
I decided to take on the difficult tasks of sending myself back to Maui, Hawaii, and made sure Nikon had an AW1 available for me to take along.
The original version of this article mistakenly stated that an O-Ring protector is not included with the AW1. This is incorrect, and I apologize for the error.
The AW1 is a medium-sized mirrorless camera that doesn't scream 'rugged' when you first see it. While it looks like a larger version of Nikon's J3, the build quality is entirely different. The AW1 is waterproof to 15 meters, shockproof from 2 meters, and freezeproof to -10°C/+14°F. Those numbers rival those of the best compact rugged cameras.
Everything on the camera is sealed, including the compartments for the battery/memory card and HDMI/USB ports. Attaching lenses to the body takes some work because of the O-Ring around the lens mount that keeps water from getting inside. It's worth noting that the AW1 has twice the number of seals compared to compact rugged cameras, due to the interchangeable lens and pop-up flash.
There are currently two rugged lenses available for the AW1: the 11-27.5mm (30-74mm equivalent) F3.5-5.6 that I used, and also a 27mm-equivalent F2.8 pancake. For obvious reasons, neither lens extends, either on focusing or changing focal length on the zoom.
While you can attach any other 1 System lens to the camera, it will not be waterproof. Something else to watch out for is that O-Ring: when a non-rugged lens is attached, the ring is exposed, and any damage could cause trouble when you take the camera into the water. Thankfully, Nikon includes an O-Ring protector in the box (it's built in to the front of the body cap) to keep the ring safe and sound.
One big disappointment is that neither lens has Vibration Reduction (Nikon's term for image stabilization) built-in. While this isn't a huge deal on the fast 10mm prime, I was surprised to see that the 11-27.5mm zoom lacked this important feature. Nikon does make a stabilized 10-30mm lens, which probably would've been a better choice here.
In terms of technology, the AW1 features a 14.2 megapixel CMOS sensor, lightning-fast hybrid autofocus, continuous shooting at up to 60 fps, built-in GPS, and 1080/60i video. The AW1 has manual exposure controls and can shoot Raw - a huge advantage over compact rugged cameras. There's also a built-in pop-up flash, which you can use underwater, and Nikon also offers an external video lamp to brighten things up when you're well below sea level.
The AW1's controls are just like they are on other entry-level Nikon 1 cameras. Beginners may not mind, but many enthusiasts won't like the omission of a mode dial and lack of direct controls. One great example of the awkward controls occurred when I wanted to take a photo of a hibiscus flower. Since I was pretty close and wanted to maximize depth-of-field, I put the camera into aperture priority mode (which is still buried in the 'Creative mode' menu). I pressed nearly every button I could think of, but could not adjust the aperture. Upon returning to my room, I looked at the manual (which, in hindsight, I should've done before using it) and discovered that the aperture is adjusted by pressing the zoom buttons on the back of the camera (not terribly intuitive).
One feature Nikon touts is Action Control, which allows you adjust a few settings by tilting the camera. One instance where this is useful is when wearing gloves (though pressing the button that turns on Action Control may be a bit difficult). When taking photos, you can adjust the shooting mode using this feature, and if you enter the menu, you can toggle the 'outdoor display' (LCD brightness) on and off. In playback mode, Action Control lets you navigate through your pictures.
The problem with Action Control is that, in many cases, you still need to use the camera's conventional buttons. For example, while you can 'tilt' to select the Creative Shooting mode, to actually change the setting (say from standard to underwater macro), you must use the four-way controller. We think this feature could've used a bit more time in the oven.
When packing up the camera for the trip, I was surprised to see an underwater strap was not included in the box. I could understand that on a cheaper compact, but it seems a bit stingy on Nikon's part to omit one on a $800 camera. The inexpensive float straps that work just fine on compact cameras can't support the AW1, so you'll need to get something better.
When taking any underwater camera out into the elements you want to make sure everything's sealed and ready to go. Following the instructions in the manual, I made sure the seals on both compartments (memory card/battery and I/O ports) were clean, and then I shut and locked the doors. I also inspected the O-Ring around the lens mount, removed what looked like a piece of sand, and then put the lens back on. One thing you can't inspect are the seals under the pop-up flash, which are not accessible.
Into the Sea
Having got the camera ready, it was time to take the AW1 into the clear waters off of Kaanapali Beach. I was immediately impressed with many traits of the camera, including its super-fast AF system, burst mode (makes it a lot easier to get a moving fish into the frame), and relatively good color accuracy. Even better, I was shooting Raw+JPEG, so I knew in the back of my mind that I could adjust color and noise reduction later.
If you're more of a point-and-shoot person, you can simply put the AW1 into underwater mode and dive in. An adjustment slider shown on the LCD lets you adjust the color tone, to remove any unwanted color cast.
|Looking good straight out of the camera. Cropped, ISO 280, 1/500 sec, f/5.6|
|The original version of this photo had pretty low contrast due to the murky water. We used the Raw image to produce the much more pleasant image you see above. Processed with ACR 8.3 and cropped, ISO 360, 1/250 sec, f/5.6|
|This example was taken on a cloudy day, so things are a bit dark. Even at ISO 1400, the AW1 still produces photos good enough for midsize prints and web sharing. ISO 1400, 1/500 sec, f/5.6|
It didn't take me long to discover something I didn't like about the AW1 - I had a hard time seeing what was on the LCD. Soon that didn't matter, though, as the battery died after roughly 30 minutes of snorkeling (starting with a 2/3rds charge). It's definitely worth bringing a spare and keeping the GPS turned off if you want the battery to last, as the EN-EL20 battery is only rated for 250 shots (CIPA standard).
I went back to the room for awhile, washed the camera in fresh water, and let it dry out with the various doors open. While recharging the battery, I took another look at the manual to see if I could make the screen more visible. Turns out you can, by setting the brightness to 'Hi' and turning on the 'high contrast display' option.
After giving the battery about an hour to charge, I checked all the seals and headed back to the beach. Moments after getting into the water a Hawaiian sea turtle pass right underneath me. The fast autofocus on the AW1 let me capture this incredible moment.
|I'm convinced that a compact camera could not have captured this incredible moment. ISO 200, 1/400 sec, f/3.5|
As soon as I took the photo of the turtle, I pressed the 'red button' to see if I could take a movie as well. The good news is that the AW1 was able to keep the turtle in focus as it swam away. The bad news is that the lack of image stabilization made for a very shaky video.
The Bad News, and the Good News
After the turtle disappeared, I continued to snorkel for another fifteen-or-so minutes. The next time I found something worth photographing, I glanced at the LCD, and noticed it was black, and that no matter which button I pressed, the camera wouldn't turn on. After returning to my room, I cleaned and dried the camera and charged the battery. Unfortunately, the AW1 was dead.
Upon returning to Seattle, Wash., the camera was returned to Nikon. The company tested the camera (which had corroded I/O ports at that point) and found that it passed their pressure test. Nikon said, 'some sort of environmental factor that is not currently present caused the leak'. In other words, foreign debris.
As an experienced user of these cameras, I had thoroughly inspected the AW1, yet some debris still made it in there. Nikon sent out a second AW1, which my colleague Erin Lodi took with her to Maui (you can tell that we enjoy the place). This AW1 went on numerous snorkeling trips, cliff dives, and hikes, and had no issues, aside from a few scrapes.
So, while we can’t conclude too much from a single incident, we can say that it’s worth being very thorough when preparing to use the camera underwater. If an underwater camera fails due to 'user error' (such as not checking the seals), the owner is most likely on the hook for the repair or replacement of the camera. With a price of $800, the AW1 is a substantial investment for most people. Our advice is to order an extended warranty with accidental damage coverage, or check with your homeowner or rental insurance company.
While not without its quirks, the Nikon 1 AW1 is arguably the best rugged camera I've tested. As you'd expect, photo quality is much better than a compact rugged camera, and Raw support allows you to tweak things like white balance and noise reduction to taste. The user interface is not enthusiast-friendly, and the battery drains quickly.
While there are just two 'rugged' lenses available at this point, neither have image stabilization. You can use other Nikon 1-System lenses with the AW1, but only above water. If you use these other lenses, don't forget to use the included O-Ring protector.
The leakage issue definitely concerned us, and we were relieved that our second camera had no issues. Even so, one must be extremely careful, as just a few grains of sand can end the AW1's life (or any other waterproof camera for that matter), and repairing or replacing it won't be cheap.
The AW1 is a large camera, and is more of a burden to carry around than, say, the Olympus TG-2 (which was in my pocket while I snorkeled), but the image quality and performance is vastly better. Personally, I'd like something in the middle - perhaps a rugged Sony RX100 - which could provide the photo quality and controls that an enthusiast desires, without giving up portability.
What I liked
- Photo quality
- Raw support
- AF performance
What I didn't like
- Clunky controls
- Lack of IS on lenses
- Battery life