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Sun, Mar 2, 2014 5:00 AM

Waterproof Mirrorless Camera Review: Nikon AW1

As an imaging enthusiast, the primary features I look for are image quality and capture speed. I dislike cameras that operate with lags or are slow in navigation or lacks buttons for quick change of settings, which is precisely why I adore DSLR. Yet, the DSLR is simply too big to bring everywhere. Therefore, the key is to look for a camera that offers a balance of image quality, functions, portability, and price.

When Nikon first launched the Nikon 1 mirrorless camera J1 and V1, the selling factors were the 30fps and continuous AF, on top of the larger 1-inch sensor that translates to better image quality than compact cameras. However, many other factors did not bode well with the consumers, like size, weight, speed of handling the camera.

2 years after reviewing the Nikon V1, I have an opportunity to try out their latest Nikon 1 camera. This time, it's the all-weather AW1. And this time, it is a more compelling product worth getting.

Nikon AW1 Specs:

  • 14.2MP 1-inch CX-format CMOS sensor
  • 1/16,000s max shutter speed
  • 60fps still image capture
  • Up to 1200 fps for slow-motion video capture
  • ISO 160-6400
  • Hybrid autofocus (phase detect and contrast detect)
  • 3-inch TFT LCD
  • 356g (body and battery)
  • Shockproof up to 2m
  • Waterproof up to 15m
  • Freezeproof -10 °C
  • Captures GPS, compass, altitude and depth


The Usual Benefits

The AW1 possess the usual benefits that most mirrorless camera offers: interchangeable lenses so that you can change the field of view and maximise your investment, a large 1-inch sensor that delivers higher image quality, a responsive camera that shoots multiple images. There are not as many hardware buttons as I would have liked, which means there are some settings that I am unable to change quickly. For instance, ISO sensitivity, white balance.


The Extraordinary Benefits

The Nikon 1 continues to be the forefront of delivering continuous AF technology for the consumers. The AW1 captures 5, 15, 30, 60fps of still images, and it has the uncanny ability to achieve focus at lightning speed. When shooting at 5 or 15 fps, the AW1 is capable of continuous autofocus, which means I can capture active objects, like children, and still achieve focus, and with every shot, the AW1 re-evaluates and adjusts the exposure.

The AW1 is also the first weatherproof interchangeable lens camera in the market. You can now capture high quality images in any environmental condition without the need of bulky equipment. I have been seeking for a compact waterproof camera for the longest time but none of the compact cameras out there offers decent image quality to my liking. Apart from being waterproof, the AW1 is also certified shockproof of up to 2-metre drop, which basically shows how hardy this camera is. I would have no qualms letting young children handle it.

For consumers who understand the benefits of RAW file format, the AW1 lets you shoot in Nikon RAW for flexible post-processing. When doing normal shot-to-shot, the AW1 is more than capable of capturing RAW images, but of course if you are shooting in burst mode, it will take some time for the buffer to completely save the images.

I like the ability to capture full-resolution still images while recording video without disrupting the video recording, although the number of still images are limited and there is no way of shooting more until you stop the video recording. The AW1 has the Action Control button to let you select functions just by tilting the camera, so you can operate the camera with just one hand. Apart from the efficient GPS to capture the data, it also contains other sensors like compass, altimeter/depth indicator, and are captured in every image.

Capturing the Right Moment

Rather than aimlessly firing the shutter, Nikon AW1 has 2 special shooting modes that help you capture the right moment with the least image wastage.

When shooting with Slow View mode, as you half-press the shutter, the LCD screen will magically show the event in slow-motion. Once you found that right moment, you full-press the shutter and the moment is stored. This mode requires some practice as you cannot half-press the shutter too soon or else the camera runs out of buffer and you would not be able to pick any photos at all. You also need to know the exact moment that you want and full-press the shutter, because once the moment has passed on the LCD screen, you cannot backtrack and save.

The other mode, Smart Photo Selector, is easier to use. What the camera does is that it starts to capture images while you half-press the shutter, and until you full-press the shutter.  The the camera will automatically save the 5 most pleasing photos based on eye-blinks, composition, hand-shake blur.

Image Quality

The development of imaging sensor has come to a point that I no longer have qualms about shooting at extremely high ISO settings. The AW1 can shoot up to ISO 6400, and while grain and noise are visible in the shadow areas (even at low ISO), proper exposure will deliver images with usable details. I find I get better exposure when permanently setting the EV compensation to +0.3. I was shooting at ISO 5000 for my nephew and niece passport photos in order to freeze the shots. The AW1 really helps getting the shot I need as I fired the shutter liberally.

Here is another image sample I shot while chilling out at a shopping mall. Thanks to continuous shooting mode, I am able to pick the best shot among the set. f/5.6, 1/60s, ISO 4500.

I am generally pleased with the "standard" colour tones of the AW1, but people who do not favour the slightly over-saturated look could opt for the "neutral" picture control setting. Nikon allows user to tweak the picture control, consisting of sharpening, contrast, brightness, saturation, and hue, just like their big DSLR brothers.

Issues and Usage Concerns

No product is perfect. While AW1 seems like a great camera, I would like to highlight some challenges when using it:

  • Slow image review. The biggest pain of using the AW1 is the slow image review. I was not able to playback and scroll images speedily.
  • Average battery life. The battery is rated for 250 shots, so if you need to go on a shooting spree, you must get extra battery.
  • Too few waterproof lenses. As of now, there are only 2 waterproof lenses: the 11-27.5mm kit lens and the 10mm (28mm equivalent) fixed lens. The kit lens also exhibit rather visible barrel distortion, especially when shooting close-up objects.
  • Reflective LCD screen is hard to use in harsh conditions. When I am in broad daylight, the LCD screen is so reflective to be able to see clearly. It would be awesome if it comes with an electronic viewfinder.
  • Body paint coat that chips. While the AW1 is a hardy camera, it will cause body paint chips, at least on the white body model. I would certainly get the black one.
  • Image noise even at low ISO. Pixel-peepers will be disappointed with the AW1. Shadow areas have chroma (colour) noise even at low ISO.  


Differences with Nikon 1 S-series, J-series and V-series

If you are considering the other Nikon 1 series models, here's a basic overview: the S-series is the entry-level version while the V-series is the high-end version. The AW1 features are similar to the J-series but you pay a premium for its ruggedness.



The AW1 might not deliver tip top image quality as compared to other mirrorless cameras, but weighing in other impressive features like waterproof, shockproof, fast AF capability, I would say it is the best compact camera for underwater photography. Yes, the camera is bulky and heavy, but the ruggedness makes the camera easy to maintain. Like some of the life-proof audio products I have reviewed over the past weeks, I could throw the AW1 into my bag without protection and worry about damaging. I will recommend the Nikon AW1 to users who want above average image quality and shooting performance in a rugged waterproof camera. It's a camera that lets you capture the split-second moment in perfect focus, in any environmental condition.



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