Don gets wet to go hands-on with the Nikon AW1…
Back in the 1970s, there was only one interchangeable lens waterproof camera – Nikon’s Nikonos. Sadly, with digital superseding analogue, the company stopped manufacturing the amazingly sturdy and photographically superb little instruments in 2001.
Now, a dozen years after making the last Nikonos, Nikon has rolled out the AW1, a model they describe as the world’s first interchangeable lens camera that can be used underwater. Based on the Nikon 1 platform, the AW1 launched in September 2013 along with two waterproof lenses – a 10mm prime (equivalent to 27mm in 35mm format) and an 11-27mm zoom (30-74mm equivalent). The review unit I saw was equipped with the latter lens.
The Nikon AW1
Whilst there are any number of point-and-shoot waterproof digital cameras on the market, the AW1 is in another category altogether. Not only is it waterproof to 15 metres, it boasts a feature set and level of performance that can’t be matched by any point-and-shoot. For example, it will capture full resolution images at a continuous shooting rate – with AF tracking – of around 15 frames per second (if you lock the focus, it’ll blast off an astounding 60 fps). And, if you’re rolling in full-HD video, it is capable of simultanteously capturing full resolution still images.
The 13.2mm x 8.9mm CX format CMOS sensor delivers a maximum resolution of 4608 x 3072 pixels. Images may be captured in 12-bit NEF (RAW), JPEG and RAW+JPEG file formats, while video can be recorded at up to 1920 x 1080 (60 i or 30 p). Exposure modes include, Program, Shutter and Aperture priority, Auto and Manual and a variety of preset modes (eg, underwater, night portrait, minature effect and so on). ISO sensitivity is 160 to 6400.
Since I only had the review unit for three days, most of my testing involved shooting surfing at my local beach. The AW1 proved to be relatively straightforward to use, although as is invariably the case under bright conditions with LCD displays, it was frequently a challenge to make out image details or to read the operational menus.
Expecting this to be the case, I set the camera up before jumping in the water. Nevertheless, there were times when I had to cup my hand around the display in order to “chimp” shots or to change settings such as the focusing mode and the continuous shooting speed.
Speaking of shooting speed, the AW1 does not suffer from point-and-shoot type shutter lag. And the autofocus response was extremely quick. I experimented a little with the subject tracking mode, but had my most consistent results with the camera set to auto-area AF.
Given the bright conditions, it wasn’t terribly practical to assess the image quality when I was in the water, but once home, the overall quality of the lens and sensor was immediately apparent. I’m not in a position to properly test the image quality objectively, but an informal comparison with my DSLR appeared to show that the AW1 can deliver image quality that is remarkably close to the bigger camera’s output. The quality difference begins to diverge markedly as you push the AW1’s sensitivity past the ISO 800 mark. However, given that the camera’s primary purpose is to be usable under a wide variety of (generally bright) outdoor conditions, this was not a particular concern for me.
One for the pixel peepers. This is a section of an image enlarged to 100%.
The AW1 isn’t as tough as the old Nikonos models (which could be used at depths of up to 100 metres) because it’s “only” waterproof to 15 metres. But, while it therefore won’t be of much interest to the diving community, I think there’s a good chance that it will win favour with a wide variety of near-surface users such as snorklers, surf photographers, kayakers, outdoors persons and the like. I was sufficiently impressed with the AW1’s performance that I’ve ordered one.
Current street price for the AW1 and the 11-27mm is around the AU$1,000 mark.
By Don Norris, Photo Review Editor
[First published in Photo Review Mag App December 2014 issue]