Enter the Nikon 1 AW1 ($799.95 MSRP), a shock-resistant, cold-resistant, and waterproof interchangeable lens camera. Though it may not be a top performer, it may be the ultimate travel camera: It can survive a huge range of climes, can be used underwater, and is technically compatible with any Nikon 1-mount lens.
$800 might seem like quite a premium to place on the AW1's durability features, but we can see why: Nikon doesn't have any competition above the basic point-and-shoot. If you want higher image quality in an underwater environment, you're looking at spending well above $1,000.
A marked step-up from last year's Nikon Coolpix AW110, the Nikon 1 AW1 is a great camera for adventurers without Marianas-Trench-deep pockets.
By the numbers, this camera is exceedingly average. All else being equal, the Nikon 1 AW1's major selling point isn't that it's a great camera that hangs tough with the big kids on the block, but that it can work acceptably well in an extreme range of environments.
Accepting that premise, many of the results below are notably good—not great, but good. If you're not looking for a super-awesome high-end interchangeable lens camera with an enormous sensor, good results are just that.
Color me surprised.
Considering that ∆C00 saturation error of 2 is essentially imperceptible to the human eye, the Nikon 1 AW1's lowest error of 2.58 very good. Even though the camera's sensor isn't quite as well-equipped as many other cameras in its price range, it holds its own when it comes to color accuracy.
The most accurate measurement was recorded using the Neutral color mode. Though every other mode oversaturates the color to varying degrees, this mode keeps a lid on gamut errors by keeping saturation at 99.7%.
Even if you give the other color modes a spin, ∆C00 saturation errors never exceed 3.59. However, the Vivid color mode boosts color saturation to 131+%—meaning shots might look almost unreal. It's an artistic choice, but ultimately not too in-the-weeds.
Refreshing aesthetic choices
At first glance, the Nikon 1 AW1 doesn't look all that unique; it has a blocky body, milquetoast lens, and relatively few marks or interesting external features. But as we often find in the world of cameras, it's what's on the inside that counts. The 11-oz. camera is centered around a 14.2-megapixel CX-format sensor, with water sealing at every possible point of entry.
Don't take the unremarkable exterior as a condemnation: The design might be one of the best things about the AW1. Though it's a rugged camera, it doesn't look like a rugged camera. There isn't 90s-era extreme branding, grating color schemes, or rubber everywhere—it just looks like a regular ol' compact mirrorless.
Rubber gaskets line every possible entrance to the camera's interior, a dust shield protects the sensor, and even the microphones have a thin membrane to keep the elements out. Nikon boasts that the AW1 can survive 50 feet underwater, a drop of 6.6 feet (2 meters for our international friends), and cold down to 14˚F (-10˚C), but we weren't about the test those limits.
However, we did prove that the camera will work underwater:
Intuitive design with just a few quirks
Though shooting with the camera's blocky body might make for a less-than-incredible experience, Nikon went out of its way to make sure that the AW1 could at least be used in a wide range of environments. Experienced shooters might bemoan the lack of control dials, but none of the controls are Byzantine or hard to figure out. Though the default camera settings leave you in auto mode, you can still switch to a program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, or manual shooting mode if you dig into the menu.
Because there's no viewfinder, shooting with the AW1 means keeping an eye on the 3-inch, 921k-dot LCD. To supplement this, a number of informational displays grace the screen. By hitting the display button, you cycle through a horizon tracker/compass, framing assist, or clear screen. However, persistent information like shutter speed, ISO, aperture, etc. remain on the bottom and top of the display.
Though expert shooters may not elect to use the Nikon 1 AW1 as their main squeeze, the camera is well-suited to less experienced users. Controls are well-labelled and complete, with one noteworthy curveball: the action button. If you'd like to change shooting modes, you'll have to hold down said action button, and move a virtual pendulum to the mode you'd like to use by tilting the camera. Sure, it's unusual, but I found it especially useful when shooting in the bitter cold, where I could quickly swap camera modes without the need for taking off cumbersome gloves or changing my grip.
Not the sharpest, but quite good
Kit lenses are rarely amazing in the sharpness department, but the one that comes with the 1 AW1 is actually decent. Nearly hitting the score cap of our sharpness tests, you shouldn't notice any problems like coma or fringing.
The results weren't perfect, however, as the lens introduces quite a bit of distortion at several focal lengths. If the subject of your photos is front-and-center, you may not notice this—but it can get annoying if straight lines are super important to the composition of the shot.
Moiré interference shows up from time to time, but is kept to a minimum. This just means that high-frequency patterns like bike spokes, tightly-packed lines, and wood grain can sometimes look different in the image as it did to your eye. Again, it doesn't show up that often, but it's something to be aware of.
The camera's shots are noisy to begin with as well. Even at base ISO, noise cracks 1% and climbs from there. Without high ISO noise reduction, you can see noise levels climb up to 3.14% in ideal shooting conditions. With NR enabled, you're looking at a small reduction in noise, but the sacrifice of some fine details.
One of a kind
Even if it seems like a logical step to take, a rugged interchangeable lens camera is a bit of an oddball. Weather-resistance has been around for quite some time, but this combination of abuse-resistant features on a camera with a swappable lens is very uncommon. The vast majority of cameras simply cannot survive a solid spill or tumble. The ones that can? Historically, those have a tiny sensor and lower image quality.
With the AW1, Nikon has an early jump on this potentially burgeoning market. (At the moment, the AW1 is the only ruggedized interchangeable lens camera.) While Nikon is unlikely to grab photography enthusiasts, casual underwater photographers may be tempted by the AW1's swappable lenses.
The ability to grab a new lens in the middle of your shooting means the ability to take advantage of different focal lengths for tough-to-reach shots, or a wider aperture to better highlight the subject of your photos.
Because the 1 AW1 has a more serious build without sacrificing much in the hardware department, some unique opportunities present themselves. Instead of taking grainy or badly-colored pictures of fish when snorkeling in a reef, you can use the camera's underwater shooting modes (and white balance) to snap a higher-quality shot than you'd get from most point-and-shoots.
Though GPS is fairly commonplace nowadays, it's a key thing to have if you're out sightseeing. Back in the days of non-GPS-tagged photos, tourists would go to old battlegrounds like Gettysburg, take snaps of a patch of grass, and go home. Once the photos were developed, there would be prints of a bunch of non-descript fields, and no way to tell exactly what the heck you're looking at. With the 1 AW1—and other GPS-capable cameras—you can have the exact latitude and longitude attached to each photo. You'll never have to wonder why you took that shot in the first place.
If you're shooting action, Nikon's 1-series cameras have long been known for their ultra-fast drive modes. Like the rest of the 1-series line, Nikon's AW1 shoots up to 60fps—though the buffer capacity for full-resolution shots fills in under a second at that speed. You can dial back on the throttle a bit if you need to shoot continuously for longer periods of time by setting the drive mode to a still-speedy 30 or 15fps.
Not content to stop there, the AW1 is also capable of shooting 400fps video—albeit at a reduced resolution. If you're okay with incredibly tiny videos (320x120), you can even shoot at 1200fps. Even if the 1 AW1 isn't capable of shooting a high-resolution slow motion video, the option to shoot anything at that speed is crazy-cool for a camera under $800.
Despite posting respectable results across the board in other categories, video is a sore spot for the 1 AW1. Whether that's due to the undersized sensor or something else, the camera just can't seem to handle moving objects very well.
Additionally, there is some serious stuttering and some artifacting when it comes to 60p playback. Though video improves slightly with a 30p framerate, there seem to be persistent problems with high-frequency patterns strobing, as well as some trailing issues.
The option exists for super high framerate videos, but as mentioned in the review: They're tough to get looking good. Considering they're shot in such a reduced resolution, they're great for sharing online, but you won't be able to get HD video in anything higher than 60 frames per second.
Low light is the camera's kryptonite. Needing at bare minimum 24 lux to maintain 50 IRE (minimum standard for broadcast quality), the AW1 doesn't maintain much sharpness in low light either. In our labs, video sharpness fell from about 600 LW/PH in bright light to an abysmal 400 LW/PH in low light.
Painfully average performance
With the caveat that the performance of the 1 AW1 is a cut above most waterproof consumer cameras in terms of image quality, it doesn't really keep up with similarly-priced SLRs and mirrorless compacts. But that's not exactly unexpected—a camera this laden with physical durability features is going to cost you regardless of what's inside. Just be aware that the premium you pay is not for the guts of the camera, but for the tough exterior.
On paper, the specs seem to indicate that Nikon may have used the guts of the J3—another 1-series camera—and given it an expensive, rugged exterior. Though many of the performance points differ slightly, much of that may be due to the J3's 10–30mm kit lens.
For the AW1, Nikon opted to ship an 11–27.5mm, f/3.5–5.6 kit lens. The new kit lens is sharp, but not amazingly so. Though it's miles ahead of the glass that comes with shooters like the Canon Rebel SL1, it lags behind that of similarly-priced models like the Samsung NX300.
Additionally, because of the strangely short focal lengths, you may find that some of your shots have noticeable barrel distortion. Both of these issues can be alleviated some by grabbing another 1-mount lens from Nikon, but you may have to sacrifice the weather sealing to do so.
In terms of color performance, there are no glaring issues or problems. At this price point, that's very good: The AW1 has very accurate color, and slightly oversaturates your photos by default. If you're a stickler for your photos' color purity, you can adjust the color mode you shoot with to drop the saturation.
Where the AW1 seriously disappoints is noise. To be honest, that's fairly par for the course with smaller sensors, but it's hard to overlook performance like this when you compare it to cameras in the same price range. Pictures are fairly noisy even down to the lowest ISO, and the camera really doesn't get all that aggressive with its noise reduction either. Nikon decided to preserve detail at the cost of higher noise—a tough choice to make.
If there's one environment this camera can't be used in, it's low-light situations. A tiny sensor often means low sensitivity, and the 5/8th -inch CMOS sensor of the Nikon 1 AW1 suffers this same setback. In the real world, this means taking shots or video at a birthday party or night out probably won't look that great. With video in particular, results are average at best even in bright light—and fairly mediocre in low light.
That setback also severely hinders one of the main features of the camera: underwater shooting. Though Nikon equipped the AW1 with the ability to go underwater and be used, actually shooting at depth will be enormously difficult. Low sensitivity to light means long shutter speed times, adding unwanted blur in addition to the noise added by shooting with a higher ISO speed.
A shutter built by Hephaestus himself
If there's one thing this camera does fantastically well, it's take shots quickly. So long as your shutter speed allows it, you can take snaps at 5, 15, 30, or 60 frames per second, and the tests in our labs reflect extremely little variance from these settings.
Keep in mind, however, that the autofocus isn't quite that fast, and a moving subject all but guarantees some shots will be out of focus. If your subject is stationary (or at least somewhat slow) you should be fine. The 1 AW1 will catch up soon, though the buffer itself is very tiny at 60fps. We recommend shooting at 30 frames per second or below—you can get far more shots for much longer, because the buffer has time to process your shots.
Though the standard HD video options are present on the 1 AW1, it also can exploit a reduced resolution to boost framerates up to 1200 frames per second. Though the video at 400fps is 640 x 240 pixels, and the 1200fps video is only 320 x 120, these super-slow captures are great for sharing on Facebook or other social media.
Best considered for underwater use
Perhaps saying that a camera straddles the Mendoza line isn't the most rousing endorsement, but the Nikon AW1 offers a very average performance—with a twist. A ruggedized interchangeable lens camera is certainly a novel take on the mirrorless compact, and a very practical addition to a camera.
The ability to survive some rough handling in the elements is something few cameras do well, and Nikon is betting that this is worth the premium—despite the comparatively low performance for the price. If you're unlikely to brave the frozen tundra or shoot underwater anytime soon—or just want higher image quality—you may want to grab a Pentax K-50 ($699.95) or other weather-proof camera instead. You'll get better image quality at the cost of underwater shots, but you can save some cash for a better lens—or a waterproof housing for the DSLR of your choice.
Because the camera doesn't completely trade picture quality for durability, the 1 AW1 makes for an interesting travel camera option. Though you can't quite grab a sealed telephoto lens for it, having the ability to up your image game while on vacation is an attractive choice if you want better snaps than your old point-and-shoot can give. At $799.95 it's definitely an investment, but it's one of a very short list of interchangeable lens cameras that can brave a coral reef or snowball fight without fear of irreparable damage.
Meet the tester
Staff Writer, Imaging@cthomas8888
A seasoned writer and professional photographer, Chris reviews cameras, headphones, smartphones, laptops, and lenses. Educated in Political Science and Linguistics, Chris can often be found building a robot army, snowboarding, or getting ink.
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