Waterproof, shockproof, mirrorless and with a 14mp sensor larger than most point-and-shoot sensors, the Nikon 1 AW1 (MSRP $799.95) is the only camera in its class. It seemed an ideal choice for a photographer with a bad case of pixelitis who was going to ride an overgrown innertube down the raging rapids of the Grand Canyon. To quote from Nikonusa.com: “At last, stunning images from a camera you don’t need to baby. From kayaking to mountain climbing, keep the rugged Nikon 1 AW1 by your side. Waterproof to 49 feet without a bulky protective housing—carry it rafting, swimming or snorkeling.” Okay.
Running the Grand Canyon with the Nikon 1 AW1 – a Wet and Wild Field Test
You will get soaked running the Grand – and so will your camera gear. So after 18 days of gut-twisting whitewater and eye-popping scenery did the AW end up standing for Awesome or something else?
I’ll cut right to the chase – The AW1 stopped working only halfway down the canyon. Push the shutter button halfway and it would focus (as it should). Push the playback button and it would focus, not show pictures. Push the +/- button and it would focus, not adjust exposure. Of course I thought I’d goofed on the settings somehow, but when I pressed the menu button to go back to defaults, guess what? That’s right, no menus, but it did focus. Press the shutter button and it might or might not snap a picture. Eventually it would take just one photo per on/off cycle and then finally stopped altogether. This is going to be an in-comprehensive review.
The quick conclusion would be that the seals leaked on the body – the Nikon 1 AW1 features interchangeable lenses so there’s a seal at the lens mount. As well, there’s a seal at the battery/memory card door. However neither of these leaked and they are the only seals a user has control over. There are over a dozen buttons on the body as well as dual microphone ports and a pressure equalization vent – perhaps these were potential leakage points. The camera was never immersed over 2 feet deep, nor exposed to heavy water pressure from crashing rapids or waterfalls (dang thing broke before I could test in conditions that would rip my swimtrunks off – for the record the AW1 is not guaranteed to be waterproof under trunk-stripping pressures or just about any other activity it’s advertised for – see Nikon’s disclaimer for the lawyer talk). It got splashed a lot and rained on some, but these are the conditions it is designed to work in.
If the AW1 didn’t break, would it have been a good choice for a Grand Canyon trip? The AW1 has a number of features I was eager to try out.
High Burst Rate Electronic Shutter
First the electronic shutter can rip off bursts of 5, 15, 30 or even 60 frames per second. The AW1 buffers out after 20 shots (in RAW) so doing the math you realize you have to be pretty precise with when you start your burst as it will last just over a second at 15 fps, only 2/3rds of a second at 30 fps and just 1/3rd of a second at 60 fps. On a prior raft trip I was bummed that I didn’t capture the perfect peak of action shot as a beer was tossed from one raft to another. This trip, with the AW1s insane burst speed, I knew I’d nail this crucial storytelling shot. Sadly, I didn’t, because the camera broke before I could. However I did use 5 exposures from a 20-exposure sequence (shot at 15 fps) to make this composite of one of our raftmen being tossed into a stagnant pool inhabited by a dead mouse.
So the AW1 burst speed is a great feature and if Nikon added a bigger buffer would be even more useful.
Manual Capability and RAW Files
If you’re a control freak you want the ability to shoot RAW files in manual mode. The AW1 has both capabilities. Unfortunately getting to manual mode requires a lot of time-consuming menu button pushing – so much you might as well set up an easel and paint the picture. I found it much easier to just stay in Auto mode and adjust exposure with the +/- button, though this does not let you adjust ISO, shutter speed and aperture. When you’re shooting an 11-27mm lens though, you have tons of depth of field so aperture settings don’t have as much effect as when using a DSLR. Getting to aperture-preferred, shutter-preferred or program mode also requires multiple button clicks, is not intuitive and something I only did when I had ample time to set up a shot.
Having the RAW file enabled me to do the post-processing needed to get the final result I desired in this shot.
Wet Condition Shooting
This is the only reason to buy a Nikon 1 AW1 instead of one of the other Nikon 1 cameras or other mirrorless alternatives. In the Grand Canyon, the AW1 failed miserably even before it broke. The problem is the Grand Canyon is fed by cold water released from Glen Canyon Dam. Close to the dam the water is ~40F. Air temperatures can easily be 50 degrees or more higher. Dip the AW1 in the river and remove and within seconds the lens and LCD fog. (One imagines the rear lens element and sensor might fog as well if the lens was attached in a humid environment). Short of different manufacturing techniques that would eliminate moist air between the front element and the outer fixed protective filter, there is nothing that can be done to stop this). Other cameras on the trip suffered the same issue (e.g. an Canon G15 in dedicated underwater housing – though anti-fog coatings can be applied to housing surfaces). Depending on air temps, the AW1 would stay fogged from about 5 minutes to an hour. This gives a nice soft-focus effect perfect for senior portraits (senior as in 65+). The fogging of the lens is often centered, sometimes overall, and on occasion on one side or the other. I wonder if condensed moisture inside the body may have promoted the camera failure instead of leaking. However, the lens was fitted in the dry Arizona climate thus little chance of moisture entering then.
Here one sees the effect of the right half of the lens fogged ruining what is otherwise a Pulitzer-caliber shot examining what sort of person wears a headband for his driver’s license photo (saves on shooting mug shots later).
A friend of mine has an AW1 and used it diving to 40-foot depth in the Bahamas. Water and air temperatures are very close there and he reported no fogging problems, but he too had the camera fail due to leaking (this time at the battery compartment), even though it is rated to be waterproof at 15m (49 ft) for 60 minutes. After taking half a dozen shots on his dive the LCD stopped working and showed a view that looked like corrupted file images. (Nikon replaced the body under warranty).
When not fogged, the lens produces sharp images.
Good corner to corner sharpness in this sand abstract at 11mm.
And at 24mm corners looking good on the grass here.
If you are hooked on viewing full frame DSLR images at 1:1 (and who isn’t – wink), you might be disappointed by the AW1 files. Nevertheless, for a sensor of its size it controlled noise respectably. The biggest qualm I had with IQ was with reduced dynamic range. This is inherent with smaller pixel sites, so it’s no surprise the AW1 sometimes had trouble retaining detail in highlights.
Looking out toward the Colorado from inside the Silver Grotto. Highlights on the cliffs across the river are completely blown. Even a full frame DSLR would have trouble with this huge range from highlight to shadow.
Looking the opposite direction at the “trail” into the Silver Grotto we see why a waterproof camera is desirable (many of the cool side canyon hikes involve wading). At ISO 800 the noise looks pretty well controlled. But even with a much-reduced dynamic range compared to the picture before, the small sensor struggled to retain detail in the highlight lit slabs (this has highlights at -100 in Lightroom – got some detail back, but slabs went mushy gray). Later in the trip, I ended up dialing in -1/3 to 2/3 stop compensation to avoid blowing out highlights when shooting in Auto mode with matrix metering.
Optional Silicone Jacket CF-N6000
I found the AW1 to be a weird fit for my big hands at first, but got used to this over the course of a week. One thing that helped was using the CF-N6000 Optional Silicone Jacket. This plumped the body up a bit and gives a grippier surface to hold onto. It also protects from scratches to the body, but not to the LCD or front of the lens.
The AW1 is rated to withstand drops from 2 meters. It broke before I could test this.
There are only two waterproof lenses available for the AW1, the 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 zoom and a 10mm f/2.8 prime (for underwater street photography?). I only used the zoom – I wasn’t about to swap lenses on a river trip due to a high probability of fouling the lens seal due to silt in the water and air (the Grand Canyon is a very dirty and wet environment – the river runs brown with silt and even all the “river pops” in the world won’t rinse the grit from your teeth).
The real value in having interchangeable lenses would come on dry land when one could use non-waterproof lenses with the AW1.
Eighteen days of this much grandeur – yeehaw!
You really thought I’d post an article without a bird shot?
Does the AW stand for “Alpha Whiskey horizon tilt mode”?
Face recognition mode focused right on the eyes ;).
This pains me so much to publish this abysmal shot, but it shows why I don’t have any crazy whitewater action shots to share from the AW1. This is straight out of the camera with no post-processing of the RAW file save a small crop. Even my warm tears on the lens would not chase away the fogging.
The Bottom Line
The AW? It’s capable of taking fine images, but for raft trips down the Grand Canyon, it stands for All Wet. I would have been better off with one of the “rugged” waterproof point-and-shoots some other members on our trip had. They got some great shots while my AW1 was fogged or broken. What I’d really like to see is a rugged waterproof point-and-shoot with no interchangeable lenses, a large sensor, RAW files and quick manual controls – basically a waterproof ruggedized Canon G15 (minus the idiot outer lens shutter that always breaks and/or scratches the front element of the Canon S- and G-series cameras). If you can’t live with point-and-shoot resolution or really want to swap out lenses, a waterproof housing for a DSLR would be a good option for shooting in wet conditions.
Nikon 1 AW1
- Image Quality
- High ISO Performance
- Size and Weight
- Metering and Exposure
- Dynamic Range
- Weather Sealing
- Appropriateness for intended use
Photography Life Overall Rating