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.

Camera overview

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.

The Nikon 1 AW1 towers over its little brother (the J3) as well as the Olympus Tough TG-3 compact rugged camera.

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.

A gasket around the lens mount keeps water out. Nikon emphasizes that the O-Ring must be kept clean and occasionally lubricated with silicone to avoid leaks. Both doors on the AW1 have seals and a 'double lock' design.

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 dug deeper into the manual and discovered that the aperture is adjusted by pressing the zoom buttons on the back of the camera - not terribly intuitive.

The Action Control feature, in action (no pun intended)

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.

The AW1 performs admirably above water, capturing this unusual rainbow. ISO 160, 1/1600 sec; f/5.0
High ISO photos aren't amazing, but they're still much better than you'd get on a rugged compact camera. Since the AW1 can shoot Raw, you can get better results than in JPEGs. ISO 800, 1/80 sec, f/3.8

Suiting Up

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.