Into the Sea

Having got the camera ready, it was time to take the AW1 into the clear waters off of Kaanapali Beach. I was immediately impressed with many traits of the camera, including its super-fast AF system, burst mode (makes it a lot easier to get a moving fish into the frame), and relatively good color accuracy. Even better, I was shooting Raw+JPEG, so I knew in the back of my mind that I could adjust color and noise reduction later.

If you're more of a point-and-shoot person, you can simply put the AW1 into underwater mode and dive in. An adjustment slider shown on the LCD lets you adjust the color tone, to remove any unwanted color cast.

Looking good straight out of the camera. Cropped, ISO 280, 1/500 sec, f/5.6
The original version of this photo had pretty low contrast due to the murky water. We used the Raw image to produce the much more pleasant image you see above. Processed with ACR 8.3 and cropped,  ISO 360, 1/250 sec, f/5.6
This example was taken on a cloudy day, so things are a bit dark. Even at ISO 1400, the AW1 still produces photos good enough for midsize prints and web sharing. ISO 1400, 1/500 sec, f/5.6

It didn't take me long to discover something I didn't like about the AW1 - I had a hard time seeing what was on the LCD. Soon that didn't matter, though, as the battery died after roughly 30 minutes of snorkeling (starting with a 2/3rds charge). It's definitely worth bringing a spare and keeping the GPS turned off if you want the battery to last, as the EN-EL20 battery is only rated for 250 shots (CIPA standard).

I went back to the room for awhile, washed the camera in fresh water, and let it dry out with the various doors open. While recharging the battery, I took another look at the manual to see if I could make the screen more visible. Turns out you can, by setting the brightness to 'Hi' and turning on the 'high contrast display' option.

After giving the battery about an hour to charge, I checked all the seals and headed back to the beach. Moments after getting into the water a Hawaiian sea turtle pass right underneath me. The fast autofocus on the AW1 let me capture this incredible moment.

I'm convinced that a compact camera could not have captured this incredible moment. ISO 200, 1/400 sec, f/3.5

As soon as I took the photo of the turtle, I pressed the 'red button' to see if I could take a movie as well. The good news is that the AW1 was able to keep the turtle in focus as it swam away. The bad news is that the lack of image stabilization made for a very shaky video.

The Bad News, and the Good News

After the turtle disappeared, I continued to snorkel for another fifteen-or-so minutes. The next time I found something worth photographing, I glanced at the LCD, and noticed it was black, and that no matter which button I pressed, the camera wouldn't turn on. After returning to my room, I cleaned and dried the camera and charged the battery. Unfortunately, the AW1 was dead.

Upon returning to Seattle, Wash., the camera was returned to Nikon. The company tested the camera (which had corroded I/O ports at that point) and found that it passed their pressure test. Nikon said, 'some sort of environmental factor that is not currently present caused the leak'. In other words, foreign debris.

As an experienced user of these cameras, I had thoroughly inspected the AW1, yet some debris still made it in there. Nikon sent out a second AW1, which my colleague Erin Lodi took with her to Maui (you can tell that we enjoy the place). This AW1 went on numerous snorkeling trips, cliff dives, and hikes, and had no issues, aside from a few scrapes.

So, while we can’t conclude too much from a single incident, we can say that it’s worth being very thorough when preparing to use the camera underwater. If an underwater camera fails due to 'user error' (such as not checking the seals), the owner is most likely on the hook for the repair or replacement of the camera. With a price of $800, the AW1 is a substantial investment for most people. Our advice is to order an extended warranty with accidental damage coverage, or check with your homeowner or rental insurance company.

Final Thoughts

While not without its quirks, the Nikon 1 AW1 is arguably the best rugged camera I've tested. As you'd expect, photo quality is much better than a compact rugged camera, and Raw support allows you to tweak things like white balance and noise reduction to taste. The user interface is not enthusiast-friendly, and the battery drains quickly.

While there are just two 'rugged' lenses available at this point, neither have image stabilization. You can use other Nikon 1-System lenses with the AW1, but only above water. If you use these other lenses, don't forget to use the included O-Ring protector.

The leakage issue definitely concerned us, and we were relieved that our second camera had no issues. Even so, one must be extremely careful, as just a few grains of sand can end the AW1's life (or any other waterproof camera for that matter), and repairing or replacing it won't be cheap. 

Sunset in Maui. ISO 200, 1/400 sec, f/5.6

The AW1 is a large camera, and is more of a burden to carry around than, say, the Olympus TG-2 (which was in my pocket while I snorkeled), but the image quality and performance is vastly better. Personally, I'd like something in the middle - perhaps a rugged Sony RX100 - which could provide the photo quality and controls that an enthusiast desires, without giving up portability.

What I liked

  • Photo quality
  • Raw support
  • AF performance

What I didn't like

  • Clunky controls
  • Lack of IS on lenses
  • Battery life

Photo Gallery

There are 30 photos in the Nikon 1 AW1 samples gallery. Please do not reproduce any of these images on a website or any newsletter / magazine without prior permission (see our copyright page). We make the originals available for private users to download to their own machines for personal examination or printing (in conjunction with this review), we do so in good faith, please don't abuse it. 

Unless otherwise noted images taken with no particular settings at full resolution. Because our review images are now hosted on the 'galleries' section of dpreview.com, you can enjoy all of the new galleries functionality when browsing these samples.