Well now here's a pleasant surprise - Nikon has released a rugged, waterproof mirrorless interchangeable lens camera - along with a pair of equally tough lenses - for a starting price under $800. Those familiar with Nikon film cameras may fondly recall the days of the Nikonos, with which the company dominated underwater photography from the 1960s onward.

The AW1 is essentially, if not exactly, a ruggedized version of Nikon's 1 J3. It is waterproof down to 15 meters (49 ft), shockproof from up to 2 meters (6.6 ft), and protected against cold as low as -10 degrees Celsius (14F). It is announced with two lenses - equally ruggedized versions of the 11-27mm (30-74mm equiv) and 10mm (27mm equiv) optics that already form part of the 1 System lineup. The AW1 is compatible with all 1 System lenses, but it will not be water, shock or freezeproof with a non-ruggedized lens on the front. The waterproof lenses, however, will not be compatible with other 1 System cameras.

Nikon AW1: Key Specifications

  • Waterproof, shockproof and freezeproof
  • 14MP C-format (2.7x crop factor) CMOS sensor
  • ISO 100-6400
  • 3-inch LCD with 921,000 dots
  • Built-in GPS with compass, altimeter, and depth meter
  • Action Control system for underwater/gloved operation
  • PASM shooting via 'Creative Mode' menu
  • 15 fps burst mode with continuous AF, 60 fps with single AF
  • Full HD 1080p video

Nikon's 1 System has been around for a couple of years now, and although we weren't entirely convinced by the initial pair of cameras - the J1 and V1 - they did offer some unique (at the time) hybrid autofocus technology, and some cool features. Ultimately, they also did exactly what Nikon wanted them to do, providing intermediate and novice users with better-than-compact image quality plus the ability to add lenses and system accessories if needed.

The asking price for the initial offerings was a little high - especially for the V1 - but since then the system has expanded sensibly, and current low-end 1 System cameras like the S1 and J3 are reasonably priced and well-positioned, with the V2 offering a much more compelling 'step up' option than the original V1.

The AW1 is shown here with one of its optional silicone skins attached (left) and 'naked', on the right. The orange rubber might have a certain appeal to those nostalgic for the Nikonos cameras of yore, but the AW1 is still impressively tough without this extra protection.

Although we don't have access to sales figures, we understand that the 1 System is doing pretty well for Nikon. As such, we honestly didn't expect the company to significantly change the recipe quite yet. Arguably, Nikon didn't need to do much beyond adding lenses and periodically updating its entry-level, intermediate and advanced 1 System cameras to keep its target demographic happy. In an industry which is increasingly characterized by caution, this would have been perfectly normal.

And that's why the appearance of the AW1 is so refreshing. When we were shown the new camera at Nikon's American HQ recently we were very pleasantly surprised. Some of us are old enough to remember the famous Nikon 'Nikonos' waterproof film cameras, and although the AW1 certainly isn't a Nikonos (it's only rated to operate at 15m underwater rather than 50m, for a start), it has the potential to occupy a similar niche. What this means of course - assuming the AW1 performs well in our tests - is that it could make the 1 System genuinely interesting to enthusiasts and owners of other established systems. It might not be an evolutionary product - the AW1 is extremely similar to the inexpensive J3 in terms of specification - but its existence does evolve the 1 System.