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When you think of a mirrorless camera, the word "rugged" is usually the farthest thing from your mind. Typically, these cameras have so many tiny moving parts, sensitive electronics, and delicate screens—making them huge liabilities in the event of a drop or spill.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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