Photographers looking for a camera they can use underwater traditionally have had two choices: A fixed lens waterproof model that offers simple operation and spotty image quality or inserting an advanced DSLR camera into a waterproof casing that will protect it from the elements. You’ll receive very good image quality with the latter option, but the waterproof cases can be awkward to use. So if you’re looking for a different option, this Nikon 1 AW1 review will provide it.
The AW1 is a thin mirrorless interchangeable lens camera that provides much better image quality than the fixed lens waterproof cameras, and you can use it in up to 49 feet of water depth without a case.
The Nikon 1 AW1 waterproof camera certainly isn’t a perfect model. It’s a basic camera that isn’t going to probably meet the needs of more advanced photographers. And its high price tag and limited number of lenses means that those who already own a DSLR camera that has a waterproof, may be better served sticking with their current gear.
But if you want one of the best waterproof and tough cameras you can grab and use immediately without wrangling with a special case during a rugged hike or a dive, all while receiving much better than average image quality for a waterproof camera, the AW1 doesn’t have any challengers in the market right now.
In addition to its ability to be used in up to 49 feet of water depth, the Nikon 1 AW1 is rated to survive a drop of up to 6.6 feet and will work in temperatures as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit. You just cannot find advanced interchangeable lens cameras with these features.
WHY IT’S A TOP PICK: Image quality easily outshines a typical waterproof camera.
Summary: The Nikon 1 AW1 offers an easy to use camera that outshines point and shoot waterproof cameras in terms of image quality and low light performance levels.
Price: $796.95 from Amazon
Available: February 2014
What We Liked
- Waterproof up to 49 feet of water depth with no extra housing required
- Better image quality than most waterproof cameras; allows for shooting in RAW or JPEG
- AW1’s low light performance is better than average
- Camera is easy to operate
- Mirrorless design looks good and allows camera to be relatively thin
What We Didn’t
- Expensive model versus other waterproof cameras
- No mode dial included
- Must purchase specific waterproof lenses; can’t use just any Nikon 1 lens and maintain waterproof seal
- No viewfinder included
- Probably not enough control options for advanced photographers
Nikon 1 AW1 Specs
|Image Sensor Type||CX (13.2 x 8.8 mm)|
|Optical Zoom Lens||NA, uses interchangeable lenses|
|Operational Water Depth||Up to 49 feet|
|Avg Battery Life||220 photos|
|Weight||11.1 oz (camera body only)|
|Size||4.5 x 2.9 x 1.5 inches|
|Price||$796.95 (with kit lens)|
Design and Build
The Nikon AW1 looks a lot like other Nikon 1 cameras, such as the Nikon 1 J5. It’s thin and stylish, with a right hand grip that unfortunately is too small to be overly useful. You’ll find the AW1 in black, white, or silver body colors. It has no mode dial, which would make it much easier to pick a shooting mode.
The AW1 is so lightweight and thin that it almost feels a little flimsy. You naturally expect a tough waterproof camera to have some heft to it, so this is an aspect of this Nikon model that seems a little odd. Still, the AW1 is a tough camera through and through. I’m not going to admit in writing to accidentally dropping the demo model, but let’s just say I have no question the AW1 is as tough as advertised.
The Nikon AW1 is the only interchangeable lens camera currently on the market that can be used underwater without the need for a protective case. This easily gives the AW1 a leg up versus other waterproof cameras, which are fixed lens models.
It’s certainly easier to make a fixed lens camera waterproof, as the manufacturer doesn’t have to worry about losing the waterproof seal in a one piece camera. Because you can change out the lens on the Nikon 1 AW1, the manufacturer has to ensure no water can penetrate the case through the lens housing when the lens is attached, making the design of this Nikon model a significant challenge. It also means that you have to use lenses that contain waterproof sealing with the AW1. You cannot use just any Nikon lens that will fit the AW1’s lens mount and expect waterproof capabilities. You need to purchase specific Nikon AW1 lenses, which will drive up the cost of this camera package quickly.
It’s the overall image quality of this model that makes the AW1 a best waterproof camera option. The AW1 has a much larger image sensor in terms of physical size than most waterproof cameras, which usually have the smallest type of image sensor you’ll find in cameras at 1/2.3 inches, as seen in my Olympus Stylus Tough TG4 review. The AW1 has a CX sized image sensor, which is equivalent to a 1-inch image sensor and is a common size for a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera.
Nikon included 14.2 megapixels of resolution in the AW1’s image sensor. Even though this pixel count is similar to what you may find with other waterproof cameras, the larger image sensor gives the AW1 an advantage.
Low Light Performance and Movie Mode
The Nikon 1AW1 truly outperforms other waterproof cameras in terms of low light image quality. Again, it’s the larger image sensor in terms of physical size that gives this model such an advantage in low light photography. And when you consider a lot of your photos when shooting underwater will have less than ideal lighting, having a camera that easily outperforms its peers in this area is an important consideration.
I was a little disappointed in the battery life for the Nikon 1 AW1. The manufacturer estimates the battery will last for 220 shots per charge, but, as is often the case, the camera maker overestimates battery lifespan versus real world shooting conditions. I’d say you realistically can expect to shoot 175 to 200 photos per battery charge, which isn’t a great performance level. When you’re shooting underwater, it’s not like you can easily swap out a dead battery and keep going, after all: Opening the battery compartment underwater will void your warranty and then some.
Unfortunately, the biggest drawback to the Nikon 1 AW1 is something that doesn’t really fit in any of the above mentioned sections: The price. When you think about having to purchase a camera body and special waterproof lenses, you’re going to spend more than double for the AW1 what you would spend for a fixed lens waterproof camera.
And the AW1 isn’t going to give advanced photographers a lot of features that will appeal to them. The Nikon 1 line of digital cameras is aimed more at inexperienced and intermediate photographers.
It’d be nice if Nikon could fix a few of these problems with a Nikon 1 AW2 version, but, as of this writing, the camera maker has not announced any plans for an upgraded model to the AW1. So you’ll have to decide whether the enhanced image quality of the Nikon 1 AW1 versus fixed lens waterproof cameras is worth the premium you’ll pay for this model and its lenses.