The Nikon 1 AW1 is the first truly underwater interchangeable-lens compact digital camera and can operate down to 49 feet.
When Nikon introduced its Nikon 1 line of interchangeable-lens compact cameras built on a 1-inch (13.2x8.8mm) sensor in 2012, they took their digital camera lineup in a completely unexpected direction. With a smaller format sensor and record-setting autofocus speed, the first camera had a high-tech feeling and a simple layout that Nikon was hoping would be embraced by beginners and enthusiasts. A year later, the Nikon 1 V2 added a built-in EVF and a more DSLR-like form factor to appeal to more serious users. Now, with the surprise introduction of the Nikon 1 AW1 ($795.95 with 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 lens), Nikon is taking mirrorless compact cameras someplace they've never been before: Underwater.
The Nikon 1 AW1, which is built around a 14.2MP CMOS sensor and accepts proprietary Nikon CX format lenses, is designed for the active outdoor crowd, and is built to handle extreme activities. It can be submerged as far down as 49 feet. It is also protected against dust, cold down to 14 degrees F, and can be dropped from as high as 6 feet—something I tried several times without breaking the camera. While the AW1 accepts any Nikon CX lens, it can only be used underwater with two new lenses, the Nikon 11-27.5 1 Nikkor AW, and the Nikon 10mm f/2.8 Nikkor AW, which are waterproof and shockproof to match the AW1.
I chose a rainy fall day to test the Nikon 1 AW1's mettle. First up, in a moderate drizzle, I put the camera on the street to photograph fallen leaves on their level. Photos by Mason Resnick
In the hands
While the Nikon 1 AW1 looks like a typical consumer-level mirrorless, once you pick it up you immediately realize it is much more rugged than that but without the bulk you'd expect from an underwater camera. The lens tightly locks into place with a firm seal, thanks to O-rings that are clearly visible at the lens mount on the camera and a lip at the base of the lens that together form a tight barrier. Pick it up and start shooting and you get the same kind of super-fast focus performance that distinguished the AW1's landlubber predecessors.
The rain kept falling, and I kept shooting.
The display, in the bright 3-inch LCD finder, includes a digital level option, and on-screen menu controls give you the option of very simple changes or more in-depth controls, right down to manual control of flash output from the built-in pop-up flash, choosing RAW or JPEG image file, changing metering patterns, and adjusting the amount of noise reduction. I found the graphical user interface to be very straightforward and intuitive despite the wide range of choices the camera offers.
Separate still and video buttons let you shoot stills while simultaneously shooting video (a standard feature on the Nikon 1 series). I did occasionally confuse the two and pressed the video button when I meant to press the shutter release, but with a bit of practice that mistake only happened a handful of times.
Then, I saw this: A puddle, filled with water to maybe an inch deep. OK, it's not a dive site, but that dirty streetwater was a great place to do a quick and quite dirty test of the camera's waterproofness and gain a new perspective on my neighborhood.
So, is this camera as tough as its specs indicate? Yes! I took a walk with it on a rainy day and—oops!—dropped it in a puddle. I left it there and took a bunch of images with the camera partly submerged. Yes, the camera go a bit dirty, as did the lens. Back home I did the unthinkable and gave the camera a bath in the sink, then carefully wiped away the grime from the specially-treated protective front of the lens. Then I turned the camera on. It worked, and was clean as new.
I submerged the Nikon 1 WR1 up to the bottom third of the lens, and started shooting. How many other cameras can give you a perspective like this and live to tell the tale?
Nikon has a dual-lock door to protect the battery and SD card port and prevent against accidental opening underwater The USB and HDMI ports on the side of the camera are similarly protected.
And yes, I had a white bodied model, so any signs of wear and tear would show up, right? Even after mistreating the camera, there wasn't even a scratch.
The ripples in the water were caused by drops of rain landing on and around the camera.
Beyond its sturdy construction, the Nikon 1 AW1's features and image quality are pretty much the same as the Nikon 1 J3 with minor differences. If you're looking for an interchangeable-lens compact camera that you can take diving without a specialized case, there really is no other game in town.
The Nikon 1 AW1 is available in kits with a color-matched 11-27.5mm lens in Black, Silver, and White at Adorama for $795.95.