Nikon 1 AW1 at a glance:

  • 14.2-million-pixel, CX-format CMOS sensor
  • 3in, 921,000-dot LCD screen
  • ISO 160-6400
  • Waterproof to 15m
  • Shockproof to 2m
  • Freezeproof to -10°C
  • Street price around £749 with 11-27.5mm kit lens

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Introduction

For those who would like a rugged and waterproof camera, there are two options: either spend your money on a waterproof compact that features a 1/2.3in sensor and compromise on image quality; or consider an expensive underwater housing for a camera you already own. While many manufacturers claim that their cameras are weather-resistant with a number of inherent weather seals to protect them from dust and moisture, these models are not designed to withstand being fully submerged underwater.

Nikon has had the foresight to address the gap in the market for a waterproof compact system camera by blending the robust characteristics of its all-weather compact, the Coolpix AW110, with the core features of the Nikon 1 J3. The outcome of this is the Nikon 1 AW1 – the world’s first system camera with a 1in, CX-format sensor that is not only waterproof to an impressive depth of 15m, but also fully shockproof from a remarkable height of 2m.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Features

Lining up against Nikon’s current S1, V2 and J3 1-series models, the AW1 has a similar specification to the J3, albeit in a more robust body. While it adopts the Nikon 1 mount and is fully compatible with non-waterproof Nikkor 1 lenses, the camera is specifically designed to be used with either a Nikkor 11-27.5mm (30-74mm equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 or 10mm (27mm equivalent) f/2.8 lens, both of which have been designed to be fully waterproof and shockproof, just like the body. To ensure that a watertight seal is created between the lens and the camera body, a rubber O-ring surrounds the mount, against which the lens compresses as it is connected. As a result, this rubber-on-metal-mount seal requires more force when engaging and disengaging a lens than your average CSC.

The Nikon 1 AW1’s 14.2-milion-pixel, CX-format CMOS sensor is similar to that found in the Nikon 1 J3. Measuring 13.2×8.8mm, it works out at 4.4mm larger along the longest edge and 2.2mm longer along the shortest compared to a waterproof compact with a smaller 1/2.3in sensor. Unlike system cameras with larger micro four thirds or APS-C-sized sensors, the AW1’s sensitivity spans a more conservative range of ISO 160-6400, with no option to expand it.

In addition to being waterproof, the AW1 is also dustproof and freezeproof to -10°C. To aid users in cold conditions when gloves may be worn, there is what Nikon calls ‘action’ control. By utilising the action button, the shooting mode can be changed by tilting the camera. In playback mode, this also doubles as an intuitive way of scrolling through images or returning to the first shot taken in a set of images.

Features that the Nikon 1 AW1 inherits from the J3 include Nikon’s advanced hybrid AF system, which assesses the scene to detect whether phase-detection or contrast-detection AF is most appropriate, and an exceptionally versatile electronic shutter offering speeds from 30-1/16,000sec, which is twice as fast as even the best mechanical shutter.

Pairing the electronic shutter with Nikon’s Expeed 3A processor means that the AW1 can shoot at incredibly fast continuous speeds. Full-resolution shots at 5fps, 15fps, 30fps or 60fps can be recorded, although above 15fps the focusing mode is automatically set to AF-S, and both focus and exposure are fixed for the first frame. Images can be captured in both raw and JPEG formats, with Nikon’s proprietary NEF format used for raw files. Videos can be recorded to 60i/30p in full HD (1920×1080-pixel) quality.

Altitude and underwater depth can be tracked in feet or metres on the AW1 thanks to a built-in altimeter/depth gauge, and there’s an electronic compass to check precise positioning – a particularly useful feature for underwater divers. The menu system on the AW1 is similar to that on the J3. It remains the light grey on dark grey interface, with many settings such as ISO, white balance and image quality being menu driven rather than having their own independent buttons. Regrettably, there’s still no quick menu through which frequently used settings can be changed instantly on the fly, and with no command dial, users have to rely on using the playback zoom buttons to adjust aperture or shutter speed.

There is a pop-up flash on the corner of the AW1’s body that can be used underwater, which has a guide number of 5m (16ft) @ ISO 100. At the rear, the 3in, 921,000-dot display is the same as that used in the J3, featuring brightness adjustment but lacking touch functionality.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Build and handling

To ensure that the AW1 is tough enough to shake off the worst knocks it could encounter, the body shell is made from a strong yet lightweight magnesium alloy. In the hand, it feels noticeably more robust than other system cameras of a similar price, and it loses the plastic finish we’re used to seeing on other Nikon 1-series models.

When dropped from a height of 2m, the AW1 survived with little more than a light scratch from where the body made impact with the floor. Repeating the test so that the lens would take the full force of the impact also proved successful, and other than a small dent to the bezel there were no signs of damage to the sensor, lens mount, screen or optics within the lens, and the overall performance remained unaffected.

The camera also tolerated being submerged underwater in a swimming pool and in seawater. On a couple of occasions the front element on our review sample had a tendency to fog up on the inside – something I put down to an instant change in humidity – but this was resolved by leaving the camera to dry out in a camera bag for a few minutes.

One oversight on the AW1 is the lack of a defined handgrip, preferably a rubber one that could significantly improve the handling. This is particularly relevant underwater, when at times the neck strap was the only precautionary measure preventing the smooth white camera body slipping from our grasp. While Nikon does offer an optional CF-N6000 silicone jacket (£25), it would be better to see this incorporated into the AW1’s design.

The shutter, on/off and movie-recording buttons are conveniently positioned on the top-plate for instant control with the index finger, while the zoom ring on the kit lens has a refined movement, but more resistance than most standard kit zooms.

Although the very fine textured grip of the zoom ring doesn’t provide much in the way of grip when using gloves, it mimics the same texture used for the thin protrusion at the front of the body. As to be expected from an underwater camera, the D-pad and surrounding buttons have a spongy feel, but they are of a reasonable size and offer a reassuring click in use.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Metering and dynamic range


The AW1 produces bright images straight out of the camera, which do not suffer from underexposure. If anything, the camera overexposes just a little and, on occasions when I was shooting towards the light or when scenes had some particularly bright highlights, I dialled in -0.3EV or -0.7EV to guarantee highlight detail wasn’t lost. To help preserve extra detail in the shadows of high-contrast scenes, Active D-Lighting can be switched on from inside the shooting menu.

With the effect of Active D-Lighting being less dramatic than other manufacturers’ dynamic range optimisers, it is safe to leave it turned on if you’d like a subtle improvement to detail recorded in the shadows.

Image: Shooting towards the light can cause shadows to appear unnaturally dark, but the AW1’s Active D-Lighting mode has helped preserve detail in the foreground area of this image and delivered a broader tonal range

Dynamic range

As to be expected, the dynamic-range performance of the AW1 is similar to that of the J3, and there were times in bright lighting conditions when I inspected the histogram on the rear display only to find that highlight clipping was occurring. While Active D-Lighting increases the tonal detail in the shadows, I found it less effective at preserving detail in the brightest highlights. To save the highlights blowing out in high-contrast scenes, the backlighting creative mode was frequently put to use and the best results were created when it was combined with the HDR mode.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Autofocus

Image: The AW1 was tested in brutal sea conditions with the RNLI. Its fast AF system locked on to members of the crew quickly despite the harsh conditions and droplets of water on the lens 

Nikon 1 AW1 review- Autofocus

The performance and lock on-speed of the AF system is responsive. In bright lighting conditions, there is barely any delay between half-depressing the shutter and the AF beep confirming focus. The AW1’s downfall in terms of AF is the speed at which the AF point can be repositioned in the frame. Moving the AF point using the D-pad takes time, and although it’s good that the AF point can be moved to the far edges, it’s no match for the speed of a CSC that has a touchscreen and touch AF functionality.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Resolution, noise and sensitivity

At the time of testing, the AW1’s raw files were not supported by Camera Raw or Lightroom, so Nikon’s ViewNX 2 software that comes with the camera was used to process the uncompressed files to the TIFF format. At its base sensitivity of ISO 160, the AW1 resolved 24 lines per mm – a sound readout given that some compact system cameras with APS-C-sized sensors have produced similar levels of detail in the past. The same 24lpmm were resolved up to ISO 400, but beyond this setting the figure gradually began to trail off to 18lpmm at the camera’s maximum ISO of 6400.

Clean, noise-free images are produced from ISO 160-400, although signs of luminance and colour noise are evident at ISO 800. These gradually worsened to such a degree that I would consider ISO 1600 to be the top limit you would regularly want to push to. Added to this, the saturation at ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 is noticeably more muted than at the lower settings, and while the in-camera noise reduction that is applied to the four-digit ISOs reduces colour noise effectively, it comes at the expense of a more waxy overall appearance.

These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the 11-27.5mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, set to 50mm (equivalent). We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution at the specified sensitivity setting.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – White balance and colour

In bright daylight conditions, the AW1’s auto white balance delivers accurate lifelike colours. Comparing this to images taken in low-light conditions revealed that the white balance has a tendency to render cooler tones. The same could be said when shooting under artificial lights in a dark corridor, albeit with less cool images. In addition to the eight white balance options, users have the choice to use six picture-control settings. Vivid mode injects more saturation at the cost of increased contrast with less visible detail in the shadows, while neutral mode reveals slightly more shadow detail than the default standard mode.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Viewfinder, live view, LCD and video

For its price, we would expect the AW1 to have some form of viewfinder, but in keeping with the Nikon 1-series – with the exception of the V1 and V2 – the AW1 lacks both an optical and an electronic unit, so there’s no choice but to compose via the screen. The 3in, 921,000-dot LCD resolves reasonable detail, but in bright sunlight and underwater conditions reflections did cause some visibility issues.

The camera shoots full HD video at a maximum frame rate of 60i, with 30p also available. Autofocus is impressively smooth and quiet when set to AF-C. Moving subjects are recorded well and there are four microphone sensitivity settings, with auto sensitivity delivering reasonable results.

Nikon 1 AW1 review – Our verdict

In the AW1, Nikon has delivered the most rugged system camera on the market. Despite being built like a tank and able to survive demanding drops and harsh environments, it is not entirely faultless. The lack of manual controls makes it incredibly slow to set up, and in that respect it’s no different from other Nikon 1-system CSCs. It is good for the point-and-shoot user who wants minimal fuss, but it leaves advanced photographers wanting.

The design of the body could be improved with a larger handgrip that preferably consists of a rubberised material, and a fully waterproof fisheye lens is lacking from the Nikkor 1 range – an obvious omission for underwater photographers. All things considered, the AW1 is perhaps best suited to those who want a camera that operates like a compact, but is capable of producing better image quality and offering more versatility than an underwater compact in any conditions.

Hands-on review

When I first held the new Nikon 1 AW1 it wasn’t quite what I had been expecting. Usually, waterproof cameras come in a range of bright, garish colours, with thick rubber coatings and clunky plastic buttons. Not so the Nikon 1 AW1 – its appearance is very conventional. In fact, the camera is designed to look as at home taking street photographs or landscapes as it does underwater images.

Nikon 1 AW1 features

Crammed inside the body of the AW1 is a 1-inch, 14.2-million-pixel CMOS sensor, with ISO sensitivity spanning ISO 160 to 6400. Like other recent Nikon 1 system cameras, the AW1 can shoot with continuous AF at a rate of 15fps, or without AF at 60fps, all at full resolution. However, it is what Nikon describes as the camera’s ‘adventure’ features that are the most interesting.

As you would expect, the AW1 has GPS location tracking – but it also has something called GLONASS, a similar system that’s used in Russia. There is an altimeter, which can be used to see exactly how high, or deep, you are and there’s a digital compass too, which will be useful for the really adventurous – particularly if out shooting in the snow. An electronic level, in the form of a virtual horizon has a more photographic use in helping to keep landscapes straight.

Besides these features, the AW1 operates as a normal Nikon 1 system camera with modes such as full HD video and Smart Photo Selector, which takes 20 high-resolution images and recommends the best five. Sadly there is no built-in Wi-Fi connectivity, though the Nikon WU-1 Wi-Fi module does allow Wi-Fi connection between the AW1 and a smart device. However, this accessory cannot be used underwater as it requires one of the doors on the side of the camera to be open.

Nikon 1 AW1 Build and handling

The sturdy plastic body of the AW1 is waterproof down to a depth of 15m, shockproof from heights of 2m and freeze-proof down to -10°c. To demonstrate the AW1’s robustness Nikon first submerged it in a fish tank, albeit a small one, and later dropped it numerous times from waist height. There was no discernible damage on either occasion. No doubt, with the weather getting colder over the next few months, we will soon have some cold conditions in which to test it.

As you would expect for a camera that’s waterproof, shockproof and freeze-proof, it is also resistant to dust. This is thanks to the seals that surround the body to prevent water ingress.

There are two waterproof lenses available for the camera – the 1 Nikkor AW 11-27.5mm (30-80mm 35mm equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 and the 1 Nikkor AW 10mm (27mm equivalent) f/2.8, a fast wideangle lens. The barrel of each extends so that it presses against the camera body.

However, the actual waterproofing seal is based on a rubber band that sits just around the circumference of the lens mount. Lenses are mounted in the usual way, except that there is a lot more friction due to the rubber seals of the lens and camera meeting. The result is a firm, waterproof grip between camera and lens.

Each of the new AW lenses can also be used on a standard Nikon 1 system camera, likewise standard Nikon 1 lenses though they won’t, of course, be waterproof.

The sensor is also protected – by a layer of glass in front of it. This is presumably to protect the sensitive electronics more from humidity and dust than water. The rear screen also sits behind a second layer, this time of plastic, to add another layer of protection and to help against humidity.

A range of lockable doors prevents water reaching the rest of the camera. These allow access to the battery, memory card and camera input and output sockets, but when shut the rubber seals close tightly and the door becomes a solid barrier against water.

Using the camera is straightforward. There is a typical button arrangement on the rear, with large, well-designed buttons that are easy to press and allow quick access to essential features. Should you need to change more settings, the onscreen menu items are larger than on previous Nikon cameras, to enable you to see them underwater or in challenging conditions.


The AW1 is a far cry from the company’s Nikonos underwater cameras of old, which really looked like they were designed to go underwater, with large plastic bodies and clunky looking buttons. This new Nikon underwater camera is discreet and isn’t something you would be embarrassed to pull out of your pocket at a social gathering; it’s not bright yellow and doesn’t look like it was designed for a child.

However, performance is more important than appearance. In this regard Nikon has made a camera that enthusiast photographers can happily take anywhere. This means, for instance, that you can go on holiday unencumbered by an underwater compact camera and a compact system camera – just take the Nikon AW1.

This, I’m sure, will prove appealing for many potential purchasers. Something else that doubtless will appeal is that as the AW1 is a small compact system camera it is a fraction of the size of an equivalent DSLR kit, and is therefore less cumbersome to transport.

As for how the images from the camera look, we will have to wait until we fully test the camera in a forthcoming issue.

The Nikon AW1 goes on sale on 10 October costing £749 with the 11-27mm lens or £949 for the 11-27mm and 10mm lens. The 10mm lens will also be available on its own for £299.99.