Nikon AW1 First Impressions

We had a total of seven AW1 cameras amongst the group at my recent Galapagos workshop. While I didn’t get to work with the camera as much as I had hoped, my assistant did, and I was able to observe and get comments from all the others that filled in a few gaps. 

First some good and bad news. Most of these cameras were used in snorkeling daily for two weeks. All total there was probably over a 140 hours of in water use amongst the cameras (plus more above water). No flooded cameras. While some worry about the type of seals used on the two doors of the camera, they seem perfectly sufficient for snorkeling, swimming, rain, waterfalls, and the other types of uses most people would be using these cameras for. Nikon doesn’t advertise them as scuba diving cameras, and they’re not. For everything else, they’re fine. 

The bad news is that two of the cameras had persistent fogging issues (mostly on the LCD, but also on sealed lenses). This indicates that some small level of moisture had gotten into places it shouldn’t be. Since a lot of folk might do what we did: go from air conditioned environs (our cabins in the boat) to hot beach climes, this is something you need to watch for. I highly suggest not opening the camera or changing the lens in moist air if you can avoid it, as you could then be sealing in that moisture when you close up the camera again. Then you’ll have problems moving between cold/hot locations. 

That the moisture was somehow getting to the LCD is worrisome. That might indicate that some of the AW1s we had didn’t have the glass over the LCD as well sealed as others. But again, the simple answer is to try to keep moisture from getting inside in the first place. That means opening the camera only when its temperature has regulated to the environment, and not in humid areas if you can avoid it. 

Of course, I wish it were easy to change lenses anywhere. On my sample—but not on most of the others—my lens just likes to stay on the camera. I have to use a lot of force to twist the lens out of the sealed mount. This seems to be worse on my 11-27.5mm AW than my 10mm AW lens, so I suspect that my zoom just has slightly thicker, drier rubber gaskets. I’ve tried applying some old Nikonos grease to the rings, and that seemed to help a bit, but my camera/lens combo is still a little tighter than the others I tried.

Overall, the AW1 is a “big J3.” The additional gasketing and other things that Nikon has done to keep water out make for a bigger camera. That’s especially true of the lenses. The 11-27.5mm AW lens is nearly the size of the regular 10-100mm lens. 

I had thought that the rubber protective case Nikon sells would have given me better grip on the camera, but it wasn’t the best of material choices on the part of Nikon. While it’s better than the shiny plastic/metal case of the camera itself in terms of grip, it’s still a bit slippery for my taste. I choose to use a hand strap on my camera (with additional flotation) so that if I did lose grip in the water the camera didn’t float to the bottom of the ocean. Don’t laugh. We lost one of the Olympus Tough cameras on the trip when it slipped out of a pocket on the panga. Slippery near water doesn’t mix. Have a safety strap. 

The two cameras I checked for location data both gave bogus readings. My assistant’s AW1, even after the calibration procedure Nikon suggests, insisted that he was shooting at 1500 feet under water. That’s pretty good for a snorkeler ;~). I have this fear that this value is remembered by the camera, and that cameras going back to Nikon will be checked to see if they exceeded Nikon’s suggested usage. Sorry, Nikon, but if you don’t calibrate the camera right it’s wrong, and when you do calibrate the camera it is often still wrong. 

The door latch for the battery chamber is now squeaky on my sample, though it seems to work just fine. The double latch system isn’t as robust a design as I’d have liked (the “lock” latch basically keeps the regular latch from moving to the open position). I’d have preferred two locks and a latch restrainer on the second one. But the system seems to work fine. The same system is used on the connector door, as well. I would have preferred that the connectors, battery, and card all be behind a single door. Having two doors to check increases the likelihood that you’ll someday forget a latch and trigger a camera flood. 

In terms of shooting, the AW1 is pretty much just like the earlier J models (see my reviews for handling issues). One thing I don’t like is the addition of a menu of menus step. This means that changing settings via menu—which is your primary choice since the camera doesn’t really have configurable buttons and uses only the Direction pad to change anything during shooting—takes way too long and is a bit of a chore when in the water. 

Thus, you really need to get everything set before you start snorkeling with the camera and then just pretty much stick with those settings, changing on aperture (via the zoom buttons) and maybe exposure compensation (via the Direction pad) as you shoot. Anything else gets to be too much attention to the camera and not enough attention to your surroundings. This is a shame. Nikon had the chance to rethink the UI for real water use, but they basically didn’t. So much for solving user problems.

Performance underwater while snorkeling was better than I thought it would be. As my assistant Tony put it, you basically two hand the camera in front and below you and try to swim to your subject (hope you have good fins). The LCD is good enough for basic composition. In the end you put a lot of trust in two things: the focus system and the Auto ISO system. Unfortunately the latter doesn’t have a minimum shutter speed setting, and for some strange reason, still doesn’t have an A1600 setting (you can choose ISO 800 or 3200 or 6400 as maximum ISO, but not 1600). Is Nikon really that dense that they can’t fix something that simple? 

The good news is the focus system is pretty good for snorkeling, especially since you’re likely to stay wide due to the compression effect of the water (the 10mm is what I’d tend to use snorkeling, and ignore the zoom function as you’re too busy already with other controls). In fact, no one was having any issues with getting focus on subjects, even the faster moving ones (sea lions and penguins), unless they happened to get too close

Whoever did the Auto WB and Underwater WB settings needs to have their eyes tested for color issues. Neither seemed to produce correct color in shots for anyone (generally too much green, not warm enough). Moreover, where’s the Underwater Picture Control, Nikon? (Higher contrast, different color balance so hue shifts work better). Seems like all of the effort went into building the sealed shell of the camera, and none into the rest. That’s lazy engineering, something I’m finding happening with more and more Nikon products these days.

Which is a shame, because the J3 is a decent compact-type camera and having an underwater version of it is something I found desirable, which is why I picked one up. My first impression is basically this: it’s sealed well enough for my needs, but that’s the only thing Nikon did for me (or you). I expect better. Frankly, if my engineering staff produced so little on such a product, they’d all be fired. The Nikonos engineers have all left the building, it seems. 

That said, with post processing work (fortunately we were shooting in raw), I think everyone managed to get some unique shots in the Galapagos, and it would be far tougher to do that with a Tough (Olympus) or Coolpix (AW1##). So good on that. The Nikon 1’s survive because—despite all the drawbacks Nikon seems to encumber them with—they are better compacts than compact cameras, and they have great focusing ability. But for the prices Nikon wants, we deserve better. So fire the lazy engineers and find some that can solve real user problems. Please. Soon. 

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