In general, the AW1 is pretty quick. From ‘off’ to first picture capture is about 1.5-2.0 seconds. I did notice a very brief lag (about 1/4 to 1/2 of a second) when pushing the start/stop video button, before video capture actually begins or ends. The AW1 is capable of producing consistently very good to excellent still images and very good to excellent HD video, and performance was dependably competitive with (equal to or better than) MILC’s from other manufacturers at this price point and better than any underwater/all weather/extreme sports digital camera that I have used to date.
The AW1 saves images and video clips to SD, SDHC, and SDXC memory cards (including MicroSD with SD adaptor) and provides the ability to save images in either JPEG or RAW formats.
The AW1’s built-in flash (the camera doesn’t feature a hot shoe) is located on the left side (from the rear) of the top deck and a pop-up mechanism raises the flash slightly above the lens axis, so redeye will probably be less of a problem. Here’s where things get interesting (especially for an underwater/all weather/extreme sports camera). The AW1’s pop-up flash is on a jointed arm that lends itself to easy bounce lighting – simply calculate your bounce distance and hold the flash at the proper angle with the index finger of your left hand (while gripping the camera with your other three fingers and thumb). This feature substantially increases the AW1’s general-use camera capabilities and subtracts nothing from its extreme environment camera capabilities. This means you can shoot reef fish underwater in the morning and bounce-lit portraits indoors in the afternoon.
Nikon claims the AW1 is good for up to 220 exposures with a fully charged EN-EL20 Lithium-ion rechargeable battery. The battery charges outside the camera with the supplied charger and requires about two to three hours for a full charge. Based on my experiences with the AW1, I’d say 220 exposures is a conservative estimate. I used the camera heavily for two weeks and only charged it twice. While the 220 exposures is well below the 480 exposures claimed by Sony for their NEX-3n (I found the NEX-3n was actually only good for about 350 exposures), I would guess the AW1 is actually good for about 250 exposures.
Currently there are only two underwater capable lenses available for the AW1 – the standard 11mm-27.5mm kit zoom (30mm-74mm equivalent) and a slightly faster (f2.8) 10mm (27mm equivalent) prime lens. Other Nikon 1 lenses can be mounted on the AW1, but they render the AW1’s special features (waterproof, shockproof, and freeze-proof) useless. AW1 lenses can’t be mounted on other Nikon 1 cameras.
The Nikon 1 AW1 is sold in two kit packages. The standard kit is the camera and the 11mm-27.5mm zoom lens with a f3.5-f5.6 aperture. The second kit includes both the zoom and the 10mm prime lens with the camera. The kit zoom did show some very minor corner softness, but center sharpness is impressively good. In fact those graduating from P&S digicams will be impressed with just how much difference there is in basic optical quality between most P&S zooms and any decent interchangeable zoom.
The AW1 records HD video at 1920 x 1080p @ 60 fps (and other resolutions and frame rates) with stereo audio. Video clips are sharp, fluid, and hue correct.
The AW1’s default images show very neutral hue accurate colors, balanced contrast, and impressive overall sharpness. Image quality is dependably excellent outdoors in good light and slightly better than average indoors. Shadow detail capture is better than expected and highlight detail capture is noticeably better than average for cameras in this class.
The kit zoom’s f/3.5 maximum aperture is a bit slow for shooting indoors, but should be more than fast enough for most outdoor venues. Center sharpness is pretty good overall, but at the wide-angle end of the zoom corners are slightly soft. I didn’t notice any vignetting (dark corners) and both barrel and pincushion distortion are visible, but appear to be well corrected. Contrast is balanced (but a little flat) and colors are hue accurate and neutral. Chromatic aberration is remarkably well-controlled, but color fringing is occasionally visible in the color transition areas between dark foreground objects and bright backgrounds. There is also a slight tendency toward minor overexposure, in all auto modes, but this problem is easily managed by either selecting a smaller F-stop after switching to Aperture Preferred mode or utilizing the AW1’s exposure compensation function in Program mode to better manage ambient lighting. High ISO images tend to be on the grainy side. This could pose a problem for those photographing underwater in darker areas without a flash.
My final word on the AW1’s image quality is an observation. I expected the colors from this camera to be oversaturated (more intense than they are in real life) because everybody loves those traditional (National Geographic style) bright and colorful pictures of reef fish. I like neutral colors because often oversaturated colors provide a fakey wet paint look. Kudos to Nikon’s product development folks for not sacrificing the possibility of shooting great portraits or expansive landscapes above water to make clown fish look more colorful underwater.