By Australian Geographic Adventure Staff 30 April 2014
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There are countless rugged compact cameras on the market, but there has never been one that offers the versatility of interchangeable lenses until now.

Even though there are innumerable ‘rugged’ compact cameras on the market, there has never been one that offers the versatility interchangeable lenses can, until now that is, with the arrival of the Nikon 1 AW1 and two waterproof lenses: an 11-27.5mm zoom (equivalent to 30-74mm in 35mm format) and a 10mm prime.

The AW1 also works with all other Nikkor 1 lenses, but if you do fit one of these, just remember these non-AW lenses are not waterproof. The AW1 camera and the two AW lenses have a waterproof rating of 15m (IPX8), a shockproof rating of 2m (can be dropped from that height and still operate), are dustproof, and work in temperatures below freezing (down to -10°C). On paper, it looks like the ultimate “adventurer’s camera”.

The Nikon AW1 is one of Nikon’s 1 Series cameras, so named due to the 1-inch sensor size used. The 1 Series (there are four models: the J3, V1 and V2) has been around now for a couple of years and has gained popularity with outdoor enthusiasts due to the combination of small size and comprehensive specification list.

The AW1 is the latest addition and it is, also, packed full of features, including a 14.2MP CMOS sensor, 1080 Full HD video capability, a frame rate of 15fps, an ISO range of 160-6400, a hybrid autofocus system, that combines phase-detection and contrast-detection (for optimum focusing when capturing fast-moving subjects), inbuilt GPS, hires 3-inch LCD screen, and loads more (see the Nikon website for full specs).

Oddly, for a camera aimed at the adventurous market, battery capacity (rated at 220 shots per charge) is quite small; on a recent four-day trek in southwest Tasmania, editor Justin Walker took two batteries and needed both.

Australian Geographic Adventure has been testing this camera for nearly two months now, with the 11-27.5mm lens (equivalent to 30-74mm in 35mm format) that’s included in the kit. The camera has been subjected to a variety of conditions –underwater, trekking, rock scrambling, hot, cold and rainy – and copped a serious (although unintentional) beating, with rock/tree/branch impacts along the way.

Through all this, it has continued to produce high quality images. Focus acquisition is super quick, thanks to the hybrid auto-focus system and the images are rich, with a wide colour gamut. All the buttons are easy to operate, although you do have to delve into the menu system quite a bit if you want more manual control over your exposure settings.

There are a couple of things to remember when using the camera: ensure the O-ring on the lens mount is correctly fitted, lubricated and free from debris; and after use in salt water, the camera needs to be placed in a bucket of fresh water, then thoroughly dried before you remove the lens. It sounds like a hassle, but isn’t. Especially when you consider the all-round versatility of this camera – no more bulky waterproof housings for one!

The LCD screen is easily viewed in all but ultra-bright sunlight, which focuses attention on what some testers considered a major miss: there’s no viewfinder, either electric (EVF) or optical; there’s not even an accessory one available.

For the Luddites among us, this was a disappointment; even though the camera can be operated one handed – and in a lot of outdoor situations it would need to be – being able to hold the camera up close to your eye gives you a better idea of the framing, and reduces handshake.

Both the AW1 body and the AW lenses lack image stabilisation/vibration reduction, which is disappointing, considering most camera bodies and/or lens systems have this inbuilt. It is not a terminal problem by any means, but testers agreed that, with an EVF and vibration reduction – plus a more powerful battery – the AW1 would be close to the ultimate adventure camera.

With its water/dust/shock/freeze proofing and interchangeable waterproof lenses – plus excellent sensor – the Nikon 1 AW1 has definitely raised the bar in the adventure camera market.

RRP $999.95 (incl. 11-27.5 kit lens)