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Nikon 1 AW1 - the little mirrorless that goes where others can't

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Øivind Tøien:

Bjørn's  "The Word is One" thread has spurred interest in Nikon's waterproof and shockproof mirroless camera, the AW1. The thread contains a lot of general useful information on the Nikon 1 system and very nice image examples from the AW1 worth looking at. Also the Slovenia trip report has some nice examples of over/under images with the AW1. If you regularly do things like canoeing/kayaking/snorkeling or spend time in smaller boats in rough waters or just like to play around water I would say go for the AW1.

In the film days I always wanted a green Nikonos V (but finally only got an orange version bought from a friend after restoring it after flooding) so I was very happy when I found a green version of the silicone jacket for the AW1.

I must warn that this camera is so much fun that I  tend bring it everywhere in parallel with the other bodies, so I end up carrying more equipment...  It is one of those products I knew I wanted from the moments it was announced. Price of the AW1 seemed a bit high for a camera without a viewfinder (it is based on the J3), and that "only" go as deep as 15m, so basically snorkeling only. However  I got "inspired" by the wettest Fairbanks summer in recorded history last year together with an effective $100 price drop. Discovering its use with the FT-1 adapter and manual focus lenses as above proved additional value far beyond what I expected. Some examples with different lenses is posted in my "Boreal Spring Bloom" thread.

There are a number of reviews out there on the AW1 - in the current and the following posts I will try to concentrate on less covered aspects.

Those who have dealt with underwater equipment for quite some time know that it is usually a matter of when - not if - an underwater device will flood. Good design and strict procedures can however increase the odds that it happens later rather than sooner. I particularly applaud the fact that Nikon did not fall for the temptation to equip the AW1 with a control wheel with a sealed shaft. On Nikonos IV and V, the double dynamic o-ring seal around the mode/shutter speed dial and film advance lever would silently leak a few drops now and then if not getting regular enough maintenance until the hidden film advance mechanism became so corroded that it would fail. This kind of leak is avoided on the AW1 body by only using membrane covered control buttons. The menu system is OK once one get used to its different operating modes.

The lens is attached with the somewhat unusual external o-ring on the body, which simplifies user maintenance of o-rings to only one and also makes the design of the lenses simpler. It is pretty tight to get the AW-1 lenses off so this should be a patent seal if maintained properly and the O-ring is of high enough quality (I had to have Nikon replace the one came mounted on the AW1 due to irregularities in the seam of the o-ring). When the FT-1 adapter is mounted, a dedicated o-ring protector is used.

The sensor shield would normally be completely exposed when maintaining this o-ring. I bought a body cap for a regular Nikon 1 camera for protection during this procedure as o-ring maintenance should not be done in a hurry!

The ports over the battery compartment and connector port has an unusual looking gasket type seal. A common misunderstanding I have seen in various forums is to use silicone grease to maintain these gasket seals. There is nothing in the manual about using the supplied silicone grease on anything but the o-ring at the mount. There it is used to ensure that the o-ring can move freely in the grove, not to actually cause a seal. If grease is applied to the gaskets it could possibly function to "help" water pressure to push the sealing lip in, as there is nothing holding against it, particularly on the port seal.  We do not want that. The gasket is somewhat sticky which helps to keep it in place, but also adheres dust and small hairs. This stickiness transfers to the sealing surface too, which now and then need a bit more cleaning than can be done with a blower, so careful inspection of the narrow gasket lip and sealing surfaces is imperative. (I prefer to do so with a pair of strong reading glasses).


If it had been up to me I would have dropped the ports for the connectors altogether, and compensated by installing the missing ir-remote receiver in the little window for the focus assist light.


To begin with I only bought the AW1 with the standard 11-27.5mm kit lens, as I thought the 10mm lens was too close in coverage. The first testing in the ocean happened in Vesterålen in Northern Norway last August. I helped my brother and the young composer and artist Tine Surel collect material that had drifted onto this exposed beach for a planned sound sculpture project in Nyksund. We donned survival suits to wade ashore on the extremely slippy round rocks. It was unavoidable that the AW1 took several dips in the water after being repeately sprayed during the boat trip. The lens front stayed remarkably clean of water drops and stains:

Then it was time to take it for a swim in Nyksund. Only at the surface though because of a leaky dry suit zipper, I had Tine help me put duct tape above the zipper to reduce leaks.   :)   (Not too efficient but one has to try, when I finished the swim I emptied each arm for several liters of cold seawater trough the wrist seals.)

For land use with kit lens I often have the AW1 set to auto-ISO up to 3200 as it is rather biased towards low ISO (and if it goes to the top there probably would have been too little light to get a handheld shot without motion blur at ISO 800 anyway, so why not get a noisy shot.)  I soon found that this was too conservative for UW use. It is better to set a fixed ISO like 400 or 800, and even then in these high latitude arctic waters it was hard to get captures without motion blur with the kit lens.

I actually had much better luck with the video (which is of high image quality), while swimming through kelp forest in shallow water. One could have wished for image stabilization though... I supplied the clips to Tine Surel  for inspiration and self promotion. (She is not a scuba diver, but uses themes and sounds from coast and sea as part of her music). To my joy I later found that she had edited them together to use it as a backdrop for her music at some live concerts and in a YouTube video called "Tarre" (a twist on the word "tare" which is kelp); it was edited down to 720p:

Here are some of the more successful still captures with the kit lens from that swim:

11mm f/5.6 1/160s ISO 160

11mm f/5.6 1/200s ISO180

Alien spaceship? 21mm f/5.6 Subawider II 1/250s  ISO 160

12.5mm f/5.6 1/50s ISO 400

I also did a few preliminary tests with a wide-angle converter from my Nikonos days called the Subawider II. The next last image above and the following selfie was captured by just holding the converter in front of the kit lens (more on this subject in the next post on underwater optics).

13.5 mm f/5 Subawider II

11mm f/5 1/50s ISO 400

The AW1 can also provide some unique perspectives on the above water environment too.

13mm f/5 1/400s  ISO 160

Actually the very first meeting of my AW1 with seawater was while waiting by the docks in Stokmarknes There was a lot of activity in the water and I "had to" (somewhat nervously) explore it by sticking the AW1 underwater trying not to take a bath myself. I apologize for the video shake caused by small waves hitting the shore. Unfortunately quality is reduced by the compression by my Zenfolio site. It is best to click up to full screen right away when it starts playing (lower right corner. The autofocus works remarkably well in spite of particles in the water is very audible on the sound recording, so so not count on using the underwater sound.

Handling: During my Nyksund swim I was operating the AW1 with dry cloves - rather large "veterinary rubber gloves" over thick wool gloves. The AW1 was still big enough that it was reasonably comfortable to hold, helped by the silicon jacket and the relatively large kit lens. One problem I had was the preview button, I kept hitting the quick mode button instead.  If video was the main purpose, perhaps the AW1 could have been stabilized by mounting it on a board/fin. The display has a high contrast daylight mode that actually works quite well. The challenge underwater can be the angle of viewing the display. If too steep, there is total reflection according to laws of physics.

Comment on scuba diving (written from memory): Some brave souls on dpreview reported that they had taken the AW1 down 20m. The display started to distort at 15m and was nearly unreadable at 20m. So no, unless the dive site never reach larger depth than 15m, I would not take it scuba diving. For that there are underwater housings. Lately housings for phased out J models have been sold pretty regularly at dumping prices <$100, so if someone wanted to get started with UW foto during scuba diving, this could be an alternative. But to get to any larger depth, particularly in cold waters, a dedicated underwater strobe and arm system becomes almost mandatory. The 1 series housings are about 3/4 kg empty, so it is really not an alternative to AW1.

Next post: Underwater optics for the AW1.

Øivind Tøien:

In this post I will discuss alternative underwater optics for the Nikon 1 AW1.

One are seldom granted super duper visibility underwater, so to get as clear an image as possible, super wide or fisheye optics becomes highly desirable for anything larger than macro subjects. The two alternatives from Nikon are the AW 11-27.5 mm kit lens and the AW 10mm. They have the same above water angle of view as a 30mm and a 27mm full frame lens. Due to the flat front ports the subject will appear 30% closer and bigger under water, with a corresponding narrower effective angle of view.

In the Nikonos days neither the 35mm or 28mm was regarded as suitable for  larger objects. The gold standard in 35mm underwater wide optics was the fantastic Nikonos 15mm lens that came in two different incarnations and provided a lot better images than a super wide lens behind a dome port. Edges with chromatic aberration and blurriness is somewhat accepted side effects of dome ports. [In the animated underwater scenes of the Harry Potter - the Goblet of Fire movie, they added these two effects  and some haze to make it look like underwater scenes!]. In those days I could not afford the expensive 15mm, so I got the poor mans "15mm", a wideangle converter called the "Subawider II" that attach to the front of the 35mm lens. It is a waterproof sealed assembly of cast plastic elements, some of which are aspheric, and it is pretty well corrected for underwater use.  One can still find these more or less new on ebay but asking price is pretty high for what it is and  compared to the alternative in the next post.

I refitted the Subawider for the AW1 kit lens by cutting off a little of the plastic at the base and added a new sleeve made out of a surplus sample box. The space between the Subawider and the mother lens is designed to be filled with water, so a couple of water entry holes were drilled at each side. A zoom setting of 15mm maximized angle of view without the shade of the Subawider coming into the frame. The Olympus wrist strap is essential when you have a green AW1. Surprisingly it was just able to keep the AW1 afloat in fresh water with the kit lens mounted. The Subawider itself has positive buoyancy.


In a not so clear pond near Oslo (Isdammen in Lillomarka) I got the chance to test it this spring. As there is no antireflective coating, back light can cause quite some flare, and the images almost always need good use of the contrast slider during editing:

Subawider II + AW1 kit lens at 15mm f/5.6  1/50s OSO 400.

As mating season was on, common toads (Bubo bufo) were willing subjects, in fact it was often a problem that single male toads attacked the lens. The combination focuses almost to the surface of the lens, but auto focus often had problems to follow quickly enough at this short range. I soon learnt to shoot at 5 frames per second to increase odds of successful frames without motion blur in these murky waters.

Subawider +15mm f/5.6 1/40s ISO400

Subawider +15mm f/5.6 1/15s ISO 400

Here is an image with the kit lens alone for comparison.

11mm f/5.6 1/200s ISO 400

In another pond "Salamanderdammen" ("The newt pond") nearby I encountered a single Smooth Newt (Lissotriton vulgaris) that was cooperative just long enough to get this capture. This one is tiny, perhaps only 5-7 cm. Not often one see images of these in their natural habitat, but this one got blurry in this dark spot with very low reflective material on the bottom. Watch the shutter speed!

Subawider + 15mm f/5.6  0.4s ISO 400

In the next post I will look at another superwide alternative for AW1 and conclude the optics for AW1 part of the review.

Øivind Tøien:
Sadly my Subawider II wideangle converter lens has some bad scratches on its front dome from hard use that shows up in some UW images, particularly with backlight. Also the AW1 kit lens started to develop wobble of the front and was due for warranty repair. I got some general concerns for the integrity of the dynamic type of o-ring seals at the zoom ring (they are about 1/2 as thick as the main seal judged from two samples that Nikon sent me by error to replace the main seal) This all spurred me into looking for alternatives.

In a dpreview post I found a reference to a page where the AW10mm f/2.8 lens was successfully used with an Olympus waterproof fisheye converter, The FCON-T01
This $139 wideangle/fisheye converter has a 40.5mm thread and fits the AW 10mm lens perfectly without any adapter. (In comparison the NC filter Nikon provides for the kit lens is ca. $70). The last turn has more resistance perhaps indicating that it seals against the inside of the front rubber bumper. My own tests and reports I have seen so far indicates that the space between is kept dry. The adapter that comes with it for its intended purpose with the Olympus Tough TG-x series of waterproof compact cameras looks rather flimsy compared to the solid metal build of the converter. The optical glass looks to have a good coating and does not introduce much flare and ghosting in backlight.

At some point I discussed with Bjørn whether Nikon will release an underwater version of the 6.7-13mm lens. The problem we noticed is that a lens with a dome port corrected for underwater use would not work well above water and a flat port would not work well underwater due to the steep angle in the air-glass-water transition with a superwide. But is the latter true? The Olympus wideangle/fisheye converter has a flat front, but the inner glass surface of the front element is curved. Likely this adapter use the principles of a Rebikoff - Ivanoff panoramic correction lens, with a corresponding positve flat faced lens at the rear, , scroll all the way down the page. The advantage with the design is that it will work both above and below water. The space between lens and the Rebikoff corrector can be both wet and dry. Here is a screen shot, but I recommend looking at the original page that also contains information about flat ports and dome ports.

The Olympus waterproof fisheye converter works well with backlight, here at close range:

Olympus Fisheye converter + AW 10mm at f/4  1/320s ISO 160

Bridge over Chena River in Fairbanks. The above water performance of the combination is quite above expectations. There is some CA at the edges, but most of it is removed well in CNX2. If desired the distortion can be almost completely corrected vertically with Fisheye Hemi 3 (for 16mm fisheye on DX sensor).

Olympus fisheye converter + AW 10mm f/4 1/2500s ISO 160

Over-under-images can work well with a fairly marked air-water transition but water quality in this case was very poor and a thin oily film on the surface that stuck to the front element and messed up the above water part. The low tones in the below water part usually has to be pulled up in over/under captures like these.

Olympus fisheye converter + AW 10mm f/4 1/400s ISO 160

A Rebikoff corrector will have a narrower angle of view underwater and with an image appearing closer due to the differences in refractive index between water and glass. But remember that with the 10mm lens alone, this effect would be even stronger due to the air-glass-water interface. In a Rebikoff corrector the air-glass refraction is "canceled" due to the internal dome port effect where rays are perpendicular to the glass surface.

Olympus fisheye converter + AW 10mm f/4 1/640s ISO 400

Focus above and below water.

Olympus fisheye converter + AW 10mm f/4 1/250s ISO 400

In this very low visibility pond that had half dried out in the neighborhood, very good details is shown at close range.  Not sure what this is, perhaps a cluster of snail eggs?  Lots of daphnia swimming around.

Olympus fisheye converter + AW 10mm f/4 1/160s ISO 400

Clear water is not easy to find around here, so for a more technical test a trip had to be made to the lab.
All of these were captured wide open at f/2.8.

Showing the angle of view from the same distance; back of the AW1 towards the wall in an mostly empty aquarium,

10mm + Olympus fisheye converter:

At minimum focus distance UW the 10mm shows strong pincushion distortion and blurry corners.

At same distance the fisheye converter+10mm combination almost completely cancels the distortion and corners are much better. This is probably partly due to the 10mm lens not being at it's closest focus distance yet with the converter attached.

A resolution test in clear reverse-osmosis water. The red horizontal stripes on my poor wax bear's front is about 1" long. All of these captured at f/2.8 .


Fisheye converter+10mm combination

10mm closest focus

Converter+10mm combination close focus only a few cm from the front port. I can get nearly 2x the magnification of the 10mm alone. The correction lens apparently causes some focal range compression, as it does not introduce any near sightedness at infinity.

I did a brief test of the converter+AW 11-27.5mm in air for those that do not have the 10mm. I found that the zoom had to be set to 14mm to avoid darkening of the outer corners, which gives only slightly wider view than the 10mm. Thus I do not recommend the Olympus converter for the AW 11-27.5mm kit lens. Funds are then better spent on an AW 10mm f/2.8 lens.

I found remarkable performance of my 10mm in air towards infinity wide open. Optimum aperture is probably f/4 where the edges improve a little, but dead center is possibly best at f/2.8. Closer than ca. 30 cm the corner performance suffers and get very poor at the 20cm close limit (some field curvature and some lack of correction).  The in water performance reflects the good performance wide open, also with the converter, and it will be a big advantage to be able to shoot at f/2.8 to minimize motion blur.

I wish I could have waited to post this until I had some more interesting images to post, but summer is on now, and I hope this information can be useful to others in the months to come. 

This vole at the Chena River beach obviously did not know that one are not supposed to shoot voles with underwater wideangle lenses.

AW 10mm f/4  1/125s ISO 160, crop to ca. 1/2 of the frame in each direction.

This concludes my review of the Nikon 1 AW1 for now.

Frank Fremerey:
the toads underwater sex scene really made me feel love for these creatures! Thank you for sharing thoughts and experiences with a camera that is very tempting although I do not know how to operate it at all with my eyesight. Is there not even an optional finder for the AW?

Øivind Tøien:
For underwater use I do not think that would be convenient. Optical finders for underwater use typically involve SLR action finders with a large window, or add-on optics that will allow the whole viewfinder image to be seen with a face mask.

For land use, I got tempted to try out the following contraption, here mounted on my AW1 and AF 300mm. Not exactly compact! I would say that the optics of this 3x magnifier is excellent, although with some pincushion distortion. However the pixels on the AW1 screen get very large. It is nothing like looking though an optical viewfinder. (Elastic cord strap of own design).



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