Nikon Debuts Rugged Mirrorless Camera

Orange is the new black: Niknon 1 AW1 with orange \

Orange is the new black: Niknon 1 AW1 with orange "skin"

High-end cameras are expected to be workhorses. Heavy use — on everything from vacations to battlefields — means a lot of trauma in terms of bumps, drops and splashes. But it's not always certain how much abuse is too much.

With Nikon's new 1 AW1, the limits are clear: dropping from up to 6.6 feet (2 meters), submerging down to 49 feet (15 meters), and freezing down to 14 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 10 Celsius). It's essentially a ruggedized version of the company's current Nikon 1 camera line. The camera maker also introduced two equally durable lenses: a 2.5X zoom (equivalent to 30-74mm on a traditional SLR) and a fixed wide-angle lens equivalent to 27mm.

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The Nikon 1 AW1 goes on sale next month either with the zoom lens for $800 or with both lenses for $1000. (Nikon hasn't named the a la carte price for the lenses.) The camera is available in black, silver and white. Nikon also sells "skins" that wrap around the camera and lens. Selling for $37, they come in black, khaki and orange.

Though the 1 AW1 takes interchangeable lenses, it is not a DSLR, and that's important. The mirror that flips up for every shot is a weak point for DSLRs, and it seems unlikely that a DSLR could take the abuse that the 1 AW1 purportedly can.

In some ways, mirrorless cameras are jumbo versions of point-and-shoots. And rugged point-and-shoots have been around for the better part of a decade. Nikon's own Coolpix AW110 ($350) has the same rugged specs as the 1 AW1 (except submerging, where it can go an extra 10 feet/3 meters deeper). But the AW110's zoom lens is contained entirely inside the cameras tight metal box. Providing the same durability to detachable lenses, and the mount that they click into, is clearly a feat.

The rugged 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm zoom lens

The rugged 1 NIKKOR AW 11-27.5mm zoom lens

The waterproof features are especially significant. Till now, the only ways to get a high-end camera underwater was to seal it in a bulky plastic case.

If it fully delivers on the promise, the 1 AW1 could up the game for adventure photography, competing with rugged point-and-shoots like the AW110 as well as GoPro cameras.

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But the 1 AW1 is bulkier, so the image quality has to make the extra weight worth it. That will take plenty of hands-on time to determine, but the specs look promising. Some key ones are:

  • 14.2-megapixel CMOS sensor
  • Hybrid autofocus system (meant to match the superfast focus speed of DSLRs)
  • Good light-sensitivity range of ISO 160 to 6400
  • Shooting at 15 photos per second with autofocus for each shot or a whopping 50 per second with focus locked
  • High-speed capture at up 400 frames per second (for slow-motion playback)
  • Built-in GPS, altimeter, depth gauge and compass
  • Optional WU-1b wireless adapter for $60

Till now, rugged cameras have been point and shoots, like Nikon's $350 Coolpix AW110

Till now, rugged cameras have been point and shoots, like Nikon's $350 Coolpix AW110

The AW1 also works with Nikon's non-rugged lenses for mirrorless cameras. And using the $270 FT-1 Mount Adapter allows the AW1 to take many of Nikon's lenses for SLRs (though it multiples the focal length by a 2.7X factor, killing any wide-angle capabilities of the lenses but extending their zoom capability).

While a bunch of new mirrorless cameras have come out recently, the Nikon 1 AW1 clearly ups the innovation ante. 

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Sean Captain is a freelance technology and science writer, editor and photographer. At Tom's Guide, he has reviewed cameras, including most of Sony's Alpha A6000-series mirrorless cameras, as well as other photography-related content. He has also written for Fast Company, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Wired.