Rock climbing, snorkelling, skiing, running or walking in all weathers; Nikon's Coolpix AW100 is the companies entry into a growing camera market segment that is aimed at the more outdoorsy type of snapper; it looks a very capable camera too.
In its blurb for the AW100, Nikon says the AW100 is ìBuilt to capture the action on land or in the water, the Coolpix AW100 is as ready for an adventure as you areî. Okay, the marketing spiel over with, the AW100 still does look a promising package, combining water, shock and frost proofing in a compact and feature packed body. But arriving (relatively) late into this segment of the market with one of the more expensive toughened cameras given at £299.99 price, how does it perform?
Nikon Coolpix AW100 Review – Features
A quick look at this camera’s feature set reveals the AW100 is replete with a set of tools that will not only let you take pictures but allow you to find yourself on its built in world map, find your way with its built in compass and shot HD 1080P video with stereo sound too.
All pretty cool then, but what of the photography kit it’s fitted with? There’s an internal 5x optical zoom lens, providing a 35mm equivalent of 28 – 140mm zoom, a reasonable range for most ìusualî most subjects, from a wide vista to neat close ups. Speaking of which, you also have a 1cm macro mode to get closer to small subjects, which works really well.
The camera’s fitted with a 16-megapixel backlit CMOS sensor designed to help keep noise to a minimum in low light (or shooting underwater), which is good since it is also waterproof to a depth of 10-meters, so that’s basically the recreational scuba dive limit. The AW100 is shockproof to 1.5m, so it’ll survive a reasonable drop or bash that would otherwise kill a normal digital compact. The fact it is freeze proof to -10∞C as well means using it while on a skiing holiday or similar outing is eminently doable.
The built-in GPS system is able to record the location you take your images (geo-tagging with details stored within the EXIF data in each image) while the electronic compass can be used to check your location on the built-in World map display, there’s a downside to all the GPS usage however, it seriously impacts the EN-EL12 lithium ion battery longevity. On a brighter note, a clever filter adapter fitting around the lens window on the top left corner of the camera’s face means you can attach (40.5mm) filters that provide further creative (or protective) potential.
The camera has a Hybrid VR system combining lens-shift and electronic vibration reduction using boosted sensitivity; the latter can be set to a maximum of ISO 3200. Nikon’s ubiquitous Best Shot Selector (or BSS) chooses the sharpest out of up to 10 sequential pictures helping get better results if you’re in hurry and If you want to shoot in low-light, a number of modes can help because the camera has a Backlight scene mode with Auto HDR, a Night Portrait setting and a Night Landscape mode.
Some other key features built into on the AW100 include high speed continuous shooting up to an impressive 7.1 fps, while an Easy Panorama mode can snap 360∞ or 180∞ panoramas and of course an Underwater setting that helps compensate for the change in colour/white balance below the waves, increases sensitivity and fires the flash as/if needed.
You also have a number of digital filters that include high key, low-key and selective colour; soft focus, nostalgic sepia, high-contrast and monochrome. In playback, a range of editing options are available and these include a quick retouch mode, D-lighting adjustment, a thing called glamour retouch – for portraits – and some shooting filter effects that include some of the more usual colour options such as vivid, black and white, sepia and more unusually, a cyanotype setting. Add to this lot a soft, a selective colour, a cross screen; fisheye, miniature effect and fog removal and you see the AW100 is packed with shooting kit.
HD video capture can be set to a maximum, Full HD 1080P with the optical zoom still able to be brought to bear on your Spielbergain efforts, this alongside auto focus and stereo sound and the camera can also capture a picture while recording video allowing you to snap and shoot simultaneously. An additional bonus is you can connect to a compatible HD TV for video playback direct from the camera.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 Review – Design
The camera has a suitably robust feel, with strong build and the model I tested has the black and military-styled disruptive camouflage pattern that’ll make it a sure fire hit with the ìboysî; other colours include bright orange, white blue and black.
Although slightly larger, the AW100 is similar to other ruggedised models from Olympus and Panasonic, for example, the rear of the camera sporting a 3-inch, 460K-dot LCD with Nikon’s Clear Color Display technology that minimises reflections both underwater and in bright sunlight. However, it did not work as well as I’d have hoped in bright sunshine, though in the rain, the rugged nature of the camera meant I worried not about using it while it got wet.
Battery and memory card access is via a large round dial on the camera’s side; where a press of the dial’s central button releases the catch and a 90∞ turn opens the hatch revealing the battery and SD/SDHC card slot.
The back plate buttons are typical, with direct buttons for video recording and the selection of camera’s stills scene modes. A large button on the opposite side of the camera to the memory card/battery hatch activates the World map and Action Control the latter used when in menus means you only need to press Action Control and a relevant menu appears on screen.
Then, and rather cleverly, flicking the camera up and down scrolls through the menus, pressing the Action Control button again makes your choice from the options presented, these include the Mode selection, movie mode and playback.
This novel approach to controlling the camera makes it far easier to use the camera underwater and/or wearing gloves; overall the menus are otherwise easy to navigate, clear and simple to understand once you’ve had a delve into them a few times.
Nikon Coolpix AW100 Review – Performance and Image Quality
Once you hit the square, neatly recessed top plate on/off button, the camera is ready to shoot within a couple of seconds, focus speed is surprisingly good while the continuous shooting mode ìHî (High) allowed 3 frames at 5fps while continuous shooting ìLî (Low) managed just 1.5 fps. In terms of power consumption, as already hinted at, the battery (which incidentally has a (claimed-by-Nikon) CIPA rating of just 250 shots – all rather average then if you ask me) does not last long in the field and constant use of the GPS will reduce it even faster, so much so, at one point one particularly frosty morning, I thought I could hear a sucking sound emanating from the battery port, as it was being quickly drained or power.
Overall I found the backlit CMOS sensor performed well in the AW100, particularly given the seemingly ridiculous level of resolution provided. I cannot see the point of cramming 16 million pixels onto a small sensor when all it will do is create image quality issues. Better would be fewer, larger pixels.
However, having written that and to be scrupulously fair, in favourable conditions, detail is good – if marginally soft at the extreme edges; the softness improved at wider focal lengths. Purple fringing on high-contrast subjects was evident but one area the AW100 excellent is the colour reproduction, which is very good indeed. I also liked the macro mode with a close focusing distance of just 1cm you can really fill the frame and utilise some of the zoom too.
In terms of image noise, and despite Nikon’s claims about the backlit CMOS sensor technology making noise less of an issue, I can write but one thing: I told you so… Image noise is evident even at ISO 125, the lowest setting available and images could look sharper too. If you have too many pixels on such a (relatively) small sensor, image noise can be increased and that’s what we have here.
On a more positive front, up to ISO 400, noise doesn’t increase much, making me think the ISO 125 setting is a ìboostedî mode, the native sensitivity is probably ISO 200, similar in fact to many other Nikon’s. At ISO 800, image quality drops again as noise becomes worse, with modest colour leaching and detail loss being evident as well. Noise increases at ISO 1600 and ISO 3200, the latter being very poor indeed
Landscapes are nicely captured (at lower ISOs, where detail is retained the best) and the camera is more than capable of making a good fist of portraiture; skin tones are very good but the flash can overwhelm and I found it can cause red-eye, even with the red eye suppression switched on in the flash menu.
Sport mode works relatively well too and the AW100 can shoot 180∞ and 360∞ panoramic images with its clever sweep panorama mode, providing a virtually seamless panoramic shot but with the caveat on the actual resolution being limited by the stretched dimensions.
In terms of white balance (WB), Auto mode, used throughout here does a great job on almost all my shots with the worst of any problems being very modest indeed where a slight magenta cast appears to mar pictures taken under fluorescent lighting.
The Nikon Coolpix AW100 is priced at £299.99 (from Nikon’s web site) but shopping around online can get it significantly cheaper, the lowest I found being £249.99, nevertheless, it still positions the AW100 at the higher end of the ruggedised digital compact camera market.You can buy better water and shock proofing in other cameras such as Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-FT3 and looking to lower priced end of the market there are Fuji’s FinePix XP30 and Olympus’ TG-310 Tough models to consider.But in any event, Nikon’s Coolpix AW100 is good considering it’s Nikon’s first ruggedised model the key being its comprehensive feature set, it’s shock, water, and freeze proof, it comes with built-in GPS, full 1080p HD video recording and fun modes such as the sweep panorama shooting mode.Images and video are more than acceptable meaning if you can stretch your budget to this model, it should certainly be high on your list of toughened models to consider.