Back in the mid-1980’s, after getting SCUBA certified right out of college, I purchased a Nikon Nikonos system with strobe set-up. I carried a Nikons IV and later a Nikons V body with their 35mm and 80mm lenses. I could not afford to buy any added equipment beyond that back then.
Of course, there were major limitations with the Nikonos systems… mainly we could only shoot 36 images before having to surface and re-load as they were film cameras. We did not have zoom lenses that were waterproof. There was no motor drive… single shot, lever advance only.
I don’t do a lot of underwater photography anymore… mainly when I am on one of our tours, like the Galapagos Islands where we do a fair amount of snorkeling. So to save money, I have been using compact digitals in waterproof housings (very bulky) and later compact, waterproof models like the Olympus Touch and Panasonic Lumix waterproof models.
One major issue with the pocket-sized models was not having the RAW image format available, so when I saw the new Nikon 1 series announce the waterproof mirrorless AW1, I had to check it out!
When it arrived on my doorstep, I quickly opened the box and looked over the parts and yes, even read how to properly assemble the camera using the included o-ring grease. Once I knew exactly how to assemble the lens to the body properly for underwater use, it was done and the lens not removed. (This is important to know for what happened during use in the Galapagos.)
One of my clients joining me in the Galapagos purchased an AW1 for this trip as well, which made for an interesting comparison of experiences. We had the same lens as well… the Nikon 11-27.5 waterproof zoom. Nikon has a waterproof 10mm lens, too, but I wanted the versatility of the zoom for multiple purposes.
Our first snorkel adventure on this trip would be on the first morning while at Genovesa Island. This island, far to the northeast of the other islands, has the warmest water in the Galapagos. Not necessarily warm, but warmer than other islands due to the Panamic Current coming from the northeast.
We walked into the water from the beach, with some trepidation in the chilly surf. I finally went under and swam along the rocks where more fish were hanging out. Within seconds, my lens had fogged up behind the protective front element of the zoom. Everything was a misty blur. How disappointing! I continued to swim and enjoy the wildlife with my clients, checking the lens from time to time. Eventually, after about 10 minutes, the fog dissipated and I was able to take some photos and movies.
This first snorkel allowed me to play with settings and learn some functions of the camera to determine the ease of use while underwater. I was impressed. The controls were easy to understand and navigate on the large screen… as long as I was in the right light. When the sun peeked through the clouds, the screen became unusable.
My next snorkel would be the following morning at one of my favorite locations, Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion), aka Kicker Rock, of the coast of San Cristobal Island. This huge volcanic remnant rises high above the ocean surface and offers beautiful snorkeling opportunities full of Sea Lions, Pacific Green Turtles, Spotted Eagle Rays, White-tipped Reef Sharks and many colorful fish and sea stars.
As the Humboldt Current (from Antarctica) flows around San Cristobal, the water is a bit cooler. So when I jumped in with the Nikon 1 AW1, it immediately fogged up, useless for about 10 minutes again. Now remember, I mounted the lens onto the body immediately after opening the box, and never took it off. There should be no moisture inside. My client, who had dome the same, had no issues with fogging to this point, so it was only my camera.
Once the fogging went away, I played with the camera controls again and found settings to adjust my screen and easily, even while underwater, brightened my view so I could more easily see my subjects. This made a huge difference in my composition and I now had fun photographing turtles and fish around Leon Dormido.
My standard default for nature photography is to use aperture priority for my exposure (with manual being a close second in usage). I set the AW1 to aperture priority and found it very easy to raise and lower the f-stop as desired for more depth or changing shutter speed. I still had full, easy use of the exposure compensation (+/-) as well.
I also found that underwater I liked using the 5-shot burst mode as my default as currents, wave action and subject movements made it difficult to compose. Using a burst of five shots I was able to get at least one shot in five composed well with each burst.
Over the next few days, I tried to reduce the moisture in the camera and lens by placing them in a zip-lock bag of rice (with caps on of course). This helped and the fogging issue was lessened. Another trick was to tie the camera to a rope and drop it overboard for 10-15 minutes before we went snorkeling. The combo worked great and I was able to maximize my photo taking while snorkeling.
My client still had no issues with fogging, until the very last snorkeling opportunity. Another favorite location at Santiago Island where we often get to swim with Green Turtles and Galapagos Penguins! At this snorkel, his Nikon 1 AW1 fogged up after being in the water for about 15 minutes… about the time the first penguin showed up!
During this snorkel I had fantastic opportunities with the Galapagos Penguin, including the image above. The camera’s focus speed was amazing when using the 5-shot burst, with the image above being the last of five as the penguin swam toward me!
Image quality was very good, though noise became an issue above 800 ISO and there were times I needed 1600 ISO in order to get a higher shutter speed when snorkeling on cloudy days. However, the images are sharp with good color quality, and since I was able to shoot in RAW (Nikon NEF) I had much more control in post processing to get the image I had imagined.
My overall impression? I love the Nikon 1 AW1 for my purposes… a bunch of snorkel trips during a tour, like the Galapagos Islands. For SCUBA it won’t be a popular as its maximum depth is only 49 feet (15 meters). The controls are easy to use, once you have practiced with them. Get used to the settings and buttons you use most and you will probably enjoy using the Nikon 1 AW1 as much as I do.
Article by Kevin Loughlin