With compact cameras slimming down, folding optics becoming more sophisticated and prices dropping, more and more waterproof models are appearing. Nikon's first waterproof Coolpix is the AW100.
But facing tough competition from stalwarts Olympus and Panasonic, as well as just about everyone else these days, should you be looking to the Nikon Coolpix AW100 when snapping on your adventures?
Design and control
The Nikon Coolpix AW100 looks tough. We reviewed the matte black version which, when set alongside some of the bright colours of rivals, looks serious but rather more normal at the same time. But Nikon still gives you exposed screwheads and a chunky side lock, leaving you in no doubt that this is a camera that can take some abuse.
The layout of controls is all rather conventional for a Nikon compact camera, with the shutter button on the top and the rest of the controls sitting to the right of the 3-inch 460k-dot display on the rear. These controls are all pretty small, so if you're looking to take your AW100 on the slopes, you might have to peel off a glove to make any substantial changes.
There is, however, a side button offering instant access to either the GPS map or "action controls" - as determined by the menu selection. Engage the action controls and you'll be able to cycle through various shooting options. It takes some practice and it works after a fashion, but unless you're in extenuating circumstances, taking your glove off will probably be preferable.
Keeping things watertight there is a clever push-and-rotate lock on the end of the camera, sealing the battery and SD card away from damage.
Shooting on the move
As we mentioned, the AW100 has an integrated GPS. This will let you geotag your position, writing this information into the EXIF data, as well as offering a range of other functions. As a result, you'll be able to pull up a map and trace your route when not taking photos and you get the option of a digital compass, so you can see which way you are pointing.
This of course, all has an impact on battery life, so you're probably best to use the GPS sparingly if you're not carrying a spare battery or near a charger. The GPS settings options are also available only from the GPS map view accessed via the action button, which can mean a bit of fiddling around to get to them to turn the GPS on or off.
There is a wide range of scene modes on offer, with those pertinent to outdoors activities (underwater, snow, etc) easily accessible if you are using the action button motion control. Otherwise you have the normal combination of auto and "easy auto" modes, as well as face detection and a couple of photo effects, but nothing too wild.
This is, first and foremost, a camera designed to be used as a full auto snapper, although you can make a number of useful adjustments, such as limiting the range of the auto ISO, tweaking the focusing modes and so on. There are a range of continuous shooting modes too.
Movie capture is offered instantly via the button on the back, with capture at up to 1920 x 1080/30p, via just about every option, including iFrame and slow motion, and the option to swap from 240fps slow-mo to regular 30fps in the same movie (accepting a low resolution), useful for capturing those perfect action moments.
Focusing is pretty fast, but will slow down as the light drops and it isn’t so keen on focusing when there is a lot of movement, resulting in several blurred action shots. Shooting in auto modes, the AW100 copes well with fairly close shots.
Although the specs give a 50cm minimum distance, we found it worked down to about 20cm without complaint and there is a macro mode if you want to get closer.
The 5x Nikkor zoom lens (28-140mm in 35mm terms) is smooth enough to zoom from one end to the other and is mostly distortion free, although there is some edge softness evident in shots at the wider angle. However it offers a max aperture of only f/3.9 limiting low-light and creative potential to some degree.
The ISO range runs from 100-3200, but at the top end, noise destroys the pictures so it's difficult to recommend using, unless the shot is desperately critical. Noise appears even at low ISOs, although it's probably acceptable until you reach ISO 800, where it's difficult to ignore.
Overexposed shots with washed-out highlights were relatively common, as the AW100 struggles to cope with high contrast or bright conditions, leading to purple fringing around edges.
The result is that the final image quality isn't so good, most likely because of the compact lens and high number of pixels on the sensor. Of course, some compromises have to be accepted when it comes to creating a rugged compact, but we'd be on the verge of wanting a "normal" camera to get better shots.
Video performance is pretty good, but it's worth bearing in mind that if it's a dedicated "action cam" you're after for video, then something like the GoPro will be a better option for you. Straight video capture is detailed enough however, but we couldn't resist strapping the camera to the front of a bike to see how it coped.
The design doesn't completely help here either, on a practical level. The surface of the lens isn't as large as on some models, so if you find yourself having to wipe it clean with the corner of your T-shirt, it's pretty tricky. Sure, it might be better protected, but wiping mud away takes more effort than on some other tough cameras.
The Nikon AW100 offers a tough build that will keep shooting in all conditions. It will survive water down to a depth 10m, drops from 1.5m and temperatures down to -10 degrees celcius, meaning you're well protected whether on the beach or from that pint glass of wine that always gets knocked over.
But the image quality and the results we've achieved don't really speak volumes for the Coolpix AW100. It's managed to get the shots, but along the way, we've had to delete a large number of over-exposed pictures as it struggles with bright conditions.
However, there are a huge range of features on offer in the AW100, from the GPS to the additional accessory filters you can attach to the front using an adapter. Perhaps not the most exciting tough camera on the market and it is priced towards the top end. But if you can get it at a good price, it will survive the vigour of the outdoors life.