Homer's Travels: New Toy: Nikon Coolpix AW100 Camera

Thursday, March 08, 2012

New Toy: Nikon Coolpix AW100 Camera

After returning from the Camino last year I decided that I needed to rethink my camera situation.  On my Camino I took my old Canon Powershot S5.  I took it because it was smaller than my DSLR (a Canon Rebel T1i) and much lighter.  It also took regular AA batteries.  The S5 served me well but it had a couple drawbacks.

The main drawbacks were it's relative bulk compared to the modern compact cameras and the fact it wasn't rugged or waterproof.  The lack of waterproofing necessitated the carrying of a camera bag to protect the camera from damage and unpredictable weather.  The bag added weight and the potential of getting the camera wet during rain precluded me from using the camera on a couple rainy days during the Camino including me missing taking a picture of the friendly dog on the way to Fisterra.

Another drawback ... and this is more of a personal one ... is that I like to geotag my photos.  To do this with my S5 I had to take a handheld GPS (a Garmin Oregon 400t) and some twenty AA Lithium batteries to power said GPS which added  19.5 ounces (553 g)  to my pack.  One beneficial byproduct of carrying the GPS was I could keep track of the distance traveled, average speed, elevation climb, and generate nice tracks of my daily stages for Homer's Travels.  After I returned home I used a piece of software called GeoSetter to combine the GPS tracks with the photos.  While this was easy to do, it was an extra step that had to be done to process the photos.

So, when I got back I wanted to come up with a solution that would fill these deficiencies.  I put together a spread sheet with the characteristics I wanted in a camera.  I ended up with 12 criteria:
      1. ≥ 10 Megapixels*
      2. ≥ 12X Optical Zoom
      3. Image Stabilization*
      4. GPS Tagging*
      5. GPS Tracking*
      6. Macro Function*
      7. Slide Panorama/Panorama Assist*
      8. Water Proof*
      9. RAW format
      10. Swivel Display
      11. Viewfinder
      12. Standard AA Batteries
It turns out many of these criteria are incompatible either with each other or with the compact size of the modern day point and shoot camera.  I found that items 10, 11 & 12 are not found in compact cameras.  Displays are fixed, there is no viewfinder (Something I have always had and used), and rechargeable batteries are now the norm.

The biggest pair of incompatible criteria, the one that caused me most grief when trying to decide which camera to buy, was the Zoom vs Water Proof.  If a camera has a good zoom, it isn't water proof.  If it's water proof, the zoom will max out around 5X.  I probably agonized over this trade off for a couple months.

I finally decided that water proof/rugged was more important than zoom (something I'm still not sure about). All this deliberation led me to by a Nikon Coolpix AW100.  (The * in the list above are the criteria the AW100 meets.)

I've been playing with it for a week now and I am happy.  I miss the zoom.  I miss the viewfinder - I keep putting the camera up to my face and realizing there isn't one.  I like the picture quality.  I like the compact size.  I like the panorama mode - I am a big fan of panoramas.  I like the macro function - I am also a fan of macro (i.e. close up) photography.  It's resolution is actually better than my DSLR.  It also takes HD video.  I also like the GPS function.

I have used the GPS function three times during the last week.  The first test ... well I messed it up.  I accidentally stopped the GPS logging function shortly after I enabled it.  I was a little disappointed that the GPS had trouble locking on to satellites when walking among buildings and trees.  The second test was in Galena.  I managed to activate the GPS logging function successfully this time but the tracking was, again, a bit spotty.  Before the third test I loaded an A-GPS file (assist GPS).  This file, downloaded from Nikon, is supposed to help the GPS lock on to satellites quicker.  The third tracking test went much better.  I'm not sure if it was the A-GPS file or if it was the fact that there weren't any tall building where I walked.  I compared the camera's log file with the Garmin Oregon GPS track.  The tracks matched pretty well, deviating between 53 and 158 ft from each other (16 m to 48 m).  Since the typical GPS is accurate within 33 ft (10 m) the errors I saw were not unusual.  Here are a couple of pictures comparing the two tracks (Red is the AW100, Blue is the Garmin Oregon):

Tracking on a curve.
Tracking on a straight.
As you can see the Garmin Oregon saves more points (The little blue arrow heads/squares) than the AW100 does.  The most obvious issue this causes is the cutting of corners by the AW100.

The AW100 tracking is not perfect but it was pretty close.  The distance measured were similar for both devices varying by less than 2%.  The average speed matched.  The elevation (more a function of Google Earth, actually) were withing 11 feet of each other.  A better antenna in the camera would probably improve the GPS function a lot.  One thing I haven't fully tested is how much the GPS shortens battery life.

One last thing.  Travel weight.  For my Camino I carried a camera, camera bag, GPS, and batteries which totaled approximately 48.4 oz (1,371 g) - a substantial amount (this weight declined as I walked as I tossed spent batteries).  The AW100 (assuming no camera bag - it is rugged and will easily fit in a pocket of my cargo pants), charger, and extra battery totals approximately 13.6 oz (384 g) - substantially less.

All in all I think the AW100 will work well as a travel camera and a travel GPS substitute.  The first true test of my new toy will be our China trip this summer.


  1. Why does it take 5 million steps to make a comment around here? I've completely forgotten what I was going to say about your very impressive sounding camera...

    1. Miss McC; 5 million? I thought I set it up for only 4,562,000 steps. It's part of my unsuccessful attempt at stopping spam in my comments I guess.