In April of 1984, Nikon released their final and most advanced manual-focus underwater camera, the Nikonos V. For nearly twenty years it would stand as the most successful underwater and all-weather camera that Nikon (or anyone) had ever made. Even when the new Nikonos RS released in 1996, the Nikonos V remained in production and was preferred by many photographers over its more advanced offspring. I’ve been shooting one for years now, and it may be my favorite Nikon.
What is a Nikonos?
The Nikonos series of cameras were, and remain, the perfect all-weather 35mm film cameras. Compact, nearly indestructible, and completely waterproof, they are the best and most capable film cameras for use in challenging environments where other cameras would likely falter or fail.
The Nikonos system began life in 1959 as the Calypso Phot, a camera co-developed by the French ocean explorer Jacques Coustuea and Belgian inventor Jean de Wouters, and produced by French camera makers Atoms. In 1962, Nikon acquired the sole production and distribution rights to the Calypso outside of France and Europe. They renamed the camera Nikonos, and it sold like hot cakes. Or hot croissants. Or hot ramen, maybe.
From 1962 to 2001, Nikon produced Nikonos cameras of varying sophistication and capability. The main common feature that all of these machines shared was their ability to operate perfectly underwater without the need for external waterproof housings or any special handling. For the first time, a compact and immensely capable 35mm camera existed that could be shot above water and up to fifty meters below the sea.
We wrote an article covering the entire range and evolution of the Nikonos cameras, which can be found here. For this review, we’ll focus on the Nikonos V.
What is a Nikonos V?
At its core, the Nikonos V is a fairly simple camera with just enough refinements over its predecessor, the Nikonos IV-a, that it has become the Nikonos to own. There’s an orange version, certainly the most iconic Nikonos today, and a less-common green version. I prefer orange – it’s more striking and easier to spot when you drop it in the ocean.
It exposes 35mm film through a focal plane shutter with battery-powered electronic aperture-priority auto-exposure capable of stepless shutter speeds from 1/30 of a second down to as fast as 1/1000 of a second. The electronic full manual mode is capable of incremental speeds of 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, and 1/1000 of a second. There’s also a single mechanical speed (1/90 of a second) for use without batteries, and Bulb mode for long exposures.
It’s got a low-center-weighted through-the-lens silicon photo diode light meter to inform the auto-exposure brain in auto mode and to inform the human user’s brain in manual mode. Light emitting diodes in the massive 35mm frame-lined viewfinder illuminate to show the shutter speed that’s required for a proper exposure, while calculating for available light and the selected lens aperture. Additional LEDs illuminate for over- and under-exposure warnings, and there’s a flash ready light.
Focus is handled via the scale method, whereby the photographer estimates distance to subject and sets the lens to the desired distance. The Nikonos lenses all feature an ingenious focus and aperture methodology by which the selected aperture spreads two physical pincers on the face of the lens which denote the depth-of-field that will result from the set aperture value. A second knob allows the photographer to adjust the point of focus, making the Nikonos one of the easiest-to-use scale focus cameras ever made (it’s also incredibly useful when explaining the concept of depth-of-field to photography newcomers).
There’s a tripod socket on the bottom, more commonly used for mounting the enormous rigs that hold the dedicated, underwater, off-camera flash units. There’s a film frame counter on the top, an ISO control (ranging between 25 and 1600), a hinged film back with locking mechanism, and a convenient shutter lock. Strap lugs on the sides allow for left or right-handed wrist straps, or a neck strap.
The waterproofing makes the camera capable of submersion down to fifty meters and comes via a handful of O-rings installed at critical points in the camera. Most obviously these are seen in the film door and surrounding the base of each lens (a seal is made between lens and camera whenever a lens is mounted).
There are additional O-rings protecting the viewfinder, flash sockets, and the other potential entry-points to the machine (controls, dials, etc.). Many of these O-rings are easy to replace (whenever we sell these in our shop they come with new and freshly-greased O-rings), and users should grease the accessible O-rings between submersions (Nikonos seal grease is available online). Users should also clean the camera externally with fresh water whenever it’s exposed to salt water, sand, or other harsh contaminants.
Shooting the Nikonos V
The ease-of-use that accompanies shooting the Nikonos V may surprise some people, given that it’s such a specialized, purpose-built machine. But it’s a very simple camera. It’s less like a professional system camera and more like an ultimate quality point-and-shoot, but without any of that camera segment’s failings (fragility, slow lenses, bad electronics, etc.).
Photographers who have used any aperture-priority or full manual camera will feel instantly at home with the Nikonos V. In aperture-priority mode, we just point-and-shoot. We focus on composition and setting our focus distance, then let the camera do the work of exposure. In manual mode, we use our brain a bit more, but the core methodology is essentially the same. Point the camera, half-press the shutter button, and the light meter will tell if we’re exposing properly. Adjust our settings if need be, and shoot.
It is an incredibly intuitive camera to use. This is by design. When diving underwater, the photographer has enough to worry about without carrying an overcomplicated camera.
The top plate houses all of the simple controls one will need. There’s the film advance lever, the shutter-speed control, the ISO control, and the shutter release button. Each of these controls is intelligently made to be easily actuated by thickly-gloved hands, and all markings are made large and legible.
The only other controls are found on the lens – focus and aperture. These knobs are color-coded and correspond to scales on the face of the lens. Lenses are intended to be mounted upside-down (when facing the camera front) so that the user can simply look down on the machine from behind and see the displays right-side-up. The adjustment knobs are large and rotate readily.
One note on the focus scale – Nikon engineers chose to ignore the magnification index of water when designing the distance to subject scale. Instead of showing actual distance, it shows perceived distance as the diver would see it. This can make achieving exact focus a little bit difficult on dry land, or if we’re overthinking things. The best solution is to shoot at an aperture that creates sufficient depth-of-field to ensure an in-focus subject (F/8 and be there, pal).
The shutter is nearly silent. There’s no mirror to slap, and the thick, metal alloy body does well to insulate whatever noise the shutter does make. This (along with the scale focus methodology and aperture-priority auto-exposure) makes the Nikonos V a surprisingly excellent street photography camera.
But really, the Nikonos is made for one purpose – to be used where other cameras would die. It is the toughest and most durable film camera around. For photographers who are adventurists, or travelers, or for those who shoot on mountains, in forests, in rain, in snow and sleet and hail, on a boat or on skis, for photographers who are surfers or divers, the Nikonos is simply the film camera to own. There is no better machine for shooting film in these situations.
But it’s also a great everyday camera. By the pool in the summertime, or on the beach when we’re relaxing, it handles everything. Sunscreen and ocean water and sand, and being man-handled by my four-year-old daughter and dropped off a jetty (I did that), it just never stops working and looks amazing doing it.
I love my Limited Edition Nikon SP from 2005. I really love it. But I’m also quietly terrified every time I bring it outside the house. It’s a rare, expensive, precious camera. The Nikonos V is, frankly, easier to use and better at making exposures, and if I was a psychopath I could take the Nikonos V and repeatedly smash the Nikon SP 2005 with the Nikonos until the SP became nothing more than an extremely expensive heap of mangled metal and glass. The Nikonos would be slightly scratched, and work fine for another twenty years.
Which is the “better” camera?
For users who are using the Nikonos V in its most extreme intended environment (deep underwater) flash photography is a must. The Nikonos IV-a used an external sensor for flash photography. The Nikonos V, instead, allows through-the-lens automatic flash control. When fitted with the dedicated waterproof flash units (SB-series flash units) the camera calculates flash automatically, which is critical, since almost all serious underwater photography requires the use of flash rigs.
I’ve used the flash units a few times, mostly for testing. But I don’t shoot the Nikon Nikonos V underwater very often, and when I do I’m usually in a pool or in the shallows at the beach during the day and don’t need a flash. Most of the time I’m shooting the Nikonos in rain or mist or fog, or on the street (and those SB units are a bit ridiculous to be using on dry land).
I won’t pretend to be an expert on Nikonos flash photography, however I do happen to know that some of our readers are honest-to-goodness interesting people. Some of them have shot underwater for decades, used all the flash units, and made some incredible photos of fish that are, frankly, too big. I’ve seen some frightening images. Perhaps those users can share their experience in the comments section. Or they may be too busy being interesting. We’ll see.
The Nikonos V is equipped with the same O-ring sealed lens mount as all previous Nikonos models. Simply twist the lens into position and the natural pressure of atmosphere and increased pressure underwater causes the lens to stick tight to the camera body.
There exists two different types of lens for the Nikonos, these being “W” lenses and “UW” lenses. The “W” marking denotes that the lens is a waterproof amphibious lens, meaning that it will work equally well when used in either atmosphere or submerged. Lenses marked “UW” are lenses made for use underwater only and will not focus correctly when not submerged (the magnification index of water cleverly works in conjunction with these lens’ front elements to create a clear image). The specialized underwater-only “UW” lenses are still regarded as the best underwater optics ever made, with the 28mm achieving high accolades in particular.
The full suite of glass allows us to make any photo we could want to make with a camera like the Nikonos – underwater close ups or vast panoramas with an extreme wide angle lens, macro photos, etcetera. The full set is comprised of the UW Nikkor 15mm F/2.8, UW Nikkor 20mm F/2.8, UW Nikkor 28mm F/3.5, W Nikkor 35mm F/2.5 (the standard lens), and the Nikkor 80mm F/4. The non-standard lenses are used in conjunction with shoe-mount viewfinders.
In addition to these amphibious and underwater lenses, there also exists a non-submersible LW Nikkor 28mm F/2.8, but this may be the least attractive and useful lens made for the system. It’s the only Nikonos lens that is incapable of being submerged in water. Instead, it is simply splash proof. And since it weighs more and has a slower maximum aperture than the 35mm kit lens, I can’t see a reason why you’d choose this lens (unless you absolutely need a 28mm lens that functions above-water, I guess).
There also exists a close-up lens kit, which allows macro-style photos to be made with a selection of the Nikonos lenses.
The Nikonos V’s standard lens is the Nikkor W 35mm F/2.5 amphibious lens. Image quality from this so-called kit lens is fantastic. Incredibly sharp and rendering with magnificent saturation, the 35mm F/2.5 W Nikkor is without question one of the best legacy lenses in the world (underwater system or not), and has even been adapted to M mount by the well-known Japanese boutique lens maker MS Optics.
I simply love this lens, and though I truly love the entire essence of the Nikonos camera, I think that what really makes the Nikonos range my favorite product from Nikon is that it’s able to use this amazing 35mm lens. It is fantastic.
[Images in the samples gallery above were made by one of our writers, Dustin Vaughn-Luma]
[Underwater images in the samples gallery below were contributed by reader Meeda Khalifa and are published here with permission]
[Images in the samples gallery below were made by one of our writers, Josh Solomon]
The Nikonos Legacy
Today, the Nikonos V remains one of the most popular Nikon film cameras ever made. Brandon Jenning’s Nikonos Project, a loosely organized group of friends who shoot, collect, and loan Nikonos cameras to interested photo geeks, has gained an incredible social media following. The resulting collective of talent has created an online portfolio of surf, dive, and adventure photos that is truly inspiring.
And Nikon hasn’t forgotten about their incredible creation either. The brand recently celebrated its hundred-year anniversary, and to mark the occasion, they released a number of limited edition products. Among these was a limited series of ten prints each showcasing a masterful Nikon camera from the company’s past. Of these ten prints, three depicted underwater cameras from the Nikonos line, and of course, the Nikonos V was represented. [incidentally, it’s well-represented in the Casual Photophile office, too – I was lucky enough to get one of the Nikonos V prints, number 1/100]
But the true legacy of the Nikon Nikonos V (and the other Nikonos models) is the photographic record these machines have made. Open any National Geographic from the 1960s to the year 2001 and beyond and we’re likely to see a photo made with a Nikonos camera. They were (and remain) the perfect machine for shooting film in challenging environments.
I was born in March of 1984. The Nikonos V was born one month later. Had my parents been adventurous people, it’s possible that I’d have cut my gums chewing on an errantly placed Nikonos V when I was one month old. It’s also possible that as a student about to start my final year of high school seventeen years later, I’d drive my own car to a camera shop to buy a Nikonos V and use it to shoot the summer of 2001 at my friend’s lakeside cottage.
Neither of those things happened, but I think it’s remarkable that for the whole first seventeen years of my life, Nikon was producing and selling the Nikonos V. People all over the globe (much more interesting people than myself, apparently) were diving, climbing, surfing, spelunking, and getting their photos published in magazines with a Nikon Nikonos V. I don’t know if this remarkably long run of production and photographic success is objectively impressive, but it’s impressive to me.
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