Updated: May 20, 2020
The Nikonos V underwater film camera changed my life. Literally, this camera has changed my life. This sounds like another cringe-worthy case of hyperbole but I’m serious. This camera has encouraged me to do things I would never normally do and improved both my mental and physical health. Furthermore, I know for a fact I’m not a bumbling salty enigma, lots of people feel this way. There are more Nikonos fan pages, than in-focus Nikonos photographs (genuine use of hyperbole). A quick google search will reveal many dedicated fan sites and beautiful catalogues such as The Nikonos project, (www.nikonosproject.com). So, although this camera will sucker you into shooting your worst ever roll of film, it will also grant you with the happiest photographic process you’ve ever experienced. Consequently, I felt duty bound to make the Nikonos V the subject of my first blog post.
A Brief History:
In 1962, Nikon partnered with french machinery company, La Spirotechnique and began mass production of the french company’s 35mm underwater film camera, the Calypso.
The Calypso was co-designed by none other than legendary French marine explorer Jacques Cousteau. A man already responsible for designing the world’s first Aqua Lung, Cousteau continued to further the world of underwater exploration with the birth of the Calypso. In credit to Cousteau’s original design, Nikon made very few changes to the camera, releasing three editions (Nikonos I,II,III) with the same basic body.
It wasn’t until 1980, with the release of the Nikonos IV, that significant changes were made to the distinguished Calypso design. First came a new body, wider and shorter, it fit snugly in your hands. The camera also evolved to cater for the underwater photographers vast array of needs; it now had TTL metering, Aperture priority, an electronically controlled shutter, and a hinged open and close back, for significantly easier operation.
These were huge steps and important breakthroughs in the camera’s progression, leading ultimately to the final manual focus camera in the series, the Nikonos V, released in 1984. With the addition of manual mode, the Nikonos V became the much loved and most successful camera of the series. There was a subsequent auto-focus model released, the Nikonos RS, but its success was limited, with photographers preferring the simple ergonomics of the Nikonos V. The camera came in two colour ways: orange and black, or less commonly, military green. As an amphibious camera, photographers loved its versatility. Robust, easy to use and waterproof, it was procured as an all weather camera, thrown into battle to cope with an array of extreme scenarios. It produced crips beautiful images whilst triumphing over adverse conditions. It became the holy grail of all-weather cameras, and is still loved today, albeit with a touch of melancholy, due to its discontinuation in 2001.
The Nikonos Ouvre
I primarily use my Nikonos V in the water, above the surface, to photograph coastal environments. However, the camera’s versatility has taken it to parts of the earth from which other cameras would never return. War photographers such as Dickey Chapelle, parachuted into Vietnam with a rugged Nikonos strapped to her neck. Whereas, street photographers such as Martin Parr, used the camera’s effective zone focusing to capture those hard to predict, serendipitous interactions. Designed for depths as deep as 50m, the Nikonos thrived in the methodical, slow paced movements of divers such as Jaques Cousteau, utilising Nikonos strobes to capture the colours of the reef. It really is a highly versatile, all purpose camera.
However, in the hands of bobbing surf photographers such as LeRoy Grannis, the Nikonos image began rolling across the pages of magazines, revolutionising a movement and introducing Nikonos to the Western masses. Creamy waves and beautiful bokeh, broken by whipping fin and leash, the worlds best surfers had arrived on film. The Nikonos revolutionised the world of surf photography, getting photographers closer to the action. With large focusing knobs (designed for use in dive gloves) and a compact body, photographers could manoeuvre, under and over large waves, positioning themselves for the perfect down the line shot. With the strength to withstand a trip over the falls, Nikonos changed the game and was for a time, the go to surf photography camera.
(left to right: LeRoy Grannis, Jaques Cousteau, Dickey Chapelle)
Images courtesy of legendarysurfers.com, cousteaufoundation.com, National Geographic Archives, respectively.
Although the Nikonos brand still lives and breathes through the hands of a cult following, development in water housings for digital cameras has lead to the rapid decline in professional film surf photography. The increased demand for moving image has been a contributing factor. This is something the Nikonos cameras simply cannot do. As brands such as Aquatech, Nauticam, and Nexus evolved, the multiple shots afforded by a digital camera became more appealing. Many photographers simply shoot 4k video and use the footage to produce high quality stills, reducing your chances of missing the shot.
However, when it comes to stills, and the printed image, some surf photographers still utilise the Nikonos, but why?
Well, anyone who has ever shot in the water will attest to the fact that water photography is freaking hard. Hitting focus, nailing exposure, and achieving a nice composition is hard enough on land. In the water, you have to deal with even more elements. Buffeted by waves, weighed down by scuba gear, or dragged out to sea by changing tides, water photographers attempt to capture interesting photographs whilst trying not to drown. Furthermore, when photographing underwater, not only are you concentrating on oxygen levels, depth readings and the whereabouts of your buddy, you’re also dealing with a different set of lighting conditions. By utilising filters, bulky close focus kits and strobes, divers have to counteract the light detracted by the dense pocket of H2O they’re floating in.
Water photography is by far the hardest form of photography. In this environment simplicity is key. This is where the Nikonos V holds its own. The camera’s ergonomics are beautifully simple. The body is a joy to hold and doesn’t way you down. Whereas, digital camera water housings can be heavy and bulky, not to mention expensive! Different lenses require different ports and this increases the size of your rig. The buttons are also fiddly and awkward, so settings are best input before entering the water. Contrastingly, the large focus and aperture knobs on the Nikonos V are easy to use. Your range and focus area is delineated by two large easy to view arrows on the front of the lens. A bright view finder with the default 35mm kit lens framing helps you compose, and your suggested shutter speed (calculated by the internal light meter) is displayed across the bottom. The large shutter release buttons and film advance lever keep your eye on the prize, and effective aperture priority mode simplifies the process further.
The proof is not always in the pudding...
I started this blog by declaring that the Nikonos V changed my life. And it did. But I wasn’t infatuated by it’s greasy O-rings, or its characteristic ocean smell. If you put your ear to the body you won’t hear the sea, but the call to the ocean is undeniable. The Nikonos is at home in the ocean, and its the joy of being in the water that makes this camera a dream to shoot. It takes a while to get used to, and your first few rolls will be terrible. Luckily, this won’t matter, because you’ll have had so much fun shooting them anyway. Furthermore, the Nikonos is a pretty novel thing to see around a swimmers neck and a great conversation starter. You’ll meet many great ocean goers and have great experiences in the water. Surfers in particular are often very happy to be photographed, and if in doubt just ask.
I’m a proud Nikonos V user and all the prints seen on my page were taken with this camera. For any Nikonos owners or prospective buyers interested in learning more, I’ll be posting an in-depth camera guide that will explain more about the lenses, maintenance and user navigation. If you can’t wait until then, a wealth of information can be found at www.nikonosproject.com or on instagram via the @narcosis101 page. For those who simply want to view more Nikonos photographs, Surf visuals are currently running a Top 100 surf photographers competition (I am also featuring). You can vote for myself and the work of many talented artists via this link https://surfvisuals.com/blogs/pages/vote-now.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more posts featuring travel, photography, FAQs and recent work. See you soon!