My first roll on the Nikonos V

Well, I always thought manual focusing at 1.4 was kinda hard. Turns out zone focusing strangers in the powerful Pacific Ocean is really, really hard. I picked up a Nikonos V last minute before a trip to Mexico on eBay, and it arrived from Japan just in time!

My first impression was that it was really quite chunky, but I loved it. This is a beast of a 35mm camera, produced between 1963 and 2001, and is part of Nikon’s Nikonos series and can handle what seems like anything. It’s built like a complete brick, with a reputation for being ultra-tough and ready for even the harshest environments. Photographers have used it in extreme weather events such as hurricanes, hailstorms, riots, sandstorms and any other nasty or difficult location to shoot photos. I find myself in quite a few nasty and tricky locations to shoot these days, so I’m hoping we’re a match made in heaven!

The Nikonos V is an underwater camera that is usable up to 50 metres (164 ft) below the surface. It’s heavy, clunky and comes in bright orange or camo green! After some quick googling and a few Youtube videos, I greased up the seals, loaded some film and took it into the ocean in San Pancho, Sayulita for a spin.

The Nikonos V is a rangefinder camera – what’s a rangefinder, you ask? They are pretty new to me too. Rangefinders use range-finding focusing mechanism which requires the photographer to measure the subject distance before taking the photos. Rangefinder cameras don’t have a mirror, and have a reputation for having very high image quality.

The Nikonos specifically is actually a scale-focus camera. This means there’s no focusing aid, like you’d have with an atypical rangefinder. Instead, you focus with a scale located on the lens. The Nikkor lenses have two dials, an aperture dial (for selecting your aperture), and a focusing scale dial which will then increase or decrease the distance you can focus within, based on the aperture you have chosen.

This all sounds really confusing, but in broad daylight, it’s actually pretty easy to focus if you shoot at f/8 and above. It’s important to remember with this camera that if you shoot wide open at 2.5, you’ll have a really narrow window of accurate focusing opportunity. All of my images in this blog are shot at f/8 and up!

The Nikonos (like most rangefinders) is also really quiet! Without the mirror, there isn’t a mirror flip and clunk with each shot, all you hear is the quiet click of the shutter. At first I felt like I had done something wrong when there wasn’t a loud mechanical noise with the shutter release! Another win is that you can see through the viewfinder the whole time. As most other (SLR) mirrors flip up to take a picture, your viewfinder blacks out at the moment of photo capture. I’m totally used to this, but it was really refreshing to be able to maintain vision at the most important moment: the moment when an image is burned into the film! This is really confidence inspiring and helps with the nerves, especially if someone blinks just after the shot and you’re not sure if you got it or not.

However, it’s a little unnerving to have the viewfinder totally separate from the lens, as with rangefinder cameras, your viewfinder is slightly above/beside the lens, and sees from a different point of view, albeit only by a couple of centimetres. I was actually totally stoked on my images and don’t feel like my perspective suffered in any way.

Whilst I found the lack of focusing ring really weird at first, I learnt to just trust the camera and went along with it. Pick a distance and go with it! Some of it was simply waiting for the wave to come to me.

The built in light meter ended up being really accurate, and I used the automatic aperture priority function a lot, as had been recommended by a few other Nikonos users I had connected with. By the time you’d moved the controls to focus the correct distance, in the ocean you likely won’t have time to check your other settings as well! I know I always bang on about not just shooting on Auto, but in this instance I endorse it – as you’re only letting the camera choose the shutter speed, not all the settings! You choose your aperture and focusing distance using the dials on the front of the camera, and let the camera do the rest. On land, you can shoot fully manual when you’ve got the luxury of time! I shot this roll at ISO 200 on Portra 400 film.

Overall, I am really happy with this camera! I have another roll from this trip to finish and I feel like I have a ton of opportunity to try it in different environments without worrying about damaging it. It really is a huge relief not worrying about moisture damage, sand or leaking housing. I shot exclusively underwater on the next roll, too, so I’m sure that some shots will be murky green out-of-focused soup, but hopefully some will be pure magic.

I am excited to try it with my wide angle 15mm lens and also at lower shutter speeds. I’ve read that rangefinders are more forgiving than SLRs when it comes to shooting low shutter speeds handheld, this is again because the lack of a mirror which is meant to reduce the amount of camera shake. A couple of issues that I foresee are the ability to only focus on a spot in the centre of the image, and being unable to focus closer than 1 meter. But we’ll see how we go! Time to take her out in the snow… stay tuned for more!

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