Nikonos V Review: The Ultimate Film Camera for Outdoor Adventure

Written for Field Mag.

A huge blotch of rain lands on my shutter dial, lightly splattering my right cheek. Then another hits my eyelid—exposed to the elements as I’m facing skyward, trying to catch a photo of the howler monkey a few feet above my head. A distant, low rumble of thunder. The monkey slips out of view, taking shelter as the pitter patter of rain hitting foliage grows in intensity to a seemingly impossible volume. The heavens have opened, a deluge like I’ve never seen, leaving me instantly drenched. For a nanosecond, my heart stops. I love my daily shooter—my Nikon FM2. But I’m also quietly terrified every time I bring it outside in any sort of weather; it’s expensive, beautiful, and precious.

Thankfully, that camera was tucked away safely at home. In my hand was my trusty, strikingly orange Nikonos V, one of the most legendary 35mm film cameras ever made. This is a camera built for a specific purpose: to be used where other cameras will drown and die.

History of the Nikonos V

The brainchild of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, the Nikonos made its public debut as the world’s first fully-fledged underwater camera at the 1963 Photokina Fair in Germany, where it was displayed submerged in an aquarium. Two decades later, Nikon released their final and most advanced version of the manual-focus camera, the Nikonos V. The fifth-generation Nikonos V had through-the-lens metering and aperture-priority auto exposure capabilities, along with an impressive quiver of superb lenses and strobe choices. For almost two decades it would stand as the most successful underwater and all-weather camera that Nikon (or anyone else) had ever made. It was the go-to choice of underwater photographers, amateur and professional alike. If you see an underwater photo from the 1960s, ’70s, or ’80s, it was likely shot with a Nikonos.

Nowadays, the Nikonos V has a deserved reputation of being the toughest and most durable film camera around. For adventurous photographers who shoot on mountains, atop skis, or in surf, and in rain, snow, sleet, hail, mud, or smoke, the Nikonos is simply the film camera to own if you don’t care to be at the mercy of the elements when your shot is on the line. Designed for scuba diving, the Nikonos can go as deep as 50 meters underwater, more than deep enough for recreational divers. But even if you never intend to use it underwater, because of its simple mechanics and rugged build, the Nikonos is an excellent all-weather travel companion.

Nikonos V Review

Unlike my FM2, the Nikonos V isn’t precious, and is ambivalent about being chucked into the depths of a backpack. You don’t have to worry about hurriedly stashing it away when the skies open, either. It is, essentially, a watertight brick of metal that you can take anywhere. Armed with the Nikonos V and its signature 35mm f/2.5 lens, I set out care-free for a month of adventuring in Costa Rica, ready to take on all the mud, rain, and humidity that the rainforest would throw at me. Still, the question remains: how well does this camera shoot?

Operating the Nikonos V

This camera takes some getting used to. Since you’re not looking through the lens to compose your photo like you would with an SLR, the viewfinder window is merely an estimate of what the camera sees, so you have to compose accordingly. (Leica users will feel more at home here.) There are definitely some additional nuances to the Nikonos, too. Aperture and focus are controlled by robust, twistable knobs extending out from either side of the lens. Reading the corresponding f/stop number requires flipping the camera upside down to look at it—a habit that can be a little frustrating to form. Focusing is one part experience, one part luck, while composing shots can be, at first, a maddening exercise of second-guessing and fiddling. But once you’ve broken it in and figured out these quirks, the Nikonos is a remarkably intuitive and simple camera.

Nikonos V Construction

The bright orange exterior, alongside being aesthetically stunning, makes it very easy to spot if you happen to drop it in the ocean (users beware: it doesn’t float!). Despite its heft (the Nikonos V weighs in at 873g), it isn’t a cumbersome accessory like some cameras (I’m looking at you, Pentax 6×7). Well-designed rubber pads and a large anatomic grip give the user a great hold, which is especially useful underwater. The large advance lever can even be operated with wetsuit gloves on since there’s no fiddly housing to navigate.

But this camera doesn’t just shine in the water. As a scale focus camera, there is no rangefinder—nor a mirror—so the image composed through the viewfinder is at best an estimation of what the lens will capture. The lack of mirror also means that the shutter makes almost no noise and is thus perfect for unobtrusive street and travel photography. Although it requires batteries for aperture priority mode metering, the Nikonos has a mechanical release at 1/90 of a second as a stopgap if you experience unexpected battery failure.

Shooting With the Nikonos V

The Nikonos V also has the brightest, clearest viewfinder I have ever used—since it was designed with scuba masks in mind, it is very wide and can be viewed clearly from quite some distance. The simplicity of using the Nikonos V may be surprising to some, given that it’s such a specialized and purpose-built device. But the reality is that it’s less like a professional underwater camera and more like a high-grade point-and-shoot, if you want to shoot it as such. Think: user-friendly, submarine Leica.

The Nikonos also has an impressive quiver of lenses that don’t leak when installed properly. These specialized underwater-only “UW” lenses are still regarded as the best underwater optics ever made. Bear in mind that the UW lenses are for use underwater only—they will not focus correctly unless submerged, as the front elements are designed to work in conjunction with the magnification index of water (brain exploding emoji). I used the W Nikkor 35mm f/2.5 (the standard lens). In this case, the “W” marking denotes that the lens is a waterproof amphibious lens, meaning that it will work equally well when used either above or below the water’s surface.

After shooting a few rolls of film on my Nikonos, I came to understand the value of this truly exceptional travel companion. Street style, portraiture, macro, landscapes, underwater—this is the one camera to do it all. You need to feel the weight and ergonomics of it in your hand to appreciate how tough it is; this thing is built to survive the apocalypse. As Ken Rockwell put it: “Impervious to everything…If you’re expecting trouble, this is the camera to bring… Anything that comes your way is more likely to kill you than kill this camera.”

I was also very pleasantly surprised with this camera’s ability to take portraits. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t very nervous—determining exactly how many centimeters Ben’s eyes were from the camera wasn’t easy and I wasn’t hyper-confident in the shot. The results came out better than expected. The shutter speed of 1/90 produced some really pleasing results, allowing me to shoot fast-moving water without a tripod. And the amphibious lenses still perform very well underwater, despite tricky conditions. I can’t wait to see how the underwater-specific lenses perform in clearer water and good light though.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the trip, I was really impressed with the versatility of this camera. I love the 35mm focal length, and it excelled the most where I had the least expectations: in macro and portrait shots. Landscape shots are pleasantly uncomplicated, thanks to the infinity focus option, whilst the f/2.5 aperture still allows for excellent foreground blur. The enormous viewfinder meant I was able to compose quickly and efficiently, which is a rarity in the rest of my film camera collection.

The Nikonos V is the toughest Nikon ever built, and its renowned image quality combined with a durable build (not to mention a gorgeous steampunk aesthetic) massively outweigh the minor inconveniences of its bulk and operational nuance. Being a little haphazard by nature, I wasn’t worried about dropping it, spilling beer on it, fogging the viewfinder or even scratching the lens. Rugged, sexy, and outstandingly reliable, this beauty will likely accompany me on every trip until the end of my days, water or no water.

Film: Portra 400 & Ektachrome 100

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!

Mount Assiniboine on Portra 400

This July, a dear friend and I finally got out into the furthest corner of British Columbia to explore the stunning Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. It had been on our ‘list’ for a long time but requires a fair bit of planning, time off and logistical planning to get there from Whistler. The trip started with a ten hour drive to Canmore where we spent a night before heading up the to the Mount Shark Trailhead and waiting for our chariot (helicopter) to take us into the lodge.

Having never been in a helicopter before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was really, really bumpy and I wasn’t a huge fan of the constant lurching! It was nothing like being in a plane, even a float plane. Perhaps it was an especially windy day, but I was clutching the side of the heli the entire time – and I don’t usually consider myself a wimp.

After 8 highly eventful and somewhat terrifying minutes – we landed just behind the Assiniboine Lodge. The park ranger that greeted us (who I believe is also the lodge host) informed us that there had been a grizzly on the trail to the campground that morning and that we should be extra cautious. We were also informed that there had been some rabid marmots around – and that we should store EVERYTHING in bear caches or our tents – even our shoes – since they loved the chew on sweaty things. An interesting start, and off we went along the beautiful path to the campground. The 2km to the campground felt like forever since we had taken in quite a few luxury items (read: red wine), and we definitely went the long way round. Note: when you get to the campground sign, take the right hand fork, not the lefts, to get to the camp sites quicker! Most camp sites are nestled in the trees, and each cluster of sites have their own cooking/bear cache area. One of the funniest moments of our trip was having to explain to a lady that the bear cache was not garbage, and that there was no garbage facilities out in the backcountry. There are only a couple of sites that have a cracking view of Mount Assiniboine, so maybe hang your packs up and do a quick lap of the area if that’s important to you!

Over our 4 days in Assiniboine we never saw a grizzly bear, although we camped in a heightened state of alert, for sure. I’m not sure I slept more than 30 minutes the first night! We saw elk running, grazing in the meadow and swimming in the lake (utterly surreal) and also got attacked by a mother grouse on the trail to Og Lake (hilarious). I got up for every sunrise, and each one was slightly different. I enjoyed my coffee on the beach and watched as the rays hit Mount Assiniboine and lit it up in all its glory. The beach at the furthest end of the lake, I think, has the best views. You can walk all the way around the lake which as an awesome way to get a feel for the place, and you get amazing views of the glaciers above. We enjoyed Cerulean and Sunburst Lakes most days – they were so close to Lake Magog campground that you could take a stroll there in 15 minutes or so. At sunrise, the reflections are unbelievable! We found it got windier as the day went on (we visited late July), so if you’re hunting for reflections, sunrise is your game.

The hike up to the Niblet and the Nublet is a nice, gradual incline with some of the most stunning views I have ever witnessed. This one is definitely a spot to enjoy sunset! Even with forest fire smoke, the vistas were unbeatable and we could’ve stayed up there all night. We also hiked out to Og Lake and back, which is a super mellow hike, mostly flat and with some pretty neat views of the surrounding mountain range. The only thing that put a damper on our trip was the bugs. They were apocalyptic. I wore a Coghlan’s bug suit for pretty much the entirety of our trip, I’m not sure what was going on this year but these bugs were supercharged. We took a couple hours a day to just read in our tent to get some respite. At the end of our hike, I counted over 40 bites on my right leg alone. Bug spray just seemed to wear off after 30 minutes or so – you almost wanted a deet bath to dip in!

We hiked out as opposed to the helicopter, knowing that we had to do some suffering to enjoy a place as spectacular as Mount Assiniboine. And boy, did we suffer. We hiked out through Wonder Pass which was absolutely stunning, until it wasn’t. The first 13km are a lot more scenic than the last 17km – which is literally a never ending road. It’s amazing how much your body can suffer when it has to walk at the exact same gradient downhill for hours on end – and there’s still a few kms of insulting uphill to be found on the hike out. I’m buying hiking poles for next time! I’m a pretty solid hiker but there was something about this trail that was truly gruelling. The first half of the hike had incredible views of Marvel Lake and you do travel through critical grizzly bear habitat – so we were sure to call out every minute or so, so that we didn’t take any bears by surprise. It’s incredibly scenic and peaceful. However, once you pass Marvel Lake, you essentially walk on a disused logging road for 3-4 hours, which is still in very dense grizzly habitat. Some of it is quite overgrown and eery – we were excited to see other hikers! It took us 7.5 hours from Lake Magog to Mount Shark Trailhead – I logged 30.3km, 454m of elevation gain and 6:15 of moving time. If you have poles, bring them, and make sure you’ve worn in your hiking boots beforehand!

I would love to go back to Mount Assiniboine in the fall to see the colours light up with the changing of seasons. Until then, I’ve attached some film photos below to enjoy. They were all shot with Portra 400 film. Follow along for more adventures here 🙂

The Sunshine Coast on 35mm Film

The Sunshine Coast region is home to the traditional, unceded, and ancestral territories of the skwxwú7mesh, shíshálh, Tla’amin, Klahoose, and Homalco Nations.

Here are some of my favourite photos of the Sunshine Coast over the last couple of summers. I love this part of B.C. and most likely will end up retiring there. These photos were shot mostly on Portra 400. Some moody days, some days that felt like we were in the Caribbean. We travelled from Comox to Powell River, up to Lund, over to Savoury Island, and down all the way back to Gibsons. The first images were developed at Rocket Repro in Vancouver who kept the raw edge, which I adore. Can’t wait to get back out there!