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.
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