The Nikonos System

by Andew Dawson

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If you've ever been around a group of scuba divers--or even if you haven't--you've probably seen it. That orange and black (sometimes green) brick that defies the curse of salt water: the Nikonos camera. Manufactured by Nikon, the Nikonos line dates all the way back to a prototype made by Jacques Cousteau himself. Nikon, in their wisdom, has ceased production of new Nikonos cameras. Fortunately, there is a gargantuan used market that will be around for many years, and Nikon will continue to provide service for the foreseeable future. The latest version is the Nikonos V (that's five); it's a fully waterproof, compact 35mm camera that can be submerged to a depth of 160 feet/50 meters. That's deeper than most divers ever venture; if you do, your camera is probably the least of your worries. (I've read reports of the Nikonos being taken as deep as 200 feet; it didn't flood, but the pressure made the controls almost impossible to operate.)


The earlier versions of the Nikonos represent the stages of evolution in this camera. They can be found--often cheaply--but I wouldn't recommend them for most users. The Nikonos III is a fully manual body with no TTL metering; some people still use them, if only because they've had them for decades. The Nikonos IV is usually regarded as something of a blunder by Nikon; it didn't have user-selectable shutter speeds, and had a metering system from Hell. Unless you have some reason that I can't even imagine, the Nikonos V is the way to go.


What sets the Nikonos apart from various other (cheaper) underwater cameras? Quite simply, the optics kick some serious ass over the competition. The dedicated u/w lenses for the Nikonos are designed as "water-contact" optics, and do not work anywhere else. The result: the sharpest, most saturated images you can make while submerged. Even the "big name" pro's, who use housed SLR's most of the time for their added versatility, acknowledge that Nikonos lenses are the sharpest. So why not use them all the time? Like everything in life, there are trade-offs. The Nikonos V has a fairly old shutter design, and only does flash sync at 1/90th or slower. There is no option for motor drives, so it's manual wind only. It's a rangefinder, so you must guesstimate subject distance and set it on the lens (more on this later).

The Nikonos V does have center-weighted TTL flash exposure, which can be useful in certain situations, but not all. It has ambient light metering, although it is a bit quirky. It is very compact camera, which can be a huge advantage in heavy currents, crowded dive boats, and times when you need to haul gear some distance before you get in the water.

With that said, let's talk about the Nikonos lenses...

wpe28.jpg (3641 bytes)U/W 15mm Nikkor

This is the flagship lens for the Nikonos, and for good reason. With a picture angle of 94 degrees and razor-sharp optics, it can focus down to subjects only 10 inches from the lens. There are two versions available: the "older" style was designed for the Nikonos III and does not recognize TTL circuitry, and a newer version that was designed for the Nikonos V. They are virtually the same optically, and both can be mounted on any Nikonos body. The 15mm needs a separate viewfinder to properly frame and judge composition.

wpe27.jpg (3024 bytes)U/W 20mm Nikkor

Hitting your wallet less hard but just as good optically is the 20mm. At 78 degrees it is not as extreme wide-angle as the 15mm, which can be to your benefit in some situations. Most working pro's own both. It can be the ideal lens for subjects (sharks, dolphins) that may not approach close enough for good composition with the 15mm. It is an excellent choice for beginners for general u/w photography. It also needs its own viewfinder.

wpe26.jpg (2859 bytes)U/W 28mm Nikkor

This lens offers a low-cost alternative, but one that can produce excellent results in the right circumstances. At only 59 degrees, it skates on the edge of forcing too much water between you and the subject, but it is workable. Appropriate uses would be diver portraits, schools of fish, and some reef scenics.

wpe25.jpg (2778 bytes)35mm and 80mm

These are the only Nikonos lenses that are designed for use both above and underwater. This means they do not have the benefit of water-contact optics, so compromises have been made. Personally, I think the 35mm is useless for anything except extension tube/macro work, which I will cover later. I have never seen anyone use the 80mm, ever. In theory it can be used for macro, but one wonders why Nikon bothered to make it.

Nikono9.jpg (2924 bytes)3rd Party lenses

There are a handful of lenses made for the Nikonos by other companies. Sea & Sea makes an excellent 12mm full-frame fisheye (pictured), with coverage of 167 degrees. I've seen some outstanding big animal and reef scenic photographs taken with it. They also make 15mm and 20mm lenses for the Nikonos; they are good, but usually considered not quite as good as the U/W Nikkors. There are a few others that are not manufactured anymore; unless you happen to inherit one, they're not worth pursuing.

wpe2A.jpg (2858 bytes)WHAT ABOUT THE NIKONOS RS?

The Nikonos RS was a truly unique camera that Nikon made for about 5 years. It was a full-featured amphibious SLR about the size of an F100. It had a big viewfinder, its own set of awesome lenses that topped even the Nikonos V, autofocus, everything you'd expect in an SLR. It was also REALLY expensive; you could easily drop $10,000 for a complete system. Early versions also had an annoying tendency to flood, thus destroying your big investment. Nikon dutifully replaced all these fiasco floods at first, but in the end it was not worth the trouble, and they discontinued the camera. In a way, it was the beginning of the end of Nikon's big commitment to underwater.

You can still find Nikonos RS's on Ebay etc, but don't expect to get a deal. There are a few die-hard users who tend to snap up bodies and lenses wherever they can, and will pay for them. There have been some amazing pictures taken with it. I've used the RS a few times, and it was a very cool camera in a lot of ways, but I can't really recommend it. There are some more promising things on the horizon--both in film and digital--and I think money is more wisely spent there.


(Nikonos V with "old-style" 15mm & Ikelite viewfinder)

A lot of the general techniques are covered in a separate article, so I'll just pass on a few tricks specific to the Nikonos.

The ambient light meter in the Nikonos V is a bit odd. Instead of a normal center-weighted, it is weighted toward the bottom third of the frame. Nikon designers, in their wisdom, decided that most u/w photographs would have a "darker" reef area at the bottom and blue water in the background. Their logic, I guess, was that this weighting would prevent the reef from getting underexposed. It ignored that fact that huge numbers of shots are done vertically, so in those cases you have a "right-weighted" meter. It also ignores that you almost always use fill-flash on the darker reef areas, so the ambient reading can be misleading. Kinda goofy...

Fortunately, it doesn't cause a lot of problems. When metering ambient light, you tend to scan the blue-water background to get a general reading, and then bracket from there. For the control freaks, you have the option of using an external meter, like the Sekonic Marine Meter, or the new Ikelite meter. I've used all these options at various times, and have had good results regardless.

You can select shutter speeds on the Nikonos V, but most of them will be unavailable. Since a large majority of images are made with strobe, your only real choices are 1/30, 1/60, or 1/90 (its fastest sync speed). There is a Bulb setting if you want to experiment with long exposures. Most of the time, I set it on 1/60 or 1/30, if only because it makes the bracketing easier. If you're around fast-moving subjects like sea lions, 1/90 may give you some added sharpness. If your strobe is turned off or not attached, the other shutter speeds (1/125-1/1000) become available.

There is also an Aperture Priority mode, where the shutter speed will drift between 1/30 and 1/90, assuming you have a strobe attached. These shutter speeds are stepless in the "A" mode. Ambient exposure in this mode will be determined by the Nikonos' oddball meter, so it's your decision if you want to trust it. You can bracket in this mode by using the ASA/ISO adjustment. As I discussed in the general techniques, manual exposure for wide-angle is much more reliable in the long run, and is the standard approach used by pro shooters.

The Nikonos is a rangefinder camera, so you need to estimate the distance to the subject and set focus. Some people make a big deal of the fact that things appear 25% bigger/closer underwater, and that you need to factor that in. This refraction effect is factually true, but I've never found it to be a big issue. I think that with experience, you sorta get into "underwater" mode and your brain compensates to an extent. In any case, you are dealing with wide-angle lenses with lots of depth-of-field, so it's very forgiving. I often pre-set the focus at about 1.5 feet, and only move it for extremely close shots. On the 15mm and 28mm lenses, there are calipers in the focus area that show the depth-of-field for whatever aperture you have set. On the 20mm, you can calculate it based on color-coded markings on the focus knob.


The only way to do macro with a Nikonos is using extension tubes with the 35mm or 28mm lenses. They work exactly the same as on land, with the tube extending the focal length of the lens. There are pre-set sizes, typically 1:3, 1:2, and 1:1, corresponding to the image/subject ratio.

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(Nikonos V with 1:2 extension tube & framer)

The bad news is that with the tiny depth-of-field this creates, it is virtually impossible to estimate subject distance and framing. Therefore, almost all extension tube systems use metal framers to guide your composition. The drawbacks are obvious: how many animals really like having a metal frame shoved in their face? For static objects like coral or other invertebrates, this isn't an issue, but there are other disadvantages. You have to choose which tube/framer you're going to use for that dive, since changing them underwater would result in a flooded camera. Murphy's Law dictates that whichever one you pick, it will be the wrong size for the rare animal you find that day. Since you have to physically put the framer around the subject, this can limit your choices. Lots of small critters tend to hide in crevices and caves in the reef, making them inaccessible to framers much of the time.

On the plus side, extension tubes are cheap and easy to use. The TTL flash system in the Nikonos works extremely well. If everything is set up properly, you can have virtually an entire roll of well-exposed, sharp photographs. For those just starting in u/w, extension tubes are a great way to get going and not immediately get frustrated. With patience and good choices in subject matter, there have been some great shots taken this way.

I tried tube/framer set-ups a couple of times, and...hated it. I don't want to sound too negative; there are people who like them and use them all the time, but I think they're a drag. I hated the framers, the lack of reflex viewing, the one-and-only-one composition, the whole thing. Compared to a housed SLR with a macro lens, it's like trying to paint a Degas with crayons. For those who don't want to house their SLR and have invested in the Nikonos, it's the only option, and it's not a terrible one. But it sure wouldn't be my first choice.

wpe2C.jpg (4537 bytes)Nikon also makes a rig called the Close-Up Kit (pictured). Instead of extension tubes, it's a diopter element that attaches to the 35mm or 28mm, and also uses a framer. It's intended for "fish portrait" sized subjects, with the frame being about 6-8" across. Basically it works, but it suffers from the same limitations as tubes. If your fish is friendly or tame enough, you could get a great image. People have used tricks to lure subjects, like attaching bait to the edge of the frame. There have been some creative attempts to avoid metal framers too, like penlights or laser pointers showing the frame/plane of focus. I've never used them, but it seems like a good idea.

The bottom line? If you've invested in a Nikonos system, you might as well get a set of tube/framers. They're cheap and it works, even if it's not ideal.


For beginners and pro's alike, the Nikonos V is a great choice. Some of the greatest u/w photographs ever taken were made with the Nikonos. It has certain limitations, especially in the macro area, but they are far outweighed by its strengths. For those who buy into a system, I would highly recommend getting Jim Church's Guide to the Nikonos. At any given time I've seen several available on Ebay, so it's a cheap and worthwhile book to own. Some of the photographic advice is a little dated, but it's the bible as far as maintenance and technical issues with the camera.


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All text and images ęCopyright 2003 Andrew Dawson