Amongst adventure photographers, the Nikonos V needs little introduction. It’s amongst the most iconic and well-loved 35mm film cameras ever released, and with good reason. While film cameras are known for being relatively indestructible when compared to their digital counterparts, the Nikonos series of cameras takes this to the extreme. This truly is one camera which, for the reasons explained in this article, everyone should at least try at some point.

Affiliate disclosure: While we do receive a small kick-back from any sales or leads obtained through our article, this has never and will never affect any of the content posted on our site. At Roamer Photography, we only recommend products that we have used extensively and would pay for ourselves, so while our affiliate links do help us out, these products are never included in our content for the sole purpose of generating income.

calypso camera

As fitting for any line of cameras that follows the Calypso which, of course, was conceived by the legendary oceanographer and scuba-diving pioneer Jaques-Yves Consteau, the Nikonos series of cameras feels purpose-built for adventures below sea level. The most common version is the Nikonos V in bright orange, and anyone that has ever dropped it in the ocean will know the value of this design choice. There is also an olive green version, though these are much less common so not as easy to find on the used market.

Of all of the great all-weather cameras in the Nikonos family, the Nikonos V is arguably the most iconic of the lot. It was so successful that it even stayed in production for 5 years longer than the camera that followed it, the auto-focus SLR model named the Nikonos RS.

The Nikonos Legacy

nikonos magazine cover

What followed its release in 1984 were various images featured in some of the most famous publications on earth including National Geographic and Time magazine. Speak to legendary photographers shooting in some of the most inhospitable environments on earth and you’ll likely hear echoes of my praise for this camera. One example is National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen, who now spends his time running the environmental conservation organisation Sea Legacy and shooting underneath arctic and antarctic ice sheets – on some of his first expeditions, he was shooting with a Nikonos.

The legacy of this camera has inarguably carried on to the present day where it has achieved a cult-like following with organisations like the Nikonos Project working to ensure that everyone has a chance to shoot with this camera at least once. They loan and service the Nikonos V, as well as some older Nikonos models, for free and all they ask for in return is a few pictures made with the Nikonos to share with their sizeable Instagram following.

As a proud owner of a Nikonos V myself, I should openly disclose that this is not an entirely matter-of-fact, impartial review. It’s best to see it more as a love letter to what, in my opinion, is one of the most versatile and fun to use cameras that exist today. 

Why Nikonos?

My reasoning for initially picking up my Nikonos V is likely similar to many other current owners and users – I wanted a capable still camera that I could take diving but I didn’t want to spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds on an underwater housing for a DSLR or mirrorless camera. I was also in a market for a 35mm film camera at the time, so this purchase was a bit of a no brainer. Furthermore, the only camera I had when I bought it was a Fujifilm X70 meaning that buying a dive housing for my camera wasn’t exactly an option to begin with. 

I had used various GoPro and Olympus Tough cameras in the past but was irritated by the fact that neither of these could be taken on even fairly shallow dives without having to buy and maintain a dedicated dive housing. For the Olympus Tough, the housing will set you back by around half the price of the camera itself and while the GoPro’s “Super Suit” is comparably much cheaper, the image quality leaves much to be desired due to its tiny sensor. I’ve always found GoPros to be more geared towards video than shooting stills so, while these are great cameras in their own right, it wasn’t suiting my needs at the time.

Enter the Nikonos V

Nikonos V front
Nikonos V back

This brick of a 35mm film camera is waterproof to 50 metres (164 feet) with no housing at all. The Nikonos V is its own housing. From the moment you pick up this 896g (31.6oz) brick of die-cast aluminium alloy, you can feel how much rough treatment you’ll be able to put it through without so much as denting it – there’s a reason these cameras are older than many of their users.

While the entire Nikonos family of cameras are most well-known for their capabilities in extreme environments, it’s certainly no slouch in more casual situations. This isn’t just an underwater camera – it’s an amphibious workhorse ready for any situation, whether it’s diving under an Antarctic iceberg, getting barrelled off the coast of Panama or taking a snap of your dog in your living room.

Controls

Nikonos V dial controls

The Nikonos V has manual dials for ISO and shutter speed, and the aperture can be adjusted on the lens. The ISO dial has to be lifted upwards before it can be turned to ensure that settings can’t be changed by something like a current, or anything else that might apply pressure to the camera dials in certain situations. Additionally, the shutter button can also be locked when not in use to ensure you don’t accidentally waste a frame by haphazardly throwing your Nikonos into your bag.

The aperture can be adjusted by turning the black knob on the side of the lens. You will notice that this will adjust the distance between the two pincers in the lens that indicate at what distance from the lens objects will be in focus – the wider the aperture, the smaller the depth of field and thus, the closer together the pincers are to each other. 

To make changing these settings as easy as possible when out and about, I would recommend putting the lens on upside down – this way you can just flip the top of the camera towards you when changing the aperture and focal range, as opposed to awkwardly turning the camera around or having to read the numbers upside down.

Nikonos lens controls

The Nikonos V has an aperture priority (automatic exposure) mode which is very helpful when shooting in rapidly changing lighting conditions, like when you’re out in the surf or taking underwater images on a dive. With this, you can simply match your ISO setting to the film you’re using, set a fairly narrow aperture to ensure that you have close to maximum depth of field and that the automatic shutter speed setting doesn’t max out. In this mode, all you have to worry about is composition and focus, perfect for when there are environmental challenges to pay attention to.

The reason you don’t want to use this feature with very wide apertures, however, is that the Nikonos V has a maximum shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second so if you’re shooting in particularly bright conditions at f/2.5, the shutter speed will max out and you’ll be left with some very overexposed images.

The shutter speed dial also has a B, which refers to the “Bulb” mode in which the shutter stays open for as long as the shutter button is pressed, allowing this camera to take long-exposure images. The Nikonos V also has a tripod mount on its bottom side if this is what you want to use it for.

If you plan to use this camera for long exposures, it would also be a good idea to purchase some neutral density filters to avoid heavily overexposing your long exposure images. I use variable screw-in ND filters – the Nikonos V’s 35mm lens, which is by far the most common, takes a screw-in filter size of 58mm.

What are the Nikonos V’s downsides?

The Nikonos V, like virtually any camera on the market, has it’s downsides. A common, and for me the most noticeable issue with the Nikonos V is more to do with its lens. Since the front of the 35mm lens is a fairly large, flat glass surface, it can be quite susceptible to lens flare. Although users often complain about this issue with the Nikonos system and its lenses, and even though it has ruined quite a few shots I was fairly excited about, I don’t see this as too much of an issue as it can at times, yield some pretty interesting and unique results. And for me, being surprised by some of my results weeks after taking the shot is one of the things that draws me to shoot film.

Nikonos Glare
Nikonos glare 2

What film should you use?

 

El  Nido rainstorm on Nikonos V

One of the most common questions you’ll be asked about this camera, or any 35mm film camera for that matter, is the age-old question of what film should you use?

With the Nikonos V, the general recommendation is to shoot with faster films – a minimum of 400 ISO is ideal for general purpose photography and something like a roll of Kodak Portra 800 (as used in the image below) or even a black and white film like Ilford Delta 3200 Pro would be great for underwater photography. 

El Nido on Nikonos V

While the ISO dial is limited to a maximum of 1600 ISO, you can also use this camera to shoot faster film, you just need to make sure that you underexpose each shot to compensate accordingly. When using 3200 ISO film, for example, you will need to underexpose by one stop. This is as 3200 is one stop faster and thus more sensitive to light than 1600, so underexpose each shot by one stop (e.g. use a shutter speed of 1/250 when you would otherwise be using 1/125) and you should produce some great results.

Spain on Nikonos V<br />
Nikonos V underwater
Scotland on Nikonos V
Nikonos V in Spain

And for newer film photographers that may not be aware of this – if you travel and fly with your film, make sure you take the film in your hand luggage and that you try to have this inspected by hand instead of passing it through airport security X-Ray scanners. I keep mine in this tin I bought from Analogue Wonderland to help me explain that I’m carrying unexposed film in countries where airport security may not speak English very well. It has a foam inlay with space for three 35mm film canisters to keep your film safe both before and after using it.

35mm tin front
35mm tin back

These machines can cause unexposed film to fog up, leaving much more noise and less detail in the shadows of your image, and the scanners used for check-in luggage are even stronger so these are likely to have an even greater effect. The reason I’m mentioning this in a post about the Nikonos V is that, due to the type of camera that it is, you’re more likely to take it traveling. Additionally, higher ISO film is more sensitive to light and exposure, including that from airport security scanners, so while your 200 ISO roll should be fine, your 3200 ISO film may not be so lucky.

How do you keep your Nikonos attached to you when out in the water?

A tip for using it in the water – I attach a body-board leash to my Nikonos and fix it to my wrist in case I drop it. This is as its weight and brick-proof construction make it sink like an actual brick. It being so brightly coloured is very useful when you are looking to keep sight of it, but being able to just about make out its colour on the seafloor isn’t all that useful if it has sunk to a depth that is out of your reach. At that point, the Nikonos V’s bright orange colour will only serve to mock you rather than serving an actual purpose.

El Nido Nikonos V HP5
Spain Nikonos V
Spain Nikonos V

Oh and when taking it into the water – grease those o-rings like there’s no tomorrow and if you’re using it in sea water, always remember to give it a good soak in fresh water after you get out.

What to look out for when picking up your own Nikonos V

Newforrest Nikonos V
Old Man of Storr on Nikonos V

If you’re looking to pick up your own copy, you’ll have to do so on the second-hand market as these cameras were discontinued a couple of decades ago. But before rushing off to purchase the first model you find up for sale, it’s a good idea to know what to look out for so you aren’t disappointed afterwards.

Given the age that these cameras are, it’s important that you are careful when purchasing your own model. It is therefore a good idea to inspect or at least ask questions about the following when you are buying your Nikonos V.

The viewfinder window

You should check for any damage and wear to the viewfinder. As the viewfinder on the Nikonos V is not an electronic viewfinder (EVF), all it is is a window that shows the basic frame that you will use with the 35mm lens attached. This makes inspecting it quite easy – you should just make sure that it is free from excessive amounts of dust, fogging or mold to ensure that when you’re shooting with it, you can actually see the image you’re composing.

The film advance lever and shutter

Make sure that the film advance lever moves smoothly and that the shutter fires properly – you should be able to hear this clearly as soon as you press the shutter button. If possible, test this with an old roll to make sure that you are able to rewind the film correctly.

The dials

Make sure all dials move smoothly in both directions.

The light-meter

Assuming you have a battery in your camera, when you half-press the shutter button and look through the viewfinder, you should see a small circle light up in red to advise you on the ideal exposure.

The o-rings

If you plan to use the Nikonos V underwater and not just in light rain, this one is particularly important – there are rubber o-rings around the backplate of the camera, around the lens and around the inside of each of the screw-in plates at the bottom of the camera. If these have flattened out, these need to be replaced and covered in dive-grease before taking your camera underwater.

Smell

Ok the final test may seem a bit strange but bare with me on this one – this is to test whether this camera has flooded in the past. To test whether it has at some point flooded, give the camera a smell around the dials, the lens mount and the screw plates at the bottom of the camera. If it has flooded in the past and seawater has gotten into it at any point, the water may have stayed in it for a while in which case you may be able to smell it. Also, check all metallic elements including the shutter blades for any rust – if any part is rusty, it has flooded in the past and it’s best to give it a miss.

Affiliate disclosure: While we do receive a small kick-back from any sales or leads obtained through our article, this has never and will never affect any of the content posted on our site. At Roamer Photography, we only recommend products that we have used extensively and would pay for ourselves, so while our affiliate links do help us out, these products are never included in our content for the sole purpose of generating income.

Conclusion

 

I think that just about wraps it up for now – as you can probably tell, I am a passionate proponent of this camera. In fact, I am now in the process of picking up a second copy for the unlikely possibility that I outlast this camera – I just wouldn’t feel right without at least having the option of going out and shooting with it.

EL Nido Rainstorm taken with Nikonos V on HP5

This is a camera that has its following for a reason. Everyone I know that owns or has owned one shares a similar love for this camera, and I’m confident that most skeptics would be converts within hours of using one. If you’re unsure, I urge you to jump at any opportunity to borrow one or pick up one of your own – even if you want to sell it on at some point in the future, the resale value of this camera is pretty good you’ll be able to make most, if not all of your money back. That or you could join the waiting list for the Nikonos Project – though the waiting list is rather sizable as justified by the content of this post.

If you do decide to pick one up, or if you already have a copy, please feel free to send in your favourite shots you’ve taken with the camera – I’d love to do a follow-up article at some point with some images submitted by our readers.

If you’re still unsure or just want to see more images taken with this beastly camera, check out its Lomography gallery here.

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