Nikonos cameras

what features an underwater camera must have

by  J Floor Anthoni (2005)
The only camera manufacturer who seriously tried to meet the needs of the underwater photographer is Nikon with its series of Nikonos underwater and amphibic cameras. Their latest was the Nikonos RS with through-the-lens reflex viewing and other important qualities. It is not the intention of this underwater course to review commercially available cameras and underwater housings, but the Nikonos cameras provide us with examples of what to demand from any underwater camera and to understand their limitations.


The history of the Nikonos range of cameras.
Nikonos V
The Nikonos V appears to be the end of the non-SLR cameras with automatic exposure but without automatic focusing. It is the end product of a long period of experimentation and gradual improvement, and even in the era of digital photography, still has its uses as it comes with very sharp lenses.
Nikonos RS
The camera everyone has been waiting for received a luke-warm response. Why? It is still the best ever made with the finest of lenses. It is also rugged and easy to operate.
Digital cameras are set to replace the analog film-based ones as they appeal to the consumer-oriented photographer, but do they perform as well under water?
  • www.digitalbooks.de/nikon/compendium.htm: an overview of the vast system of cameras, lenses and accessories made by Nikon. This is a book but this link gives valuable information already.
  • www.digitalbooks.de/nikon/systemcd/: A 600-page detailed compendium of Nikon products on the web, in German. Very thorough in both descriptions and specifications. It is complete as well. All Nikonos gear is there.
  • www.uimage.com/photography/nikonos_evolution.html: a short summary of the progression in Nikonos cameras.
  • For comments and suggestions, e-mail the author. Read tips for printing.
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    It took a very long time before the ideal underwater camera emerged. It was not just the Nikon company who contributed to the development of underwater cameras as others like provided high quality housings for the Rolleimarin series of double reflex cameras. With these cameras, explorer-photographers like Hans Hass laid the foundation for what any underwater photographer needs to know, all of it included on this web site.

    Here is a short chronology of events:

  • 1949: Hans Hass develops in co-operation with the German company Franke & Heidecke the famous Rolleimarin underwater housing for a double-lens reflex Rollei 6x6cm camera. It became the most successful underwater camera of its time, later replaced by the single-lens reflex (SLR) Hasselblad.
  • CalypsoPhot1957: the Belgian inventor Jean de Wouters makes the CalypsoPhot for the dive equipment manufacturer SOS. It becomes the first waterproof 35mm amphibic camera with 35mm lens that can be used both above and under water. It came on the market in 1961 with a 35mm and a 28mm lens, 1/20 to 1/1000s
  • 1962-68: the Nikon camera company develops the CalypsoPhot further with its original inventor and releases the Nikonos I, first in a long line of 35mm amphibic cameras. The UW-Nikkor 28mm lens is the first correcting for the air-water interface.
  • 1968-75: the long reign of the Nikonos II with many improvements but still without sprocketed film transport. A 28mm lens and a 15mm lens become available. An 80mm lens is now available. First distance ring for macro photography underwater and on land.
  • 1975-80: The Nikonos III has many improvements like sprocketed film transport and larger viewfinder, but remains essentially a mechanical camera made from robust parts that keep working in harsh conditions.
  • 1980-84: the Nikonos IV with TTL light metering in aperture priority, strobe light control and a hinged back leaves many disappointed as the old 15mm lens was incompatible, the shutter speed fixed for flash photography and the housing prone to flooding.
  • 1982: the famous UW-Nikkor 15 mm lens becomes available.
  • Nikonos V in green1984-??: the Nikonos V with electronic TTL through the lens light metering and a wide range of shutter speeds, receives an enthusiastic welcome. It also controls and mixes the strobe light of the new strobe models SB102, 103 and 105 at all shutter speeds to 1/90. The Nikonos now has watertight exchangeable lenses of 80, 50, 35, 28 and the famous15mm and is still today a good expedition backup camera in case all else fails due to dust, dew, moisture or ice. It can be fitted out with several Nikonos underwater strobes and strobes made by other manufacturers. A large variety of accessories is available from brackets and macro tubes to flash synchro cables.
  • 1986: a sharp 20mm lens becomes available.
  • Nikonos RS & 28mm lens1992-96: the Nikonos RS 35mm SLR autofocus autoexposure camera for depths to 100m, with an extensive set of very high quality underwater lenses, sets the standard. Although it was the camera everyone had been waiting for, it was taken off the market in 1996 due to poor demand and internal restructuring at Nikon Japan. In slow succession its lenses became available: 28mm, 50mm macro, 13mm fisheye and 20-35mm zoom. Specialty lenses became available from other manufacturers, notably from Germany. The SB104 strobe is the most powerful on the market, designed for fisheye lenses.



    Today in the age of computers and digital cameras, it is hard to imagine that underwater cameras took such a long time to evolve from their basic models. Even so, they do not match what the digital camera of the future may offer. In today's digital cameras we already encounter an adequate resolution and colour sensitivity, the ability to balance and filter colours, and a seemingly inexhaustible storage cartridge for far more than 36 exposures. And they have a long list of additional features. But most of these features do not count underwater, where a basic camera is all one needs. Indeed many digital cameras in their small housings fail the basic requirements for underwater use, the subject of this chapter.

    Nikonos V
    Production of the Nikonos V has also stopped, even though demand remains high as indicated by the second-hand trade. It is the last of the non-SLR series and comes with a good set of lenses from 80mm down to 15mm.
    In its long reign of compatible amphibious cameras, Nikon has set a de-facto standard for underwater strobes, now offered by many manufacturers. This means that Nikonos cameras can successfully be matched with non-Nikon strobes and other products. Here are the camera's main limitations: So what would one use this camera for as so many alternatives exist?

    Nikonos RS
    When I switched from movie to still photography, the Nikonos RS was just taken off the market, after only 5 years. Why? Here is my interpretation of events:

    Let's now review the camera's features and what these mean to the underwater photographer. The camera was conceived at the time of the f801 and its insert indeed resembles an F801 camera body, as does its bayonet lens connection. But major modifications have been applied.

    The above is indeed an awesome summary of the capabilities of the RS against which you can weigh your own camera system. I hope that potential underwater photographers read this first before buying a camera. We'll now look at the lenses:
    13mm fisheye above water
    f037625: with a correction lens behind, the Nikon Fisheye 13mm can be used above water. Edge to edge sharpness from foreground to background, but on closer inspection, slight red edged, as can be expected from a corrected underwater lens. Even lighting by SB104 strobe.
    12mm nudibranch
    f040931: this 12mm aeolid nudibranch was photographed with a 50mm macro lens and 2x teleconverter in wavy conditions using the Nikonos RS Freeze focus ability.

    For the more advanced user there are a number of gripes about the Nikonos RS:

    brackets and strobes for Nikonos RS
    The Nikonos RS comes with a single-sided or a double sided tray with a single or double part arm joined to the tray by a quick-release mechanism. The arm is jointed by a double ball-joint which allows much freedom. The whole setup is rather heavy and large.
    large controls on Nikonos RS
    The large and intuitive controls on the Nikonos RS makes this camera 'love at first sight' for the advanced photographer. All important controls on the right include the focus priority which is a new feature. All lenses have a wide viewing window to read their distance settings, which is also lit at night. Only the film counter, hardly seen here left of the aperture dial, is hard to read even though it is lit at night and has a magnifying window.

    See also the tips and tricks chapter for alternative brackets, fast lens caps and filter change, replacing sub-C cell nicads in the battery pack, and more.

    digital cameras
    At the time of writing, digital cameras are taking the photographic world by storm, particularly that of snapshooters. These cameras are in the pixel race, culminating in 6 million and later perhaps more. But colours do not appear fully true as people's skins become smoothed like baby skins. But the result is immediate and assisted by software which is able to look at all pixels, results are often better than that obtained from the analog negative film.
    Digital cameras are good for learning how to take good photos because they provide immediate feedback but many exhibit limitations for good underwater photography. Sold in polycarbonate underwater housings, complete with strobes, these cameras become disappointing. Why?

    Let's first consider their advantages:

    But digital cameras also have their disadvantages: For underwater photography the digital camera is certainly not a panacea, and potential users must be aware of their shortcomings, many of which preclude high quality underwater photography. The most important of these have been marked in red in the summary above.