Diving Deep with Nikonos – A Brief History of Nikon’s Underwater Cameras

Diving Deep with Nikonos – A Brief History of Nikon’s Underwater Cameras

2200 1238 James Tocchio

I watched with helpless horror as my camera fell, seemingly in slow-motion, fumbled from the uppermost point of a rough stone jetty. It tumbled and bounced from rock to rock on a plummeting course to the sea. It plunged into the ocean, sank to the sandy seafloor, and laid there – submerged and dead. I clamored down the rocks, my heart in my throat and a curse on my lips, snatched the camera from out of two feet of saltwater and assessed the damage. There was none. I was shooting a Nikonos.

Raising the camera to my eye, I saw the familiar gleam of LEDs that signaled a light meter reading. I pressed the shutter release and heard the reassuring thwick of the near-silent shutter. I advanced the film and the camera’s mechanical gears sprung to action. I fired another few test shots and felt secure; no leaks, nothing jammed, all was well. The Nikonos was wet and a little sandy, but it remained a perfectly functional camera.

This ten second vignette of my life last summer tells much of the story of the Nikonos. But it’s not the whole story. From humble beginnings as a French specialty conceived by the famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, to a final iteration as the only autofocus underwater SLR in the world, Nikon’s Nikonos cameras are a remarkable series of cameras. In fact, they’re some of the most remarkable cameras ever made.

Cousteau’s Calypso and the first Nikonos

The Calypso was the first self-contained amphibious 35mm film camera designed for use underwater. It was dreamed up in 1959 by Jacques Cousteau, designed by the Belgian inventor and aeronautical engineer Jean de Wouters, produced beginning in 1960 by French camera maker Atoms, and distributed by La Spirotechnique (a subsidiary of Air Liquide S.A., and a company which got its start when Cousteau and engineer Émile Gagnon ordered the design of the Aqua-lung, the first effective scuba system with a diving regulator).

Before the Calypso, underwater photography was achieved through the use of massive and cumbersome underwater housings. These would contain the film cameras of the day, Rolleiflexes, the Nikon S series rangefinders, and others. As a result, underwater photography was slow, extremely challenging, and rarely yielded results to rival above-water photography.

The compact form factor and ease of operation provided by the Calypso was a revelation.

This incredibly well-made, all-mechanical camera was completely air-tight through the use of greased rubber O-rings, and required no additional underwater housing. It also offered interchangeable lenses, flash connectivity, and stunning ergonomics. Shutter speeds from 1/30th to 1/1000th of a second (later changed to 1/15th to 1/500th of a second), a rapid front-actuating film advance and shutter cocking lever, a sealed frame counter, a built-in 35mm viewfinder and accessory shoe for optional viewfinders; all of this paired with optics by legendary lens makers SOM Berthiot and Angénieux to instantly signal the Calypso as a breakthrough invention and a world-class camera.

It was even featured as a gadget in a James Bond film.

In 1962, La Spirotechnique sought to increase sales and distribution of their Calypso. They approached Japanese camera maker Nikon, who instantly recognized the Calypso as a unique high-performance machine. Nikon seized the opportunity, and in a matter of months they’d secured the exclusive production and distribution rights outside of France and Europe, and had taken their first step to becoming the brand that would become most synonymous with underwater photography for the next three decades.

The Calypso camera was quickly rebranded as the Nikon Nikonos and mated to a range of incredible Nikkor lenses (some of which worked as amphibious lenses and some which were underwater only). It was marketed as not just an underwater camera capable of reaching depths of 50 meters, but as a highly capable all-weather camera equally suited to less intense conditions as well. This was a decisive marketing move that would prove instrumental to the camera’s sales success. Here was a robust, all-mechanical camera made not just for divers, but for anyone who brought their camera to wet or hazardous environments that might be otherwise destructive to a traditional camera.

Within half a year, Nikon was selling over 1,200 Nikonos cameras per month. Paired with the standard Nikkor W 35mm F/2.5 amphibious lens (equally capable above and below the waves), the Nikonos quickly became a must-have tool for industrial workers and academic researchers, as well as the camera of choice for adventurers and sporting photographers.

Incremental improvements

In 1968 Nikon released the Nikonos II, a slight improvement over the original Nikonos. The Nikonos II most notably featured a new film rewind control. Changed from a knob-style rewind control to the more modern flip-out lever, film rewind was now faster and more efficient. Additionally, the film pressure plate was converted to a hinged flip-away pressure plate. Weight of the camera was decreased by nearly 50 grams (from the 700 of the original Nikonos to 655 grams).

In 1975, Nikon released the Nikonos III. Though still an all-mechanical all-manual camera based on the original Calypso design, the Nikonos III brought some important changes to the Nikonos machine that made it more reliable and more intuitive. Inclusion of a sprocket for film advance meant that film spacing was more regulated and mechanically more precise, and an additional film slot on the take-up spool made loading film easier. The frame counter was moved from the bottom of the body to a more obvious position on the top of the camera. The viewfinder was changed to an illuminated window viewfinder, which increased visibility of frame-lines and overall clarity, and an additional 80mm focal length frame-line was included for use with the Nikonos’ other standard W lens.

All this new tech meant that the camera’s size increased slightly from approximately 129 x 99 x 47mm (Nikonos II body) to 144 x 99 x 47mm. While this might at first seem counter to the Calypso’s original aim to be a compact underwater camera, it can be argued that the newer dimensions of the Nikonos III made the camera more usable. Its controls were enlarged to match the slightly larger body, which made it easier to use with gloved hands or in trying environments.

Big changes

In 1980, Nikon’s underwater cameras surged forward on a tsunami of technology. The original Calypso design that all Nikonos cameras had iterated upon for the previous twenty years was finally given a respectful burial at sea, and for the first time Nikon developed and produced their own entirely new underwater camera.

The Nikonos IV-a was thoroughly modern. It abandoned the fully mechanical all-manual methodology of earlier Nikonos cameras in the pursuit of speed and performance. And it succeeded in nearly every way. It featured an advanced in-body light meter coupled to an auto-exposure shutter. This center-weighted metering system measured light as it poured through the set aperture of the lens and bounced off of the shutter’s reflective blades. With this information measured against the set sensitivity of the inserted film, the meter would calculate the required shutter speed to result in a perfect exposure.

This system also worked with a truly massive range of accessories, including a number of dedicated submersible flashes that would communicate with the camera via a secondary sensor system to enable nearly effortless flash photography.

An LED display within the viewfinder illuminated to show if exposures would be accurate or over- or under-exposed. If the LED was blinking, opening or closing the lens aperture would bring the settings within reasonable parameters for a correct exposure. The shutter would operate without battery power at a speed of 1/90th of a second, and Bulb mode was included for a variety of special shooting situations. With this combination of features and methodology, plus the camera’s incredibly large viewfinder, its new locking and hinged film door, and its traditional shutter release button, the Nikonos IV-a was one of the most reliable and simplest-to-use underwater cameras ever made.

Its incredibly robust die-cast metal body was wrapped in hard rubber, making it extremely grip-able and unendingly durable. Its slightly oversized controls resulted in intuitive and easy handling, and much thought was paid to ensure high legibility of all controls underwater.

Though the IV-a was a definitive step forward, for many working photographers it wasn’t perfect. The lack of a manual shooting mode was less than ideal, and the inability for the camera and its flashes to work via through-the-lens metering meant flash photography wasn’t always accurate. Four years after the debut of the IV-a, Nikon raised the bar.

The Nikonos V debuted in 1984 and was by far the most advanced Nikonos ever made. It took all of the successful innovations of the IV-a and added a manual mode, true TTL flash capability with dedicated Speedlight flash units, and more durable and striking design elements. The handgrip of the IV-a was slightly redesigned to be a stronger and more angular form, and the body itself was recast. The rigid rubber diamond-grip coating of the IV-a was replaced with a softer yet no-less-durable body coating that came in either a drab olive green color, or a vibrant orange, the latter of which has now easily become the most iconic Nikonos camera.

A bit about the lenses

All Calypso and Nikonos cameras used the same O-ring sealed lens mount, making for a system of high interchangeability and universal compatibility of optics. In today’s collector and user market, this is greatly appealing in that a shooter can shoot a single lens on any one of these remarkable cameras.

The standard lens for the Nikon branded machines has always been the Nikkor W 35mm F/2.5 lens. This and other Nikonos lenses that are marked “W” are amphibious lenses (or “waterproof”) and can be used both in atmosphere and under water. Lenses marked “UW” are underwater lenses only and will not operate correctly when not submerged (the magnification index of water works in conjunction with these lens’ front elements to create a distortion-free image).

Image quality from the kit lens is fantastic. Incredibly sharp with high contrast and magnificent saturation, the 35mm F/2.5 W Nikkor is without question one of the best legacy lenses in the world (underwater system or not), and has even been adapted to M mount by the well-known Japanese boutique lens maker MS Optics. The specialized underwater-only UW lenses are still regarded as the best underwater optics ever made, with the 28mm achieving high accolades in particular.

Sample shots in the gallery below were made by CP staffer Dustin Vaughn-Luma using the Nikonos V with Nikkor W 35mm F/2.5 (more coming soon in our full Nikonos V review).

The autofocus revolution

The Nikonos V was produced (and sold in great numbers) for nearly twenty years, a remarkably long life for a camera. But by the early 1990s, autofocus technology had taken over in nearly every field of photography. The Nikonos V, the most advanced Nikonos to that point, had always been an old-fashioned zone focus camera. The user would estimate the distance to subject and set the lens focus manually, hoping that the final image would be in-focus. Nikon’s customers wanted an autofocus single-lens-reflex underwater camera, and Nikon answered the call.

The Nikonos RS AF debuted in 1992 and it was and remains the most advanced underwater camera ever made. It totally reinvented the Nikonos range. No longer was the Nikonos a viewfinder camera with manual focus. It was now an SLR camera with interchangeable lenses, advanced autofocus, matrix-metering, auto-exposure, manual exposure mode, dedicated flash units, and an improved depth rating to an incredible 100 meters (double that of every earlier Nikonos).

With a massive viewfinder, shutter speeds from 1 second to 1/2000th of a second, DX coding, exposure compensation control, four autofocus modes, automatic film advance, and so much more, the RS AF is damn near a Nikon F4 that can dive with sharks.

Alas, the RS AF was expensive to manufacture and too pricey for most shooters. That, coupled with an industry shift toward accessory waterproof housings for standard cameras, meant the RS AF would quickly disappear. Production of the camera lasted just four years (consider this fact next to the reality that the Nikonos V would continue to be sold until 2001, and we begin to see just how difficult a sell the RS AF was).

Nikonos in the modern era

Modern film shooters haven’t forgotten the incredible Nikonos camera. Brandon Jenning’s Nikonos Project, a loosely organized group of friends who shoot, collect, and loan Nikonos cameras to interested photo geeks, has gained an incredible social media following. This loan service is absolutely free, they only ask that you contribute the photos you make to their growing online archive. The resulting collective of talent and incredible portfolio of surf, dive, and adventure photos is a sight to behold. To get involved (borrow a Nikonos or join their postcard program or donate to the cause) reach out to Brandon or the Nikonos Project via their website or on social media.

Sample shots in the gallery below were made by Nikonos Project founder Brandon Jennings and are published here with permission. 

Following the end of sales of the Nikonos V in 2001, Nikon’s professional underwater cameras seemed to be a thing of the past. But the brand hasn’t forgotten its watery masterpieces. Recent years have seen Nikon release some really impressive underwater compact digital cameras. Though it might lack the professional chops of the earlier Nikonos cameras, the Nikon 1 AW1 is by all accounts a fantastic camera for shooting underwater.

But possibly the greatest indication of the respect that Nikon still retains for its impressive underwater cameras was displayed during the recent centenary of the birth of Nikon. The brand celebrated its hundred-year anniversary by releasing a number of limited edition products, among these a series of limited edition prints each showcasing a masterful Nikon camera made during the last hundred years. Of the ten prints, three showcase underwater cameras from the Nikonos line.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
11 comments
  • This seems like an amazing camera series! I’ve always fawned over underwater photography, and the durability seems amazing. Considering how I hope to go on great adventures one day, I may need to get my hands on one of these!

  • Oh my, the beautiful Nikonos V…. I used it quiet intensively while living in the south pacific and dived a lot with it… Here are some of the shots I made with this fantastic underwater camera 🙂 https://www.lomography.com/homes/vicuna/cameras/3315575-nikonos-v/photos

  • I love my Nikonos–in or out of the water. I’ve taken some of my favorite photos with it and the standard 35mm lens. It’s the ultimate travel camera.
    I’ve shared this here before: my favorite classic Nikon TV ad:

  • Fun timing, Huff’s site posted this super serious Nikonos vs Leica review from me:

    http://www.stevehuffphoto.com/2018/04/16/crazy-comparison-leica-vs-nikonos-by-huss-hardan/

    I have one in each colour and actually bought a ‘beater’ 35 2.5 lens that I played around with after removing the massive clear glass slab in front of the lens. It is there of course to make it waterproof. To remove, all you need to do is pull out that O-ring around it as that is all that is holding it in. I wanted to improve on the stock flares that one can get with the sun in the frame. It definitely is better w/o it, but this is only noticeable in images that would flare.
    Here’s a shot taken with the glass filter removed, showing it’s (now) excellent flare resistance in a back lit shot:

    https://www.flickr.com/gp/39133227@N08/2A3p9E

    Of course, if I’m planning on getting wet, I’d use one of the un-hacked lenses. What is interesting is in trying to figure out what was needed to do that, I pretty much took the housing apart from the mount end. The lens itself is tiny! All the size is in the housing that makes it waterproof.

    • Fantastic post there, Huss. Why aren’t you writing for me? 😉

      Similar to your idea about removing the front glass, I actually used an MS Optics converted Nikonos lens on an M6 for about a month. A friend of mine is the owner of that lens. It is tiny, as you say, and was pretty remarkable if not a little tricky to focus (this version had a very tiny focus knob). Someday I will likely write a bit about shooting the converted lens, but we shall see.

      Thanks as always for commenting pal.

  • I loved going through this article. The Nikonos really is a special camera (I got mine through F-Stop!) You mentioned the Nikon 1 AW1? Any plans on a writeup for that one?

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is the founder of CP. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic cameras and the most advanced digital machines. In addition to his work on CP, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio