I’m leading this camera review with a megaton bombshell of investigative journalism. Most online resources have claimed that the Nikon L35AW (made in 1986 and also known as the Action Touch) is a waterproof version of the internationally famed Nikon L35AF (made in 1983 and also known as the Pikaichi). It’s almost universally repeated that the two cameras share the same legendary lens, a Sonnar-type five-elements in four-groups design created by Nikon optical wizard Koichi Wakamiya. But the Nikon L35AW does not use this lens. It uses the simpler four-elements in three-groups lens found in the L35AF2 (made in 1985 and also known as the One Touch). It’s therefore more accurate to call the L35AW a waterproof version of the L35AF2.
And now that my pet peeve of pedantic accuracy in something as inconsequential as an article discussing decades-old film cameras has been satisfied, it’s time to more closely examine Nikon’s underwater point-and-shoot wonder-camera.
What is the Nikon L35AW
The Nikon L35AW’s basic specifications are similar to many other compact cameras of its era. A point-and-shoot 35mm film camera, it’s made to point and shoot, and automation dominates its core design. Exposure times and aperture selection, ISO setting, film advance and rewind, and flash output are all totally automated. Focus is also automatic, with a manual override for use in underwater shooting or in situations where the AF may be fooled. It runs on two AA batteries, has a self-timer, a tripod mount, a flash ready light, a film frame counter, frame lines and a distance scale in the viewfinder, and strap lugs for both side-mounted and top-mounted straps (just like a Leica M5!).
At 485 grams it weighs slightly more than the smallest point-and-shoots of its time, and with dimensions of approximately 134x81x56mm, it’s slightly bulkier as well. But this added weight and size isn’t overburdening, and the camera fits well in the hand. The hefty grip and rubberized coatings ensure this, and the added size is a happy trade to gain the L35AW’s durable and waterproof outer shell, which will survive submersion to approximately 10ft under water. Additionally differentiating it from the thousands of other point-and-shoot cameras of its time (surely there’s a “fish in the sea” metaphor here somewhere?) is its previously-mentioned lens. While it’s not the same lens as the one found in Nikon’s most famous compact camera, the L35AF Pikaichi, it is still an exceptional lens.
And it’s the combination of these last two features, its lens and its ability to dive, that places the L35AW into the upper echelons of classic cameras. There’s no other camera like it, in fact. Competing models from Canon and Minolta and Pentax don’t really compete in a meaningful way. The equivalent machines (the Canon Sure Shot WP-1 or AS-6, and the Minolta Weathermatic 35, and the Pentax 90-WR, respectively), either aren’t truly submersible or feature less-worthy lenses, bulkier bodies, or clumsy controls. And let’s not talk about the Hanimex Amphibean or the cumbersome plastic shells made to encapsulate non-waterproof SLRs.
The only truly comparable underwater film camera, from a usability and image quality standpoint, come from within Nikon’s own portfolio – the Nikonos series. It’s not altogether inappropriate to call the Nikon L35AW a miniaturized Nikonos, if we’re being lazy. It provides Nikonos image quality with less weight and a lower price (though it sacrifices depth capability – the Nikonos dives to 60 meters). All things considered, the Nikon L35AW is a worthy camera. Worth being used, worth being collected, and worth at least 1500 words, I say.
Swimming and Living with the Nikon L35AW
The L35AW is a nearly perfect camera. It actually is perfect, in certain environments. The beach, a pool, while on vacation – there’s no better film camera for these places and times. I could even argue that it’s a fantastic camera for those who loathe getting wet on the strength of its lens alone. As a street photography tool, it’s perfectly capable (the black model for stealth – it also comes in orange and blue). I could likely debate with anyone that it’s the only point-and-shoot camera that anyone really needs. It’s that good.
Image quality from the 35mm f/2.8 is excellent. There’s no distortion, there’s very little vignetting, there’s hardly any aberrations even when shooting in direct sunlight, and those that present do so in an elegant way. Images are punchy and sharp from corner to corner. Micro-contrast is high, and with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and capability of metering film up to ISO 1600, it’s easy to shoot in low light. The lens doesn’t say “Nikkor,” but it doesn’t need to when the results are this good.
Shooting is a smooth and effortless process. A half-press of the shutter release button engages the camera’s autofocus system. This active infrared system measures the distance to any subject framed within the central focusing patch indicated in the viewfinder and simultaneously brings to life a focus distance needle display which indicates clearly the point of focus. This methodology lends itself perfectly to the “focus and recompose” method of shooting, in which the desired subject is centralized, the shutter release half-pressed, and then composition achieved before finally pressing the shutter release button completely. An in-viewfinder LED light doubles as both a “subject too close” and an “insufficient light” warning. If this illuminates (which it rarely does) either turn on the flash, recompose the shot, or both.
The camera rarely misses focus in automatic mode. Even when shooting underwater, a situation in which the manual advises to only use the manual focus mode, autofocus worked fine. It seemed to also work perfectly in tricky focus environments, such as shooting into extremely bright light or when shooting reflective surfaces. I tried many times to force the camera to fail, and it wasn’t easy.
Similar accuracy characterizes the autoexposure system of the Nikon L35AW. It uses a CdS cell to control exposures from EV6 (f/2.8 at 1/8th of a second) to EV17 (f/17.5 at 1/430th of a second) at ISO 100. In low light, the shutter (which also acts as the aperture) can remain open for approximately two seconds, though it’s important for the photographer to remember to continue holding the shutter release button until the shutter closes. Releasing the shutter release button before the camera has cycled through a long exposure will cancel the exposure and close the shutter prematurely, resulting in an under-exposed shot.
The camera’s flash is capable, but limited to a single strength. This essentially means that the flash reaches distances between 0.7 meters to 3.6 meters when using ISO 100 film. Within this range of distance, subjects will be varying degrees of evenly illuminated. Get closer or further away and subjects will be blown out or under-exposed, respectively. At an average distance of six feet, flash is perfectly modulated. Subjects in low light are illuminated perfectly, and subjects with harsh shadows in bright light are filled exactly as we’d desire. The manually-selectable nature of the flash makes it possible to shoot with only available light, even in lighting that other more automated point-and-shoots might lock the shutter and stymie the shooter.
The all-weather capability of the L35AW means that all of these well-executed designs and features are housed in a go-anywhere body. Used on the beach, it handles anything from splashes to sand to long swims. On vacation, it can be rained on, dropped, dunked in a pool. It’s the perfect machine for hiking, surfing, and laying on a towel. Underwater use is as effortless as shooting above the waves. I used autofocus and it worked fine. Users who are sticklers might prefer to adhere to the manual’s advice and use the manual focus mode. Estimate distance to target, turn a dial, shoot – simple.
Care and Maintenance
Users who own or plan to buy a Nikon L35AW should follow some general rules to keep the camera happy and healthy. Any time the camera is used in saltwater or in a chlorinated pool, the camera should be thoroughly rinsed with fresh water. Great care should be taken to ensure no sand or water enters the film or battery compartments. If sand is present, it should be cleaned or rinsed off before changing film, and the O-rings that seal the film and battery compartments should be checked after every use for sand or other particulate contamination. These O-rings should also be greased to keep them pliable and waterproof.
The only looming rain cloud on this potentially never-ending metaphoric beach day is the possibility of breakdowns. In the best of circumstances, point-and-shoot cameras from the 1980s aren’t the most reliable machines. Nikon’s reputation for incredible quality is well-deserved, and the 1980s saw them produce some of the most durable and dependable electronic cameras ever. But they also produced some less reliable ones. The L35AW feels dense and solid, and mine has survived a few drops, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the camera’s core is based on the L35AF2. In my camera shop, there’s a rather sad rack of broken cameras that we use for parts, occasional repairs, and to remind us of the temporaneous nature of our mortal existence. This shelf sadly holds quite a few L35AFs and L35AF2s. That’s a fact that should be weighted with as much importance as the individual reader decides is appropriate. Then again, these cameras aren’t very expensive. Buy a nice one and enjoy it while it lasts (which may very well be a decade or two more – who knows?).
I love the Nikon L35AW. I love everything about it. Its styling screams of the decade in which I was born. Its ease of use is liberating and refreshing. Its lens is characterful and capable. It’s easy to grip and easy to shoot, and it makes lovely images every time I use it. I love it so much that I spent far too much money buying a new old stock example, one that was brand new in its original box from a Japanese camera dealer. I don’t regret this. Quite the opposite in fact – I’ve been looking for another, this time in orange.