Nikonos “V” Underwater Film Camera Review

Underwater or on Dry Land; Dust, Sand, Mud, Rain — All Good With Nikonos V

18 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

Nikon Nikonos V might be the best underwater film camera money can buy. It may even be the best way to get into full-frame aquatic and adventure photography — period.

The Nikonos system has an outstanding range of lenses, some made exclusively for underwater photography, yielding minimal distortion and superb contrast/colour reproduction. Designed for direct glass-to-water contact, these lenses are considered unsurpassable by modern digital cameras in terms of compactness and image quality.

This review covers my experience with the 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5 and the 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5 on Nikonos V.

Nikonos V can also work above water or amphibiously. While some lenses, like UW-Nikkor, will perform best while submerged (I’ve tested the UW above water as well), the 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5 is designed to be useful in both environments.

Below, I’ll explain how Nikonos V works, how it performs underwater and how to ensure your camera doesn’t flood. Additionally, you’ll learn how to check for damage while shopping for submergeable film cameras.

And once you’ve got one, check back to learn how to take better photos above and below the water line in this exhaustive overview of Nikonos V.

A brief history of Nikonos underwater film cameras and its unique lenses.

Nikonos cameras were originally designed by the aquatic exploration legend and environmental activist Jacques Cousteau with Jean de Wouters, an aeronautical engineer, in 1956. At the time, their invention was called Calypso.

When Calypso entered production in 1961, it was the first submersible camera that didn’t need a cumbersome housing to go underwater. It was a small device that could be submerged up to 60m/200’ beneath and used without obstructions.

An early underwater camera housing. From the film “Becoming Cousteau.” Note that the upside-down orientation of the camera, the wrench-like lever (meant to control film advance), and the cumbersome and inaccurate sports viewfinder.

Calypso cameras were manufactured in France (Nice) by ATOMS and distributed by the La Spirotechnique scuba diving company.

However, the demand for these cameras soon outstripped ATOMS’ and La Spirotechnique’s ability to produce them at scale for a reasonable price. In no small part, that demand came through Nikon, who signed a deal with La Spirotechnique to make their own version of Calypso, called Nikonos.

While Calypso/Nikonos cameras were originally made for underwater photography only, their rugged, hermetically sealed bodies soon paved a new way for adventure and war photography on dry land (Harvey V. Fondiller, “The Best of Popular Photography,” p. 229).

With its use and popularity growing, Nikon continued releasing new models while the Calypso name (but not the technology) faded into history. The Japanese camera maker made improvements to the body and eventually added a TTL light meter with a whole slew of lenses:

UW-Nikkor 15mm 𝒇2.8–22 (for underwater use only).

UW-Nikkor 20mm 𝒇2.8–22 (for underwater use only).

LW-Nikkor 28mm 𝒇2.8–22 (for above-water use only).

UW-Nikkor 28mm 𝒇3.5–22 (for underwater use only).

W-Nikkor 35mm 𝒇2.5–22 (for amphibious use).

W-Nikkor 80mm 𝒇4–22 (for amphibious use).

You may’ve noticed that most of the above lenses are fairly wide, with the 80mm being the only exception. This is by design, as water’s differing physical properties make those focal lengths narrower by a factor of 1.33 when submerged. Thus, a 35mm lens has a ~50mm field of view equivalent on the dry land.

Nikonos V with UW-Nikkor its kit 28mm f/3.5 lens.

Nikonos’ UW-type lenses had an active optical element meant to come directly into contact with water (as opposed to having an air gap between the front lens and a non-diffracting glass, like in an underwater housing). Some photographers have attributed this design to being vastly superior in terms of sharpness and colour saturation.

Nikon wasn’t the only company that capitalized on the Nikonos platform. Third-party lens-makers sold:

Sea & Sea SWL Fisheye 12mm 𝒇3.5–22 (for underwater use only).

Sea & Sea WL-15 15mm 𝒇3.5–22 (for underwater use only).

Sea & Sea WCL-16 16mm 𝒇5.6–22 (for underwater use only).

Sea & Sea WL-17 17mm 𝒇3.5–22 (for underwater use only).

Subatec Subawider 17mm 𝒇2.5–22 (for underwater use only).

Sea & Sea WL-18 18mm 𝒇3.5–16 (for underwater use only).

Sea & Sea WL-20 20mm 𝒇3.5–22 (for underwater use only).

Seacor Sea-Eye 21mm 𝒇3.3–16 (for underwater use only).

All of the above lenses work with the star of this review and the latest viewfinder-type underwater camera in the Nikonos series: Nikonos V (they should be compatible with earlier Nikonos bodies as well).

The last Nikonos was the world’s first underwater SLR with autofocus — Nikonos RS — it was significantly more expensive and came with a flaw that caused catastrophic flooding if the right o-ring grease wasn’t applied. It also used a different lens mount.

Some years later, Kodak modified the RS for the US Navy — which was the last innovation on the Nikonos platform. The range was discontinued in 2001.

Nikonos V specs.

Nikonos V is a fairly bulky camera, weighing 705g/25oz without the lens or 894g/31oz with the 28mm 𝒇3.5 UW-Nikkor. Given its weight, it’s reasonably compact: 146mm × 99mm × 58mm or 5¾” × 4” × 2⅓”. Though you may not use a tripod underwater, there is a hole for one — supposedly for dry land applications.

Nikonos V cameras are rated for 50m/160’ underwater depth in their top shape.

Nikonos comes in orange or green colours.

The shutter. Nikonos V uses two LR-44 batteries to power its vertical-travel metal focal-plane shutter between 1/30s-1/1000s plus Bulb in manual and aperture-priority modes. There’s also an M90 setting that fires the shutter at 1/90s mechanically (the M90/“Mechanical 90” and Bulb modes work without a battery, whereas the rest of the speeds will not open the shutter curtains without power).

Metering. In aperture-priority mode (set via the green “A” on the shutter speed dial), Nikonos V fires its shutter steplessly, guided by its TTL (through-the-lens) center-weighted meter. In practice, this means that subjects in the middle of the frame will get the best exposure. Some photographers noted that the TTL meter may be biased towards the lower half of the frame to ensure that the deeper, darker areas underwater will get additional exposure (however, this is not confirmed in the camera manual).

Manual exposures are done by setting the shutter speed on the body and the aperture on the lens itself.

Flash sync. Nikonos V can sync with an external flash unit (like SB-101, SB-102, or SB-103) automatically at up to 1/90s.

The enormous Nikonos V viewfinder. Note that the framelines (barely) visible in this photo should not be used as a guide (you need to lean much closer until they appear white and closer to the edges of the finder).

The viewfinder. Nikonos V has an enormous viewfinder that can be used with the eye held up to 40mm/1.5” away from the eyepiece. This design was intended for underwater photography specifically since the mask or goggles will not let the diver get close to the camera. However, this is also helpful on dry land for those who wear glasses.

The frame lines in the viewfinder show a 35mm focal length with parallax markings at the top. If your eye is right against the eyepiece, the finder can be used to frame the 28mm lens compositions. The viewfinder has an 85%, meaning your photos will extend a little beyond the frame lines.

Below the frame lines, you’ll see lit shutter speed numbers as set on the camera or by the metering system. The numbers will glow once you half-press the shutter button and remain active for about 15 seconds even if you lift your finger.

Find more tips for using the Nikonos V’s viewfinder below.

Lens mount. Nikonos V uses the Nikonos mount. Unfortunately, it’s incompatible with the Calypso cameras and the Nikonos RS SLR. You’ll need to press the lens down and turn it 45° (in any direction) before removing it from the mount. Correct mounting yields a click; you can mount lenses upside-down (more on that below as well).

Nikonos V top plate with the rewind crank and film ISO dial on the left and the shutter speed dial and film advance level on the right.

Focusing. Nikons V cameras use zone-focusing (i.e., guess the distance and dial it in). Its lenses come with excellent DOF calculators and scale numbers in both feet and metres.

There’s no need to compensate for diffraction underwater when estimating distance for the lenses. If something looks like it’s three feet away while submerged, simply dial in three feet.

Build quality. Nikonos V cameras are made with die-cast metals and some plastic components. They are heavy and incredibly sturdy. Their rugged nature makes them perfect for the kind of photography outing you’d never take an expensive point-and-shoot to. In terms of appearance and feel-in-hand, expect “submarine hull” rather than “a jeweller’s work.”

Nikonos V with the 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5 ready for a trip to mexico.

Prepping Nikonos V for underwater and dry land use.

The best thing you can do for your Nikonos camera is to lubricate the O-rings with silicone grease. This ensures that the rubber meant to keep the water out of the body stays hydrated. The O-rings can be found around the lenses, inside the battery compartment, around the flash port, and around the film door. You should remove them gently with blunt tools only. Use small amounts of grease; otherwise, debris will stick to it.

Nikonos cameras have other O-rings deep within. It’s hard to say whether they’ll hold 50m underwater forty years after production. The best way to find out is to perform a pressure test; however, it may cost you over $200.

Things look a lot bluer underwater. Not much distance visibility either, even in the clearest of waters (this was taken under the glacial waters of Garibaldi Lake).

So far, I’ve only dunked my Nikonos V to about 2m, or just under the surface. At this depth, I could still get decent colours on film with the available daylight. But any deeper and the images would begin to look very blue without a strobe flash (like SB-101, SB-102, or SB-103), a torch, a red filter, or a choice of a fast black and white film instead of colour.

That said, you’ll need an ISO 400 film or faster if you don’t have a flash. In sunny weather, this should be enough to give you an aperture of 𝒇8 with a 1/125s shutter just beneath the surface (about four stops slower than above water). You can certainly open up your aperture — but that may introduce lens blur if you don’t focus precisely (which can be difficult to do while holding your breath).

 ☝︎ Further reading:Master the Sunny 16 Rule!”

Kodak Ultramax 400 (review), Kodak Portra 400 (review), Kodak Portra 800 (review), and Lomography Color 800 are good colour film options for daylight shallow underwater photography. If you’d like to go a little deeper to around 5m/16’, you may want a fast black and white film like Kodak T-Max P3200 (review), Ilford Delta 3200, or pushed films like Ilford HP5+ (review) at EI 1600.

Nikonos V with its film door opened and pressure plate lifted.

Before you can load your choice of film, you’ll need to open the compartment door. You can do this by lifting the twist knob handle on the left side (when looking at the camera’s back), then pressing the orange button above it, and immediately turning the knob counter-clockwise. This will unlock and push the door slightly open.

The rest of the work is covered in this article, with one small addition: you’ll need to lift the pressure plate by gently unclipping it at the bottom and placing the film under it.

Whatever the depth you’re taking your Nikonos V to, you’ll always need fresh film and a set of working batteries: two LR 44s should do it. The compartment that holds them is the larger round port on the bottom plate that you can unscrew with a coin. The cells need to be stacked with the flat “+” side facing up from the holder.

It took me a few tries to understand proper framing with the Nikonos viewfinder. The glacial lake water was very cold, so many of the shots felt rushed. I’m glad I had the aperture at f8-f16, or I’d miss the focus, too!

Nikonos V has a viewfinder that isn’t typical. Even though it looks enormous enough to be usable an arm’s length away — it is not. You have to get close to the eyepiece and look at the bright, thick frame lines that appear close to the edges.

The shutter speed numbers will appear immediately below the frame lines. If you can’t see them, lift the camera slightly so that the bottom part of the viewfinder covers more of your vision. The numbers will be superimposed over the dark part of the finder instead of the view outside (which may be too bright for the numbers to be visible).

One last finder tip: if you set your shutter speed but the exposure meter disagrees with your reading, it’ll show your selection as solid and suggested shutter speeds will blink.

Nikonos V with Lomography Color 800 and some colour correction in Photoshop.

What to do after the photo shoot.

First, you should rinse your camera under tap or clean water. This is best done as soon as possible, especially out of salt water.

⚠️ Rewinding film is done differently on Nikonos than on most film cameras. While many will pop their film door open if you pull on the rewinder crank, Nikonos V requires you to lift the crank and set the shutter dial to “R” in order to rewind the film (this will not open the film door). I made the mistake of not lifting the crank and then accidentally destroying some of my film.

Nikonos V with Lomography Color 800 and some colour correction in Photoshop.

Underwater photography with Nikonos V and the 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5.

Underwater photography can be challenging. There’s a lot of stuff to consider. Still, once your camera’s ready to take the shot, Nikonos V is intuitive enough for most people. I’ve handed mine over to friends and family who don’t use film cameras without issues.

The most helpful strategy to make underwater photography easier is to let the camera meter exposure while setting the aperture to 𝒇8-16 to capture a greater depth of field. When set to 3m/10’, most Nikonos lenses keep practically everything in focus.

Most lenses will show their sharpest image at those apertures; the UW did not disappoint — it corrected all aberrations well and rendered contrasty, colourful photos with little to no geometric distortions. I made some colour corrections to the frames after scanning them to bring back the reds, and that was it.

The lenses can also be mounted upside-down so you can check your aperture and distance quickly by flipping the camera as you would twist your wrist with a watch to check the time (instead of contorting your arm while turning it around horizontally). I wish other camera manufacturers had adopted this method.

The aperture and distance are very easy to set on the lens with the twist knobs. The DOF calculator, which shows you the range of distances which will appear in focus for a given aperture, is one of the best I’ve used on a film camera.

Here are a couple more things you should note while operating Nikonos V underwater with the 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5 or any other lens:

Don’t expect good split-image photographs (the ones where half is underwater and the other is above). This can only work with a dome or any setup where the glass separating the camera from water is some distance away from the lens.

The shutter lock button is very close to the shutter button. I managed to lock myself out a few times accidentally. I’ve since learned to be more mindful of it, which helped.

As I’ve mentioned above, the angle of view for all the lenses underwater is about 1.33x narrower than above water. The visibility is also significantly more limited; thus, you may find yourself getting very close to your subjects for better images. Consequently, you may appreciate wider lenses, like the 15mm UW-Nikkor or the 20mm UW-Nikkor.

Shooting the 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5 above water.

Nikonos V is an exceptional adventure camera. It’s very sturdy and does not fear salt water or sand. I’ve hiked many trails that are too gnarly for a nice camera but are perfect for Nikonos.

But on my recent trip to Mexico, I only had my 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5 lens, which technically can not work on dry land. There was some information online about the front element needing contact with water to complete the lens (which incidentally makes it so good in that environment). But that wasn’t helpful to my cause: I wanted to take photos above water with the UW lens.

Above water with 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5.

So I tried using my UW on dry land despite the warnings — and it worked. Up close, you’ll notice some geometric distortion and chromatic aberrations in the edges. I shot my 28mm UW-Nikkor at 𝒇22, which brought the entire scene into focus, but I set the distance to 2m to counter the optics’ design meant for submersion.

Later, I tested the focusing compensation for the 28mm UW-Nikkor on dry land with ground glass and confirmed that the 2m mark translates to infinity above water. The closest focus mark on the lens (0.6m/2”) will focus on objects that are about 1-2m (3-6’) away from the lens.

Above water with 28mm UW-Nikkor 𝒇3.5.

Amphibious photography with Nikonos V and the 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5.

While above water with the 28mm UW is possible, the image quality is not ideal. This is why the W-Nikkor lenses may come in handy. Designed for amphibious photography, they can focus in both environments, making the V remarkably versatile.

I tested my 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5 with Ilford Delta 3200, pulled one stop, and developed in Rodinal. This produced somewhat grainy images (as expected), which may’ve obscured some aberrations and distortions.

35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5.

The open-air photos appear sharp and distortion-free.

Unfortunately, I could see that the underwater photographs lacked contrast and revealed a considerable lack of sharpness in the corners. The lack of contrast was difficult to fix with a film as grainy as this (since any significant changes to curves made the grain appear harsher).

I haven’t had the chance to compare the W to my UW lens directly (in a wet environment, this would require two Nikonos V cameras), though I expect the UW would significantly outperform the W.

My strategy going forward is to mount the W for hikes, wet walks, and excursions where there’s a chance of underwater photography, but most clicking would be done in the open air. While the 28mm Nikonos UW is usable above water, it is still much worse at that than the 35mm W. So, I would save the UW for aquatic expeditions with the knowledge that I could use it above the line in a pinch.

Underwater with the 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5 and Ilford Delta 3200 @EI1600.
Above water with the 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5 and Ilford Delta 3200 @EI1600.
Above water with the 35mm W-Nikkor 𝒇2.5 and Ilford Delta 3200 @EI1600.

What to look for when shopping for Nikonos V.

Nikonos V cameras are made for extreme environments; it’s no secret that many of them were pushed past their limits. Time alone can destroy film cameras, but these had to deal with immense water pressures and salt water.

When shopping for Nikonos V, you’re looking for a camera that’s never been flooded and has well-taken care-of O-ring seals.

Recently pressure-tested cameras will cost more (a test like that can set you back $200+) — but there are also warning signs you may look for in the photos. Rusty shutter blades or any corrosion on parts that are supposed to be kept away from water (like the battery compartment) are a red flag. You can also examine the O-rings visually; if they have chips or look squished — they’re gone. And if you’re shopping in person (or ask your seller), you can sniff the inside of your camera; if it was previously flooded, it’ll smell like the sea.

How much does Nikonos V cost and where to find one.

Good condition Nikonos V cameras (with a lens) cost between $300-$500. You should consider adding silicone grease to your shopping list and flash units if you plan to dive deep.

A good Nikonos V copy is well worth the spend, even if it never touches water. For more tips on how to make a smart vintage camera purchase online, check out this guide.

By the way: Please consider making your Nikon Nikonos V camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!