Scale Focus

The Nikonos iii – a dry land one-roll review

Nikonos iii

It feels like an age since my summer holiday, but I’ve been so busy with one thing and another that since then I’ve not yet had the chance to write about a fairly brief encounter with a camera I really enjoyed using – the Nikonos iii

Every summer I go on a weeks holiday with the family – for the last few years this has involved a trip to either Devon or Cornwall. Sorry Devonshire folks, it’s Cornwall that gets my vote (though don’t ask me about the jam/clotted cream order thing – I really don’t care either way). Anyway, for the last few years I’ve taken to shooting a roll with some sort of water resistant camera. Devon last year saw me take my chances with a slightly tatty Nikon 35AFAW – an experience so woeful that I couldn’t be bothered to even write about it; it was a mission to get the thing to even take a photo and the results I did get weren’t all that. The year before it was a Konica mermaid which decided to break on me whilst I was sat on the beach. I fixed it, sort of, but it was never the same again.

As such, this year I decided to take something a bit more hardy – but when it came to finding something, I wasn’t entirely sure where to turn. That was until I went on twitter and asked the question. I had a few answers back, many of which weren’t especially inspiring. That was apart from the one chap who recommended a Nikonos iii.

The Nikonos iii is to all intents and purposes an underwater camera. As you might guess by it’s name it’s the 3rd in the series, but the key to my interest in it is that it was the last in the series to be fully mechanical and therefore not reliant on batteries. If you’re interested in a bit of history and background you can read a little more here.

Having had two years of failed attempts with ageing plastic cameras the idea of something fully mechanical really sat well with me. I read what I could online, and – but for some concerns about making sure the water seals were replaced regularly – the general consensus about these cameras seemed more than positive. So I bought one.

The Nikonos iii

Another thing I’d read about the Nikonos iii was that it’s quite the lump. Upon receiving it I found this to be more than true. These cameras are not small, nor are they light weight. I’m not sure of the depth they are rated to in terms of their ability to go underwater, but suffice to say I think in terms of the thickness of the metal at least, they are possibly over specified. As someone who’d somewhat lost a little faith in plastic fantastic water resistant cameras, this was fine by me. You could probably argue that a camera specifically designed to be submerged by people scuba diving is a little overkill for taking on the beach, but there we have it…

Lens choice

Something to bare in mind if you plan to follow my path is that there are only two lenses available for the Nikonos iii that can be used both underwater and on dry land. The 35mm and 80mm are both amphibious, all of the other lenses are specifically designed for underwater photography. What’s nice about this in terms of the usability of this camera out of water is that they are the only focal lengths given frame lines in the viewfinder. The result of this is a really nice bright uncluttered finder.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s no rangefinder here, so unless you’re particularly handy at zone focusing the 35mm is probably the most viable lens. It’s the lens that came with mine, and indeed the lens that I’ll be sticking to.

In use – the VF

As mentioned, the big bright viewfinder is possibly one of the most notable features of the Nikonos iii when using it on land. It really is a joy, and despite only the most basic of parallax guides, I had no problems framing with it at all.

The lens

Focusing the thing is also a treat. Since it’s designed to be used underwater it’s not the most conventional mechanism for focusing or indeed setting the aperture. That being said, it’s possibly one of the most intuitive systems for understanding depth of field I’ve seen on any camera ever.

The two big control knobs either side are for setting the aperture and focus. Both knobs mechanically control the little arrows you can see through the window. As you make changes the arrow move to represent the depth of field – or zone of focus – at the set aperture and distance. It would make a great camera to learn this stuff on, but also makes for a great system for very quickly checking focus.

f/11 at 2m – 1.2 – 5m ish dof indicated

f/5.6 at just under 10m – 3m ish – infinity dof indicated

The body

The shutter release and film advance is another mechanism designed for easy use under water. To release the shutter you push the lever toward yourself when holding the camera; rather than the conventional vertical release. This does make for an unusual grip on the camera, but actually I got used to it quite quickly. It’s also really quick to use. After you fire the shutter, the release button pushes out past its cocked position. Pushing it back then cocks the shutter and advances the film.

Cocked

After a shot is fired – the film advance/shutter ready to be re-cocked

Handling

Outside of the slightly odd shutter release, and wonderful viewfinder, my only specifically negative comment would be toward the cameras weight. Having it hanging over my shoulder while on a day trip the one day I was definitely more award of it than I’m used to. It’s probably no heavier than one of my Leicas with a 7Artisans 50mm f1.1 lens in place, but something about its size, shape and weight made it feel more cumbersome.

That aside, I really enjoyed its full mechanical nature. The knowledge that it’s completely unreliant on batteries, that it’s designed to be shot underwater and it therefore pretty hardcore, and it’s slightly idiosyncratic chunky but very solid feeling controls just gave me 100% confidence in it whilst shooting.

The seals

Just before I get into sharing photos taken with the Nikonos iii I just want to touch on the seals. If you read about online you will find plenty of reference to the water seals needing to be replaced every year. I actually replaced mine in the kitchen of the holiday Home we were staying in 5 minutes before we went to the beach. I had bought a set off eBay as despite the ones in the camera looking ok(ish), I didn’t want to take the risk. I must admit, for my purposes I did wonder just how necessary it was, but since all the advice online was to change them regularly, I did. I suspect this advice really only applies if you’re regularly using the camera under seawater.

Cornwall hols

As such, since I only dunked my camera once or twice, I suspect I will be fine for a while. It’s just worth noting that if you are a diver looking for film photography kicks, finding yourself some spare seals might be a good idea!

Some photos

A little health warning that comes with these cameras in basically every bit of text that’s been written about them online is their propensity to flare when used out of water. I read all the reviews and took note but actually remained sceptical about just how bad it could be. The reality is, yes, it will likely flare when given a chance to interact with direct sunlight.

Cornwall hols

The optical flat that sits in front of the lens to protect it from the elements is likely the primary cause of this. That being said, I really don’t think it’s quite as bad as all that. Yes, compared to an equivalent Nikon 35mm lens it probably is more prone, but in my experience, there are much worse flare prone lenses out there. In these following shots, I didn’t have as much of an issue as I expected when I fired the camera

Cornwall hols

Cornwall hols

Outside of the flare issues, it’s a really nice lens. Contrast a plenty, not much in the way of distortion, just takes nice photos. I shall let you be the judge…

Cornwall hols

Cornwall hols

Cornwall hols

Cornwall hols

Cornwall hols

Skip to the end

Perhaps because I’m somewhat going through a mechanical camera phase, or maybe because it was so nice to shoot a camera that wasn’t basically broken whilst on the beach, or maybe just because it’s a really nice camera… one way or another I had a really positive experience shooting this camera.

It is quite heavy, the controls are nothing short of idiosyncratic and it’s definitely a bit of overkill for what I used it for, but the Nikonos iii has definitely found itself a permanent position in my camera collection.

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16 Comments

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    November 12, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Great review. And great results from this unusual beast!

  • Reply
    stefano giovanni
    November 12, 2017 at 2:50 pm

    There are internal seals that need to be changed as well. Southern Nikonos can service the cameras.

  • Reply
    John Lockwood
    November 12, 2017 at 3:37 pm

    Nice review Hamish. Once again, I find your reasoning parralel with my own. Perhaps cliché but, “built like a tank” would be my unavoidable description.

    Per my Circa 1977 Nikonos III manual, “Underwater, it performs at depths down to 50m (160) feet without a bulky accessory housing”. Furthermore, it recommends the gaskets be lubed regularly with the supplied lubricants.

    Regarding it’s weight, the manual advises 780g (with standard lens on land) and a scant 270g (with standard lens underwater).

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 12, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      Haha, I heard those Hasselblads they took to the moon hardly weighed anything! 😉
      Built like a tank, it definitely is!

  • Reply
    karellen
    November 12, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    It seems a really well designed camera, it’s not obvious that a camera designed to be used under the water could be pleasantly be used on dry land too! Even more by someone accustomed to leicas! They also managed to throw in the dof scale that was used in early hasselblad lenses! The lens is good to, probably the front glass is uncoated to prevent damage on coating due to salt water. What I am thinking is that nowadays the current best underwater cameras are compact cameras with a sensor as big as those installed on phones, even if with all electronic controls of today it would be far easier to design an at least apsc camera with the specifications of this nikonos. Probably the interest on sea has simply faded away.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 12, 2017 at 10:30 pm

      Have you seen the Leica X-U – it’s not far from the camera you’ve described, if perhaps a little less hardcore

  • Reply
    jeremy north
    November 12, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    Fascinating article Hamish. A nice curio to have and to use.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      November 12, 2017 at 10:27 pm

      Cheers, yeah, it definitely is – but I struggle to think of anything that would be better suited

  • Reply
    George Appletree
    November 15, 2017 at 8:04 am

    Nikon L35A AW AD was a much more simple also waterproof model. Great lens.

  • Dan Castelli
    Reply
    Dan Castelli
    November 16, 2017 at 4:09 am

    Always wanted one of these, just for the fun of it.
    In 1972, my cousin was married in a hippy style wedding ‘out in the country’ and they guy they asked to shoot the wedding worked w/a
    Nikonos III. It all seemed to fit.
    Dan
    flickr.com/photos/dcastelli9574

  • Reply
    Steve Burge
    November 27, 2017 at 8:14 pm

    Nice article Hamish. As a resident of ‘weatherfull’ Cornwall, with a dog demanding all weather walks, and being a water sports enthusiast, the Nikonos iii is my go to camera, (with a gorgeous Calypsophot for Sunday best and when the light is golden). I’m recovering from a severe 4 yr long case of GAS (not that sort…) and find myself simplifying pretty much back to where I started – with just the Nikonos(es), Rollei35 (conceptually close to the Nikonos and equally satisfying) and a 500CM. The Leica are lovely, but you just can’t leave them on the sand or over the shoulder when the wind is blowing spray up over the cliffs.
    The Nikonos is always ready – exposure and focus usually preset (f11, 250th and 2-2.5m on 400asa on clear days) as with the Rollei35, but as it’s never in a bag (as it doesn’t have to be) I can capture a lot more moments.
    I love the combined shutter release/wind. When kayaking, sailing, holding a dog lead or hanging off a pier/cliff with one hand then being able to shoot and wind with the other is perfect. I mainly use both the 35mm and 80mm lenses + the 15/2.8 underwater one through the surface from a kayak. I also have an adapter and use them all on an A7R (which looks remarkably like a Nikonos V by the way).
    A brilliant, satisfying, real world camera.
    Steve

  • Reply
    jamie collyer
    December 14, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    Had a few different generations of nikonos and loved my III and partially regret selling it. A nice tip I found for if your going to be changing the exposure settings a lot is to mount the lens upside-down, this means if you have it hanging round your neck all you need to do is tip the camera onto it’s back and all the info on the lens is the right way up for you. Hope that makes sense! Wayne levin has a lot of Nikons images that are well worth a browse.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      December 17, 2017 at 8:31 am

      Who’s Wayne Levin, and how do I find the images?

  • Reply
    Patrick J Fealy
    January 11, 2018 at 9:06 am

    I used a nikonos 2 both in and out of the water. It’s great to Carry along at the ready in case there is a good shot to capture. If you don’t dive them don’t work about the seals. No electronics to corroded. They are a photographers dream being fully manual and having excelent land lenses. 35mm 2.5 and the 80mm

  • Reply
    Peter Boorman
    January 16, 2018 at 8:02 pm

    Seeing advert.s for these in National Geographic when I was a child I always rather fancied one. There was something of the combination of chunky ruggedness and precision optics that appealed to me, I suppose. Now you’ve gone and revived that fascination, doh!

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      January 16, 2018 at 8:13 pm

      hah, sorry about that 😉

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