I’ve noticed some interest in the Nikonos cameras on 35mmc and Emulsive so, having used this system a fair bit in the pre-digital era, I thought it might be worth sharing some notes on, and images from, the amazing Nikonos 15mm F2.8 lens. Getting good wide-angle images with a land camera (digital or film) in an underwater housing has always been enough of a pain that I am regularly reminded of the superiority of the Nikonos system for wide-angle photography underwater.
When using a wide-angle lens in an underwater camera housing, you really need a dome port on the housing, to reduce the distortion, astigmatism, chromatic aberrations and vignetting associated with the transmission of light at oblique angles from water to air through flat ports. Having said all this, I have to admit not knowing how the modern small-format action cams (GoPro etc) get around this problem, since they seem to be able to deliver decent enough images underwater with a wide-angle lens behind a flat port.
In any case dome ports also have some inconvenient optical properties. They create a virtual image a few inches in front of the port that your lens needs to focus on, and the virtual image can, for some port/lens combinations, be closer than the lens’s minimum focus. To make matters worse, even if the lens can focus close enough, the virtual image is also strongly curved, which means you often need to stop down to smaller than f/11 to get the corners sharp.
The Nikonos wide-angle lenses (28, 20, and 15) are all optically corrected for underwater use (yes, that means don’t bother using them on land!) so none of the above complications get in the way. The excellent ‘kit’ 35mm f/2.5 can be used in both air and water, but tends to be not quite as useful underwater unless it’s crystal clear, or the lens is used with extension tubes for macro. They are all insanely sharp lenses and can deliver brilliant results when used correctly.
The Nikonos 15mm has an angle of view of 94 degrees which is close to that of a 20mm lens in air. It is a rectilinear design and produces undistorted images with a flat plane of focus. It has knobs for focus and aperture (which goes to f/22), which can be read through a window near the lens mount, and an excellent depth of field indicator. At f/11 (usable with 100 ASA film in shallow water on a sunny day) you can get everything between 32cm and infinity in focus. The lens will focus down to 30cm but the focus scale reads down to 22cm on the metric scale and 0.7 feet on imperial. It’s quite good for wide-angle macro. Frame 5 below is an image of a nudibranch that I shot with this lens using ambient light only. I have cropped it a bit but you can still see a lot of detail in this very small (probably 10cm long) animal.
Unlike the housed systems, you can shoot the Nikonos 15mm at f/4 and count on getting an extremely sharp image, corner to corner. The lens has been tested on high resolution digital sensors and those tests show it also performs impressively wide open. The most recent testament to the superlative optical performance of this 1980s lens is that it is part of the ‘DeepX‘ 3D camera system which was used to shoot the underwater sequences of James Cameron’s Avatar 2 – The Way of Water. The inventor of this system is Pawel Achtel.
The Nikonos 15mm lens comes with the dedicated, hot-shoe mounted, ‘DF11’ finder. A ‘mint’ condition lens and finder can be had for around US$450 these days, which is around a third of what they used to cost back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The complete kit should include a nice steel screw-on cap. It’s pretty rare for the o-rings on the focus or aperture knobs of Nikonos lenses to leak but it’s definitely worth always giving the camera and lens a good soak in a bucket of fresh water after an ocean dive to make sure salt crystals don’t build up around the seals. The Nikonos cameras such as the Nikonos V above and lenses are (quite a bit) heavier than water so it’s sensible to use a good wrist lanyard.
Thanks for reading. I have some images at Flickr, including tropical and temperate underwater images made with the Nikonos system as well as housed SLR systems.
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11 thoughts on “Nikonos 15mm f/2.8 Lens Mini Review – Shooting Fuji Velvia & Provia 100 – by Simon Foale”
Thanks for a very nice write-up, Simon, and some beautiful images!
I love those cameras, they feel great to use above water, too.
Thanks for this Gary. Yes the whole system is really well designed and very easy to use. I’ve used the 35mm lens quite a bit on land also – it’s a terrific hiking camera!
Is there a rule of thumb for focusing on land? Perhaps a scale factor to multiply by the displayed focusing distance to get the focusing distance in air?
It just so happens that one of these arrived on my doorstep yesterday, but with a hobbled 35mm lens that’s missing the protective water-tight front element. I’ll be sourcing another soon for taking along in splash-proof situations. Built like an absolute tank!
The focussing scale on the 35mm lens (with or without protective front glass plate) is fine to use without any conversion factor in air. That’s been my experience anyway. Underwater your mask generates the same magnification of subjects as the flat ‘port’ on the 35mm lens (i.e. the element that’s missing on yours), so, when you get another, complete version, you will just make your best guess underwater too. But due to the narrower angle of view of the 35mm underwater, it tends to be less useful for most purposes, unless water clarity is exceptionally high.
Fantastic images! I’ve taken underwater photos with a compact digital camera in a housing, but that’s about it. Nothing but respect for people who attempt it on film – and get great results to boot!
Such a great article about the glory that is the Nikkor 15mm lens. Loved reading it!
Thanks so much Katharine. Just checked out the images on your page – they are brilliant! All the best with your photography.
Really nice article.
I got a question related to what you said about the 35mm underwater. I have one of these and I bought the camera more to use above water and on the beach, but I look forward to try it underwater once.
You said it’s only really worth to use the 35mm in crystal clear waters or with macro tubes. My camera came with a screw in macro filter. Will that serve the same purpose? Can I still zone focus trusting the lens DOF and focus distance settings?
I have not heard of people using screw-in macro filters with the Nikonos systems. There is a ‘close-up kit’ that includes a magnifying lens that clamps over the top of the 35mm, 28mm and 80mm lenses, and accommodates a metal frame that attaches to the lens and shows you the size of your image area and the plane of focus. It sounds like that is not what you have. Assuming your screw-in macro lens magnifies the image, it will have to change the position of focus also, but without the metal frame that is used for the above-mentioned (Nikon) close-up kit, I’m guessing there is no way of knowing exactly where the plane of focus is (or the boundaries of your image area). I’m afraid that’s all I can offer in response to your question.
Hi there – thank you for all of the helpful information! I recently purchased the 15MM lens and the DF-11 viewfinder for my Nikonos V. I was curious if the light meter is still accurate with this lens?
Hi Kaytlin, in my own experience the light meter on the Nikonos V works just as well with the 15mm lens as with any other. It operates in the same way (through the lens), but of course with the 15mm is averaging light across a wider angle of view. You will have to look through the camera viewfinder to see your light meter reading and make sure your shutter speed and aperture are going to give you a correct exposure, in addition to framing your shot with the DF-11, which adds a bit of time to setting up your shot. Hope this helps, and I hope you have fun with the lens!