Nikonos V – Underwater Film Photography – by Aukje

My second year of shooting film – Part 15

(Read Part 14 here)

I can’t remember exactly what triggered the idea to shoot underwater with a film camera first: a mention of the Nikonos camera in my twitter feed, or the painterly effect I got this winter on film with an early morning shot in the fog. But the idea formed, and it stuck. I had never heard of the Nikonos, so I googled it, and found a great looking camera system with interchangeable lenses that is waterproof. At first I tried to reject the idea, even with digital cameras underwater photography is hard enough, why would I try to do it on film? But like I mentioned, last winter I got some unexpected painterly result with a few photos I shot on a foggy morning, and I really liked the result.

I figured that underwater I might find similar conditions: low light and a lot of light-scattering particles creating the opposite of a crisp image, which I interpreted as painterly. In the fog it’s small drops of water that scatter the light, underwater it would be the opposite: small bubbles of air. And as my vacation to the Caribbean was coming up, where we always do a lot of snorkelling, this was a good time get into it. So I did some searching on the internet and found a nice guy in Belgium willing to sell his Nikonos V with two lenses: the hybrid 35mm f/2.5 and the hybrid 80mm f/4.0 (hybrid means they work both underwater and in air).

Landscape with Blue Tang / Fuji Velvia 100
Handling under water is pretty easy, the camera has a good grip and big easy to find knobs and handles

The Nikonos V is a manual zone-focussing camera with through-the-lens automatic exposure (manual exposure is an option too). It has a flash port suitable for a flash with TTL exposure control, but since I don’t dive I figured I could manage with natural light only. I tried a number of different films:

  • Kodak Ektar 100. I loved the colours I achieved last winter with Ektar, and I figured underwater in the bright Caribbean sky would be similar to winter light in Holland. So I definitely wanted to try Ektar.
  • Kodak Ultramax 400. To make life a little bit easier, iso 400 would help me get some decent exposure times in the early morning. This is my first time with film underwater, and I had no idea whether iso 100 that I get with Ektar would be sufficient. Someone on twitter kindly suggested Ultramax as an alternative to Ektar, as it would have similar colours.
  • Kodak Portra 400. I had some in the fridge, and I normally prefer Portra over Ektar in bright sunlight, so I would bring this anyway.
  • Kodak Tri-X 400. I wanted to try some black and white too, and I could push this a stop to give some more margins to work with if the light levels would be low.
  • Fuji Velvia 100. Although I have never tried slide film before, I wanted to try this because the colours of the coral and fish can be pretty awesome. So Velvia is a tried combination with the Nikonos.

There was a risk here, I didn’t have time for a test roll as I purchased the camera days before our vacation. So I shot 10 rolls during the holiday without knowing for sure the camera worked. I looked for a photo-service on Curaçao, the destination of our holiday, but there wasn’t one, so I just had to take the risk.

French Grunt 1 / Kodak Portra 400
Landscape 1 / Kodak Tri-X 400 @ EI 800

Shooting with the Nikonos underwater is a great experience, the camera handles really well, and the shutter sound underwater is fantastic. Before I used a small point and shoot in a plastic bag for my underwater photography, and I can say that the view through the Nikonos viewfinder is much much better than looking at a small display on the back of a camera. About exposure values, in my experience after shooting 10 rolls with the Nikonos V, iso 400 is necessary when shooting early morning or on a windy day (as the water gets more wild, light levels underwater become lower). But when snorkelling around noon on a quiet day, iso 100 can be sufficient. I ended up with exposure times between 1/60 and 1/250 seconds.

This is what you get on a reasonably quiet morning, about one hour after sunrise:

Landscape 2 / Kodak Ultramax 400
Sergeant Majors / Kodak Ektar 100
Snake Eel / Kodak Ektar 100
Smallmouth Grunt / Kodak Tri-X 400 @ EI 800

In very clear water on a quiet day you can get pretty sharp results:

Trumpetfish / Kodak Portra 400
Grey Snapper 1 / Kodak Portra 400
French Grunt 2 / Fuji Velvia 100
Juvenile Yellowtail Damselfish (the little blue spotted one) / Kodak Ultramax 400
Scrawled Filefish / Kodak Portra 400

I managed to get the painterly effect I was after on one morning when I used the 80mm lens. I had trouble focussing, as the depth of field is pretty low with this lens. I only used it once because of this, as I didn’t see the results until after the holidays I had no idea if the photos were anything decent. I was afraid I missed focus on all of them. However, although the next photos are really not sharp, they do seem to be in focus, and they have the look I had in mind when I decided to shoot film:

Grey Snapper 2/ Kodak Ektar 100 (80mm lens)
French Grunt 3 / Kodak Ektar 100 (80mm lens)

This next one shows a similar quality taken with the 35mm lens. But it was a dark corner with a lot of current from waves rolling in against the shore. I really wanted to try to capture all the little orange fish in their cave, so I am still pleased with the result, although there are a lot of reflections from air bubbles.

Sergeant Major with Reef Squirrels / Kodak Portra 400

The 80mm lens is very capable of making sharp photos in the right conditions. I made a photo above water of a crab (from standing in the water, also a good use for this camera), and I think this photo demonstrates the capabilities when the light is right:

Crab / Kodak Ektar 100 (80mm lens, cropped photo)

I was scared for the photos I took with Velvia, as I had no experience with slide, and it is still a pretty slow film. But under the right circumstances the result is not all that bad:

Lanscape with Brown Chromis / Fuji Velvia 100
Trumpetfish 2 / Fuji Velvia 100
landscape with Brown Chromis 2/ Fuji Velvia 100

All in all I am pretty pleased with the results. Zone focusing can be pretty tricky underwater, but the digital auto-focus camera my man used focussed on air bubbles a lot of the time. So while I didn’t nail focus every time, the keeper rate was still higher with the Nikonos compared to the digital camera. The results highly depend on light and water conditions, which is true for every camera you use. The one thing that could help is a closer focusing range, as close focus helps to get better colours.

And just because I can, I want to share a few more photos 😉 :

Reef Squirrel fish and Smallmouth Grunt / Kodak Portra 400
Landscape 4 / Kodak Tri-X 400 @ EI 800
Dusky Damselfish / Kodak Portra 400
Flat Needlefish / Kodak Ektar 100
Reef Squirrel fish and French Grunt / Kodak Portra 400
Lanscape 5 / Kodak Ektar 100

All photos were scanned on my Epson V800. All negative colour film was developed by me. The black and white film and Velvia was developed by AG-photolab.

If you are interested you can find more of my photos, both digital and film, on my website:  I also post film photos regularly on instagram.

Thanks a lot for reading, and Hamish, thanks for having me!


Contribute to 35mmc for an Ad-free Experience

There are two ways to experience 35mmc without the adverts:

Paid Subscription - £2.99 per month and you'll never see an advert again! (Free 3-day trial).
Subscribe here.

Content contributor - become a part of the world’s biggest film and alternative photography community blog. All our Contributors have an ad-free experience for life.
Sign up here.

About The Author

26 thoughts on “Nikonos V – Underwater Film Photography – by Aukje”

  1. wow these are pretty good, esp the 400 ISO. Ektar seems bad for this use. I bought a Nikonos V and a III as well. Still have to use.
    I think would work great to shoot some bigger fish. Amazing how you got that trumpet fish in focus. I wonder if I should use it on the next trip. But issue with underwater there are so many misses. I have a Nikon 1 J4 with underwater housing that I bought as a closeout and it is great. But carrying that and a Nikonos may be too cumbersome…. I also purchased a Nikon L35 AW that may be ok in such shallow water.
    I have to run, i have to read your post, just looked at the photos / captions.

    1. Thanks Stefano! And choices on which camera(s) to bring is always difficult :-). I brought 6 cameras with me on this trip, and I used them all!

  2. Hi Aujke,
    Back when a was a little guy [I’m now 65] my parents had piles of old National Geographic magazines dating from the 1930’s & 40’s.
    There were several articles on underwater photography. As I recall, the photos were made using the Autochrome process. They were almost impressionistic, with grainy, color. They were beautiful. The series of photos you’ve posted bear a strong resemblance to those photos.
    Very well done.

  3. Great article and shots! I also used a Nikonos V while I was living in French Polynesia 3 years ago and used it intensively during my diving sessions. I prefered mostly to use 800iso film as when you dive deeper than a few meters the light becomes realy less important, and I didn’t have the Nikonos Speedlight flash… Well, it was really great to use this camera (as I live in Switzerland now, I don’t use it anymore…) For some shots I made in Polynesia with the Nikonos, just have a look here:

  4. If you keep using it, Nikonos have to be serviced every few years. There are O rings that are not user replaceable. Nikonos III and Nikonos II are really cool. the II is smaller. No battery needed. no meter. You can guess the exposure.

    1. Thanks for the tip. I looked for a III, but couldn’t find one at the moment. And I thought the meter would be handy with the fast-changing light I encounter underwater on a cloudy day.

  5. In the 70’s I used a Nikonos III on land as poor man’s Leica.
    It was sharp and quiet. Perfect for discreet street photography.

  6. Great shots, couple of questions if you don’t mind!
    What sort of aperture range were you shooting at for most of these?
    I’ve used zone focusing cameras before with no issues, but with the magnification underwater I can imagine shooting at wide apertures can be tricky, is my assumption there correct or to follow up from my question above can you still shoot at small enough apertures to zone focus easily?

    1. Hi Tom.
      Most of them were shot at f/4 or f/5.8, some even at f/2.5. When I was shooting underwater I thought that the zone focussing was quite hard, but the results were better than expected. Motion blur is a bigger problem than focussing errors, as I couldn’t go beyond 1/90-1/180, and the water was not as quiet as I had hoped. Guessing the distance is similar as you would above water, the magnification error you make with your eyes is the same as the magnification error that the lens makes (and the zone-distances are indicated for air).

  7. Pingback: Experiments in Developing Colour Film At Home: The Chemicals Dilemma - Guest Post by Aukje - 35mmc

  8. Pingback: Nikon re-registers legendary ‘Nikonos’ trademark | Give Info

  9. Hi Aukje these are amazing photos!!!

    Quick question if you wouldn’t mind, I’m looking to purchase a Nikonos V, and I could only find a 20mm lens, do you think that is ok? or would you rather recommend a 28 / 35mm lens? Also did you apply any sort of lens filter to correct the color?


    1. Hi Chris, thanks for the compliment.

      I have no experience with the 20 mm, but I do use a 15mm. Although that is a great lens, and the wide-angle gives some nice images, I would use the 35 if I had to restrict to one lens only. I don’t dive, I snorkel, and in the shallow water the fishes are rather small. With the 15mm they end up as tiny creatures on the photo. In my post from last fall (on my website: you can see some examples of photos with the 15, maybe that can give you some idea of what a 20 would do?

      I don’t use any filters. The scanner software has some automatic color correction, as is required with colour film anyway. The best trick is to shoot as close as possible, then the subject in front will have almost true colour, but the background will be a nice blue. I process my man’s digital underwater photos, and most of the time I have to do more colour correction on the digital files than on my analogue scans.

      Btw, I would be surprised if you couldn’t find a 35, as that is the standard kit-lens, and there seem to be plenty around.

      Good luck with your search and I am sure you will enjoy the Nikonos!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top