Nikonos V
5 frames with...

5 Frames in the Ocean with a Nikonos V on Kodak Portra 400 – By Luis Ortega

October 31, 2020

Having recently found a gem of a deal for a Nikonos V in a stellar condition I’ve been using it on swims every weekend. Living in San Diego I normally shoot surf photography. Problem was, this has been as flat a summer as I can remember.

Fortunately, the beginning of fall came with a fresh swell. I put a new roll of Portra 400 in the camera and hopped in the water.

The land of perpetual summer

A few things to note about using this sort of camera for surf- I’ve become accustomed to using a mirrorless camera with a high frame rate. This leads to shooting a few hundred shots in the span of an hour or two. No wave or moment is ignored no matter how mundane or bland. Of those few hundred shots, maybe ten to twenty are actually worth keeping.

This particular day had a nice blend of warm weather, little to no wind (keeps the water texture smooth and waves from crumbling), and 4-foot waves. Swimming with the Nikonos was easier than my larger digital setup. The camera is very easy to handle and actually feels like a camera when shooting! Modern water housings while great at their job, are bulky and add a layer of separation between you and the camera that just doesn’t exist with the Nikonos.

Oil disguised as salt water

The 35mm lens uses zone focus which I set and forget at f8 with a range of 7-30ft. With surf photography, you normally want higher shutter speeds. I figured that aperture priority with f8 and iso 400 would stick to either 1/500 or 1/1000 because of the sunny conditions. The lack of motion blur in most of the roll confirmed this. That plus knowing where this wave breaks led to having a roll of mostly in-focus shots exposed correctly. A real treat.

Mid roll light leak featuring air

Using the Nikonos I’m helped and hampered by the fact that I have 36 moments at most that can be captured. I also can’t take five to ten stills of a single wave like I would with a digital camera. This leads to a lot more thought regarding positioning, which wave is actually worth it, and what moment in the sequence to press the shutter. (I’m hoping that this sort of patience can translate to outings with a digital camera).

Waiting for the next set

Add to that the home developing and scanning and you end up with a series of photos that feel much more personal and rewarding than others that are tack sharp photos of larger waves. So much of my digital post-processing is done to try and come close to the dynamic colors that a film like Ektar 100 or Portra 400 produces. So you can imagine how pleasing it is to be able to shoot these films in the water.

Inside the Windansea bowl

Moving forward I have no idea what system I’ll pick when we get the next 8+ foot swell and that shows just how impressed I am with the results of this perfectly imperfect camera.

Thanks for reading.

You can find me on Instagram and VSCO 

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  • Reply
    October 31, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for this brief but very interesting article which exposes a different type of photography with different challenges from what most of us do. Plus you have some great shots there. I especially love the second one.

    I just looked up Nikonos and found out they were developed from earlier co-designs by the famous Jacques Cousteau, a man before his time in terms of conservation. Plus I was amazed that it has interchangeable lenses.

    I’d be interested to know what digital camera you use in the sea and what are the pros and cons.

  • Reply
    Luis Ortega
    October 31, 2020 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you Dave. It’s a great camera with a really interesting history.

    My main camera is a Sony a7iii which I chose because of frame rate and battery life. I had previously been using a Fuji X-T2 which I loved but had a much shorter battery life. Now I can stay out for 3 hours+ shooting constantly if I can handle the cold!

    The Sony works great but does require more post processing than the Nikonos and Fuji to get the images where I want them.

  • Reply
    October 31, 2020 at 8:55 pm

    Luis : Great, Bravo and thanks so much. Great pictures. I have never tried this camera.

    • Reply
      Luis Ortega
      November 1, 2020 at 4:11 am

      Thanks! It’s different than any other one I’ve used before

  • Reply
    Alex Vye
    October 31, 2020 at 10:48 pm

    Me gods these photos are fantastic I like the dreamy feel

  • Reply
    Alan M
    November 1, 2020 at 2:05 am

    Great post and great pics. May I ask your workflow for your home processing and scanning – equipment, chemicals? I’m looking to start doing this myself, but it feels rather daunting.

    • Reply
      Luis Ortega
      November 1, 2020 at 4:17 am

      I use a Patterson development tank with C-41 development chemistry that I purchased online. Developing 1-2 rolls takes about 20 minutes, hang to dry for a few hours and then flattened in film sleeves. The ones worth digitizing go into my epson v-600 scanner. It might sound like a lot, but there are plenty of YouTube tutorials that are really helpful. After the start up cost you’re pretty much only paying for the film itself. Been shooting a lot more since I stopped taking my rolls into a lab!

      • Reply
        Alan M
        November 3, 2020 at 6:38 pm

        Thanks for the info. I’ll look into the above. I definitely want to shoot more so this will be super helpful!

  • Reply
    Neil T
    November 1, 2020 at 2:33 am

    great pics! thanks for the article. How do you keep the water drops off the lens?

    • Reply
      Luis Ortega
      November 1, 2020 at 4:18 am

      Lick it & dunk it in the water right before shooting!

      • Reply
        November 1, 2020 at 8:13 pm

        Lick it? Please explain!

        • Reply
          Luis Ortega
          November 2, 2020 at 5:28 pm

          you just lick the front element and then dunk in the water! The spit helps keep water from sticking to parts of the lens

  • Reply
    Castelli Daniel
    November 1, 2020 at 2:44 am

    Hi Luis,
    I’m jealous! We just had an early snow storm here in Connecticut and I’m reading & looking at surf photos. Shame on you! I love the perspective you present: in the water, surrounded by waves.
    I looked up used Nikonos cameras on eBay and I’m surprised how little they go for. I might get a v. III for our New England winters.
    A Nikonos story – my cousin was living the hippy life back in the late 60’s. She got married one warm summer day. In a field, flowers in her hair, sorta like a full costume rehearsal for “Hair.” They got some guy to ‘shoot’ the wedding…he showed up w/a Nikonos II! Shot the wedding with it. I remember b/cause he bummed a few folks of Tri-X off of me. They are still married! What a hoot.

    • Reply
      Luis Ortega
      November 1, 2020 at 4:29 am

      I definitely don’t take living in San Diego for granted. Winter brings nicer waves and temps don’t usually go below 60 degrees. It’s a dream!

      Would love to see photos in the water from winter over there.

      Great story! It’s a really robust camera. If you can zone focus you can pretty much bring it anywhere. Even a wedding apparently!

  • Reply
    Holly Gilman
    November 1, 2020 at 10:19 am

    Shot 2 is spectacular!

    • Reply
      Clive W
      November 1, 2020 at 3:08 pm

      Yes, beautiful play of light on – and through – the water. Seems to capture several moods of the sea in the course of a single breaking wave.

      • Reply
        Luis Ortega
        November 2, 2020 at 5:32 pm

        Thank you guys! I’m very pleased with how the foreground was able to reflect some of the skies in a way

  • Reply
    Kenneth Rowin
    November 1, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    The photos are great. Surfer life that I never lived. But I have a gear question. I was looking to buy a Nikonos V but a friend dissuaded me by saying that the rubber o-rings are no longer available. On line I wasn’t able to find any, so what do you do to keep the camera waterproof?

    • Reply
      Luis Ortega
      November 2, 2020 at 5:36 pm

      There are a few online shops that sell the o-rings. I believe it’s the Nikonos IV-A that is harder to find o-rings for due to the unique shape. If you do buy a Nikonos V I highly recommend that you get the camera and lens pressure tested. I was able to find a camera repair shop in town that has the service available.

    • Reply
      La Néelle Raphaël
      December 9, 2020 at 6:34 pm

      Hi, I would like to buy a Nikonos V for my girlfriend but I don’t know where I can find one, could you help me ?
      Thanks a lot

      • Reply
        Luis Ortega Flores
        January 1, 2021 at 7:38 am

        Hi Raphaël. Sorry for the late response. I got mine on EBay after browsing for a while. Make sure you get the body and the lens pressure tested before putting in the water. A local camera repair shop near me had that ability luckily

  • Reply
    Scott Gitlin
    November 1, 2020 at 10:51 pm

    #4 for me – brings me a big smile.

    • Reply
      Luis Ortega
      November 2, 2020 at 5:36 pm

      Thanks! It’s one of those nice quiet moments in between sets.

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