I first encountered the legendary Nikonos cameras in January 1983, when, as a freshly qualified SCUBA diver I spent a couple of weeks diving with family friend Rob Van der Loos, who was living in Alotau, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Rob had a Nikonos II and Nikonos III at the time and was doing a lot of macro photography in soft sediment habitats close to Alotau town at night, using underwater flashes, and extension tubes for the 35mm F2.5 lens. I was completing a degree in marine science at the time so tried to use some of my rudimentary learnings to help him classify some of the staggering diversity of spectacular critters he was photographing. The slides produced by the Nikonos cameras were mesmerizingly beautiful. Decades later ‘muck diving’ became a thing. We also did a lot of reef dives and I can confirm that Milne Bay is a diving mecca for good reason.
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.
In theory it’s an underwater camera, but probably in 2020 mine shouldn’t go deep-sea diving. Unless I get it serviced and all the O rings replaced I’ll just settle for it being a gorgeous little waterproof lump of art and ergonomics, and leave it at that.
The Nikonos I, II and III were all based on the Calypso – a camera designed in the 1950s by Belgian Jean de Wouters with input from Jacques Cousteau.
If nothing else, Japan where I make my home, is wet. The rainy season lasts from mid-June to the end of July, typhoons regularly lash the archipelago from August to October, and then there are just the banal rainy days. These in themselves were enough to make me long for a waterproof film camera for street photography, and one that has a lot of manual control rather than a disposable one or some of the old waterproof point-and-shoots. So I had always been intrigued by the Nikonos cameras.
I didn’t buy this camera, I “borrowed” it from my Dad. I wanted a camera I could comfortably take to the beach and in the sea, that could take a bit of an unintentional knock and wouldn’t be likely to get nicked. He offered me his brand new, waterproof Nikon W300 (black and very nice but no RAW files!?). No, I decided I was going (pretty much) all film on this trip and I wanted the Sea & Sea Motormarine.