As a restless and curious kid growing up in Midwestern suburbia, National Geographic was a monthly escape into far-flung adventures, a subscription I blame in part for a life spent tramping about the globe looking for ways of getting into trouble. Along with the foldout maps, polar expedition tales and photos of topless tribeswomen, what mostly drew my fascination were the articles about underwater exploration. I pored over the tales of shipwrecks and sharks, accompanied by photos of divers in bright 1980s neoprene, their eyes wide behind the oval masks of the day. Those were the days of film photography and odds are, those photos were shot with one camera: the Nikonos.
As with almost all things subaquatic, the Nikonos camera had its origins with Jacques Cousteau. Even before he co-invented the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (or scuba), Cousteau was shooting photos underwater, using crude homemade housings for his cameras and freediving off the beach in the south of France. By the 1960s, then able to breathe underwater thanks to his patented Aqua-Lung, Cousteau turned his attention back to cameras and his French company, La Spirotechnique, developed a sealed rangefinder known as the Calypso, which shot 35mm film and was water-resistant to 50 meters of depth. La Spirotechnique approached the Japanese camera maker Nikon to refine and commercialize the Calypso. Nikon perfected the design ,and at the 1963 Photokino fair in Germany, the Nikonos made its public debut suspended in an aquarium.
Even if you never intend to dive below the waves, you can still make good use of a Nikonos. Because of its simple mechanics and rugged build, it makes for an excellent all-weather camera, suitable for rain, snow or surf.
If you want to give one a try and are willing to share your resulting images, The Nikonos Project is a great place to start. A grassroots online community that has grown incredibly (and ironically) fast thanks to Instagram and its hashtag #nikonosproject, the Nikonos Project lends cameras to people who sign up and then share their photos. Their website is a trove of watersports photography that captures a decidedly 1960s surf vibe, all results of their growing cadre of contributors.
There’s a waitlist for cameras but if you’re willing to hang tight, they’ll send you one to try out, and you can join the community simply by sharing your pictures. If you pick up your own Nikonos, you can still play along by scanning your photos and tagging #nikonosproject on Instagram.
Over the years, the Nikonos was further improved, not only its water sealing but also its ergonomics and features, and by the early 1980s, the fifth-generation Nikonos V had through-the-lens metering and aperture-priority auto exposure capabilities, along with an impressive quiver of superb lenses and strobe choices. It was the go-to choice of underwater photographers, amateur and professional alike. If you see an underwater photo from the 1960s, ’70s or ’80s, it was likely shot with a Nikonos. But by the 1990s, film photography was singing its swan song and underwater camera housings made it possible to take almost any SLR underwater, and the Nikonos finally ended production in 2001.
After years of shooting underwater with various digital cameras, I still longed to shoot with the camera that produced the images that planted the seeds of adventure so many years earlier. The Nikonos V was the obvious choice, and I found an early ’80s model in decent shape on eBay. Being the last of the Nikonos line, the “Nik V” is the most advanced, the easiest to find parts for and the most prevalent on the used market. It is also the sexiest, with its orange and black color scheme, rubber grips and oversized knobs and dials. I loaded film and shot a few test rolls topside, then sent it off for a thorough overhaul by one of only a handful of repair specialists in the United States. It came back with new gaskets all around and ready to get wet.
St. Maarten turned out to be an ideal place for my new camera’s maiden dive. The reefs and wrecks are shallow and current-less, the visibility nearly gin-clear and the wildlife abundant. After years of shooting big underwater rigs, the Nikonos was refreshingly compact, fitting in hand like a point-and-shoot. The big viewfinder window on top of the body makes it easy to compose shots, even with a dive mask on, and the oversized dials and film advance lever are easy to use without even looking. 30 years on, the Nikonos V is about as perfectly designed a piece of underwater equipment as you can find. But it’s not without its challenges.
Shooting a rangefinder camera takes some getting used to. Since you’re not looking through the lens to compose your photo like you would with an SLR, the viewfinder window is merely an estimate, a fact evidenced by more than a few headless divers in my photos. Aperture setting happens via a knob on the side of the lens; its corresponding f/stop number is read from a scale that requires flipping the camera upside down to look at (tip: mount the lens upside-down so the numbers face you when you look at it from top). Focusing is one part experience, one part luck, since it also is set using a knob on the lens and because the distance is indicated with a numbered scale. Composing shots was at first a maddening exercise of second-guessing and fiddling, often as a shark swam past, an uncooperative subject. But I soon found workarounds to my frustrations: I set the aperture midrange — f/8 or so — and the focus at a set distance, say 10 feet, and then I would either swim towards my subject or let it swim into range, then shoot. I was getting the hang of it.
Back home, I had a lab develop my rolls of film and was mostly pleased with the results. Largely in focus, most images well exposed, the grain of the Fuji Pro 400 color and Kodak Tri-X black and white film took me back to those images that I remembered. Once again, I was swimming into the pages of National Geographic — chasing sharks and exploring shipwrecks — only this time I was the one making the pictures.