FULL FRAME, WATER, DUST, SHOCK AND WEATHER PROOF; THE REAL TOUGH COMPACT CAMERA
by Jonathan Eastland.
I was first introduced to Nikon's Nikonos 35mm film camera in the 1960s.
A middle aged and smartly dressed magazine editor I first met around that time, wore a Nikonos II around his neck over a tie and blue blazer; attire that rarely changed for almost any assignment over the next decade and a half before he retired.
For him, the Nikonos was an appropriate piece of kit. Covering yachting events was probably the nearest he ever got to being close to the sea and he knew only too well, the damage that element could do to a fine mechanical instrument.
Unlike cameras designed primarily for use on terra firma (or the moon..) which could be used underwater with a special - and usually, cumbersome - housing, the Nikonos was designed from the ground up as an amphibious, water, dust, shock and weatherproof full frame compact 35mm film camera produced by the French offshore machinery development company La Spirotechnique.
Founded in 1943 by well known explorer, film maker and underwater experts Jacques Cousteau and Emille Gagnan, Spirotechnique first worked up a 'Spiro' prototype camera designed jointly by Cousteau and crew member of his converted minesweeper exploration ship Calypso, Belgian engineer Jean de Wouters d'Oplinter.
Some years elapsed, until the first Calypso camera (named after Cousteau's ship.) sporting a Som Berthiot 35mm f/3.5 lens was launched. A truly amphibious and compact tough watertight camera of modular design, it became a huge success amongst the diving fraternity.
who had been contacted by La Spirotechnique through Teikoku Sanso KK with a view to large scale manufacture and marketing.
Nikon had already developed an underwater housing for its 35mm Nikon S rangefinder cameras enabling use of their highly regarded W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.5 lens but saw the huge potential the more compact Calypso offered. The company subsequently acquired exclusive production and sales rights for the camera outside of France and the European Common Market as it then was in 1962.
Thus began a long production history of the amphibious all-weather 'O' ring sealed Nikonos camera. In its early years, it sold at a rate only second in line to the venerable Nikon F 35mm single-lens-reflex (SLR).
Early models I through III were basic mechanical cameras with an Albada type full frame 35mm AOV viewfinder. By the early 1980s Nikonos IV-A incorporated the electronics of a Nikon EM SLR camera to bring auto aperture-priority exposure control to underwater shooting, followed in 1984 by the Nikonos V using Nikon FG SLR electronics to add manual exposure control override for those who had asked for it. Both models incorporated improved film winding/rewinding and inverted Galilean Albada viewfinders, now with suspended bright-line frames and LED exposure information. The V camera also introduced TTL flash control with its special Speedlight electronic flash units and like the IV-A, its vertical travel metal bladed shutter is one of the quietest to be found, muffled as it is, by the camera's hefty metal body housing.
Ergonomically, various aspects of functionality changed as Nikonos models were incrementally modified until the major shape change unveiled with the IV-A. One thing that was maintained through its history from the earliest French made Calypso model however, are the two rotating knobs either side of interchangeable objectives; one controls aperture setting, the other distance. In or out of water, the genius of this functional simplicity, its instant visibility and ease of use is one of the many things I like about using a Nikonos. The lens face diaphragm and distance settings combine with a moving depth-of-field gauge similar to red arrow devices found on some other marque lenses such as early C type Zeiss Hasselblad.
It's waterproof down to a depth of 50 meters (150+ feet.) and pressure tested to 6kg/cm2 (85 lb/in2.). It's built like a tank, die-cast in copper silumin oxidised aluminium with a hard surface treatment coating called 'alumite', yet not much larger than a Leica rangefinder camera.
The use of greased rubber 'O' ring tubes originally developed for the aviation industry are the secret of its compact design and watertightness. Open it up and the inside looks like that of a regular Nikon FG film camera.
The standard W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.5 lens is now a 60+ year old optical design first produced for the Nikon S Rangefinder* camera models, but don't let that fool you; it is capable of stellar performance and in it's later Nikonos iterations, was upgraded with Nikon's Integrated Coating (NIC) and is far superior to Spirotechnique's original Som Berthiot lens. The W-Nikkor is a symmetrical 6 element design (7 elements in the Nikonos V including front protective glass.) in 5 groups, housed, like other objectives in the Nikonos family, in a pressure tested double barrel construction. It delivers excellent detail resolution and contrast even when used wide open.
A special damp/moisture proof 28mm f/2.8 LW-Nikkor lens based on the optical design of the Nikon-E series lens was also introduced for use with the Nikonos in 1983. It looks like a a regular 28mm Nikkor Ai-S wide-angle lens but it won't jam if you're caught in a thunderstorm or go surfing (centre right under orange camera in the picture above.).
What can you use a camera like this for?
I use it almost anytime I know I might encounter inclement weather or an environment that puts ordinary tools at risk; use it on the street, at the beach, in the sea, in the desert, in the rain, in the muck and mud, under a dust cloud, in fact, anywhere where a bit of rough and tumble will likely damage more conventional kit.
Mint+ examples are becoming harder to find with prices trending in the range £160 - £250; about half what I paid for a new Nikonos V in 1987. There are many well hammered examples out there - Nikon sold a lot of these cameras. Things to watch out for in particular; jammed shutter release in IV-A and V models, often caused by a rusting or dry bent wire exterior/interior release connector (Hidden under the grip casing.). Dry/brittle rubber 'O' rings; remove carefully, clean and re-grease. Replacement ex-factory kits occasionally appear on internet auction sites. My orange '87 model is still going strong, backed up by a pristine Moss Green sample just in case the former fails me.
Just one thing; very few cameras could survive the fierce fire and explosions this Nikonos V was caught in (see below). A luxury yacht's propane gas store used to power its hot-air balloon exploded and trashed the ship (and the camera.) in the fire that followed.
*The Complete Nikon Rangefinder System by Robert J Rotolini (pub: Hove Foto Books, Newpro UK Ltd. 2007. ISBN: 13:978 1 87403 177 2) available from Camera Books.com
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