Having waved goodbye to the Nikonos V – the Legend – I thought that itch was scratched. It didn’t do what I wanted underwater. It was too heavy on dry land. Nice lens though, and very rugged.
But the earlier models were lighter and had the same lens. No automation at all and built like Russian tanks (what it doesn’t have can’t break). You can guess the rest.
So this is my Nikonos III.
It’s the last incarnation of the original Calypso camera that was bought and renamed/ redesigned by Nikon.
So why do I want an even less clever underwater camera? Because that won’t be its main job. Underwater is for digital, zoom lenses and automatic everything. Plus small enough to not fight me when I’m doing something else.
What I wanted, or what I told myself I wanted, was a rugged camera that could cope with water, sand, mud and cold. All the highlights of a British summer. I know I’ve already got several of these, but hey….
First challenge – load it. Start by taking the lens off. Pull out and twist and the bayonet unlocks with a ninety degree turn. Then use the odd strap lugs to lever off the top of the camera. It comes apart into an outer case and the inner working parts. The lens locks them together. Clever. Also rugged – if it does flood I’m told you rinse it in fresh water and dry it.
Next challenge – wind on. The wind-on lever pulls back towards you rather than being pushed round with your thumb. The lever lies across the front of the camera rather than the back. You squeeze the tip of the lever back towards you to fire the shutter. The lever then springs out and can be pushed back with your forefinger to wind on. I’m told this was meant to be easier to use, possibly one-handed, underwater. It’s odd, but saves trying to find the shutter release. The original designer obviously had experience of trying to use a camera in the dark, wearing gloves. The down side is that there is a fair bit of movement to fire the shutter and no half-press position to tell your finger it’s nearly triggered. It takes a deliberate press, so this is probably not a great camera for fast moving action. But that’s not what it’s for.
Not a wide range of shutter speeds – these things would normally be used with flash and a macro lens or attachment and frame finder. Once you’d got your exposure right, probably on slide film, you’d leave it there. Speaking of flash, the Nikonos cameras use a special dedicated waterproof connection. But you can get a plug for land use that provides a standard PC socket. Just don’t go anywhere near water with this converter plugged in.
The Nikonos III is the one to have from the early models, as it has X sync and uses the sprocket holes in the film to count and space the frames. Hence my choice and purchase.
I’ve almost justified it to myself. But I can sell some other cameras or even camera to cover it. As cameras go the Nikonos III needn’t be expensive if you look carefully.
In use we are really back to basics. The Russian tank joke is quite true: the narrow range of shutter speeds and zone focusing make this very similar to using some Russian cameras. Metering is easy – I can use everything from guesswork via a rotary calculator to a proper meter. Focussing can be the same – from guesswork through zone to using a clip-on rangefinder.
So what’s it like to use and was it worth dipping my toe back in the underwater? Slow to load and unload, but you don’t do that often. You can mount the lens upside down so that the distance and aperture scales are easily read when you tip the camera backwards. Like using many old cameras, you take a meter reading when you start the day and keep checking and tweaking the settings on the camera to keep them right. Keep it adjusted and you can just raise it and shoot immediately without fiddling. The viewfinder is quite big and has good eye relief – it was meant to work for people wearing a diving mask. The camera can live over your shoulder whatever the weather. You might have to wipe the front of the lens, but that’s it. The 35mm lens can be used on land and underwater and has a plain glass disk at the front, so it’s safe to wipe it dry as long as you don’t use a sandy rag.
The only thing to remember is that if you do drop it in water it will sink. If you are out on a boat, attach some buoyancy to the strap.
The 35mm lens is nice – it was borrowed from Nikon’s rangefinder camera. It’s worth fitting a lens hood for land use because of the glass disk at the front of the lens. Even so, it doesn’t flare as much as you might expect and the lens is sharp and contrasty. Other than that, this thing will take whatever is thrown at it (or it’s thrown at). No batteries to freeze or die, no electronics to fail. It really does have a lot of things that can’t fail because they are not present.
It is lighter than the Nikonos V. Not supermodel light, because it still weighs 620g, but it’s 80g less than the Nikonos V and that’s near enough three rolls of film. It’s still a chunky beast though, but it has to be. The Nikonos cameras are rated to at least 50m depth. This is around 74psi in old money. It’s also why you pull out on the lens to unlock it, not press in. At 50m depth that lens is already being pressed into the body with 290lb of force. Try putting one of your own cameras lens-down on the floor and let your 20 stone chum stand on the back. Like I said – rugged.
But that’s all top trumps talk (the game, not the nutter) – what matters is what sort of pictures it takes and what it’s like to use.
Superb bright viewfinder that shows more than the frame margins. Quiet shutter – mainly because it’s buried inside a block of metal. Grippy body – that pattern is sharp hard rubber, not leatherette. Very clear focus and aperture scales with a nice smooth resistance to the knobs. Nice sharp lens – it’s a 35mm f2.5 that drops to the field of view of a 50mm underwater due to refraction. I’ve already had good results from the one I had on the Nikonos V so I know I’ll like it.
This is a camera that I would happily use on the beach and run under the tap afterwards to clean. So the Legend is dead; long live the Legend.