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Nikonos V Review - Underwater photography

J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)

Keywords: nikonos, underwater, photography, photographic, disciplines, film, sports

Show pages (14 Pages)

Fascination of underwater photography

Underwater photography is as fascinating or more than land or aerial photography.  The 'painting with light' concept is by far more evident underwater than above the surface. Besides, to enter into a submerged new world, hidden, increases emotions with that of discovery. Although it may look at first as something very complicated, I will attempt here to convey it is not that difficult and very exciting.


The author and his son in the sunny beaches of Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, coming back from a brief snorkeling dive, quite a few years ago.

My father, him being an expert swimmer, taught me maybe when I was 5 years old, and it seemed already too late; after all, it had been 5 long years since I had abandoned the amphibian life of a manatee.




He took us to swim almost every weekend. During my early adolescence to many swimming pools but I do remember well "Hot Eye"; public sulfurous thermal pools in the open, on the road between Monterrey and Saltillo. With persistent frequency so full with slime and weeds that not much imagination was needed to see (and feel) strange 'things' in the water.

Being the elder of my brothers and sisters, the firstborn, I could not afford the luxury of showing myself scared. So by necessity I had learned to pretend to be scareless to both water and its creatures. And suddenly a good day, after so much pretending, the anguish was gone and I began to enjoy enormously.

For my beloved wife, the beach, the sea, is the only true good resting place. So the ocean had always attracted us plenty, from the barren coast of New Jersey and the rocky beaches of California with its sea wolfs, to those of Manzanillo, filled with seal fish; Cancun, Cozumel, Belize, Bahamas, Hawaii, Cayman Islands and Jamaica, with their extraordinary reefs, clear turquoise blue waters and over 2,000 varieties of tropical fish.

As a family we had been very lucky, at the University of Pennsylvania, true avant-garde limbo, we introduced our daughter Tatiana into the gym swimming pool when she was 40 days old and our son Juan Ramon was a consummated diver at the tender age of two.

We visited Cancun and Cozumel with regularity, even before they became world known tourism destinations. So the family began to dive together since our own creatures were babies.

Tatiana & Juan Ramon

As assistant record keeper and chronicler of the family adventures, I was obligated to register such events around deep water. So I began to investigate the how .....

The first generation of underwater cameras

What seemed the easiest solution was to use any of my cameras and just purchase a housing that would allow for their safe operation underwater. And several brand names appeared: Ikelite first, then Subal, Aquatica , Sea & Sea, Seacam, Nexus and others. 

My daughter Tatiana at a very young age in Cozumel, Mexico.

The problems now were:

  • The cumbersomeness of the underwater housings (Where to store them and how to carry them)
  • The price, which resulted ludicrous (above that of any of my cameras)
  • Each camera required its own special underwater housing, to enable the use of their individual controls.
  • To top it, each combination camera-lens needed a different clearboy or dome.
  • Surely this contraptions are justified for serious depths, below 300 feet or more, but they were ridiculous for snorkeling and difficult to justify for recreational diving where we were normally not interested in going below 120 feet.

 It just had to be another solution .........




Ives Jacques Cousteau, our oceanographer hero who did show us the sea,  -he who with the Mexican oceanographer Miguel Bravo were able to make Cancun Bay a sanctuary, patrimony of humanity-  had dreamed with creating the perfect underwater camera. So he asked his company La Spiro Technique, to investigate the necessary but were never able to find the adequate optics. Nevertheless, if with Emile Gagnan he had been able to invent the aqua lung in 1943, to replace the cumbersome divers' scaphander, something equivalent had to be possible with the photographic camera.

After many painful failures, help from Nikon was requested. Nikon of course jumped to the occasion and accepted the challenge.
Nikon and La Spiro technique worked jointly and finally announced their success to produce a viable underwater camera in 1961. 
The camera was first sold in France under the name Calypsophot, a Jacques Cousteau registered brand name; in Japan it went to market two years later as the Nikonos I, in 1963.

Nikonos I

It revolutionized the market: light, compact, easy to use rangefinder camera, without the need for a separate underwater housing, capable of withstanding the pressure of a depth of 165 feet (50 meters) and temperatures all the way down to -4°F (-20°C). 

Each one introducing great improvements, the Nikonos II made its appearance in 1968, the Nikonos III in 1975 and the Nikonos IV-A in 1980.

Nikonos III

So carefully, dearly stored my Nikonos III and went out to purchase a brand new Nikonos IV-A. It had the first integrated exposure meter; there was no need to guess the light underwater (which was always very complicated and frequently frustrating); plus, there was no further need to dismount the lens to reload the camera. The Nikonos IV-A could be reloaded from behind, like any decent land camera.

Nikonos IVa

Chronicles of the time relate that the divers from all over the world sent letters and telegrams to thank Nikon for its efforts and to make some additional suggestions.

Evidently Nikon listened because the end result was the formidable Nikonos V. As soon as it came to market I made one mine, back in early 1984. 

Click for bigger picture


Years later Nikon brought about the nice Nikonos RS, the first autofocus underwater camera in the world. Facing insufficient demand it's production was abruptly discontinued, ended, kaput-zed ...... just when I had saved enough to upgrade...

Using the Nikonos

The first thing I learned  -the hard way-  was how very important is to know how to dive well. One cannot afford the luxury of a little distraction. Underwater it is extremely easy to loose the sense of time, depth and orientation.

Padi and Naui, today offer underwater photography courses that  provide the diver with the skills and knowledge to enjoy underwater photography while minimizing the potential risks of such activities


On certain occasion, being so focused on making adjustments to my camera, an underwater current dragged me a long stretch and not only I lost the location of my group, but also my own bearings.

It is not an experience I can recommend. I exhausted my reserve oxygen while having to swim  -on the not so calm surface and countercurrent-  a distance that felt like 15 miles before reaching the boat while my cheap snorkel kept getting filled with sea water. 

The ocean deserves a lot of respect.

The author, when he had lots of hair and

did not need a thick warm diving suit.


I'll never be sorry of first obtaining the Master Open Sea Diver certification before venturing again into the ocean as an underwater photographer. Once I achieved the necessary diver's expertise and awareness, underwater photography became fun, as you can see in the samples below, and quite fascinating.




My ballet dancer wife, kindly stops and turns towards my Nikonos to allow her picture to be taken, while the guide goes under to enter a cave in a reef at Cancun.

Backlight picture of my mermaid spouse coming down into a Cancun reef with a fish school, in the same trip of the above picture. 

TTL flash, aimed at the fish school.

Practise underwater photpgrahy on dry land

The second thing I learned  -this time not the hard way-  was how very important it is to know exactly where the camera's controls are. Lots of practice on dry land  -in my room in fact-  allows me to change settings with just a glance to check if correct.

Nikonos V picture of my wife and a small school of fish in a Cancun reef




The Nikonos V at work with the UW Nikkor 20mm f/2.8, SB-103 underwater flash on the fish school.


The SB-103 was voluntarily recalled by Nikon some time back, to be replaced at no cost with the newest scuba diving high performance speedlight, the SB-105. Nice. I still have it.


My wife, with great patience to understand my hand signals, turns into my camera, this time with the W 35mm f/2.5 Nikkor, to take her picture with an angel fish that had taken refuge from the tourists in a small hole in the 'Manchones' reef at Cancun.



The third lesson I learned  -this time it only hurt my pocket-  was how very important it is to know the lenses and what each can do for you underwater, before buying. 

Nikonos V with the SB-105 underwater speedlight




At right, the Nikonos V in my wife's hands in the second dive of the day, shooting at me with the UW Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 up-close in a reef at Cancun with the SB-103 underwater flash. 


My wife shooting again, maybe 20 seconds after the picture above. The flash had not fully recycle yet but, at noon, Cancun waters are very luminous, even at a depth of 60 feet.


My wife examines some sponges in the previous dive of the day, without touching.

Nikonos V, W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.5

The Nikonos V

The Nikonos V has command dials that are really very simple to use. 

The Nikonos V

Under the body (white dot on the left low corner of the color picture above), the socket for the speedlight.



With the lens looking forward, the camera has on the top left the dial to set the ISO speed of the film, topped by the crank to rewind the film when finished.

On the shutter speed dial (top right) most of the time the best thing to do is to set it at A (aperture priority) and let the meter select the shutter speed.

'R' is for rewinding the film. 

Important note: Never force the film advance lever or even try to go beyond 36 frames; it may cost you a visit to the Nikon repair center.


At right, lever to wind film after each shot, which has to be left away from the body to activate the meter. 

On the lens, the aperture is set with the right hand knob, focusing distance and DOF is set by means of the left hand knob.

In the beginning it is hard to judge true distances underwater but with little practice you can learn.

In fact, I now seldom change the focusing distance once at the depth I want to maintain underwater, depending on the lens hyperfocal settings most of the time. 


Make certain that the shutter button lock ('L') is not on, press the shutter release button and that is that.


At right, the Nikonos V once again at work with the UW Nikkor 20mm f/2.5, wide open since I had no flash on, while my wife is being helped by the group with her totally loose tank.

Lesson: always check yourself your equipment.
If you dive frequently, get your own diving vest.

Kodak Ultra 400 film.


The three types of underwater subjects

Three major kind of subjects come up underwater: wide angle, mid range and close-ups.
Forget about long range.



Probably the most useful is the UW-Nikkor 15mm f/2.8 ultra-wideangle lens. This is the only one I did not purchase, simply because it was out of stock at the moment, which is very unfortunate: this is a lens one should not be without. Ideal to capture large scenes, with a picture view of 94 degrees has been repeatedly reported as quite sharp all the way from f/4 to f/22, stunning in fact. Close focuses down to 1 foot. There is an optional viewfinder for it, the DF-11. Above, three views from the same lens.




The Nikonos V with the 15mm f/2.8 and its special finder DF-11


The next lens in the lineup is the UW-Nikkor 20mm f/2.8. In my experience, great for up close shooting, so it is really my favorite. Very sharp from f/4 through f/11. The picture angle is 78 degrees and the optional viewfinder DF-12 is available for parallax compensation. I do not own the Nikonos close-up lens to tell you my own experience but it is supposed to be just great.

But somehow quite frequently I end up mounting the UW-Nikkor 28mm f/3.5 on the body, maybe it is always so early in the morning ...., so it has become my standard wide-angle lens although its angle of view is 59 degrees. Also very sharp from f/4 through f/11. It also works very well with the DF-12 viewfinder mounted on the shoe of the Nikonos V.

Mid range shooting underwater

Mid range and close-ups are maybe better taken care with the 35mm and the 80mm.

Taken with Nikonos V at the 'Cuevones' reef, Cancun



If you can only buy one Nikonos lens, probably not the one to choose would be the amphibious W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.5 wide-angle lens. This is the one I used in the beginning and finally decided the angle was not enough for the best coverage underwater, although it is recommended as an acceptable performer for mid-range subjects, in fact it is even better suited for above water pictures. For me, the 28mm is definitely better, the 20mm much better and the one I don't have, the 15mm, the very best. Others may differ of course, the argument is that if you can only get one lens, it better be amphibious.

The other amphibious lens in the underwater lineup is the Nikkor 80mm f/4. In my experience, very good for up close shooting; plus it allows for longer distances between objective and subject in close ups. However, I only take it with me when I am alone, when I decide to concentrate on fish close-ups, not for people shots since it does not have the best angle of view for that. It is 22 degrees 45 minutes underwater and 30 degrees 20 minutes on land. 


If you want your Nikonos V to be totally amphibious, get the 35mm for groups and landscapes and the 85mm Nikkor lenses for portraits.


Using Nikkor wide angle lenses under water

The depth of field issue is none really with the Nikkor underwater wide angles. Somehow I have never had an out of focus picture. Simply try to shoot at no less than f/5.6, find a film with an ISO speed sufficient for that in the waters you venture in. In the Caribbean, at noon, sometimes ISO 100 is enough, 200 better.

Clown fish taking refuge in an anemone in Belize. Nikonos V with close-up frame kit







In this picture you can appreciate all of the fish at various distances in focus, although ISO speed was low and aperture wide, no flash, hence the blur.  

This other picture at lower depth had its DOF expanded by a smaller f-stop, due to higher ISO film speed and TTL flash use with an SB-103 speedlight  


The Nikonos V has a center-weighted metering system. The camera operates under aperture priority (A) or manual (M). I simply set an aperture and the camera automatically selects the shutter speed. If with a speedlight connected and turned on, it will be auto TTL flash. 

Sea & Sea NK-5 Pro housing for the Nikon F5 




Nexus housing for the Nikon D70


At right, the 'Chintales' reef with Nikonos V and the great 20mm f/2.8 plus the SB-105 speedlight. 

Most probably shot at f/8 with Kodak Professional Ektachrome E100VS.




Subal housing for the D100


My beloved wife strolling along the Isla Mujeres beach, just across Cancun, not so long ago ...

Nikonos V with W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.5


Cancun is almost an island, almost all man-made at the tip of the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula. Still a paradise even after the dense hotels and malls construction, it remains one of the best places in the world for recreational scuba diving at moderate depths.

Aquatica housing for the Nikon F5 and Cancun area map




At right, the 'Chintales' reef in the very clear turquoise color waters of Cancun.

The reefs are not what they use to be, 25 years ago. They have been scavenged of their black coral and destroyed by anchors. 

Nevertheless, they still remain a lively tropical fish preservation as seen above. 

Amazingly the reefs continue to re flourish as seen at right in a picture of the 'Cuevones' reef.

More of Cancun

Cancun has a lot to offer for a fantastic vacation, whether photographic or not. I have been going there at least once a year over the last 35 years, always with great joy.  Very nearby is Cozumel, another stupendous diving bay, as well as Chichen-Itza and Tulum, the Mayan archeological site by the sea. Tulum amazed conquerors as it had running water aqueducts and a sewage system. Far more advanced and larger than the Seville, Spain of the time.


The author with a dolphin allowing to be touched at Xcaret




Relieved that the touching experience is over, the dolphin dives.


Dolphins play at leisure at Punta Nizuc, Cancun, not even curious of the photographer.


The Nikon school of underwater photography


The Nikon School was an experience one has to try not to miss. A unique one-week program taught by professional undedrwater photographers on location in spectacular Cayman Brac and Bonaire




Not only the instruction was very good but the site is incredible. Nikonian Dave Dosch, whose images are shown below, did attend. The link for this school disappeared for a while from the Nikon USA site but it is back. If you are interested, a phone call to Nikon would be your best bet if the above link fails.



Scuba diving is exciting, especially with a camera

The Subal Procase housing for the F4s

Scuba diving is excitement and adventure, freedom and serenity; for me it is an exercise in mind control, almost a Zen experience. It is hard to compare anything to the "weightless" exhilaration of breathing underwater. Maybe only a diver knows the feeling. And when combined with underwater photography one is induced to see more ..... and to enjoy even more.




Underwater housings in several brand names are available for many Nikon models, like the N90s, N80/F80, F100, F4s, the F5, F6 and now for the latest Coolpixes, D300, D90, D2H/D2Hs and even for the D2X/D2Xs, D3/D3X/D3S; unfortunately I find them difficult to justify (and to store and carry) for a single annual trip, even if to the beautiful reefs of Cancun or Cozumel or elsewhere. But if you dive often, by all means get one.

At right, my son, JR, getting ready for an early morning scuba dive at Cancun, at the age of 8, back in 1978. (Nikkormat FT2, Nikkor 50mm f/1.4) Soon it will be the turn for my grandchildren to learn to dive.

Get a copy of a 
very good book:

Click to buy it

Essential Guide to


Below, at right, the author at present, finding only words to simply say that underwater photography is really easy with a Nikonos V, once you have mastered diving. And few things beat doing in it with your family.

Tips?  Well, this is what I have learned so far:

Shoot a lot (full roll per dive)

Get as close as you can to your subject.

Always check, replace and lubricate the 'O' rubber rings on the camera, lens and flash before a diving trip (you don't want your camera flooded).

Always use a speedlight; two is even better, they bring out the true colors.

Murphy's Law also applies underwater. Great photo opportunities seldom occur until the end of the dive. Get into the habit of saving a few frames for then.

Other cameras? There are quite a few but IMO nothing beats the quality of a Nikonos V even today, except a pro Nikon land camera in a professional housing.

The Nikonos have all been discontinued. Fortunately there are quite a few brand new in photo store shelves around the world.

So, underwater photography?  
Try it, you'll love it.

Have a great time 





(3 Votes )
Show pages (14 Pages)

Originally written on September 10, 2010

Last updated on December 19, 2017

J. Ramon Palacios J. Ramon Palacios (jrp)

JRP is one of the co-founders, has in-depth knowledge in various areas. Awarded for his contributions for the Resources

San Pedro Garza García, Mexico
Admin, 46140 posts

1 comment

Zita Kemeny (zkemeny) on March 5, 2013

Beautiful images. Thanks for share with us.