Most of us that have been around film photography for a long time know the Nikon Nikonos underwater camera. It was always a bit of a mysterious camera, reserved for fantastic journeys into the great depths of the oceans. These days, Nikonos cameras seem to be more of a curiosity of the past.
Sadly, these were precision-engineered machines, using multiple O-rings to seal off things like the shutter speed dial, flash port, and Rewind crank. Unfortunately, 40+ year-old rubber has degraded to the point it’s no longer a seal, so most Nikonos cameras will flood and fail without service. The only Nikonos that’s still easily serviceable is the Nikonos V, so older versions are a bit of a gamble.
Knowing full well that the water seals may not work, why would I bother with a Nikonos? Well honestly, this was one of the most exotic cameras around when I was growing up, the Nikonos I – III are quite nice looking and durable cameras, and they are an important piece of history that is vanishing. In addition, the standard Nikon W-Nikkor 35mm f/2.5 lens is basically the same design as the classic Nikon rangefinder lens (even using the same name). The Nikonos III also sports a large bright viewfinder with framing lines for the 35mm f/2.5 and 80mm f/4 lenses. With the exception of a rangefinder focusing aid, It’s functionally a ruggedized Nikon SP on a much smaller budget.
I have shot the Nikonos II a few times with faster film and zone focusing with decent results on the 35mm lens and as expected, pretty bad results on the 80mm lens. I sat the camera aside, disappointed that I couldn’t see its true potential. Recently, I decided I needed to either sell it or finally take a chance on an auxiliary rangefinder to actually get in-focus images (especially with the 80mm lens). I was able to snag an old TELEX Special that just needed a good cleaning and a quick alignment.
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The Nikonos II and TELEX make a surprisingly good combo. It’s not too bad using an uncoupled rangefinder and my fear that I wouldn’t be able to pick the exact focus between marked distances was pretty unfounded. It’s not perfect at larger apertures, but no worse than the missed focus I get on other cameras.
The only real downside is the internal distance scale on the TELEX Special (ironically billed as an upgrade over the standard as it’s more accurate with finer-scale markings). It just isn’t very visible in lower light. The lenses have a magnificent old school feel and the 80mm f/4 is especially unique, as it is a 4-element Tessar-type lens that would commonly be seen on a 1950s 6×6 TLR rather than any 35mm camera.
I am happy with this setup and perhaps it may warrant a full length review in the future.
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Hi Brian – These are such amazing cameras are they not? I did a very brief review of mine over on 35mmc. I think you’re brave shooting the 80 with it! I think they work very well with the 35 but with any lens it’s a very deliberate, considered experience. A week ago I got mine much more submersed than I intended and it held up fine, but when I bought it it had the reassuring smell of fresh silicone grease and the larger (visible) O rings had been replaced at least. I agree that these days they are a tough super weather resistant work of art at a bargain price, but if you’re looking to go diving, take a more modern camera! I harbour the idea of going out shooting in a storm or something with mine though… Thanks for your piece!
Great idea to add the external r/f. I like the hay bales in the snow. That’s kinda like shooting in the water…
What about “O” sets you see on eBay? If they don’t meet underwater specs, they could still serve as inclement weather protection for the fabulous Nikonos; just don’t dunk it in your coffee.
Back in 1973, my cousin got married on a goat farm (yup. The buggers loved chewing on camera straps.) the photographer they hired shot the wedding with a Nikonos. No water in sight.
I wanted to buy a Nikonos to use as my bad weather/beach camera, but changed my mind because of the lack of available O-ring replacements. What have you done about the O-rings, as it looks like you used the camera under snowy conditions?
I’m sorry I missed your comment somehow. I have some grease for the O-rings and the Snow and rain don’t seem to hurt it. I believe the body and lens rings can still be sourced, but I won’t dunk it because the internal O rings are no longer available.