Our Own Nikonos Project

The romance of sub-aquatic photography has dazzled me for a very long time, but I don't scuba dive and I'm relatively afraid of big surf.

When I was 18, I started a business shooting underwater portraiture for a local learn-to-swim school. This was part of an ingenious plan to make my camera's water housing tax de-ductable, as I never expected to make any money from surf photography (my real plan) as I freak out sitting in the impact zone when the surf is solid.

Travel combined with the constraint of water housings only fitting sole camera models saw the surf photography dream fade. By up-trading my camera I was left with a lovely waterproof housing that fitted no camera I owned, so it lay dormant for three years. In desperate need for money to travel around India, I sold it for a bargain and said goodbye to those notions of water photography.

Then I stumbled upon the Nikonos, a fully water proof 35mm camera. For around two years I toyed around with the idea of acquiring one but living in landlocked countries made that idea idealistic. When I finally returned to Australia I went on Gumtree and tracked one down within a week.  A limited edition '86 'Nikonos V' in the loveliest olive green. A few more weeks lurking online found me a UW only 16mm fisheye - I was set but had no subject to shoot. Luckily Magnolia Mountain was founded shortly after and I went about convincing Maya that underwater shots were a necessity for a potentially successful ceramics venture regardless that we were in the depths of a Sydney winter.

The first Nikonos was designed for Jacques Cousteau in 1956. It was appropriately titled the 'Calypso-shot' after his much loved oceanic navigating vessel 'The Calypso' (which has since been restored and is set to explore the seas once again). Nikon bought the design and by 1965 had it featured in the James Bond film 'Thunderball' as one of the gadgets. The camera started to establish a cult following and was being used extensively in the Vietnam war. By 1984, the refined 'Nikonos V' made its way onto the scene as the premium underwater camera and was released in two colourways. Black and orange and also in a limited run of camouflage green to win the hearts of photojournalists. Over the next decade and a half, Nikon made several attempts to discontinue the camera but demand kept coming in, until 2001 they had become too far out-dated and production ceased. 

Although the price of film steadily continues to rise and digital photography has superseded the Nikonos camera's quality, to buy a waterproof housing for a digital SLR is still an expensive option. Thus the cult following has continued - just amongst different circles. In an attempt to bring back the warmth of film and share the vibe of this lovely and almost mythical camera, Brandon Jennings founded The Nikonos Project. A project that collects and loans out Nikonos cameras around the world, grabbing the interest of some of the world's most prolific surf photographers and anyone else who is curious. Unfortunately the waiting list to receive a camera is said to be a few years.  

Like a fading memory of a lost love, my time with my Nikonos V is stored in the nostalgic area of my brain. We shot some lovely rolls of film up and down the east coast of Australia and were constantly surprised with the crisp clarity. A roll of Velvia rekindled my love for colour film and developing our own black and white negatives in my bathroom reminded me of my teen years.

On a perfectly normal Tuesday in the middle of summer we had organised a shoot with a good friend. The weather was clear and hot and the ocean glistened like a cluster of sapphires (I have never seen a collection of sapphires so this is pure assumption). We swam under a large glassy shore break and over miniature landscapes of sweeping sandbanks, shooting the majority of a roll when suddenly the winding arm seized up. A diagnosis of the problem led to us losing that particular roll of film and finding that salt water had been slowly leaking in and corroding the camera's winding mechanism from the inside out. Unfortunately the cost to fix it was double the price of second hand Nikonos and a replacement doesn't fit into the current MM budget.

This small photo essay is a tribute to the first Nikonos I ever loved and probably the last one I will ever own. If you're curious I would suggest you grab one and encourage all your friends to go swimming more often...even in the depths of winter. RIP Mr Nikonos V.