kindly loaned by Stuart Heggie, The Borough, Canterbury,
England. Stuart is normally in the shop on Fridays and
Saturdays. His phone is +44 (0) 1227 470 422.
One of the joys of classic
cameras, indeed, of classic anything--is the absence of "me-too"
design; and the Nikonos II illustrated is about as far from "me
too" as you can get. Waterproof to 50 meters (call it 160 ft),
immensely strong; fitted with interchangeable lenses; equipped with
a seriously weird combination wind-on and shutter release--there
is nothing quite like it.
Except that, actually, there is. It is derived from the original Nikonos,
which in turn was substantially a copy of the French-built Calypso,
introduced in 1961. The Calypso was designed by the splendidly-named
Jean Guy Marie Joseph de Wouters d'Oplinter, and made by Spirotechnique,
better known for their diving apparatus; their parent company was Air
Liquide, the supplier of industrial gases. The original lens was a 35mm
Som-Berthiot, and "Calypso" was of course the name of Jacques-Yves
Cousteau's diving boat, so the whole thing has a very Gallic air
about it: one almost expects it to smell faintly of garlic.
The First Nikonos
In 1963, the first Nikon-built version, the original Nikonos, appeared:
Nikon had bought a license to manufacture substantially the same camera,
now with a 35mm f/2.5 Nikkor-W lens, which explains why the camera is
also known as a "Calypso-Nikkor." The original Calypso had
a focal-plane shutter speeded 1/30 sec to 1/1000 sec, but in 1962 the
top speed was dropped to 1/500 sec for better reliability and quietness,
and as far as I know, the Nikonos never had 1/1000 sec--though
I may be wrong. The shutter speed dial is on the top of the camera,
about where you would expect it.
Apparently, it sold well at first, but then sales tailed off sharply,
and the size of their inventory made Nikon nervous. Equally suddenly,
sales recovered, and it looked as though it might be time to make some
more. Enter the Nikonos II (1968), which was very similar to the original,
but with some modifications to the rewind. The subsequent III (1975)
was a rather more sophisticated and considerably bigger camera, a trend
that was followed by the IV-A (1980, the first autoexposure Nikonos)
and subsequent models.
Today, collectors are much more interested in the Spirotechnique Calypso
than in the early Nikonos models. It's rarer, of course (they
ceased production in the mid-1960s); it's French, which is unusual
in reasonably modern 35mm cameras (Focas are much sought after for the
same reason); and it's prettier. The gray body covering is much
more distinctive than the rather utilitarian diamond-pattern black grip
of the Nikonos, and has a curiously retro look: 1950s, rather than 1960s.
But all of these early cameras--Calypso, Calypso-Nikkor, Nikonos,
Nikonos II--are equally tremendous fun.
Shutter & Winder
When you pick one up, the first thing that you notice is that there
is no wind-on, or possibly no shutter release. Actually, they are combined.
A big, spring-loaded lever on the front of the camera falls under the
right index finger. One pressure, pushing the lever from the stand-off
position toward the camera against a spring, winds the film on. It then
clicks into place level with the front of the camera. Unless you have
the shutter release lock in place (a simple swiveling tab that blocks
further movement) a second pressure releases the shutter, and the lever
springs out again. It's not the smoothest or steadiest release
in the world, which is why I got rid of mine (I used it almost exclusively
above water), but it's easy to use with diving gloves on.
Just as original as the wind-on/shutter release are the lens controls,
which are two rotating knobs sticking out of the side of the lens. One
sets focus, with a circular scale that whizzes around behind the front
window. The other sets aperture (to f/22), again on a rotating scale
behind the window, but it also operates a couple of "pincers"
on the focusing scale that move in and out to indicate depth of field,
Hasselblad-style. To make life more interesting, you can install the
lens upside down if you like, so that when you tip it toward you on
the neck strap, the lens scales are the right way up.
For fairly obvious reasons, this thing doesn't have a conventional
opening back, so how do you open it? Well, believe it or not, you begin
by removing the bayonet-mount lens. Twist it; pull it out, against some
resistance (there's a greased O-ring to form a watertight seal);
and you're ready for the next stage.
Now the double-jointed strap lugs come into their own. They act as little
crowbars to lever the innards of the body out of the outer shell. Hook
the short ends under the locating lugs on the camera top, and push down
on the long ends. The works then come out, complete with the viewfinder,
and you can load the film (reasonably) conventionally: reverse these
procedures to close it all up. Again, an O-ring seals everything together.
Although 28mm and 80mm lenses were promised for the Spirotechnique,
they seem never to have materialized, and as far as I am aware, lenses
other than the 35mm f/2.5 for the Nikonos were corrected only for use
underwater: the 35mm f/2.5 could be used above water as well. The most
usual alternative Nikkor is the 80mm. Auxiliary viewfinders are needed:
only the 35mm viewfinder frame (non-brightine) is built into the camera,
though underwater, a big frame finder is easier to use than this, too.
Worth A Buy?
Is an early Nikonos a good buy today? Reports vary. In some ways they
were rather crude: the film transport was sprocketless until the III,
so spacing varied, and I have already referred to the dangers of camera
shake with the rather eccentric release. But recently I was thinking
of buying another one to document Hungarian spas: I can't dive
because of ear trouble, and besides, even in the days when I could (which
is how I got the ear trouble), I found aqualung diving claustrophobic,
so I never had need of 50 meter waterproofing.
The trouble is, they are getting older. The newest "classic"
(pre-III) Nikonos is now more than a quarter of a century old, and they
do need occasional maintenance. Stuart Heggie had one that worked (the
one that is illustrated, in fact) but I wanted it overhauled before
I would be confident using it, and the overhaul would have added 50-60
percent to the price of the camera. Even then, the repairer who could
handle them reckoned that they weren't the most reliable cameras
in the world, at their current age; he recommended an Ewa-Marin "jacket"
for use with a conventional 35mm compact, probably my Rollei. This would
cost a lot less and deliver results that were at least as good. I'll
probably go with his advice.
But yet, but yet... Before I got rid of my last one, 15 or 20 years
ago, I had it in my pocket when I was in a motorcycle accident. I landed
on that camera, and skidded on top of it down the Great West Road. I
ground through the metal lens cap I had on it, and ground a bit off
the lens mount as well--and it didn't affect the operation
of the camera one bit. But a good friend, Tony Blake, had taken up diving
around then, and his need was greater than mine. He's still using
that same old Nikonos, still diving with it. You can see why I might
have a soft spot for such a camera.