Classic Cameras
Nikonos II

Nikonos II, 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 In One
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.

Getting In
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.

Available Lenses
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.