The Sony A7R Underwater with the Iconic Nikonos 15mm lens By Scotty Graham

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The Sony A7R Underwater with the Iconic Nikonos 15mm lens

By Scotty Graham

Underwater photography, in my opinion, is not really appreciated by the wider audience. Most don’t understand how difficult it is to take photos underwater. Lighting is near impossible, visibility is always a problem, currents push you all over the place, SCUBA gear, hoses, regulators, gauges, mask and fins all get in the way, controlling buoyancy to hold the camera steady is always a challenge, camera housings and strobes make it difficult to focus and compose, changing camera settings is never easy, and the models (fish and other animals) are very uncooperative. They never stay still, and are never in the position you want them. On top of all of this, the underwater photographer has to be careful to not damage the fragile environment they are invading to get photos, and has to be aware of the time at depth and air supply. We are clumsy, slow animals underwater…fish must laugh when they see us lumbering around to try and take their photo.

To nail a shot underwater is nothing like nailing a shot on land. On a typical dive trip, I MAY (if lucky) get 10 good shots out of a thousand…it’s that difficult, folks….believe me.

Having said the above, it is my passion. Underwater photography has been a passion of mine since the early 80’s (damn! I am giving away my age). Today, it still remains the ultimate photographic challenge…to NAIL a unique shot underwater!!

Unlike on land, equipment matters underwater. The camera, the housing, the strobes, and most importantly, the lens…ALL make a huge difference in “getting the shot” underwater. Well, I guess the same can be said on land to a certain respect, but it is magnified underwater.

Back in the old days, I used the infamous Nikonos V along with an assortment of lenses and strobes. The Nikonos is a “wet” system. It was not a camera in a housing. It was very similar to shooting a Leica Rangefinder underwater. All manual, and you didn’t look through the lens. Talk about challenging. Only 36 shots on a roll of film. One would pay thousands of dollars to get to an exotic location, and you would have to wait until you were home to get your film developed. I can’t tell you how many times I would want to break into tears coming back from the “Fuji Place” with my developed slides….focus wrong, exposure wrong, composition off, strobes not working, back scatter….etc….no Photoshop in those days…you either got it or you didn’t, and mostly it was the latter.

Ok, I am rambling….”focus Scotty, FOCUS” ! Onto the main topic of this article…

So, back in those days, there was ONE lens that was coveted by most every underwater photographer. The Nikonos 15mm. A gorgeous lens. I would dare say, the BEST underwater wide angle lens ever made. I had to save money for years before I was finally able to afford to buy the Nikonos 15mm. I took care of that lens like it was my baby, and when I went diving with it, other divers on the boat would drool with envy, and say, “wow…that’s the 15mm, right? Nice lens!!”

nikonos15

Jump ahead a few decades. The digital age. When digital came out, the Nikonos systems died. Young divers today probably have never even heard of the Nikonos. I sold all of my Nikonos equipment….everything EXCEPT the 15mm lens. I just could NOT part with that lens. I kept saying to myself, “SOME DAY, I will be able to use this lens again…SOME DAY!!”

It’s a long story following my equipment changes both on land and underwater, but today, I am a SONY and LEICA user !! On land, I still use and love my Leica M9 and I also carry with me the Sony A7Rll….but underwater, I use the Sony A7R and will soon be using the A7Rll (as soon as I upgrade my housing).

Guess what?? If you put the Sony A7R into a Nauticam Housing, and use an adapter, you can use the Nikonos 15mm lens!! You heard me right!! When I saw that, my jaw dropped!! I am now using my favorite underwater lens again after almost 20 years of that beauty sitting on my shelf like a prized trophy.

nauticamwith15

Since I am writing this for Steve Huff’s Website, I will keep with Steve’s tradition of making this a “Real World Review”. I won’t give you any scientific specifications of this lens or detailed analysis of the files. I wouldn’t really know how to do that anyway…I will just give you my “hands on” review and some sample photos that speak for themselves.

I will tell you, though, that you can open this lens to f/2.8. It is also strictly an underwater lens…it can not be used on land.

How does it perform attached to the Sony A7R?

I can say unequivocally, it is every bit as good as I remember. Sharp corner to corner, very little distortion, and so small !! (I will talk about its size in the next paragraph). The images, when opened in Light Room, just scream at me, “Nikonos 15mm”. I can’t really describe it, but when compared to photos taken with the Sony 16-35mm (also an excellent lens underwater), there is just “something” that is different, and better. It’s kind of like comparing images taken with my Leica and a good Leica lens with images taken with the Sony A7Rll….there is just something special about those Leica files…hard to describe.

Size matters.

With other wide angle lenses, a huge dome port is needed to correct for parallax, focusing and other things I don’t quite understand. Dome ports are very expensive, large, and fragile. I used to need an extra Pelican Case to carry the port itself. With the Nikonos lens, I can pack my strobes, strobe arms, chords, camera, housing, and batteries in ONE small Pelican Case. It is amazing!

pelicancase

Underwater, it is unobtrusive. I can maneuver my camera so much easier and get in tight spots without worrying about scratching the dome port.

twohousings

It is a WET lens.

I don’t have to worry about flooding this lens. It is built for underwater. There is a single “O”-ring that attaches to the adapter, and that’s it. With a Dome port, there are a couple of spots where water can leak in and ruin your day. I also don’t have to worry about condensation on the inside of the dome port. Again, it is a wet lens. I can wipe the lens clean while underwater.

Any negatives??

Yes, but no deal breakers. It is a manual lens…totally. Focusing is not easy. The “focus highlighting” with the Sony certainly helps, but it is not always that accurate. I get way more “out of focus” shots with the Nikonos than I do with an auto-focus lens inside a dome port. The aperture is also set manually. Underwater, this catches me off guard often. The lighting conditions change constantly underwater due to ambient light from above, and depth. It gets darker the deeper you go. When something like a shark, a manta, or some rare fish comes into view, there is not much time to fiddle with camera settings…and that can be frustrating. I have missed many shots because my aperture is wrong or my focus is not pre-set. Very similar to shooting the Leica manually. However, when all is set correctly, the rewards are well worth the hassles!!

With my aging eyes, seeing my aperture setting on the lens can sometimes be difficult as well. Especially when diving at night. I have to turn the camera towards me, and then reach for the right knob to change the aperture…focus uses the “other” knob, and sometimes, I turn the wrong knob. The more I use the lens, the better I get with it, but it does take some skill and a good eye for the lighting conditions to get the settings correct.

Some sample photos.

Here are a few. I have been lucky enough to live in Indonesia for the past 20 years. The diving brought me here, originally, and the diving is what has kept me here for two decades…(well, an Indonesian wife and two daughters have also kept me here)…ha!! These photos are all from Indonesian waters…and all were taken with the Sony A7R and the Nikonos 15mm lens!! An unbeatable combination, in my opinion!!

manta

mioskonreef

fishcluster

kaylabali

loneshark

passageseafans

schoollight

turtlefish

sweetlips

sweetlips2

underpier

underrocks

yellowtails

yellowtailfusiliers

A huge thanks to Steve for his generosity letting us amateurs post articles on his website!!

You da man, Steve!!

Scotty is a Helicopter Pilot, SCUBA Instructor and High School Photography teacher at Jakarta Intercultural School in Jakarta, Indonesia. You can follow Scotty on Facebook or his blog/website,

http://scottygraham.com/


Want to submit your own guest report and have a large audience for your work? Then check out how to submit a user report HERE! Thank you all! – Steve

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44 Comments

  1. Hi Scotty,

    I really enjoyed your post and photos here, well done! I received my “long time want” Nikkor 15mm lens just yesterday, found one in good price and condition along with the Nauticam adapter? I usually shot with my Sony A7ii with nauticam housing and the 16-35mm f4 or the 28mm with the fe adapter or the sigma 20mm 1.4 art lenses. So three very good glass for my underwater photography http://www.pallse.gr . However, being an owner of the classic Nikonos V with the 35mm lens I’ve been always very interested to find a good Nikkor 15mm and try it on my Sony. So finding and reading your post here was an absolute joy!

    One question only, how would you compare the nikkor 15mm with the 16-35mm at 16mm, u get the same wide field of view or narrower?

    Thank you Scotty!

  2. You nailed it, all of them!
    I will have my A7R3 next week, and will be waiting for Nauticam to make the housing, hopefully very soon, as wintertime is good for UV photography in Norway. I only have the Nikonos 20 mm lens, but looking for a 15 as well 🙂

  3. Hi Scotty, Great photos! I’ve been using a Nikonos and the 15mm, with some good results. Might get a housing and try the A7rii. What Pelican Case is that? Seems to be the perfect size. Thanks! Shane.

  4. Halo Scotty!! Foto-foto yang luar biasa!! Saya sangat suka dengan foto yang pertama !! Great job!! Please keep promoting Indonesian tourism..

    • Hi Adhika! Thanks for the nice comment. It is no problem promoting Indonesia. Indonesia has been my home for over 20 years…I love it here as much as my own country (USA) !!

      Adhika dari mana?

  5. Hi!

    Great shots!

    I photographed with a Nikonos V with the 15mm after making three self built underwater housings. There is nothing like the Nikkor UW 15mm and the Nikonos V. I had learnt to control this lens really well, not even needing the viewfinder. I also took it snorkeling without a flash, Kodak Gold 400 ASA color neg film, camera on AUTO, f/11, everything sharp between 30cm and three meters and perfectly exposed. Big baraccuda’s etc etc. And the close focus wide angle shots! Incredible.

    After thirty years of underwater photography I had to stop diving because I got an anxiety disorder after my wife got breast cancer. After maybe fifty dives, every time ending in a panic surfacing, I realized it was crazy to dive again.

    I’ve been thinking of making a custom housing (I have access to CNC milling and CAM) for the A7R and the 15mm. that would have been killer. Glad someone else thought about it.

    Thanks a lot for the great shots,

    Dirk

    • HI Dirk….I hope you will get back into diving. You sound like me, actually.

      No need to build your own housing….Nauticam makes an excellent housing, and it is the only housing (that I know of) that has an adapter to use the Nikonos 15mm….in fact, you can attach ANY Nikonos lens to the housing…not limited to only the 15mm. I used to use the 20mm and the 35mm as well…both excellent lenses. The 35mm was hit and miss though for focus, but as someone else on this post commented, the 35mm on the Nikonos made for a great “land” camera…it was great for the beach or surf shots too being a fully waterproof camera.

      In any case….dust off your equipment, and get back in the water again (if you are able).

      Cheers,

      Scotty

  6. Hi!

    Great shots!

    I photographed with a Nikonos V with the 15mm after making three self built underwater housings. There is nothing like the Nikkor UW 15mm and the Nikonos V. I had learnt to control this lens really well, not even needing the viewfinder. I also took it snorkeling without a flash, Kodak Gold 400 ASA color neg film, camera on AUTO, f/11, everything sharp between 30cm and three meters and perfectly exposed. Big baraccuda’s etc etc. And the close focus wide angle shots! Incredible.

    After thirty years of underwater photography I had to stop diving because I got an anxiety disorder after my wife got breast cancer. After maybe fifty dives, every time ending in a panic surfacing, I realized it was crazy to dive again.

    I’ve been thinking of making a custom housing (I have access to CNC milling and CAM) for the A7R and the 15mm. that would have been killer. Glad someone else thought about it.

    Thanks a lot for the great shots,

    Dirk.

  7. Hi!

    Typical 15mm, you have great control.

    Absolutely great shots.

    I photographed with a Nikonos V and the 15mm, and I had learnt to control this lens really well. I also used it snorkeling, camera on AUTO, 400 ASA kodak color neg film, f/11, everything sharp from 30cm to three meters.

    It couldn’t last. I got an anxiety disorder after my wife was cured of breast cancer and after thirty years of underwater photographing I had to stop diving.

    Of course I still have the Nikonos (bought a brand new one, never even been underwater) and the 15. I have access to CNC milling machines and CAM and I’ve thought to make a housing (I built three before switching to the Nikonos) for the A7R with the 15mm. I’m really glad someone else did it.

    The Nikkor UW 15mm is the best lens for underwater, period.

    Bye,

    Dirk.

  8. Amazing shots!!! I came back to have another look at them today – don’t do that too often on this site to be honest.

    My wife and I went snorkelling at Sipadan off the coast of Borneo and I bought a cheap throwaway underwater camera. The shot were nothing like this, but your images remind me of the actual experience.

    Thanks for sharing, a real delight.

    • Thanks, ELM….have you thought of getting certified to SCUBA dive? Sipadan is spectacular. I dove there years ago before they closed down the island, and before they had those terrible kidnappings years ago (remember that?)….

  9. Can’t recall ever seeing a group of underwater shots that impressed me so much (admittedly, not that I’ve seen that many). But they have the artistic aura of beautiful landscape photographs except taken under water. It’s as if a truly lyrical artistic photographer combined it with underwater technique. Thanks for your craft.

  10. Nice example of what could be done if Nikon followed their Nikonos line in digital era. Compact, rugged underwater gear with dedicated lenses. Would love to see two lines, Nikonos V divi with manual focus confirmation and the king of Waterworld Nikonos RSd. By the way I`ve read about confersiont of 13mm AF wide to Nikon body with metering and AF functional. Amazing.

  11. Beautiful photos Scotty! Super bagus! I had a Nikonos V system back in my diving days n you’re absolutely right about the system.
    That 15mm lens is a stunner, just came back from Raja Ampat last week for some flyfishing in the flats, always wanna go back there every year.
    Thanks for showing your excellent work!
    Cheers, Fajar

    • Fajar! Thanks for visiting this site and reading!! Yes, I have been going to Raja Ampat every year since 1998. I am addicted to the place….no place like it on Earth. Kind of a double edge sword though….I want to tell everyone about it, but at the same time, keep it a secret…if you know what I mean…

  12. These are some amazing photos! I a just loving the pier and the sweet lips. This is beautiful stuff. The lighting especially, getting that balance of ambient and strobe light. I started with a Nikonis V and the 20mm lens because even 20 years ago the 15 was a grail lens and difficult to maintain. By the time I picked up a 15 I was just starting digital. As a native water corrected optic, the 15 is the gold standard. Well done, Scotty.

      • Hey Josh…thanks. Try to find a 15mm today….really tough. I was lucky I kept mine all of these years, because I don’t know if you can even find one today. Although, I THINK B&H Photo might still be selling them….do you know, Steve Huff??

  13. This lens shows the beauty of Nikonos concept. Small tough professional underwater package. How many times we pleaded Nikon to come with digital Nikonos. Could be in two flavors. Basic Nikonos V like machine and the ultimate their Waterworld king Nikonos RS with it amazing AF 13mm ultrawide. By the way I`ve read that RS lenses have F-bayonet and can be adapted to Nikon cameras with AF functional. Amazing.

  14. Lovely images, indeed. The image of the shark is my favourite by a mile. The shot of all the fish under the pier is also great.

    I wonder if the Leica XU would be up your alley? The problem with that camera though is that the lens is fixed. What surprises me is that Sony does not make an underwater camera with the A7s sensor. That would be a killer camera. Another killer camera would be the Leica Q, modified for UW use (bigger LCD, no EVF, etc.).

    I recall watching a documentary about the making of ‘Titanic’, and how the crew had to put Small Panavision 35mm movie cameras in special housings. Those magazines probably held 5 minutes’ worth of film.

    • I would LOVE to give the Leica a try underwater. I didn’t know about the XU. Damn…might have to fork out some more bucks (as if I don’t spend enough already on cameras) to give it a try.

  15. Stunning pics! I use a Nikonos V, not as an underwater camera but as a super tough street camera with the 35mm lens.

    Excellent work Scotty!

  16. I would highly appreciate it if you could share with me where it is in Indonesia so i can book diving session there now… OMG it is so amazing, the place, those pictures, the article,… great combintion and very inspiring. Thank you for posting this article and sharing those pictures

    • HI Trong Van Tran…all images except the one of my daughter on the wreck were taken in Raja Ampat…Raja Ampat is far my favorite dive destination in the world!! So pristine, and remote…I hope it stays that way!! The image of my daughter was taken in Bali (Tulamben)…the Liberty Wreck. You can’t go wrong diving most any location in Indonesia!! Thanks for the nice comment!

  17. FAB-U-LOUS. Stunning images. I recently returned from Maui and used the Leica X-U (type 113) which is a wet camera so it has some of the kit size advantages you mentioned including a reasonably fast lens, good autofocus, and a large sensor. As a snorkeler, I was quite happy with the results; but it looks like I need to plan a trip to Indonesia! Love the schools and sea turtles.

  18. I have used Nikonos many years ago, never had the 15 Nikonos instead the “cheaper” version Sea & sea 17mm. Today I use a EM1 in a Nauticam housing.
    I have to say your images are stunning!!!
    Recently I looked at some old Nikonos slides I took and was surprized how good results we did get with manual focus, primes, film of low ISO.
    I am still not sure if I would want to miss AF, other than that the smaller size and IQ of the 15mm are big reasons for it.
    Regards, Tom

    • Yes, agree, Tom….some of my favorite U/W photos were from the old Fuji Velvia days….such a nice film, and for underwater would yield beautiful blues and saturated colors. Manual focus is a pain, but not too much trouble with the 15mm….if you close down the lens to f/8 – f/16 (depending on ambient light), most all will be in focus….it’s only when you open up the lens in dark conditions when focus becomes troublesome, but AF is nice…especially underwater. Cheers!

    • Yes, agree, Tom. Some of my favorite U/W images come from the old “Fuji Velvia” days. What a fantastic film. For underwater, the Velvia would yield gorgeous blues and saturated colors…and of course, that was before we had Photoshop!!

      Since the 15mm is a wide angle lens, focusing is not too much of an issue. If you close down the lens to f/8-f/16 (depending on ambient light), most all will be in focus, and I don’t have to worry about it. The only time focus becomes troublesome is when the lens is opened to f/5.6 or below….so, what I usually do is just leave my lens at f/8, and increase the ISO to compensate for darker conditions…the ISO is easier to change than the aperture and focus on the lens.

    • Hey Tom….(tried posting a reply a couple of times…hope all three don’t show up!!)

      I agree….my old slides from the “Fuji Velvia” days still remain some of my favorite shots. That Velvia was fantastic for U/W. Beautiful blues and saturated colors…and those were in the days before Photoshop!!

      The focus is actually not bad with the 15mm as long as you close down the lens. I usually shoot between f/8 and f/16 depending on the ambient light, and at those f-stops, focus is not a problem…it only become troublesome when I open the lens to f/5.6 or below. For wide angle, shallow depth of field is not really my artistic focus…I guess similar to on land. For macro, on the other hand, yes.

  19. Just can say “woooow”. As I saw the pictures I instantly wanted to go for a dive. Congrats to your work and hope to see more in the near future.

  20. Wow! Incredible images! I used to dive a lot in my twenties (some years ago, ahem.. in chillier Atlantic waters) and coveted that Nikonos V, but I could not afford it at that time. Your images make me want to take up diving again and ship out to Indonesia!!

  21. Those are indeed great shots. I dive myself and know how hard it is to photograph under water. In fact, I never dared to take it up. Seeing your shots confirma my decision: I’ll stick to just diving, enjoying what I see and every now and then I’ll take a look at your website. Great work!

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