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Nikonos RS on test

by Darryl Torckler

Reproduced from in focus 47 (March 1993)

How does the new SLR Nikonos RS underwater camera system perform underwater? This is an off-the-cuff article on how the camera felt and performed. There are few regurgitated technical details, except where necessary, as these can be found in the well illustrated brochures available from Nikon and in the manual.

I have never dived with an underwater camera incorporating auto TTL flash, auto focus and auto exposure before.


The Nikonos RS system is quite large in comparison with the Nikonos V. The body weighs in at around 2 Kg and the 20-35 mm zoom lens weighs in at nearly 1.8 Kg. Nevertheless, the system fits into one medium size pelican case.

I found the system to be nicely balanced underwater, even with the awesome looking 20-35 mm zoom lens. All the controls were easy to manipulate with gloved, cold hands. The new underwater SB-104 strobe was also well balanced, just slightly positively buoyant, and was easily removed from the bracket for hand holding with the new-style quick release handle. The ball joint extension arm can be added to the standard arm very simply in 30 seconds without tools. I am generally not in favour of ball joint arms, but this one worked well, being easily loosened and tightened to reposition the flash head.

Once back on dry land, opening and closing the camera back to change films, changing lenses or changing batteries in the strobe was efficiently carried out even with cold hands.


The view finder was clear and bright and it was very easy to see the entire image with my normal diving mask and monitor all of the information on the illuminated LCD read-out. A light in the lens enables you to see the distance at which the lens is focussed and a light in the frame counter window enables you to see how many shots are left, regardless of ambient lighting conditions.

Information feed-back was excellent - giving a second chance to get the Exposure correct, knowing when the flash is fully charged ready to fire again, whether the subject is in focus or not, and what the exposure compensation setting is. After taking a shot using TTL auto flash, the flash ready light blinks if the exposure was insufficient. All this information without taking your eye from the view finder to adjust the camera controls.


I tried the manual power focus but I could not keep up with the action of the many hungry snapper at the Goat Island Bay Marine Reserve, an hour's drive north from Auckland. So I flicked to continuous auto focus and was amazed how well it worked. I became instantly hooked on using auto focus underwater. I was getting pictures of snappers that I have been trying to achieve for many years, and was doing so on one dive with the Nikonos RS.

The auto focus response on the 20-35 mm zoom and 28 mm lens was fast, faster than I could manually focus, but still not quite fast enough when the fish moved rapidly. The auto focus response on the macro lens was slower, especially when going from very close to a metre away.


Be careful in holding down the shutter release which activates the auto-focus system, it is easy to take a picture accidentally. It happened to me when swell knocked me about in the shallow water at Goat Island Bay, although I am sure with more practice I shall take less pictures accidentally.


There were no depth-of-field charts for any of the lenses, a serious component to serious underwater photography. Nikon will be producing a set of tables on plastic card for underwater usage shortly.


The SB-104 has all the standard features of other strobes, but its new features forge a standard for other strobe manufacturers to follow. First up, the flash recycles at full power in an incredible three seconds. Then there are warning lights to indicate over heating, water leak and flash tube malfunction and a slave flash function that fires every 2 seconds at 1/32nd power plus a slave function that fires the camera shutter and the flash. The latter feature allows you to remotely fire the camera from a distance using another strobe, making remote cordless underwater photography possible to approximately 10 metres, depending on ambient light and water conditions. There is also provision for a 3 metre cable for remote control.

The feature I really liked was the standby switch function. In standby mode the flash power is turned off if the flash is unused for 80 seconds, although the flash retains a full charge. A touch of the shutter release button on the camera instantly turns the flash power back on. According to the manual a full battery pack on standby will last about 60 days at 20oC if the flash is not fired. As it is not uncommon for half an hour to elapse between photographs this feature ensures that battery power is not wasted and provided I start with full battery power I know I'll not run out during even the longest dive. The number of flashes quoted per nicad battery charge is 120 at full power at 20oC, just over 3 x 36 Exposure films. I spent 4 hours in the water at 12oC with the strobe on continuously on one battery charge with no problems.


There are two TTL auto flash systems - centre weighted and matrix TTL flash. Centre weighted TTL is excellent for macro and close-up when you are not worried about the background exposure or would like to select an aperture for the background exposure. Matrix TTL is designed for balanced flash/natural light. Matrix TTL metering is calculated by the cameras on-board computer. There is also a rear curtain shutter synchronisation control which is great for low light, slow Shutter speed photography in archways and caves where divers and fish are moving. It puts the movement shadow behind the diver or fish instead of in front as is the case with normal synch.


The Nikonos RS camera is a real underwater camera, purpose built for serious underwater photography, but its not perfect. The first test films I shot on Kodak EPx and Epz films were over-exposed by between one and two stops when shooting wide-angle pictures of fish using automatic TTL matrix and centre-weighted metering systems, when looking up at the surface of the water. As with all new camera systems, a test film of the type of film you intend to use should be exposed to check how the automatic Exposure performs, before doing any serious photography trips. I found that 1 stop on the compensation dial fixed the over-exposure problem.


It will be interesting to see how long it will take other manufacturers to produce alternative lenses, strobes and other accessories for the Nikonos RS. However, the technology used may just too advanced or the potential market, as yet, too small.


In a nutshell, its an amazing underwater camera system that I would dearly love to own. The system is well constructed, easy to use and well thought out, with the underwater photographer in mind.

Reproduced from in focus 47. Mar. 93 with kind permission of Darryl Torkler

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