The Nikonos Camera and Grant Musso’s Classic Californian Surf Photography
In 1956, Belgian engineer Jean De Wouters revolutionized underwater photography when he designed the “Calypso-Phot” 35mm underwater camera for iconic oceanographer and underwater documentary maker Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Cousteau, never one to shy away from a commercial opportunity, put the camera into commercial production with French company La Spirotechnique (now dive company Aqua Lung) and in 1962 licensed the international production and sales rights to Japanese camera manufacturer Nippon Kogaku, the makers of Nikon, who swapped the original Som Berthiot 35mm f/3.5 lens (mounted on a special waterproof bayonet) for Nikkor optics and launched the Nikonos underwater camera in 1963. It was marketed not only to watersports enthusiasts, but to the likes of engineers, explorers, the navy, army and police, for use in water and in humid environments, and became the camera of choice for press photographers covering the Vietnam War, who nicknamed it “The Workhorse of the War”.
Up until the launch of the Nikonos I, in-water and underwater photography required photographers to make or commission a custom waterproof housing for their camera. The Nikonos system changed all of that, offering a sealed and easy to use compact rangefinder style (they are actually scale-focus) camera with excellent optical quality and interchangeable lenses to the mass market. There was no need to take a camera in and out of a waterproof housing – the camera itself had o-ring seals making the unit itself waterproof. The range was so successful that Nikon only discontinued production in 2001, fifty years after the first Calypso-Phot was developed.
Over the last two decades the explosion of digital photography, underwater and splash housing options, and action cameras, has radically democratised in-water photography. But film is film, and there are still a number of analogue enthusiasts who love the look of film and the excitement of getting their scans back from the lab so much, that they’ll swim out with a Nikonos knowing that they have a roll of film with fewer frames available to shoot than their digital peers will burn through in a single wave sequence.
If you type ‘Nikonos’ into the search function on Instagram and tap the ‘tags’ tab, you’ll see thousands of beautiful aquatic images captured on these wonderful little cameras – many of which are in-water surf shots. There some really great photographers who shoot surfing on a Nikonos camera, either exclusively or as a lighter-weight back-up film camera alongside their digital rig. One of those talented photographers who dedicates their swims to shooting a roll of film on a decades-old analogue camera is Grant Musso, an Emergency Medical Technician living and working in California who surfs and shoots on his days off. His images illustrating this article are a case in point that the combination of analogue film and Californian longboard surfing is hard to beat, so we caught up with him to learn more about how and why he got into and stuck with shooting surf on a these classic cameras.
Grant, how did you come to own your Nikonos?
A few years back I had a friend that took me shooting in the water. He was using the Nikonos and I was using his DSLR with a water housing. I remember looking at his process for shooting and thinking to myself,” That seems so unnecessarily hard and unsatisfying”. Then when I started looking for a water housing for my DSLR a few years later, the prices negated me from purchasing one. I looked for cheaper options, but the cheapest thing I could find was a waterproof disposable camera for about $10. After getting the photos developed I knew I liked the look that the film format gave the images, and the ability to control my settings more accurately would be amazing. I bought my first Nikonos V for $350 and never looked back.
What is it that first attracted you to shooting analog in the water, and that has kept you coming back for more?
Originally the price to own a NikonosV and getting film developed seemed relatively cheap compared to purchasing a water housing. I shot film for about two years before hopping in the water with a camera, and the nostalgia and look that film gives an image is so hard to recreate. I also think the waiting period between shooting a roll of film and getting the scans back is the most fun part. It feels like Christmas morning whenever I get them. Not knowing how the photos turned out always makes getting “good” photos so much more rewarding, especially with the 80mm lens, I never knew if a subject was properly framed up until I got the images back.
With a shot limit of 36 before you have to return to the beach, do you surf as well as shoot in the same session, or focus on one or the other?
It depends on where I’m taking photos. If I’m shooting at a crowded break, which is typically where I go, I don’t like to surf just because dealing with tough crowds adds way too much stress when I think surfing should be fun and freeing. If I’m at a quiet break with some friends I'll alternate riding some waves with snagging some photos.
When I first started shooting I would burn through a roll of film in 45 min to an hour, but as I’ve gotten more comfortable with being in the water for extended periods of time and more proficient with using my cameras, it will take me anywhere from two and a half to three and a half hours to finish a roll.
At busy and photogenic surf spots where there must often be several other photographers in the water, where does the photographer with the old film camera sit in the pecking order? What do the other photographers and surfers think of what you’re doing?
My experience with other surf photographers has been great, almost all of them have become really good friends of mine and we like to both surf and shoot together. I think it makes it more fun when you have a friend swimming next to you and the fact that we are shooting different mediums of surf photography, makes both our images look completely different. It is really interesting to share sometimes the same surfer on the same wave but different perspectives.
Everyone I have met surfing absolutely loves photos of them being taken on film. I think there is a lot of nostalgia that surrounds the surf culture in California and taking photos on film adds to that.
How do you balance and justify the risk:reward of shooting on a Nikonos – the great final images versus the “blown” shots that come with the territory from light leaks, missed focus or mis-judged metering?
There is a pretty steep learning curve when shooting with the Nikonos. It’s a range finder camera so never being able to see what exactly the lens is seeing, leads to a lot of trial and error. Properly exposing images is still something that I’m working to improve. Over time I have gotten comfortable being able to mentally judge the lighting situation and the proper settings for those lighting conditions. In my head, I break it up into 3 time zones: morning light, harsh light, and sunset light. Typically, in the morning and the evening, I’ll shoot with a 35mm lens and color film because it’s much easier to nail the focus and get good colors. When I’m shooting in harsher light I’ll shoot black and white with my 80mm lens, which is what most of my photography consists of. I also love shooting black and white because of how flexible it can be in harsher lighting conditions. With every roll I shoot, I am still constantly learning and figuring out what I did right and what I could do better.
Are you exclusive to your Nikonos camera, or do you shoot with other equipment too?
I began shooting surf photography with my Nikonos. It produced amazing images and taught me a lot when it comes to finding a particular look that I enjoy. I recently purchased a Nikon f100 with a Salty Surf Housing. While the Nikonos was a great starter camera, this upgrade I think will really help my surf photography. The biggest gripe that I have shooting with the Nikonos is not being able to see what I’m shooting, so I’m often left with images that aren’t framed correctly or the focus being slightly off. Having a viewfinder that accurately shows what I’m photographing has been incredibly useful, along with the autofocus and a shutter priority mode. I have a bunch of old slide film that I will be able to shoot more comfortably through an 85mm lens having the ability to use autofocus and auto exposure.
What’s your favourite film stock, and why?
I think I’m still in the experimental part of film photography and that’s why I love shooting it so much. There is so much variation and creativity when it comes to shooting different films. I’d say that my favorite black and white film stock is Ilford SFX200. It’s a C-41-developed black and white film. It has a really fine grain and I like the contrast it gets when shooting one stop under. My favorite color film has got to be Cinestill 400D. I think it has an incredible color profile, and the occasional halations add another element to the images that can’t really be replicated accurately digitally or by many other film stocks.
Do you have any tips for anybody who wants to get into shooting surf in-water with Nikonos or other analogue cameras?
It’s a little intimidating at first trying to make sure your settings are all correct, that your subject is in the right spot, the camera isn’t flooding, you loaded the film correctly, and you aren’t about to take a surfboard to the dome. But like most things, you get better with time. With every session, you become more comfortable and familiar with your equipment. Shooting film in the water is incredibly rewarding because there are so many more limitations, but when you finally produce a “good” image, the satisfaction is so much greater. My advice for anyone is to get in the water, make friends, have fun, and shoot film!
You can enjoy more of Grant’s Nikonos and analogue surf photography by following him on Instagram at @nikonosg