I waded slowly in the turquoise water. The was surface unsettled by wavelets and chop from a brisk breeze breaking the blue into bright highlights and chop. I went further and deeper, the soft estuarine sands under my feet, a subconscious readiness to lift a foot sharply at the hint of a fish spike, crab pincer or jagged bottle. The water was cold enough for a tart jostling of thoughts, but still inviting… I was feeling apprehensive.
I am not normally apprehensive in or near water, I have been blessed with life of water. Sometimes hilariously macabre: the moment my sister tried to drown me in a pique of infanticide and I reappeared after being pinned down in the bath, happy; or the time I was swept out in a rip as a small child, happily bobbing out, across and back in on the return current. Occasionally hilarious: losing my togs in the start of an inter-school backstroke final, stopping to gather and then cover my shame, before going on to place. Other times triumphant: having grown up with a proud layer of insulating blubber (much like a walrus) I was always happy to be last boy out of the school pool when all comers before me were finally blue and teeth chattering; or first man out of a hood or wetsuit, loving the sensation of a less-is-more freedom during a day scuba-diving. I grew up in and around water, constantly.
The water licked it’s cool welcome up to my hips and it was time to lean forward, throw my hands and plunge in, to descend the wall of the harbour channel. But why was I still apprehensive in such a favoured activity? Maybe because I had a camera with me, on a strap, over my left shoulder, under my right armpit and resting in my back near the site of my right kidney.
I am not normally apprehensive with a camera. I am not as exposed to photography as I am submerged in all forms of watersport, but for the last 10 years or so I have always been with or near a camera. I take great pleasure in a maxim I can’t correctly attribute: the best camera in the world is the one you have on you. I shouldn’t be bothered by the presence of a camera.
So here I found myself, skimming the bottom of the harbour channel, 10’ down, gliding in my favourite medium. But unusually this time with the weight and sharpness of a camera with knobs and dials and levers and catches and knurling and milling catching my bare back. As circumstance would have it, the act of combining two of my favourite things into a single activity is not such a natural fit. It felt utterly bizarre to plunge into the harbour, surf break or other ocean water with a Nikonos III tethered to me.
I have wanted a Nikonos for a number of years. I have just never got around to buying one. I had set my eyes on the Nikonos V, not for any specific reason that would exclude any other Nikonos model, I just had Nikonos V on the brain. As a with Leica IIIf - it is marked indelibly on my mind. I haven’t been abundant of wherewithal this year, so I haven’t searched in earnest, the Northern Hemisphere summer came and went with the nagging Nikonos not nabbed. Then I found myself in the Southern Hemisphere summer and serendipity would have me my camera.
I am utterly grateful to have hero-worshiped many an Uncle growing up, one being Dr. Coffey - a permanently scuba set attached marine botanist. I found my way to his home yesterday and during conversation over a beer I casually asked him if he still had a Nikonos V…? He disappeared to his office and reappeared moments later with a sad face. “Sorry mate, only a Nikonos III, I gave the V away a while ago…” He placed a beige, tan and black soft case on the table - NIKONOS - glaring at me from the leather label. “But, you’re more than welcome to have it. You have that.”
We argued over whether I would borrow or take it before I almost too gladly I ceded and picked up the camera promptly sniffing it. It smelt like years of water survey and work. Uncle Brian stopped smoking a pipe years ago, but the camera and case carried a miasma of memories. It is in utterly sound condition, but still shows the signs of years of work.
Last night I downloaded a manual from the excellent Butkus and set about opening and cleaning the camera. This morning I awoke at 05:00 scarcely able to contain myself at the excitement of a clear and hot forecast and a new camera. I had to distract myself with banter with sprites awake on the other side of the world. At 09:00 I cycled to town for film and o-ring grease - doing the circuit of hardware, sports and marine stores trying to find such an obscure item.
At 10:00 I was at the fifth paragraph of this page, pulling myself through the water of the harbour, twisting and rolling to shoot upwards at the silhouette of a moored jumping pontoon. I surfaced to catch a breath and hover a meter down to snap the action of children bombing from the pontoon. I swam to the wharf and requested a wave from five children lined up ready to jump - they cheerily acknowledged and then leapt in unison as I pressed the shutter on their splash entry.
At 11:00 I walked the length of the surf beach, stripping and swimming into a group of surfers to try and capture a cliche of a caught wave. I swam amongst them and under them and around them trying to get photos. They were gracious in their modelling and patience.
By 12:00 I had found some family further along the beach and sat and chatted before heading to the “Front” beach of Whangamata. I had a rendezvous with my father planned. I read on the beach and he arrived with much appreciated sun-umbrellas and chilled nectarines.
At 13:00 I was engaging in some serious GPOYery. The camera set at a depth of field encompassing everything from 2’ to 7’ one arm pulling me along the bottom with a frog kick, the other fully stretched and pointing the Nikonos back at me. I shot my father in his buoyant recline, I shot everything.
The Nikonos manual suggests assuming the exposure above water and then opening a stop for every metre up to 6m depth (upon which flash photography is mandatory). So today I shot in the shallows at with the only film I could find in town, Superia 400 at f22 and then down to 125s, 60s and 30s, depending on depth. It was definitely a sunny 16 sort of day!
I was astonished to get home, rinse my new baby clean and glance at the film counter: 21. I really can’t remember twenty-one frames. I shot all day without a mask, using blurry shapes and light and shadows as a guide through the viewfinder. For a first ever underwater film* I am resigned and happy to receive back murky, blue, green, blurry and lost negatives. Learning to love the slight drag and pull of a camera around my neck as I swim was an experience worth it. My two favourite hobbies are well married indeed and the tank like Nikonos is an instant favourite amongst my guns.
(Long ago I shot some underwater stuff on the reefs of Fiji, but it was pre-photo-cognisance so doesn’t really count…)