Nauticam makes some really interesting adapters and ports for Sony cameras, one of them allows you to use vintage Nikkor lenses on full frame mirrorless cameras.
I decided to source the UW15 as I am planning to use it for video after seeing the results on the movie Avatar.
The challenge of the Nikkor lenses is that they are entirely manual with aperture and focus knobs. This is generally not an issue for videography which is my intended use but I wanted to check how does this lens work for photography as many people still rave about it.
Lenses compatible with the adapter are UW 15, UW 20 and UW 85 full manual. Later autofocus lenses are not supported.
My rig is a classic derivation from wide angle with 8″ and 12″ arm segments and my trusty (!) Sea and Sea YS-D2.
The Nikkor weights around 600 grams and gives almost zero lift so this rig was over 300 grams negative in fresh water.
Before using it you need to assemble the lens on the adapter.
You have two parts that can be removed to allow the lens to mount depending on your preference. I set the lens with the display upright so I could try and see it while shooting.
The controls are located on the left side side and bottom which is where I normally have my levers.
On the right you will see the display scales.
I have to say I was a bit nervous setting this on my A1 considering that this is a lens that is 25 years old at least but the vacuum test was fine so ready to go to the pool with the friends at Rec2Tec Bletchley.
The UW 15 Construction
The Nikkor lenses were generally rectilinear. The 15mm has a field of view equivalent to 20mm so only 94 degrees on the diagonal.
The approach was to correct the water distortion until such point when the image becomes rectilinear and eliminate other aberrations.
I have to say that the amount of chromatic aberrations is practically non existant.
Rectilinear lenses have gone out of fashion since dome ports with fisheye distortion being the preferred look for wide angle in modern underwater photography. For video though straight lines have a value.
Using this lens on the Sony A1 proved challenging for photography. Nailing the focus using peaking did not feel particularly precise.
Some shots may have been sharp enough on film resolution but with the 50 megapixels of the A1 even the slightest misfocus shows.
My productivity was quite low at the beginning as I was trying to get a hand of the lens.
The lens itself is by all means extremely sharp even for my camera.
I worked out that I could not do what I normally do which is to frame first and focus after as by the time I had nailed the focus things would have moved so I decided to set the focus and move forward or back until I thought I had my target in focus.
The situation started to improve.
I felt I had worked out how to use the lens so started looking for some subjects. During those sessions you see all sort of stuff as people practice their skills.
Considerations on the controls
I believe that the average underwater photographer shooting digital will find it very hard to use this lens and will end up shooting at f/8 or smaller apertures so that focussing becomes easier. The lens is especially challenging as it is not particularly wide so you do need strobe power.
I found really hard the lack of display of aperture and focus position. The lens is designed for much smaller Nikonos housing, with my A1 housing being more bulky you need to actually turn and look at the lens to check your settings so many times I did not have the right aperture of focus and it all was pretty laborious. In a video situation for wide angle this lens will work just fine with set and forget at 4K but to nail focus on a high megapixel camera is a hard task.
When you do get the focus though the image is outstanding.
I tried a selfie to check the focus scale and it worked well.
Consider that the most shots were at f/5.6 or f/8.
As you have no exif data it is impossible to remember what you shot unless you write it down on a slate.
Is it worth it?
The answer depends on your use case and if you already had the lens.
The following use cases fit the Nikkor UW 15 pretty well:
- Videos of sharks or pelagic that do not come too close where ambient light is low
- Photos at mid range with fairly static scenes where you want straight lines for example fashion models
The lens is definitely not easy to use for dynamic shots, situations where you need to get very close (as it does not focus very close) and where you need to continuosly adjust focus.
In terms of costs in GBP you are looking at:
£474 Nauticam Nikonos Adapter 37202
£300-500 Second hand Nikkor UW15
Obviously if you already have the lens and you are in one of the above use cases I would recommend you get an adapter and give it a go perhaps looking on the second hand market.
If instead you do not have the lens I would say not to bother unless money is no object, you are in the two use cases above and you have sufficent dexterity to control this lens.
Undewater photography has moved forward a great deal thanks to autofocus and although the Nikkor UW 15 is really sharp getting critical focus right is not easy. When it comes to video where you do not normally use autofocus for wide angle this lens is really interesting.
You can shoot at f/5.6 even f/4 subjects in the distance in ambient light with extremely clear and sharp detail at a fraction of the cost of other water contact optics. If you do not own any of the WACP or WWL I would say the UW 15 deserves some considerations but only if your command of depth of field and focus is very good otherwise it is better to pass.