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April 1997 Vol. 12, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
What's this?

The World’s First Underwater SLR!

Sorry, it’s been discontinued

from the April, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Having been in the underwatercamera sales-and-repair business for more than 23 years, I was often asked, "Why doesn't someone make a watertight single lens reflex (SLR) camera that doesn't need a housing?" My answer was that the complexity of the design would make it far too expensive to manufacture, to maintain, and to repair if flooded.

Some three years ago, however, underwater photographers were introduced to the world's first amphibious SLR camera with watercontact optics. The Nikon RS was supposed to be the machine that any diving photographer would give his right leg to a shark to own: great viewfinder, slick styling, total automation, solid feel. It was also the world's most expensive point-and-shoot autofocus and autoexposure camera. It was awesome. It made my palms sweat just thinking what I could do with such a machine.

Suddently, three years later, it's history. What went wrong? Why no more RS?

The Market Bear

Knowing the answer before the question was out of my mouth, I asked Frank Fennell, head of Nikon's underwater marketing division. "Sales are flagging," he told me, "and we'd have to raise the price considerably to keep it in production. We don't feel the market will bear such a price increase."

Unfortunately, my preditions had been right. The first worm in the apple of Eden was that the awesome RS came with an equally awesome price tag. One body, a couple of lenses, two strobes, and all the peripherals quickly added up to $10,000 or more -- not exactly a mass-market item.

The RS proved expensive to service as well. It required meticulous owner upkeep and assembly. Without annual service costing $300 or more, the camera was almost sure to leak or flood. One client merely pinched a small bit of grit on the door seal and experienced a full flood of both the body and the macro lens. His repair bill came to $1,800.

The camera's biggest Achilles heel was the design of the back door and the lack of secondary seals inside the main shell. If the back door is open or the main seal fails, the mainframe, packed full of electronics and hundreds of tiny moving parts, is vulnerable to the slightest amount of moisture and will cease to function.

Last of the Species

The question is no longer why don't they build one, but either (1) What do I do now that I own one? or (2) Should I buy one while there are still a few left?

The way I see it, the RS is now a dead-end system with a finite life span -- no new lenses or accessories, a limited supply of replacement parts. Camera manufacturers make their money building and selling new cameras, not fixing old ones. Once a camera is discontinued, manufacturers don't devote much productionline time to making parts for cameras they no longer sell; most stop after two years.

Don't expect to see the RS resurrected. Nikon distributes watertight housings for many of its most popular standard cameras, which they sell by the millions; they're not likely to market a dedicated underwater camera that will sell only in the thousands. For the same reason, the Nikonos V system may be vulnerable as well. As far as I can tell, they have no plans for revamping it anytime in the near future.

Geoffrey Semorile
Camera Tech
San Francisco

Gotta Have It?

The RS is the only self-contained underwater camera with true watercontact optics. It's a fine tool in the right hands. If you're one of those who can't live without it, you can still pick up a couple for future use or spare parts.

Direct Focus
http://www.direct-focus.com/
RS camera body $3,428
50mm f2.8 lens $1,488

Calumet Photographic
800-225-8638
RS camera body $2,595
(out of stock)
50mm f2.8 lens $1,289

Helix
800-33-HELIX
RS camera body $2,895
(on order)
50mm f2.8 lens $1,250

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