Perhaps the most hyped, most noteworthy camera releases of last year revolved around two products, the Fuji X100s and the Nikon Df. Both, you may be aware, are retro styled cameras, the Nikon very loosely based around the old Nikon FM film camera and the X100s like its predecessor, the X100 is based on the legendary Leica M3.
www.charlesthompsonphotography.com, on Flickr
Jason Row Photography, on Flickr
Of course these are not the only two examples of this trend, most of the major manufacturers have gone retro on at least one model, but these two are possible the most retro of all. The manufacturers seem to found a niche in a volatile camera market and are taking advantage of it, but are these cameras a triumph of style over substance or is there something a little deeper going on here.
Before Fuji kick-started the retro trend, modern cameras were becoming a little like modern cars, sleek, curvy, with lots of buttons and electronics but perhaps without much character. Now you might say, why does a camera need character? Well, if you are spending all day, more or less every day with it, you need to be able to bond with it, to understand it. Many modern cameras, pro level excepted, have buried a lot of the important function within menus accessible with a joypad. To me, the most significant thing about using a joypad is how joyless it is to use. And this brings us to one of the first points that make using a retro camera different, its ergonomics.
Does Retro Feel as Good as It Looks?
There is something in all of us that likes mechanical engineering, the satisfying click when we rotate an aperture ring, the feel of a knurled, metal shutter speed dial on our finger tips. These mechanical interactions make us feel that we are somehow connected to the camera, that we are directly controlling how the camera functions and in turn, exactly how our image will come out.
This is something that I feel we have lost with modern cameras. When we press a button, we know that in reality, we are just sending an electronic signal to a circuit board. Of course, in reality, this is what is happening on a modern retro camera too, but that mechanical interaction fools our brain into thinking we are the first link in a chain of mechanical interactions.
s.yume, on Flickr
There is however another factor at play in the ergonomics of a retro camera, evolution. Retro cameras can feel right because they are inspired by camera designs and shapes that have developed over many decades. It’s not only for its pretty looks that the X100s is based on the Leica M3 but also because this particular shape, ergonomically speaking was regarded as the pinnacle of rangefinder design. Look at the current M9, how far has it strayed from the M3’s original design, very little.
The same is true of the Nikon Df, the FM and FM2 series were regarded as the archetypal workhorse cameras, the evolution of a series of SLRs that had started in the early 1960s and constantly refined to suit a photographer’s hands.
takuhitofujita, on Flickr
Looking Under the Hood
So let’s leave ergonomics to have a look at technology. It’s here that I believe some camera manufacturers get it right and some get it wrong. In my opinion, Fuji got it right with the X100, in terms of the balance between integrating high technology with old world mechanics. One of the appeals of retro cameras is that they take us back to simpler days, where we concentrated solely on the exposure, the relationship between shutter and aperture and it's these controls that should be at the forefront of a retro camera’s design.
Looking at the Df, and I admit I have not held one yet, my feeling is Nikon have tried to integrate to much of the modern technology into dials yet most modern Nikon lenses do not have an aperture ring, so the message that the camera sends out is mixed.
Stephen G Woo Photo journey, on Flickr
Is It All About Style?
Lastly lets look at style. There is no doubt that style plays a major role in the development of these cameras. It could be that the looks of these cameras plays on our memories of film cameras of old, but I suspect this is not entirely the case. Given the number of people who came to photography solely in the digital age that expressed a desire for retro cameras, I suspect its the fact that they look different than modern cameras and not that they look particularly retro.
So are they a triumph of style over substance? Yes and no, there is no doubt that the style of retro cameras has major appeal, however, there is the argument, that designed well, using old world ergonomics with modern day technology can produce some stunning and eminently useable cameras. Will the trend continue? Yes, but like the retro looking Mini or Fiat 500, they will always be a niche product something that allows you to say I am different but I still live the 21st Century.