Why “Retro” is a good thing, in Photography.
Have a look at the comments in this The Verge article on the new Olympus EP-5 camera. You’ll find a variety of people bitching about too many camera manufacturers going “retro” in their designs. One commenter says
The retro design was cute at first but I’m now so sick of Fuji and Oly taking it to the literal extreme.
I won’t comment so much on Olympus’ design choices other than to say I do think that Olympus has done some retro design work just for the sake of it looking retro.
But I can tell you as someone who’s shot film and digital cameras for over 25 years, in many ways the peak of functional camera design happened in the 1970s and early 1980s; at least in terms of usability and intuitive design. It really started with the Leica M3 in the 1950s; Leica came up with a design that, to many, made the camera an extension of your hand.
When Nikon developed their SP rangefinder, they borrowed a lot from Leica and included some of their own innovations - it’s almost completely natural to go from one finger (your index finger) at the shutter trigger area to two fingers - your index and middle finger - up in that area, one for shutter, the other to fine tune your focus. Nikon’s S range rangefinders gave you that option.
Then the Nikon F came along and changed everything. SLRs became the future, and because of the look-through-the-lens ability, the design and usability had to evolve once again.
Nikon, Canon, Olympus and even Minolta fine tuned the SLR shooting experience through the 1970s onto the early 1980s. All these makers (and others) designed an amazing platform that worked with almost every pair of hands out there, no matter the size. They all helped evolve the SLR into a tool that almost literally became an extension of your hand. Everything felt right and natural. The placement of dials, knobs, levers, and buttons all fell into the right spots. The placement of the lens barrel acted as a place to not only hold and stabilize the camera, but also was perfectly placed for focusing… and then in the 1980s, a place to zoom in and out too.
For me, the pinnacle of camera design was the Nikon F4. That camera has an absolutely crazy amount of things you can control on it and everything is accessible through levers, buttons, dials and other electro-mechanical controls. That Nikon was able to make such a complex, intensive camera that still felt natural and comfortable enough to do almost all your control things with your eye to the viewfinder staggers my mind to this day.
But with that said, the camera is still crazy complex, and far too complex for most photographers today. Which brings me back to “retro”. I still think the best mechanical camera ever made for 35mm film is Nikon’s FM3a camera, introduced around 2000. It’s not only the best mechanical film camera ever made because of the technology inside, but also because of how usable it is.
At first glance, the FM3a looks like it could be from the 1960s or 1970s. Nikon didn’t do this to be “retro”; they did it because that design and shape works. It hasn’t been improved upon. The FM3a feels like an extension of your hands. To borrow from a famous quote, you “become one with the camera” when it is up to your eye and you’re firing the trigger.
The Leica M series is the same way. The M7, the Leica film camera still made today, isn’t that much different in shape or form or function than a M3 is. There’s a reason for this - the design works. It works a bit different from a SLR in one’s hands, but it still works. It’s not retro for the sake of retro; it’s retro because Leica nearly perfected the rangefinder camera’s usability design in the 1950s and has rolled with that ever since.
So when Fuji brings out the X100 and gives it dials, controls and layout that comes off as retro, I’m sorry but I prefer to think Fuji recognized historical perfection in usability design and tried to mimic it. The X100 mimics the retro design of old rangefinders because retro works. Of course, the X100 (and X100s) does miss a few things - like a larger focus wheel, or knowing that fly-by-wire focusing is no replacement for a true tactile mechanical focusing system - but they also incorporated a lot of the best things in retro cameras, including the hybrid viewfinder which borrows a lot from the way mechanical rangefinders work. And the aperture control. And the exposure compensation control. And even the threaded shutter button. I could go on.
I’m of the school that the functional design of a camera in one’s hand was perfected in SLRs in the 1970s and early 1980s; and the functional design of a rangefinder camera was perfected in the 1950s and 1960s. Until someone actually develops a new design that does better, I’m happy that camera makers are looking to these examples of engineering and usability brilliance, and are copying them.
The only thing I’m less a fan of is when camera makers go “retro” just for the sake of going retro. Especially if it’s clear these modern equipment designers show an ignorance of why those retro designs worked. Or worse still, not actually implementing the best things in those retro designs, when designing their new cameras.
I can say, having used them, Fuji has absolutely nailed the best of the best from history’s cameras, at least in their X100/s and X1 Pro lineup. Olympus with their EP lineup? Until they have a viewfinder, I think they may be doing retro more for the sake of being retro, than actually using the best parts of retro design.
Kodak makes me sad. It’s sad that this once-grand company couldn’t adjust to the times well enough.
Sad that, though they recognized the emergence of digital photography and even worked on sensor technology for a long time, couldn’t become the leader in digital like they did in film.
Sad that they couldn’t recognize the lesser demand (though demand is still there) for film and appropriately scale down production while still making all their best products (including Kodachrome). Instead of scaling down, they stop: witness today’s news about them ceasing the production of acetone film, which is used in the production of most of their 35mm films (for cameras - most of their motion picture film stock is made from other stuff).
Sad that the company got so huge that any idea of scaling down and remaining profitable either wasn’t possible, or just wasn’t conceivable by their board.
Sad that, in a few years, the company will be like Polaroid: not a company by any means that invents things and makes products, but just a brand name owned by a shell company, with its brand name slapped onto DVD players and made in China toy cameras.
Sad that, one day, Tri-X won’t exist any longer.
I love this photo - the colours, the pose, the vintage camera, everything about it. I wish I could find the original source - though it is tagged with a watermark on the bottom left, a google search did not turn up the original photo (closest I got was a Model Mayhem photographer, but it’s not in his portfolio).
And still more camera porn.
Straight from the camera with minimal post work done. Shot with two strobes (one off to the side to simulate daylight coming from an imaginary window).