The romance of retro

When the first Fuji X100 came out, it sparked quite a lot of reaction and discussion. Probably I am biased, but from what I recall, most people liked it. ‘It looks like a proper camera’ – retro design, modern inside. I’m biased, because I liked it a lot. And I still like the X100 series. That said, I never owned one, and actually never used one.

No, I am not going to review a camera I never owned or used, no worries.

Point with the X100 series is: I think they just look lovely, and how I’d like a camera to look. Have I caught the retro-virus? Well, for looks, maybe a bit. But the fact I never bought one has its reasons too.

Retro cameras

That X100 isn’t the only retro-camera out there. The Fuji mirrorless cameras all exhibit it to some level; the Olympus Pen models certainly had a retro-touch. And the most unashamed retro models are possibly the Nikon Df and the new Z fc.

The Nikon Df is a camera that also piqued my interest – I have quite some Nikon lenses, and surely my manual focus Nikkors would have looked straight at home on a Df.

Yet, I also never had or  used a Df. Part of that was down to specifications: compared to the D700 I used at the time, some bits and pieces were straight downgrades. The bits and pieces that were better, were not enough to convince me. It wasn’t a cheap camera by any means after all.

But there was a much bigger elephant in the room.

Ergonomics

Good ergonomics make or break a camera, in my view. The more a camera works logically and naturally, the more brainpower you have left as photographer to focus on composition, exposure decisions and creative choices. The ideal camera gets out of your way.

To a level, ergonomics are personal preference and muscle memory. But underneath are fundamental design concepts. A well designed camera has buttons and controls in places a human hand can easily reach. It will have its most important controls (aperture, shutterspeed) in the easiest places, all the way down to obscure seldom-needed controls buried in on-screen menus. There is plenty of theory and study behind those concepts. I am no expert, but I appreciate the outcome.

Retro ergonomics – not quite what you’d expect

Where the Nikon Df (or the new Z fc) are meant to look like a member of the FM-family, they’re simultaneously up to date, modern, digital cameras.

Those modern cameras need more controls. There are auto-focus modes, a need to easily and quickly set the ISO, a screen with menus and image review. Aperture isn’t (necessarily) set with a ring on the lens.

Yet, they need to look like cameras that had very little controls; a camera like the Nikon FM2 has shutterspeed, and the shutter release. All other controls are harder to reach, because they’re not often used (setting the ISO is done once per 36 exposures, and the self-timer or multi-exposure isn’t something you use daily, if ever).

The ergonomics of a FM2 are fine; it’s a camera I enjoy using a lot. But the way it’s designed, the shape it has, is centered around having so little controls. If it would have a wheel or button to control aperture on the front or rear (like the DSLRs have), it would be a nuisance to hold. I’d dearly miss the hand grip. But the way it is, I don’t miss the handgrip. Weight also is a big point here; the FM2 has 2 miniscule LR44 cells, versus the large and heavy batteries needed today. That changes the balance, and changes the need for a solid hand grip.

The ergonomics of a D700 and the DSLRs I owned before and after, are fine. They’re also cameras I use a lot, and enjoy using. They’re designed for what they are: tools with loads of buttons and wheels, yet very effective. I can use these cameras without taking my eye of the finder, which is ideal.

Two sides of the fence

Still, there is something nice about the aesthetics of these retro cameras. I cannot deny I find them charming. A Z fc looks nicer than my D810.

But if a camera is nothing but a tool to make photos, why bother about its looks? To each his own, but I can sympathise with both sides of that argument.

I do own some cameras that I primarily like for the way they look; I like them so much I accept some quirks in handling. But being quirky also means they remain hobby cameras to me. Nice to use, but every now and then and not for long period of time.

My DSLR is a pure tool. I absolutely love the ergonomics of the D810; it fits me as a glove. Do I like the way it looks? Honestly, no idea. I never gave it any thought. Its aesthetics simply don’t interest me at all.

There is no wrong or right here. But I think the ergonomics are too much of an important topic. To base the choice for any camera on its looks without considering whether that reduces its usability, doesn’t make sense to me. At the very least, try before putting down your money.

Either/or, or and/and?

But is it always a choice between good looks and good usability? There is no reason why it should be an either/or choice. Theoretically, you can have both. Why not? All it takes is seriously good design.

Most people like clean, uncluttered design. As do I. The issue for digital cameras is then that you quickly need plenty controls, and preferably physical controls. Having to operate a camera via a touch-screen is not an inviting idea. A button or clickwheel with tactile feedback is simply quicker 99% of the time.

So, you either remove features to the point you can have your clean design, or you accept it’s not going to be that clean.

I think the only company ‘daring’ enough to remove features to achieve a clean design on digital cameras is Leica. Daring between quotes, since they’re also one of the few who can do it, being a niche market company. Those who depend on mass market volume simply cannot alienate the masses that much. Leica pricing already alienates the masses, so they can focus on their specific customer wants and needs.
And with good success, I think. I don’t own a digital Leica M, but looking at them I feel assured that switching between a M10 and M4 will be near seamless. Everything is where you expect it to be. So, yes, it can be and/and, but at a hefty price.

Retro aesthetics as a romantic ideal

Above I also used a phrase that was uttered a lot when the first retro designs popped up. It looks like a proper camera. I’m paraphrasing, but comments like these were plenty.

This suggests a level of discontent on how modern cameras look. Like they wouldn’t be proper, not the real deal. That is a strange notion. What is more correct about older cameras, and what would be incorrect about newer cameras?

Is it because the older cameras were used in times where photography was still more special? When only the passionate and professional had a camera, and hence photography seemed more special? Is it some half-way notion of those purists who find only film photography “real”? I like older cameras for their simplicity, and that tends to yield a cleaner design. But what’s the chicken, what’s the egg?

Camera design changed over time; as cameras became more complex, their design had to change to cope. Modern cameras are result of ergonomic study, their design has more science behind them than their forefathers. What’s not real about that, or not proper? Designed and made to be used and do what they’re meant to do: allow you to make images.

It’s rather silly to dismiss decades of progress in ergonomics for the idealised look. A romantic ideal, not based on practicalities, but propagating the idea that things used to be better, without wondering whether that is actually true.

Is retro a useless fad then?

It’s a cynical realisation, but most retro cameras seem marketing devices to sell us a sentiment, but only superficial – we won’t trade off convenience. All modern features are there, no compromises there. So the old school look…. just skin deep.

Perhaps it is that cynical. Or perhaps the retro cameras we get now are just misinterpretations of the actual real demand?

With most retro cameras so far, I cannot shake the feeling that it’s very much “be careful what you wish for”. Yes, on paper you have all the convenience. But operating it is somewhat compromised. You won’t notice that in the advertisement, but only after you already bought it.

Perhaps it’s the camera makers not making enough of a choice. Those that say they want a digital Nikon FM2 say so because they love the Nikon FM2. But maybe not for the way it looks, but for the fact it is a stupendous camera: reliable and easy to use. Simple, to the point, devoid of useless frivolities. Less features, but full focus on what matters. The FM2 isn’t the prettiest camera, but it’s an awesome tool.

Yet, I doubt there is a big market for such a camera: too austere and too single minded. It would reduce features, a lot. And for all I read and see, those willing to do without those features, are fine shooting film with old cameras without features. And those not willing to do without features….. If you’re smart, you choose ergonomics. If you want to look smart, you may fall into the marketing trap and pay for it with reduced ease of use.

The retro-styling really seems to be nothing but a cynical marketing exercise in most cases, all looks and no content. And it’s a pity as it makes fun of the excellent ergonomics of modern cameras, and it makes a mess of the solid ergonomics of old cameras. The worst of both worlds, wrapped up in a shiny dress.

Except maybe that Fuji X100 – once I tried one, I’ll make my mind up on that one.

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