Tuesday, 29 October 2013

In praise of Retro Design

Over the past few days, the world of photography has been gripped by an advertising campaign by camera manufacturer Nikon, which seems about to launch a new camera that has all the aesthetic attributes of an old camera. I wrote about this phenomenon earlier this year (and indeed last year too) in the context of the Fujifilm X100 rangefinder camera - which I liked, but did not buy.

The retro look Nikon is said to have a full-frame sensor and yet be smaller and lighter than the bulky FX-format DSLRs (the D4, D800 and D610) that Nikon currently makes - but most importantly, the new camera (Nikon DF) will have the aesthetic appeal of that timeless classic, the FM. O glory! If this is the case, I shall have to fight extremely hard to resist the temptation to buy the thing.

I have an FM2n, bought new around 25 years ago. It formed the backbone of one of my two 35mm systems - Nikon for single lens reflex (camera has pentaprism and mirror, you see exactly what you snap, good for telephoto work) and Leica (rangefinder - camera is smaller, less intrusive, good for wide-angle work). Now gathering dust on my bookcase, the FM2n is a mighty pretty camera. It shares space with other mighty pretty film cameras - a Leica M2, M3 and M6, a 1938 Contax II, an Exakta Varex VX, a Zeiss Ikonta 6x9 bellows camera.

None of these are being used, as I've abandoned film for digital; yet the cameras themselves are objects of beauty, far lovelier to look at and to have in the hand than a modern polycarbonate digital marvel.

How good it would be to fuse the aesthetics and ergonomics (knobs, buttons and levers as opposed to scroll-down menus) of the classic camera with the functionality of today's technology.

That's what Fuji did bringing out the Fuji X100 (since improved as the Fujifilm X100S). But it had a few important drawbacks that stopped me short of buying one. A) it was a Fuji, not a Nikon; it didn't feel sufficiently robust in the hand. B) it did not have interchangeable lenses. C) Even if it did (like its more expensive sibling, the Fujifilm X-Pro1), the camera's sensor was not full-frame, hence no improvement on the DX-format I currently use.

But now, here's a camera that looks like it will answer these points. If it has the build-quality of the Nikon FM/FE series of cameras, in production for almost 30 years, if it can take all my old manual-focus Nikon AI-series lenses, if it is full-frame (i.e. a 35mm lens is wide-angle not standard, a 50mm lens is standard not portrait)... I shall have to think very carefully about buying one.

The online forums are buzzing with excitement about the imminent arrival of this camera. The jury is split between those that find retro desirable (people of my age, who remember it vividly first time round and today's hipsters, who find the aesthetic of the mid-20th Century an improvement over what we have today) and those hard, soulless cases that demand convenience at the cost of beauty.

I'll let you be the judge. Here are some Nikons down the ages... Which ones do you find the most attractive aesthetically? (all pics courtesy of Nikon)

1954: Nikon S2 - based on the Zeiss Contax II rangefinder.
1959: Nikon F single lens reflex camera, shared base with S-series rangefinders
1971: Nikon F2 replaces the F; more rounded body.
1977-2006. Nikon FM/FE/FM2/FE2/FM2N/FM3A series, lighter, smaller than F2
1985. F-401S - the nadir of Nikon's camera design. Autofocus, motordrive. Cheap-looking, plasticy and ugly.
1999: Nikon D1 - professional digital SLR. 2.7 megapixels. An aesthetic advance on the '80s.

I'm sure most people will find the earlier camera visually nicer to look at than all that's happened since the mid-1980s. While I'm not into the concept of camera as jewellry, the way a camera looks has an impact on the way subjects react when it is raised and pointed in their direction. Professional SLR cameras send the wrong signals. That's why the rangefinder camera, always the more discreet, is better for street photography. An old retro-style camera looks like the toy of an amateur rather than that tool of the professional; people react more positively.

We shall see next week, when Nikon announces its new camera. I hope it's a full frame digital SLR in a body that looks and feels (and weighs as much) as my FM2. If it is, I'll be hard pressed not to buy one. Especially since the latest tease ad shows the new camera in a familiar setting - a photo exploration of Edinburgh. Been there - done that - three times already and want more.

There is a note of caution building up in me. At the end of the ad, we get a teasing shot of how the camera will look - and I can't see any knobs or dials on the top plate. That would be a disaster. Scroll-down menu driven operation I have in my phone thank you. Retro design requires knobs and dials - good ergonomics requires knobs and dials. We wait and see - all will be revealed on 5 November.

This time last year:
First snowfall in Warsaw

This time two years ago:
Of cycles, economic and human

This time three years ago:
Why didn't I read this before? Grapes of Wrath

This time four years ago:
Małopolska from the train

This time five years ago:
Grading ul. Poloneza

1 comment:

DC said...

Well, I'm not in the DSLR league - when I had an SLR years ago I just found that I was not enough of an enthusiast to make good use of it. The compacts are awfully nice, and some have amazing zooms, but are no match for a serious camera, as you know. But I think I've made a nice step up: the Sony RX-100. I waited a long time because it's selling very well and held quite close to it's list price, at least at home. Just before coming to Poland, Amazon was selling a refurbished unit directly for about 60% of list. I've had good experience with them, so I took the plunge.

Well...so far I am _very_ pleased. I'm still only in idiot mode as I've been busy almost every moment here. Now that things are calming down, I'll have some time to really learn how to use it properly. The one inch sensor (13.2 x 8.8 mm) sensor seems to make a huge difference in clarity. But hey, my Google Nexus mobile almost matches my Panasonic megazoom for clarity, so things had to get better, right? It really seems to do an excellent job in metering (right word?) the light in different parts of the frame. I took pictures inside a Skansen in Dobczyce with a bright electric light which could not be excluded, and the Sony just yawned. Night shots of the contrails of a Thai A380 over Kraków also shined, even next to a very bright moon. Nice!

If you know someone looking for something easy, I can say its definitely worth investigating, although I have not yet fully tested things like flash, depth of field (f1.8) and other stuff, and the price is a problem. Hopefully other manufacturers will jump on the bandwagon.