Why going “retro” can be a good thing in the world of photography

Have a look at the comments in this The Verge article on the Olympus EP-5 when it was released. 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 the argument can be made that Olympus has done some retro design work just for the sake of it looking retro. Other manufacturers too.

But I can tell you this — 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 a natural extension of your hand. Gone were super awkward ways to change shutter speeds, or reset counters, or fiddle with viewfinders and extensions — the Leica M3 had it all built in, had it all simplified, and had it all (or almost all) accessible with one hand and solitary controls.

When Nikon developed their SP rangefinder, they borrowed a lot from Leica and included some of their own innovations. For example, on that camera, it’s almost completely natural to go from having your index finger at the shutter trigger area to having 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. And many manufacturers rose to the challenge in this new SLR era.

Nikon, Canon, Olympus and even Minolta fine tuned the SLR shooting experience through the 1970s onto the early 1980s (one could argue that Leica felt they hit perfection in 1954, and stayed at that design, at least for rangefinders). In the SLR world, all these makers — and others — designed a amazing platforms 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. Where your hand fell were natural places to put additional features, like spot metering buttons, depth of field preview buttons, exposure compensation dials and more.

The Nikon F4, in “F4s” mode with the larger handgrip and batteries.

For me, the pinnacle of detailed 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. Very few digital cameras today are capable of the amount of control, given to the user, that the Nikon F4 had in solitary physical actions throughout the camera. Remember, this was before LCD screens and multi-function displays. This camera was so complex, it’d scare off most photographers today, pro or not; but with that said, it still did this in a very usable, natural-feel way. It’s all about that key word: usability.

I keep bring up usability because it also brings us back to “retro”. Retro is a keen buzzword for hipsters, and has developed a bit of a stigma because we see so many examples of people going retro “for the sake of retro”. But I don’t think of retro that way — at least most of the time. I think retro is sometimes a nod to the fact that, in the past, some manufacturers of some products actually “got it right” and all we need now is subtle usability improvements to these old designs, and of course, a modern heap of new technology inside.

To really hammer this point home, let me talk with you for a moment about the camera I still think the best mechanical camera ever made for 35mm film (sidenote — the Nikon F4 wasn’t a mechanical camera, it was an electro-mechanical camera, requiring batteries to even trip the shutter). The camera I’m talking about here is Nikon’s final film opus: the FM3a 35mm film camera, introduced around 2000. It’s not only the best mechanical film camera ever made because of the technology and industrial design inside, but also because of how usable it is.

The now-classic Nikon FM3a 35mm film camera.

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. Nikon felt that particular design, shape and weight for a camera hasn’t been improved upon so they went with that design. 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.

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.

Nikon put a lot of design work and effort into making this camera (which they detail quite well on their website). It amazes me that they went to those lengths at a time when the writing was on the wall with regards to the demise of the 35mm film camera era, and the advent of the digital SLR era. Fortunately for serious photographers, their hard work paid off. The camera is rugged, it is advanced, it is functional, but to the average person on the street, it looks old… looked old in 2000 when it was released. It definitely wasn’t retro for the sake of being retro. And bonus, you can still use the camera without any batteries inside!

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 believes they nearly perfected the rangefinder camera’s usability design in the 1950s and has rolled with that ever since.

A Nikon SP sitting next to a Leica M3 Double Stroke camera. Both were designed in the 1950s, almost 65 years ago.

So when Fuji brought 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 near-perfection in usability design and tried to mimic it. Of course, the X100 (and X100s and X100T) 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.

The X100 mimics the retro design of old rangefinders because this is one of those cases where retro works.

If it’s not crystal clear by now, 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 accurately copying the best of those usability designs, and improving upon them.

Retro for the sake of being retro

The only thing I’m less a fan of is when camera makers go “retro” just for the sake of going retro. This definitely happens, there’s no denying it. 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 extensively now over several years, Fuji has nailed the best of the best from history’s cameras, at least in their X100/s/t 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.

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