Photo above by Dan Bracaglia, Courtesy of DPReview
I was asked the other day to share my thoughts on the ongoing retro camera design trend for an article that has since been published on Lifewire, titled ‘What’s with all these Cool Retro Cameras’. In this instance, the question was asked in response to the latest ‘cool retro camera’, the Nikon Z fc – which even to someone as perennially uncool as me, is indeed quite obviously designed to be ‘cool’. But, for all that style is definitely a factor here, I do think there is more to this than just coolness.
The following is a slightly expanded version what I sent to Charlie Sorrel, when he asked me to share my thoughts for the benefit of his article – he just asked me for a quote, but I got a bit carried away, so thought I’d share it here.
I’m pretty certain this “retro” thing is actually the product of quite a few different contributory factors. On a more shallow level, yes, I think the ‘cool’ or ‘style’ factor definitely plays a part. To a degree, this feels a little cynical, it feels as though the likes of Nikon are just grasping at a trend for the sake of the trend. This is somewhat emphasised by some of the marketing waffle I’ve read about it being more aimed at a “style-conscious audience”. Not being a “style-conscious” photographer myself, I’m not 100% sure what that means. And besides this, if it was just about style, then surely the specific types of controls Nikon have used on the camera wouldn’t be as much a factor in the design.
In reality – for some at least – I think the “retro” thing taps into something a little deeper than style. Perhaps it does come from some sort of nostalgia as seems to often be stated in the endless arguments about it all on social media. It might even come from a growing distaste with touch screens and apps etc. I for one just chose a new oven on the basis of it having knobs rather than touch screen, and was annoyed that I couldn’t find an induction hob with knobs to go with it. But is that because I’m fed up with touch screens, or have I just learned a user experience preference? Personally, I think it’s the latter. I’m perfectly happy with my iPhone and it’s user interface – I certainly wouldn’t appreciate it more if it had knobs on it. But when it comes to an oven, I do like a knob to twiddle.
The same goes for cameras. I personally prefer a dial that allows me to see at a glance where I am within the settings, but this, I believe, is just a simple a user experience preference. In fact, I find the same with analogue clocks. I can read a digital clock just fine, just as I can use a digital camera with a jog dial and digital readout just fine too. But somehow, when I look at an analogue clock dial, I get more of a direct and instant appreciation for the time. I have the same with a camera with dials. I’m not going to attempt to explain this in great detail, I don’t feel I need to, it’s just my preference, and I don’t think it needs to be anything more complicated than that.
The thing I find odd is that clocks in all their various forms seem to be accepted. We have readily available choices when it comes to the type of clock we choose to buy, and when making that choice we are just able to select what works for us without being bombarded with marketing nonsense about “style”. I’m also almost certain that there isn’t nearly as much time spent arguing over the validity of digital clocks over analogue clocks on social media – though maybe I just don’t mix in the right circles to experience such delights…?
This, I hope, is where we are going with camera design. Wouldn’t it be great if in a few years there were more options from more manufactures when it came to camera user interface? Screens and jog dials for those who they suit, and dials with numbers on for those who prefer that type of user experience instead… and moreover an acceptance from more consumers that it’s ok for their favourite camera manufacturer to bring out a camera that doesn’t necessarily appeal to them.
Maybe that time will come, maybe it won’t. In the meanwhile though, I’m sure there will be a lot of needless arguments on social media, and a lot more garbage marketing nonsense too. I for one though will keep doing my best to ignore the noise, and will continue to quietly sing the praises of the likes of Nikon for trying something a little different to what they usually churn out. Choice, options, variety – especially in areas like user experience – are what keep cameras interesting to me, and I continue to hope to see more!