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!
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32 thoughts on “‘Cool Retro Cameras’ – The Nikon Z Fc – Just ‘Cool’? Or Something More?”
Couldn’t agree more on the matter of watches. I’ve always felt that you ‘tell the time’ by the angular relationship of the hands – rather than by looking at the numbers on the watch face.
Exactly – that’s how I feel, though I expect it is just learned preference, to me there is no mental translation needed with watch hands, whereas there seems to be in my head with digital for me.
There appears to be a part of Japanese culture which embraces innovation and new ways of doing things, while at the same time retaining a rich nostalgia for the past.
Other cultures possibly also display this to a greater or lesser extent, but the Japanese model seems to work very well for blending new ideas and revisiting old ones as well.
We are all susceptible to a bit of nostalgia – back nearly thirty-odd years ago, I and thousands of my contemporaries queued for hours to pick up Thunderbirds toys for our children. Nostalgia sells. I prefer this rendition of the Nikon logo, but then I mourn the passing of the old lower-case ‘minolta’ logo too…
The Nikon is a good looking camera, however it does have some purely faux features – I love the look of the logo being raised on the little plate at the front of the pentaprism ‘hump’, but note that while there are justifications for having the viewfinder in that hump despite the lack of an actual optical system that required such a design originally (suiting left and right eyed and better for vertical grips), the ‘plate’ seems to be purely cosmetic, as in the past it would have covered the ‘Aperture Direct’ window (I did wonder if they would house a little low-res camera here to view the aperture rings of old manual focus F mount lenses, but it would seem not…).
Having said that -the retro doesn’t seem to get in the way with this camera – I guess the main ergonomic loss is the grip, but they have an add-on one that should work very well. They seem to allow for use of dials or wheels as is required by the photographer.
Cameras, of course, don’t have to be good looking – some of my favourites from Minolta were basically pug-ugly (the XK1 & Dynax 800si spring immediately to mind), but a thing of beauty is a joy forever…
What an excellent read. Last year I longed for a DSLR as a contrast to my Leica’s. I looked at the various options and ended up choosing a Nikon Df. I even considered mirrorless but having used said cameras in the past wanted something other than a computer that takes photographs; I also wanted an optical viewfinder. The Df has no video or inbuilt flash, but does have all the knobs and dials I like with a simple but effective menu. I know the Df has had some mixed reviews, the negatives largely from those who love to see 4k video, etc. but to me, as an admittedly old style photographer, it fits the bill superbly. As you say, it’s all down to personal choice, but I really do hope it is a success for Nikon. Who knows, we may even see a full frame version before long.
The 28mm lens they made for it is full frame, so that made me wonder…
I have a couple of friends who opted for the Nikon Df. They love it and say the optical output is excellent. The “experts” on the standard review sites panned the Df, followed by the inevitable condemnation from the slathering hoards, but it appears that real photographers get excellent service from the Df.
Yeah, it’s a great sensor! Back when MP count wasn’t so high – there’s something about lower MP sensors that I can never quite put my finger on
I think you’re right about preferred user interfaces. As new technology has become available, designers have wanted to try it and marketing departments have been keen to promote the cutting-edge features of new cameras. There is often an initial uproar among a few (but very vocal) users, and the manufacturers press ahead anyway. After a while the ‘new thing’ becomes the de-facto standard.
Long-term sales trends and genuine ‘ordinary’ user feedback then become measurable. At that point it becomes appropriate to re-assess and take corrective steps. Take cars as an example. For a few years there has been a trend to move minor controls such as HVAC away from having physical knobs. First they went to little pushbuttons, and then to touchscreens. The advantage is a reduction in manufacturing cost. The disadvantage is they’re downright dangerous because you have to take your eyes off the road to adjust them. So, after long-term user feedback and sales trends, we’re seeing some models going back to having good old knobs. Thankfully the same trend is likely to happen in DSLRs/MILCs.
Hopefully Nikon will wake up to the surge of interest around this camera. I would be very pleased if they produce a full-frame 45MP version of this, maybe with a decent grip (which is genuinely useful). Then all we would need is a new Z-mount to F-mount adapter with a physical aperture feeler for AI lenses. Voila! – a true digital equivalent for an FM2n.
That’s interesting about car UX. When I was buying my 2014 Audi secondhand a few years ago, one of my top needs was the “techik” pack which places the knobs and buttons for the radio/satnav/etc around the gear stick. Within very little time I was able to get used to where the buttons were by feel because they are well shaped and laid out. I’ve seen some more modern cars with endless touch screens and wondered exactly this – how are you supposed to control it whilst driving?
With the knobs I can make very quick glances at the screen, but if I had to point at the screen to do that, I feel like it would take more concentration somehow.
annoyingly cars seem to be going that way again, led by Tesla. Many controls buried in menus on the touchscreen, the only physical controls are those they have to have by law on a stick (indicators?). Its great that cars now have proper 21st century touchscreens as its shocking how bad some of them have been for years, but I dont want to see every control relegated to the touch screen. I want a volume knob!
Yes, definitely! I have two volume knobs in my car, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
LOvely camera, but still prefer the mixture of the advantages of digital with an “analog”style of photography, using a Pentax filmcamera and a K% with all the vintage glass on it. Even helps me focussing with an indicator ( something with age and eyes 😉
Best regards from the Netherlands…
Excellent article, Hamish. I also think it’s beyond nostalgia, as I have encountered many young people (kids even) who seem to enjoy the look of older cameras. Good industrial design is timeless. And tactile controls are simply easier to use than menu diving. No need to wait for the era of unhindered choice to arrive. Olympus and Fujifilm have seen to that.
Fuji perhaps. I’m not convinced by Olympus cameras UX. Also, for me, the conspicuous hole on the market is a full frame autofocus mirrorless with dials.
I think that the Nikon Z Fc is a validation of Fujifilm’s X serious designs.
I very much share the view that knobs beat buttons, dials beat digits.
Just to add one more example – speedometers.
I can think of three designs on cars that I have driven – the conventional dial, digital display, and ribbon (once seen as very modern and stylish, and now creeping back with some electronic displays).
I am pretty sure that if controlled tests were conducted, the time taken to read a conventional dial would prove to be by far the shortest.
And therefore implicitly safer. Both in terms of keeping accurate track of speed, and of how much time the driver’s eyes are taken from the road ahead, refocussed to the dashboard, then back to the road.
My guess is that – provided with good clear dials – most drivers have good enough peripheral vision that they can remain pretty accurately aware of their speed without ever having to shift their gaze.
How that might apply to cameras – who knows?
Perhaps just a little when it comes to shutter speed dials. The single -digit/two-digit /three-digit/four digit numbers do form basic zones on the dial, noticeable from the corner of the eye. Perhaps just enough, at least, to prevent some basic cock-ups.
Leaving me blissfully free to perform all those other basic cock-ups. Again.
Hmm, interesting one this one. I prefer a digital readout speedo now.
I have a modern Audi with out and a 1991 Golf, I find myself having to think more about the needle in the Golf. But, I have a theory for this:
A clock is a 360 degree dial and the location of the times is always the same. That’s not the case with speedos. The speedo in my Audi goes up to 160 I think, and the Golf only 120, so the positions of the speeds is different meaning it takes me a second to work out where on the dial I am. This perhaps says more about how I read a clock though too. I don’t look at the numbers, just where the hands are… thoughts…?
I went through a phase (3 cars) of driving around in fairly tatty examples of ’80s Mercedes Benz, which had exemplary ergonomics. One of the many lovely things about them was that at 80mph on the level, both tacho and speedo needle pointed at 12 o’clock so for the kind of super-comfortable autobahn driving that they were very much designed for, you didn’t need to look at the numbers, just the directions of the needles… this is a car of a different generation though, much like my Rolleiflex 2.8F whose metering and exposure control are also very intuitive.
It’s a hell of a challenge to incorporate the amount of controls and features of a contemporary digital camera and make them as simple, ergonomic and elegant as the old cameras we like so much both in look and feel.
Quite, so the answer is not to give them so many features … unfortunately, that is a gamble few brands seem willing to take
It’s about time another major camera manufacturer took a page out of the very successful Fujifilm design book that’s been revolutionizing the way digital mirrorless cameras look for the last decade. I hope digital offerings continue to become more and more niche as time goes on and these companies leave behind the idea that every camera has to have every bell and whistle to suit every single situation. Less chat about megapixels and 8K video and more about pleasant UX and diverse lens offerings is key, I think. Good on Nikon. I hope it’s a home run.
I’d agree with all of that!
Love the Mondaine watches. I have a few, and you can tell the time just by glancing at it. Never could figure out if the white dial is better or not…. and I usually wear a Observer-aviator watch, where the minutes are on the circumference of the long hand and the hours are on the circumference of the short hand. quick and easy to read – kinda like using a Leica.
I put in an order the date of the announcement, w/ the 28mm. for me, I’ve stopped being hung up on APS-C size (the Leica X Vario showed me the error of my ways), and the small form factor + dials made it a good choice for me. And I’ve always hated the grip on the Z6.
so it might be designed to be retro, but it conincidentally fits my needs of having the complications readily available, don’t have to dig into the menus, and form-factor/lens mount.
also, I want to use the 28mm on the Z6.
Did I mention I hate the grip on the Z6?
Yeah, I want a white one too. I have this one and a, I’m going to say 1970s, one. It’s an automatic one, it runs slow, but I really like it so I wear it anyway.
I tend to prefer full frame cameras, but I’m far from adverse to apsc, they just need higher contrast lenses in my opinion.
I’d be interested to hear how you get on with it!
Your watch has a Mondaine style 2nd hand, but no numbers. Assuming it is a Mondaine, I recently bought a Mondaine for the same reasons. It is simple, devoid of all the messy features of today’s “trendy” watches that just get in the way of simply telling the time. My cameras are Leica for the same reason. They simply take pictures without a lot of dials and buttons to get in the way. Hooray for retro.
Yep, this is the exact reason I too was attracted to Mondaine watches in the first place!
It looks like a Fuji X100 with a hat on and no hand grip.
I’ve got a white face Mondaine that I find almost indispensable in my darkroom when processing film ????. Great contrast. Swiss precision makes my film developing look good!
Neither of my mondains would be any use… is it ok that I now wish I had a darkroom so I had an excuse to buy another mondaine watch…?
Sure! Don’t you have a budding photographer in your home? Buy her (and you) matching father/daughter watches…
I don’t have a problem with APS-C in principle, but its disappointing this isn’t full frame so that the manual focus nikon lenses can be adapted at their native focal length. We have the Df but that’s not mirrorless. Agree that lower resolution sensors are sometimes nicer, wish Fuji would offer their latest cameras with a version of Xtrans-1!
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