Go Forward Authentically, or Backward Nostalgically ?

Should we stick to our traditional values or press forward into an uncertain future? Should we hew to the familiar, or be experimental? 

I’m not talking about the current political climate, but about the digital camera market.

After years of mostly bland incremental design evolution, the digital camera market has suddenly exploded with a diversity of products that we haven’t seen since the early 2000’s. But many of the new products — even some of the most technologically innovative — are clothed in retro styling that harkens back to film cameras made some half century ago. This is disappointing. While the cameras are undeniably attractive, they are patently inauthentic, undercutting the soul that they wish to capture from the bygone era. I would prefer that they find their own voice, one that finds a way to be beautiful and evocative while still being forward-looking. Using the past as a crutch is not a path for sustainable success when it comes to technology-driven, expensive products.

The Old Fashioneds

Fuji and Olympus have been the pioneers of this retro movement. Fuji has always been known for its rangefinders (I used to have one of their medium format ones), and with the launch of a series of rangefinder-esque digital cameras Fuji has catapulted itself from also-ran maker of ho-hum digicams to the top of the desirability heap.

Robert Plotkin put it best: “When the Fuji X100 was announced at Photokina 2010, the trade show held in Germany, it was as if a supermodel walked into a Japanese lederhosen convention. Mouths gaped, the band’s instruments clattered to the floor, and hands collectively grasped at the Fuji’s shiny dials.”

Put one of these into the hands of one of the great mid-century photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Gary Winogrand, and they’d probably be able to start shooting right away.

Fuji has in fact been doing some very interesting under-the-hood innovation, such as a hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder, but has chosen to wrap the innovations in metal designed (I imagine) to appeal to empty-nest Baby Boomers with disposable income and a nostaligic frame of mind. This would be like the Tesla coming out with a cutting edge electric drivetrain and then giving it a body that mimicked a Ford Falcon (something which I’m sure many would find appealing).

Before Fuji, Olympus sparked the retro trend with digital cameras inspired by their small Pen film cameras from the 60’s:

(Old on top, new on botton, in case you can’t tell….) Again, the newer camera is innovative even within the digital realm, being one of the first “mirrorless” interchangeable lens cameras that do away with the swinging mirror that is characteristic of traditional SLRs. This allows great image quality in a body that is smaller, lighter and quieter than could normally be achieved. More recently, Olympus released the OM-D E-M5, an homage to its much-loved OM SLRs of the 1970s.

Like the original OM, the digital version has a prominent hump above the lens. In the case of the film version, this housed the prism necessary for the SLR functionality. But the new one is mirrorless, like the digital Pen above, and so doesn’t need the hump. But it has it anyway.

We’ve Seen This Story Before

Digital camera manufacturers aren’t the first ones to use nostalgia to move product, not by a long shot. The car industry went through a similar phase a while back, starting with the VW New Beetle and then reaching its aesthetic peak with the Mini Cooper, both of which are undoubtedly attractive cars (though not particularly innovative in any other ways). Along the way many vehicles jumped on the bandwagon, such as the Chrysler 300 and the Chevy HHR.

Thankfully that trend is largely over. In part it was done in by the question, “What next?” There’s a reason that the new Beetle and Mini barely evolved - how do you update an icon without ruining it for the people who flocked to it in the first place? VW recently updated the Beetle to make it more masculine and sporty, and failed miserably. Mini introduced the Crossman SUV and Coupe, both of which fell out of the ugly tree and are devoid of the original Mini spirit.

More recently we’ve seen a similar retro urge playing out in an unexpected place - Apple. Apple has received considerable flak for its use of skeumorphism, such as laboriously mimicking the look of old address books, blotters, and tear-away calendars, even at the expense of functionality and ease of use afforded by touch interfaces.

Apple is going hog-wild with a mish-mash of aesthetics in both its mobile and desktop operating systems that run starkly counter to its history, and to its physical products. I hate it. And in this day and age, do people really need these backward-looking cues in their technology anymore? People are perfectly happy using their iPhones, even though these slabs bear no resemblance to the old Ma Bell rotary telephones. Quit using the “new user needs help” explanation as an excuse for lazy design. These days, most new technology users are 3 years old, not 60, and they wouldn’t know a blotter pad if they saw one. 3 year-olds just assume that any illuminated surface is swipable.

Ironically, it is stereotypically stodgy, artless Microsoft that’s cutting the opposite way and embracing design that is wholly digital in its orientation. Its Metro design language for mobile and now Windows 8 is a radical break from the past, and trusts that people no longer need the cushioning of skeumorphs.

The Digital Native

Is there anybody taking the Microsoft Metro route in digital cameras? Well, it’s not Microsoft’s counterpart in digital imaging, market leader Canon. Heck, their current SLRs look barely any different than the classic T90 of almost 30 years ago.

Instead, it is Sony that has picked up the digital native banner and run with it. Sony has made its fair share of ho-hum point and shoots, and has a rather good line of SLRs. But what’s really put it on the map are its NEX mirrorless cameras. These pair tiny, well-made bodies with large, extremely good sensors, and almost comically large (by comparison) lenses. The camera de jour that’s got everyone drooling is the NEX-7:

Like Microsoft’s Metro, the NEX-7 tears up the rule book and sets it on fire in terms of form factor and control layout and makes absolutely no concessions to traditional styling.

But that’s not to say the NEX-7 is without precedent. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to another Sony camera, the F505, which eventually led to the fabled F717 of 2002 (below). In fact, the 717 was even more radical than the NEX-7 — you could tilt the entire body relative to the lens for shooting above and below eye-level, and it could shoot at night using infrared. But the L-shaped small body with large lens, which leads to a very different way of holding the camera, has reappeared with the NEX series.

The F717 appeared at a time of great experimentation as manufacturers tried to understand the possibilities of this new digital technology. It’s sad that in the end they settled into very conventional form factors - your point and shoot, your SLR - and have only recently begun experimenting again after a decade of same-old same-old.

Camera makers: please get this retro fad out of your system, and get on with making products that look forward into new possibilities, and not backward into old paradigms.