What’s With All These Cool Retro Cameras?

Style and substance

Key Takeaways

  • Nikon’s high-tech new Z fc looks like an old Nikon film camera.
  • Knobs and dials are often easier to use and understand.
  • You don’t need to go full retro to appreciate manual controls.
Nikon Z fc retro style camera

Nikon

Nikon's new Z fc camera looks like an old Nikon FE film camera from the '70s. It’s totally rad, and it’s not the only retro-style camera around. What’s the angle here?

Nikon’s latest mirrorless camera, the Z fc, is pretty much the same camera as 2019’s Z 50, only with a redesigned, retro-style body. And yet it’s causing quite a stir across camera forums and photography blogs. Nikon already has announced that it will not be able to meet initial demand. Meanwhile, Fujifilm has built its entire camera lineup since 2010 on models that mimic film cameras of yesteryear. 

"There's a lot to be said about a tactile interface and the feeling that you're directly interacting with a gear/clutch/mechanism vs. jabbing at an old TV remote control," EM, founder of film and film-camera-dedicated website Emulsive, told Lifewire via email.

Buttons and Dials

There are two features that set these retro-styled cameras apart. One is their looks. The other is the use of buttons and dials to control the main functions. These are not interdependent. For instance, several Fujifilm cameras use manual controls, but skip the retro styling.

The placement of old film camera controls—aperture, shutter speed, and film ISO—was dictated by the mechanism. The aperture control was a ring around the lens, because it was directly linked to the aperture diaphragm inside. The knobs on modern gadgets are just electronic controllers instructing the computer inside. They could be placed anywhere. 

Top down view of Nikon's Z fc camera and its buttons and dials

Nikon

But these manual controls are still preferred by many, because they’re easier to use. They can be set by feel, and they stay where you put them. You can also read the current settings at a glance, no screen required.

"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," Hamish Gill, founder of film-camera site 35mmc, told Lifewire via email. 

It’s not necessarily better, but some folks, this author included, have a strong preference for these intuitive controls. 

"Having a tactile connection with your tools builds bonds that help them metaphorically disappear; they become an extension of the body, as opposed to an addition to it," says EM. 

Retro Styling

Nikon’s Z fc looks amazing, as does Fujifilm’s X100V. These cameras often get mistaken for film cameras by curious passersby. For people who appreciate the pared down, classic looks over bubbly, violently ergonomic modern cameras, the looks alone are enough to sell these cameras. This kind of styling is in Fujifilm’s DNA now, whereas Nikon’s latest effort seems a little less authentic, despite being based on one of its own film camera lines. 

"To a degree, this feels a little cynical to me, it feels like the likes of Nikon just grasping at a trend for the sake of little more than trend," says Gill. "This is somewhat emphasized by some of the marketing drivel I read about it being more aimed at 'style conscious photographers.'"

Fujifilm’s X100V camera

Fujifilm

In some cases, the dedication to retro styling is absurd. Leica is so wedded to its classic M-series design that it put a fake film-winding lever on its M10-D digital camera.

These cameras bring both style and functionality, although if you take a look at camera forums, you’ll find plenty who disagree.

"The thing I find odd is that clocks in 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,'" says Gill. 

Touch Fatigue

It’s understandable that older photographers might yearn for the familiarity of manual knobs and dials, and that anyone could be taken by the retro mechanical beauty of these cameras. But is there more to it? After all, cassettes and vinyl are popular with buyers too young to have known them the first time around. 

Are we, perhaps, tired of touch-screens, and the homogeneity of their interaction?

"Having a tactile connection with your tools builds bonds that help them metaphorically disappear."

"Perhaps it does come from some sort of growing distaste with touch screens and apps, etc," says Gill. "I just chose a new oven on the basis of it having knobs rather than a touch screen, and was annoyed that I couldn’t find an induction hob with knobs."

EM, too, is sick of gadgets being replaced by apps.

"My Dyson fan has a terrible plastic remote that offers just enough functionality that it requires me to use the app nearly every time I use it. Why? There's literally zero need for that. It. Is. A. Fan."

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