Retro to the Future

A lot of discussion centered around Nikon Rumors post that the next Nikon mirrorless camera was going to be a retro design last week.

bythom nikon z30

I’m not for or against retro when it comes to styling or controls. It’s a design element that if successfully executed, reminds people of something important from their past. Fundamentally, cameras, like autos, haven’t seen a lot of design and positional change once certain aspects were made common. We have steering wheels and turn signals on a lever in autos, we have shutter releases on the upper right front of a camera. There’s something to be said for muscle memory, and “good” retro designs will tend to key in on that. 

That said, retro is not mainstream, it’s a niche. And retro design tends to be a niche popular mostly with the two age extremes: those old enough to want some nostalgia with their latest dose of tech, and those young enough to have never experienced the original style/designs and who are looking for some “hip” factor. 

Nikon dipped into “retro” with the Df, which was the dream-child of Tetsuro Goto. Goto-san was a dedicated manual focus, simple camera, photographer himself, and if you go back and read interviews with him at the time and after, you’ll find that many of the Df’s design decisions probably were dictated by his own photographic desires and needs.

Unfortunately, to get the Df made, Goto needed to essentially do it on the cheap, re-utilizing things that already existed rather than building it ground up. The Df wasn’t a bad camera, but it had a lot of frankencamera to it. Basically, the Df was a D600 with a D4 image sensor and a retro-looking set of dials and controls bolted on, while anything related to video was neutered in place. Worse still, the Df was an expensive camera for what it could do and how it performed, and it never got to the exact goal that Goto had for it in the first place (even he ended up customizing his personal Df to make up for things that didn’t make it into the design). 

The Df was a camera that wasn’t a success, but also wasn’t a failure. It attracted a small group of buyers that bought into the marketing campaign—one of the few times in the recent past Nikon actually did a full-fledged and targeted marketing effort—and were basically happy with results. The Df had a great image sensor with just enough pixels (16mp), so results out of the camera were excellent when the camera was used well. But as I noted in my review of the Df, dials that sometimes lie to you aren’t good things to have. The half-analog, half-digital nature of the control battle was always won by the digital side. So, not very retro there. 

All that said, the question I always have when someone starts saying they want a retro camera (or a company starts saying they’re making one) is whether it’s suited to purpose. And exactly what is that purpose? We generally don’t have retro purposes (e.g. “I want to cut wood the old-fashioned way, with an ax”), but instead modern purposes (e.g. “I want to cut wood more efficiently and conveniently”). Thus “retro” products tend to be a marketing and fashion statement, not a use case. 

So. If Nikon is indeed making a retro-style Z camera, the first thing I'll look at is whether it fulfills a real use case. I argued almost two decades ago that we did need a particular use case camera: simple, but with fully dedicated controls. What I then called an FM3-D. No deep menus, just a set of direct controls for basic photographic functions. Indeed, I wouldn't tend to call this a retro camera, I'd call it a simple camera that, because the last time we only had a few direct controls on a camera was in the past, could be styled and marketed as retro.

Update: The photo posted by Nikon Rumors of half the top plate of the supposed upcoming Nikon mirrorless camera brings up one small issue with muscle memory. Nikon's recent designs have all centered around having ISO on that top plate near the shutter release. By promoting shutter speed to a fixed dial (as opposed to the Rear Command dial), does this now mean that ISO setting will be done via the Rear Command dial? You see the issue that would arise: this might be different enough that moving between two Nikon bodies could cause issues. 

This is why I keep referring to "fulfills a use case." What is the use case of changing the ergonomics/UX of a camera design that's now had a 30+ year run? 

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