Form, Function, and Retro Design

Many camera makers are now offering bodies with “retro” design, like the Nikon Df, hoping that nostalgia will lure more customers.  Too often this detracts from camera usability instead of improving it.

There’s nothing wrong with liking the appearance of a tool designed to take pictures, especially if it conjures warm memories of an earlier time.  Certainly there are a number of classic cameras that earned their place in history as among the finest of their times—pinnacles of exquisite mechanical design.  But designs that worked then are not necessarily designs that work best with today’s sophisticated electro-mechanical technology.

Nor were classic designs necessarily epitomes of ergonomic excellence.  If the primary goal is to design a tool to most quickly and comfortably capture the highest quality images, then primary attention to the basic functions of setting ISO, aperture, shutter speed, focus, and tripping the shutter should take priority over everything else.  It’s the old “form follows function” argument.  One humorous commentary pointed out that one company, Canon, claimed they “didn’t do retro,” to which another observant person suggested they certainly did and pointed back to the design of the 1989 EOS-1 (which of course has lines that carry through to many current Canon bodies).  Another take on both retro and other attempts to garner more sales comes from Michael Reichmann.

One of the designs that many serious still photographers have been wishing fervently for is a body that encompasses the latest sensor and processor technology but limits functions to just those useful to a professional working environment.  Just the basics please; nothing extra.  But that market segment would be small, too small no doubt to satisfy quarterly bean counters.  But it’s still a nice hope.

All things considered, it’s a tough time for camera makers as this report on compact system cameras points out.  In fact, a number of reports suggest Canon may soon get out of the point & shoot market entirely.  It’s a volatile market environment with many more changes to come.

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