Saturday, 16 November 2013

Smoke and Mirrorless

Are they serious?
Everything old is, while not quite new again, tepidly re-heated and served up to today's fashion-concious consumer. The retro-inspired Nikon Df is just the latest in a bunch of needless superficial throwbacks that ignore the technical and design innovations of the four decades. Nikon now joins a long list of manufacturers guilty of lazily rehashing the past in order to move stock.

"It's alive!"

The Df is essentially the ugliest digital SLR of the past decade. Nikon's resident Victor Frankenstein-sans have been busy cannibalising cameras, mating what somebody told them was how "one of them old film cameras" looked with the beating heart full-frame sensor of the Nikon D4. And now, on a dreary night in November they behold the accomplishment of their toils. They behold the wretch - the miserable monster they've created. After their very own Nikon 1 V2, this comes close to the ugliest digital camera in years.
A face only a blind mother could love. But at least it didn't feature funky retro dials.

Moulded Plastic is Awesome

Photographers would be forgiven for thinking that camera design stopped sometime between 1972 and 1983. It was then, the golden age of dials and metal and things that went *CLACK* that our fair camera manufacturers seem determined to revive. From Fujifilm to Olympus; from Pentax and now to Nikon, no modern camera manufacturer can possibly do without a silver/chrome SKU in their lineup. Except the problem is that a modern DSLR is pretty much as close in functionality to a 35mm SLR as George Pell is to a functioning, empathetic human being.

As the Olympus OM-D E-M5 demonstrated, "retro" looks are one thing, practicality is quite another. While the 35mm OM-1 was brilliantly simple and beautifully executed, Maitani-san need only concern himself with controlling the shutter speed and aperture. After all, this was 1971. But with the digital E-M5, the designers simply aped (ahem, paid "homage" to) Maitani-san's design without thinking about the modern requirements for a digital camera. 

On the M-1 and OM-1, form simply followed function. Maitani-san's design was an attractive alternative to cameras that had become increasingly large and unwieldy. The E-M5, on the other hand, wasn't so much an answer to large, clunky DSLRs, as it was retro design for the sake of marketability. The OM-1's flat front, necessary before moulded plastic became affordable and practical for industrial design, is nothing but a pain in the hand on the EM-5. It offers no grip for users and gives no support to the user when attempting to make sense of the clusterfuck of depressed buttons and recessed dials on the back. Not to mention that hideous, superfluous pentaprism. 
Form and function - the Olympus M-1
In aping paying homage so closely to the OM-1's lines, Olympus's digital design team forgot people need to be able to use their cameras. They overlooked the fact that people have fingers which may be larger than the pin-head sized buttons they install on the back. They have "addressed" these issues in the newly-released E-M1, although have made the camera about as attractive as the Konica AiBORG in the process – suffice it to say the E-M1 deserves its own dedicated post. But I digress, the E-M5 addressed neither the shortcomings of 1970s SLR design or the problems with modern DSLRs. It was a half-way house of design vacuousness. 

Pure Marketing

Nikon has clearly approached the design for the Df in the same manner. Sure, it's imbued with a kinda-sorta old-school SLR charm, but unfortunately the 35mm gestalt doesn't transfer particularly well to the digital world. The Df's top controls, while nice to look at in press photos, don't lend themselves to quick or easy alterations. In fact, the absurdity is that most setting alterations can be performed quicker by using the "normal" DSLR combination of command dials and function buttons. 

Command dials simply work on modern electronic SLRs, which is probably why they were introduced in the first place on the F5/F100 series as cameras moved from the purely mechanical to the totally computerised. The Df screws around with this by offering both command dials and funky retro dials on top of the camera. 
Popular Photography,  Dec 1999, thought the F100 was ace. And photography magazines are never wrong.
This is not retro design for the sake of pure photography, this is retro for the sake of pure marketing. Like much marketing, Nikon is trying to sell you a feeling, not a product. The incredibly indulgent pre-release teaser videos for the Df demonstrate this, with a lone figure wandering pensively around Scotland taking photos of castles, fields, golfers and Sean Connery. There you have it. "Pure" photography. 

Just a question, what the hell have Nikon been doing for the past decade if not "pure photography"? Have they been off herding goats and now feel it time to return from the mixed business of goat herding/photographics to "pure" photography? Or are they saying that their previous endeavours in cameras weren't "pure" enough? That one couldn't make picture with a Nikon D4? I gather they mean that by cluttering up the top panel of a DSLR with dials and knobs and machines that go PING and by needlessly removing HD movie recording, they have successfully crafted a camera designed for "pure" photography. Just not so "pure" as to remove HDR mode.  

You asked for it…

Nikon users can't claim their Japanese overlords haven't been listening. For years, the well-meaning veterans of DPreview have complained about the lack of <insert old camera they grew up with here> body with digital guts, oblivious to the technical limitations. Nikon have now - in part - given this to us. There is no doubt the camera looks the part. Its press images are impressive and even though I dislike its faux-retroishness, I was secretly hoping it would feel nice in the hand and I might find myself pining after one. But one hold in the hand and I was disappointed.

This ain't your hipster friend's daddy's SLR

Unlike the D600 or D800, the camera itself does not fall nicely into the hands. The body is light - too light for its size - and feels quite cheap on top. While I'm not of the "metal is heavier therefore betterer" school of old-man camera design, its construction doesn't feel up to scratch for a $3,199 body. Nikon's website tells me it's heavier than an FM2, although you wouldn't guess it. To me, this is a bad thing; to others it might be a great benefit. 
Retro done right…by default - Wikimedia Commons
The beauty of a compact 35mm SLR like the FM2 is that its heft is in a small body, whereas the Df's mass is more dispersed. Strangely, the Sony A7 and A7R feel as if they have a greater heft to them, even though they are considerably smaller and lighter than the Df. Clearly this has to do with how the camera is balanced and in the Df's case, it doesn't appear to be balanced well. Naturally, Nikon can't win everything and I understand the compromises that must be made in all disciplines of design, but I still can't shake that feeling that Nikon missed an opportunity here.  

Retro rockets firing

And at this point, retro for the sake of retro begins to fall apart. Although the Df looks like it takes its design language from Nikons of the past, it actually doesn't. An FM, FE, FA, FE2, FM2 is to the Nikon Df as Paris is to Paris Las Vegas. It is a theme park sideshow; a Hollywood backlot of plywood and rain machines; as Hollywood as Movie World - Hollywood on the Gold Coast (Shut your eyes, Marion. Don't look at it, no matter what happens). It looks like what you think an "old" camera is supposed to look like, without actually looking like any one of them in particular, or working anywhere near as well. 

It feels middling to bad in the hands, but worse is still to come. The silly spinny dials atop the camera (that look sort of like the stacked stones of Atlantis from the game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis) are about as useful as speaking French in the aforementioned Paris Las Vegas. It gets you nowhere and it's easier just to stick to what you know - either American "English", or in the case of the Df, the standard index finger/thumb combination of command dials that has served the Nikon faithful well since 199x.
ISO/Exposure Compensation dials Earth, Moon and Sun Stones from Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
As a long-time Nikon digital and 35mm user, I found neither of my muscle memories (mémoire musculaire) worked particularly well. The stupid spinny dials just stuffed with everything and I felt I had to contort my largish man-hands to manipulate the tiny (and I mean tiny - like the ubiquitous chihuahua's head on the body of a common-or-garden variety minotaur) B/D/S/M P/A/S/M wheel thing. Funny, I don't remember that dial on my FE2...

The end (of design?)

So, in conclusion, the Nikon Df is a good camera done badly. If I am to overload this absurd purple polemic with even more poorly thought-out and florid analogies, then I would say it's like a delicious piece of steak cooked by and for a vegetarian. It's useless. It shouldn't exist. There is no conceivable reason why this camera needed to be made. It did not. If Nikon existed in a vacuum, then the Df might have been ok. Instead, Nikon exists in a world populated by stereo and mobile phone-making upstarts who think they can muscle the dedicated photographic apparatus out of existence. Although I don't share the Financial Post's argument that Big Camera isn't "going to be around in five years", only Leica can get away with releasing unnecessarily adorned, hyper-expensive versions of the already expensive cameras. If Nikon is going to stay relevant in the age of iPhoneography, they're simply going to have to do better than this.

But do not despair. If you've reached this far in my ill-conceived musings, then you'll be please to know good design does exist in photography in the 21st century and it's not just consigned to Solms, Germany. A couple of Japanese camera companies even make usable, practical cameras today. Next time we'll look at those.

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