It's curious that car buffs seem to have no problem talking happily for hours about how cars look, completely apart from performance, yet, for camera buffs, the issue is a bit more fraught. Many of us care, and some of us care more than we care to admit. It's quite popular to say things like "it doesn't matter what the camera looks like, it's a tool, meant for doing a job," etc.—which might be all very true. So if you feel that way, this post isn't for you, then.
Judged purely for the way they look, what are the best-looking cameras you can buy new today? I've got the Pentax K-5 on my list—a very no-nonsense, functional look, unspoiled by fake styleyness—a classic, muscular, compact SLR shape, well styled for its size. Maybe I'm prejudiced by how good the camera feels in the hand. (Disclaimer: Pentax is an advertiser, and I own a K-5.) I also like the Canon 5D Mark III for the same reason, and I think the Panasonic GX1 is a superb design—it manages to be simple and straightforward in design while also being practical and very well-proportioned, with very tasteful accents. It's "not too much, not too little."
I'm not sure where I come down on the lately famous Fuji X100, which is sitting on my desk as I write. It's a little too Leica-esque, maybe—in person it's small and delicate, which makes all the detailing seem just slightly fussy. (I said slightly, so don't beat me up too bad.) I wish it channeled the '70s fixed-lens rangefinders a little more firmly. I suspect the Fuji X-Pro1 has eclipsed even the X100 in the good-looks department (as it seems to have done in the affections of rangefinder fans).
The new Pentax K-01 is the first camera design I can think of in a long time where the company gave a generalist industrial designer carte blanche and let him or her design a whole camera from scratch (there was a spate of that in the '70s, especially with Contax and Porsche Design, and Nikon and Italdesign Giugiaro). The K-01 is essentially a work of art in itself, the whole-cloth creation of current hot designer Marc Newson (and probably really ought to be purchased in Newson's signature bright yellow color). I wouldn't call it good looking, but I think I need to see it in person before I make up my mind about its appearance. At least, I am generally of the opinion that "future classic" designs often don't quite fit the era of their own introduction seamlessly or non-controversially—remember that the Eiffel Tower, when it was first built, outraged then-current Parisian taste; many considered it a monstrosity and an eyesore. But those critics are long gone now (literally), and the Tour Eiffel has been delighting people visually for a hundred years. As I've said before, some Chicagoans don't like the new Soldier Field, but I believe it will become a treasured city landmark in time. Great design often isn't fully understood when it's brand new, the simple reason being that it's unconventional. (The same is true in music and art.) The K-01 has a bit of that vibe to me too—a design that doesn't quite meet the expectations of current convention, but that could come to be be more appreciated in the future than it is now.
Nikon is a company of which I very much approve, of course, but its camera designs have left me cold for years now just in terms of appearances. The D800 might be the best camera ever made, as people seem to be saying all over the web, but it's the girl next door in terms of looks. (Nikon is apparently never going to get tired of Guigiaro's red slash, which has looked rote and kind of forlorn for years now.) Olympus, on the other hand, has a long history of great-looking designs, going from strength to strength even as the parent company itself has become deeply controversial. (Although the verdict is still out—for me anyway—about my next camera purchase, the first OM-D.)
But enough about me, as they say. What would your nominations be? Help me come up with a list.
Oh, and if you're one of those "it's all a matter of taste" guys, you can skip over this post too. It's true, it is a matter of taste—fine, so exercise that taste and tell us what you like. (Note again that I'm talking about new cameras, cameras you can buy today, not historical designs.)
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Mark: "I might well be biased, since I own one, but I like the aesthetics of the Sony 900/850. Straightforward, comfortable in the hand, not too small, not too light. Somewhat angular and not too rounded. It looks like a camera, not a blob of plastic or an mp3 player. The KM-5, the OM-D, and the X-Pro1 are similarly good-looking cameras to my eye. All of them are reminiscent of classical camera design. Apparently, my aesthetic sense for cameras was formed before the EOS-1... which was released a decade before I started photographing. I always thought the late-generation Contax film cameras were the best-looking cameras around."
Featured [partial] Comment by PWL: "Sorry, but for me, that K-01 is FUGLY. Clumsy and boxy-looking. Garish too, with that Bad Acid Trip Yellow. Wouldn't take it for free. Nup."
Featured [partial] Comment by Scott L.: "The Pentax K-01 looks fantastic."
Featured Comment by Tim F: "Shirley you cannot be serious. When I saw your title I immediately thought this is one list where I won't see that yellow monstrosity that headlines your post."
Mike replies: I didn't actually say I like it...I said I need to see it in person before making up my mind. And stop calling me Shirley. Bah-dum-pah.
Featured [partial] Comment by Mike Anderson: "That Pentax K-01 looks modern—that is, in a couple years it will look a couple years dated. It looks 'illiterate' to me; the designer wasn't a student of camera design."
Featured Comment by Adam Z.: "I definitely feel some stigma when I admit aloud that how a camera looks and feels is important to me. But when I think about it: it should be important. Buying a good camera is kind of a huge investment—especially for an amateur like myself who will never have it pay off. And given that, within my price-range at least, all large-sensor digital cameras perform about equally well (give or take), why not get one that's a joy to look at and use, as well as a high-quality tool?
"That's why I bought an E-P2. Between that and the GF1, performance was about the same. But the Olympus looked like a camera should—at least to me.
"It's also why I've wandered largely back to film for shooting that's not for my food blog (sorry for the blatant plug). I'd rather carry around a rangefinder, or a TLR, that I find beautiful and fun and mentally stimulating to shoot with than something that looks either clunky, or like The Future(TM).
"It's a matter of aesthetics, or priorities, or something like that, I guess. But the fact that I like all of my cameras right now—that I want to play with them—is kind of a huge deal to me."
Featured Comment by Ed Buziak: "My all-time favorite is the 1988 Olympus "O-Product" for its outlandish—but oh-so-cool then and now—35mm camera design. But I also admit to being kinda surprisingly and pleasantly hooked on the eye-catching yellow Pentax K-01. If it were made in blue (I'm a blue jeans guy), or even red (nice contrast to those jeans), I would sell my aging Nikon D300 for one in an instant, buy a couple of pancake lenses for it, and even use it as a paperweight when working at my desk...to blend-in with other well-designed trinkets such as my '80s Braun 4835 calculator, Artemide Dedalino pencil holder, and a tall Pastis 51 glass from the bar downstairs which usually holds fresh flowers when not in regular designated use."
Featured Comment by Marc Lankhorst: "No contest: Leica MP, in black. Yes, it is a film camera, and yes, you can still buy one today ;-)"
Featured Comment by Frank Walsh: "If we are in the world of current cameras, I can't help but get googly-eyed over the X-Pro1. It is just a lust-worthy looker! Of course it may be unfair to point out the Fuji without a nod to the M9, its clear 'inspiration,' but it always seems as if Leicas are just too far out there for me to even think about as real (even though I own a IIIf). Like Bang & Olufsen audio equipment. Beautiful, but really?"
Featured Comment by Bill Wheeler: "My daughter-in-law just purchased a Nikon J1. I like its looks, and it feels great in the hand. In appearance it reminds me of a Leica screwmount camera. Very cool."
Featured [partial] Comment by Rick Wilcox: "Okay, here goes my stab at it. I pick the Sony NEX-7. Bear in mind when I first saw the NEX form factor (and all its subsequent iterations) I equated it with the obelisk from '2001: A Space Odyssey' turned sideways with a bulky lens attached to it. Too hi-tech for me. Finally, after all the hype and some sterling reviews about the seventh generation, I went down to the local camera store and looked it over. Absolutely fell in love with it. It is good to go. A bit of a leaning curve, but very intuitive. I almost bought it. I did not, and only because I now want to go look at the OM-D."
Featured [partial] Comment by Rick D: "I'm off in the weeds on DSLRs—I don't find any of them to be fetching designs such as, say, a Nikon F or Contax S2. Certain of them may be triumphs of ergonomic goodness but they're as attractive as corrective shoes."
Featured [partial] Comment by Edward Taylor: "I find most cameras to be at least a little bit beautiful." [Note: Ed has reviewed several cameras here on TOP. —Ed.]
Featured [partial] Comment by James: "...honestly, I have never seen an attractive camera. Never. Not a Canon, not a Nikon, not a Pentax, not a Leica, not a Deardorff, not a Hasselblad, not a Kodak. I've seen some interesting looking cameras and some ugly cameras, but I've never seen a pretty one."
Featured Comment by ScottKemp2: "I am a person who likes design. I love it in architecture and in consumer products. I love art. I love beauty. So why do I think the Nikon D700 looks exactly right? It is not the red stripe; we could lose that. I respect the old idea of craftsmanship at Nikon. Each new model of the high end cameras starts with the one before (which started with the one before that) and makes changes only in very restrained ways which are thought to provide functional improvements. It is the old Japanese idea of perfection in craftmanship. The idea is not to do something new, but to continue to improve the traditional object and move it on towards perfection. I love that about the Nikon professional products."
Featured Comment by Niels: "Ironically the Pentax K-01 is not photogenic but it will grow on you when you handle it. Changing my mind from first thinking something is extremely ugly to the opposite rarely happens to me but this was one of the few cases where I got a very positive surprise. Sadly the lack of physical shops where people can actually handle the camera will probably limit its success."
Featured Comment by Friedrich: "I appreciate the utilitarian beauty of the newer Pentax DSLRs (I own a K-7, and it is the best looking DSLR—which isn't saying much), but I can also see that from a purely aesthetic standpoint, all DSLRs will leave most people cold.
"The K-01 though is a huge failure in my opinion. It looks nicely graphical on paper, when photographed from right angles with high contrast. It looks bulky in reality, especially when sitting next to other mirrorless cameras (then again—all NEX lenses look comically bulky on NEXes). It's so strange—Pentax is good at making beautiful, small lenses. And then they release this over-styled, ugly, impractical brick of a camera.
"And therein lies its real fault: Styling is only one aspect of design. It is important, and should be integral, but it must be balanced with practicality. Design is how it works. And the K-01 is the least hand-holdable of all current 'serious' cameras. The 'designer' is obviously a stylist, not an engineering designer.
"Pentax could have hit it really big with the same concept. Make it look less thick, make it hand-holdable, give it a folding screen at least, and please no faux mirror/viewfinder hump when it doesn't even have an EVF. Instead they let Mr Newsom make some very big, even amateurish, mistakes. I fear they've lost a big chance.
"Oh, and yeah, Nikon DSLRs are bland. Most Canon DSLRs are too round. And all cameras are too much the same. Though—please—refrain from trying something different just for the sake of it being different. It also has to be better, or it has no raison d'être.
"TL;DR: Design is more than styling."
Featured Comment by Kelvin: "Mike, you do realise that this sort of blog post is just asking for a follow-up of 'worst-looking cameras'?"
Featured Comment by MM: "I prize simplicity in appearance, so no question for me: Leica S2 with vertical grip (yes, I like beefy cameras). Elegant, curvy, but no-nonsense. Look at that picture and you'll see three simple dots, two of which are functional (the silhouette itself says 'Leica SLR,' so the red dot is superfluous; the silver button for lens release is mostly hidden by the lens). Now look at the top of the camera. Note how many buttons, switches, and control wheels there are on the top plate: one. The outline around the top plate is as curvy as a Formula 1 track. Finally, look at the back. Compare it, say, to the new Nikon D800 (which costs 1/10th as much and probably does more, but we're talking looks here). There will be plenty of new types and shapes of cameras in the years to come, but I'm not sure a full-size DSLR can look any better than the S2.