Don't get me wrong: I love retro style. I like the X100 and the Pen F; I think the X-T10 is just about the prettiest little camera made. I have nothing against retro...
It has a downside, though. I think you can make the argument that it distorts a clear view of practicality. Why put the little front knob on the front of the Pen F except that it looks like the slow shutter-speed dial on the front of a Leica III?
Similarly, the on/off switch of the Olympus E-M1 Mark II is where it is because it's mimicking the OM-1 of 1971.
I'm not necessarily criticizing either of these features specifically, or saying that functionality decisions made for the sake of retro style are necessarily bad decisions. My own camera, the Fuji X-T1, is pretty heavily influenced by retro style (what's called "knobs 'n' dials"), and I like that about it—I prefer that style of control configuration. The late Michael Reichmann, whom we all miss, felt differently—he felt knobs 'n' dials just slowed him down.
It can't be denied that retro features are a burden in a sense. They're backward-looking by definition. While there's nothing wrong with them, they do prevent a clean-sheet rethink of how the camera should operate. Retro styling cues are nice in some ways, but in other ways they represent the weight of tradition creating a sort of distortion, a limitation on fresh thinking in design. Were it not for retro, I doubt very much the OM-D E-M1 Mark II's on/off switch would be where it is. It might be traditional, but it's neither logical nor ergonomic.
Recently it has seemed to me that the Kaufmann-era Leica cameras are taking on a certain character, a house style, typified by elegance, simplicity, and excellence. The S, SL, and TL seem "of a piece"—they embody a similar design aesthetic and gestalt. All three of these cameras must have been all, or nearly, clean-sheet design exercises, unfettered by the dictates of tradition. As time goes on, on the other hand, the M seems more and more out of sync with the rest of the lineup. I'm sure Leica will never abandon the M—the company will protect its customers who are invested in M lenses, if for no other reason—but the fact that the M is so heavily influenced by retro styling cues and design makes it seem more and more like an odd bird in the flock. It seems more and more out of place.
Maybe this is one reason why Sony and Panasonic cameras appeal to us. They aren't beholden to any particular "heritage" style. While this might make their products more anodyne or bloodless in some ways, in other ways it gives their designers a certain freedom. It leaves them free of the burden of retro.
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Featured Comments from:
Jim: "It's arguable that the retro craze can be traced to J Mays (just J—no period) who designed the New Beetle at VW then at Ford the new Thunderbird, the Ford GT update and the last generation Mustang among many other cars. Likewise the modern streamline cameras can be traced to Luigi Colani with his designs for Canon in the early '80s. Interesting that so few people know these guys!"
Gordon Cahill (partial comment): "Or maybe it's because they had it right and the last 20 years have just been an attempt to reinvent the wheel. I like my Leica SL a lot but I can't set my aperture and shutter before I turn it on. Nor can I check my settings while the power is off. The power switch is in the wrong spot. It should, like the M, or a Nikon/Sony/Fuji be around the shutter button. To me it makes complete sense to have the aperture dial on the lens. My right hand is already doing so much yet my left seems to be doing nothing except holding the camera off the ground.
"I do think some things are a step back. I'm not keen on the ISO dial on the X-Pro2. But in general, simple tactile controls, even electronically driven, are more satisfying in use than a button with 11 independent functions."
A C Eckert: "I had a somewhat similar thought yesterday while out for an evening walk. It was quite cold and windy, and I had neglected to bring gloves. My hands rapidly numbed, and switching between my D810 and X-T1 revealed a handling difference that I hadn’t really noticed before. The retro dials on the X-T1 became sharp, fiddly, and annoying to operate, whereas the smooth buttons and rubberized dials on the D810 remained comfortable and easy to use. It’s differences like this that make actual camera reviews so valuable to prospective purchasers. A lot of the stuff that’s practically important to photographers just can’t be easily presented or compared in spec sheet form."
Michael Wall: "I am an industrial designer, trained in England and practicing here in Canada for the last 35 years. My first SLR, back in the '80s, was an Olympus OM-1n. As a designer I appreciated the beauty and functionality of Yoshihisa Maitani's design of the OMs and the Pens. When I started shooting digital I bought Olympus 4/3 cameras, partly out of loyalty, partly to utilize my OM lenses which I am fond of. The 4/3 cameras were quite well designed, but overly large, and I yearned for a digital version of my OM-1. Then came the OMD E-M5 which looked very much like the OM-1, was small and light and ergonomically good. It was retro, but seemed to keep it under control—I was very pleased and hoped the E-M1 would follow that restraint. I have been meaning to write a critique of the E-M1, with illustrations, or even redesign it using the same spatial envelope and legacy but with more elegance.
"What has happened at Olympus is that, in the absence of a charismatic designer like Maitani, the designers have been captured by the superficial style of the OMs and have lost the essence of the simplicity and elegance with which Maitani imbued his designs. If he were working at Olympus now, the OMDs would not look the way they do, they would look and feel radical in the same way that the Olympus technology is radical, but they would retain Maitani's personal design ethos.
"I love using my new E-M1 Mark II, and I'm getting some good results, but I can't help redesigning it in my mind every time I pick it up—something I never did with the OM-1."
Ben Rosengart: "What a lot of 'retro' design gets right is, it communicates physical states—a car's speed, an aperture's width—by visual or tactile metaphors rather than by figures. In the case of a speedometer, for example, the angle of the needle corresponds to the speed of the car. Analog controls can be even more powerful than analog displays, because muscle memory gets involved. You could even say that to some extent you're allowed to pretend that you're operating a machine, not sending commands to a computer. I appreciate computers, but with a camera, I want to be thinking visually, not analytically. If I'm aware that the camera's a computer, I feel let down by it. I think this is why Sony cameras don't appeal to me."
Dave Levingston: "Years ago I worked with an Olympus OM-1 (provided by an employer). It was a fine camera. But the worst feature on it was the on/off switch. Many times I'd pick it up and find that it had somehow been left turned on and now had a dead battery. I don't know how it happened. I don't really think I forgot to turn it off all that often. Maybe it was working the rewind knob that somehow moved the switch. I seem to remember that the switch was much complained about at the time. That's not the kind of retro I enjoy."
Dave Karp (partial comment): "A nice thing about the E-M1 and its on/off switch is that it is out of the way. I automatically turn it on with my left hand when I lift up the camera or take it out of the bag. Then I never go anywhere near the on/off switch until I purposely turn the camera off. That was not the case with another camera I owned that had the on/off switch placed around the shutter release button."
Gaspar Heurtley: "There's nothing more retro styled than a modern Nikon DSLR. The latest digital cameras look exactly like their old film counterparts. Apart from some cosmetics (like the vertical/horizontal red line on the grip) and a few buttons, the F100 is pretty much the same as a D500. But yet, everyone points at poor Oly for the placement of the on/off switch. Oh, well...."