Pluged In: Flash from the past —cameras go retro

Figure 1: “Wall Street” by Paul Strand.

Figure 1: “Wall Street” by Paul Strand.

By Joe Kashi, for the Redoubt Reporter

The photo industry has thrown some curveballs over the past several months, introducing quite a number of expensive, retro-inspired cameras.

Some cameras are merely styled to appear retro but are cutting-edge digital products underneath the chrome. Olympus’ OM-D and E-Pen series are good examples. The OM-D looks like a miniaturized version of Olympus’ OM-series film SLR cameras, popular with professional photographers in the 1970s and 1980s. Olympus’ E-Pen digital cameras were among the first retro-appearing, top-tier digital cameras.

The Pen series consciously mimics the size and appearance of Olympus’ tiny Pen-F from the 1960s. Fujifilm’s X-Pro1 and X-E1 clearly evoke the classic Leica M series film cameras used by 1960s photojournalists as they famously dashed around the world from one hot spot to another. These Olympus and Fujifilm models are the foundation of high-quality camera and interchangeable-lens systems and hence are quite versatile.

Other models are not only retro in appearance but also in reduced functionality and versatility. These cameras use a fixed, single-magnification prime lens permanently attached to the camera body. My sense is that they’re intentionally designed to be “prestige” models, as differentiated as possible from shiny, consumer, point-and-shoot cameras and cellphone cameras. To me, such cameras seem to be conspicuous-consumption throwbacks to the fixed-lens film cameras of the 1940s and 1950s. They’re the digital equivalent of buying an expensive Swiss-made mechanical watch in an era when inexpensive digital watches are usually more accurate.

As you might expect for their $800 to $2,000-plus cost, these retro cameras are excellently made photographic tools with solid construction quality, sharp lenses and large, APS-C sensors. For most of us, though, their high cost is an obvious deterrent. I’m put off, as well, by the lack of versatility inherent to any camera that uses a fixed, nonzoom lens. As a result, they’re primarily useful in physically close situations, such as social gatherings or “street photography.” The only “zoom” control on these cameras is manual, walking toward or away from your subject. Although image quality is typically excellent, I suspect that most people would find their wide-angle view of the world too limiting.

Despite these obvious limitations, two more major camera companies, Nikon and Pentax-Ricoh, have introduced such models in recent weeks, Nikon’s $1,100 Coolpix A and the $800 Pentax-Ricoh GR. Other contenders include Fujifilm’s $1,300 X100S and Leica’s $2,000 X2, both using slightly wide-angle fixed lenses. Sony’s $2,800 full-frame RX1 is the smallest full-frame camera now made, but some less-expensive APS-C cameras seem to have slightly sharper image quality.

Sigma’s three $999 DP Merrill models are a case in point. Each DP model uses the same intriguing and excellent Foveon sensor but a different fixed prime lens. The DP models are offered with fixed wide-angle, normal and moderate telephoto lens options. You’ll need to buy and hang from your neck multiple cameras, at a cool $999 per copy, in order to use more than a single focal length. At least Sigma offers a few lens magnification options. Although the Sigma lenses affixed to the DP cameras are excellent, you can buy the same lens in Olympus/Panasonic Micro Four-Thirds and Sony NEX versions for as little as $100 each on sale. And, you won’t need to carry two or three cameras around your neck, nor spend a few thousand dollars to do so.

Similarly, although the 23-mm lens on Leica’s $2,000 X2 is quite sharp, $500 buys a comparably sharp, and brighter, Panasonic/Leica 25-mm f/1.4 Summilux that mounts on any Micro Four-Thirds camera. Mounting this 25-mm lens on an Olympus OM-D, you’ll not only have an equivalent lens but a significantly better sensor, an eye-level viewfinder, cutting-edge image stabilization and greater versatility for much less money. Oh, and the interchangeable-lens Olympus models are also retro-styled.

Are any of those fixed-lens luxury cameras for you? I suppose that it depends on your own needs and desires. There are quite a number of alternatives, not to mention some excellent deals among more versatile, interchangeable-lens cameras. For example, Nikon’s D3100 digital SLR model is being closed out for a mere $300, with Nikon’s decent kit lens, while Panasonic’s current flagship Micro Four-Thirds camera, the GX1, now sells new for $400, including a very compact, 14- to 42-mm power-zoom kit lens that itself sold for nearly $400 not long ago.

New dSLR models

For some time, there’s been a great deal of speculation about whether, and how, Canon and Nikon would respond to the trend toward reducing large-sensor camera size without seriously impacting their primary photographic businesses, the sale of interchangeable-lens dSLR cameras and lenses. Initially, both vendors offered halfhearted mirrorless, interchangeable-lens cameras, the Canon M and the Nikon 1 series. Neither excited the market. Prices were higher than established models from the likes of Sony, Olympus and Panasonic while these cameras were “system” cameras in name only.

More recently, both Canon and Nikon have reaffirmed their primary commitment to the more profitable consumer dSLR market by shrinking their entry-level dSLR models. In Canon’s case, this process has been quite dramatic, with Canon’s SL1 dSLR body shrinking to nearly the size of a Micro Four-Thirds camera body. Of course, larger APS-C sensors require larger lenses, particularly larger zoom lenses, and that somewhat undercuts the smaller camera body. Still, Canon’s SL1 is notable. It’s the smallest APS-C dSLR body yet.

Most Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony dSLR cameras use the same lenses and lens mounts as their full-frame, 35-mm film predecessors mounted since the 1970s. Yet most digital camera bodies are much larger than those 35-mm film cameras, even though using sub-35-mm APS-C sensors. There’s still room to further shrink consumer-grade dSLR camera bodies, and Canon’s newest example should prod other camera makers to do so.

Nikon has not been idle, introducing both its D5200 and D7100 models. Both of these cameras use Sony’s excellent 24-megapixel APS-C sensor and have virtually identical image quality. The D5200 is basically an $800 mostly plastic, consumer-grade camera, while the D7100 has a metal body, weather sealing and upgraded semipro features. Either camera should prove excellent, with your choice dependent upon your budget and needs.

Sony’s recent NEX-6 mirrorless, compact-system camera is not precisely a dSLR because it matches its 16-megapixel APS-C sensor with an electronic viewfinder rather than the SLR’s traditional mirror and optical viewfinder. Its image quality is in the same class, though, as top APS-C cameras, like the Pentax K-5 II and the Nikon D7100. Although the NEX lens lineup definitely trails Micro Four-Thirds, in other regards the NEX-6 is one of the best compact-system cameras currently on the market. The NEX-6 is definitely worth a careful look, although I’d still choose Micro Four-Thirds cameras and their broader range of high quality optics.

Influential American photographers

Paul Strand (1890-1976) has been one of the most influential photographers in the entire history of photography, and his work and influence are worth a bit of your time. In a very real sense, it’s fair to state that his photographs, although they may seem unremarkable in the 21st century, revolutionized photography when first exhibited a hundred years ago.

Breaking with 19th century photography’s posed subjects and soft-focus attempts to emulate traditional paintings, Strand introduced several of the most important approaches to modern photography. These include “straight” documentary photography as illustrated in Figure 1, the famous 1915 photo titled “Wall Street.”

Figure 2: “Porch Shadows” by Strand.

Figure 2: “Porch Shadows” by Strand.

At the same time, Strand exhibited in 1916 the first known “abstract” photographic image, “Porch Shadows,” a series of shapes and lines that are merely shadows produced by a porch railing on a round table (Figure 2). Both images were startling in their day, reorienting photography to our modern approach within a very few years. We’ll mention some other influential American photographers in future issues.

  • Asides — If you’re in a rush, then perhaps this short, animated YouTube film is for you, accurately explaining the early history of photographic technology in a mere four and a half minutes. Point your browser to www.youtube.com/watch?v=XaGUL8B-BrE.

Attorney Joe Kashi received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MIT and his law degree from Georgetown University. He has published many articles about computer technology, law practice and digital photography in national media since 1990. Many of his technology and photography articles can be accessed through his website, http://www.kashilaw.com.

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