Retro-Style Cameras

“Retro”-look serious cameras are hot today. Besides the nostalgia factor, they provide their users with a sense of style. We wouldn’t trade the technology of our recent DSLRs and mirrorless cameras for that of the old 35mm film cameras, much less earlier digital cameras, but there’s something to be said for the retro look. Photographers—pro photographers, in particular—have an image, and a stylish camera can be useful for that image. Retro-style cameras look cool, and some are quite suitable for pro work.

Back in the day, things were simpler. You could set your DSLR directly via dials, no need to deal with menus on an LCD monitor (film cameras didn’t even have monitors)—or even switch on the camera. No white balance (you did that through film choice and when making prints), no video—just good cameras that could be directed easily to take excellent pictures. The cameras were quick, but let you work methodically without bells and whistles, urging you ever onward. Here, we present the prime movers behind today’s retro movement.


Nikon DF

The concept behind the Df is akin to that behind a classic sports car, where the creators looked at the key elements that a driving enthusiast would want and then took out everything else. The Df includes the flagship D4’s full-frame sensor and amazing low-light image quality, retro styling with dials that provide direct access to the most important functions for a photographer, a 150,000-cycle shutter, 5.5 fps shooting and the ability to use a huge number of current and legacy Nikon lenses. But it leaves out HD video (although it does have live view) and a pop-up flash (but it has an i-TTL hot-shoe and a PC connector for studio flash). Like a true sports car, at $2,749, it’s not inexpensive, but it certainly ticks the critical boxes for a lot of still photographers.

Many online photo forums have long-standing threads populated by those who long for “the good old days”—or at least for that simplicity. Those photographers will love the new Nikon Df, a rugged and relatively compact full-frame DSLR, with plenty of dials that let you set non-digital photographic things directly, and no video. While the Df’s back is similar to those of other higher-end Nikon DSLRs, with a 3.2-inch, 921K-dot LCD monitor, a big eye-level pentaprism viewfinder that shows 100% of the actual image area and the usual DSLR buttons, the top plate is where the action is. To the right of the pentaprism is a shutter-speed dial (4 to 1⁄4000 sec., plus B, T and X, and a 1⁄3-step position). To the left are concentric dials: The top one contains exposure-compensation settings (from +3 to -3 in 1⁄3-step increments); the bottom one sets ISO (the normal range in 1⁄3-step increments, plus L1 and H1 through H4). Adjacent to the shutter-speed dial is the drive-mode switch (S, CL, CH, quiet mode, self-timer, mirror-up). To the right of the mechanical shutter button is a simple PSAM exposure-mode selector. The key point here is, you can set, and check, all of these items without looking at the LCD monitor or operating multiple buttons and controls. Very cool.

While the exterior is retro and simple, inside is high-tech. For starters, you’ll find the 16.2-megapixel, full-frame CMOS sensor from the pro flagship D4, along with EXPEED 3 processing to optimize image quality and produce the same remarkable ISO performance. Normal range is 100-12800, plus L1 (50), H1 (25600), H2 (51200), H3 (102,400) and L4 (a whopping 204,800)—here’s your chance to get D4 image quality at half-price! There’s in-camera HDR, two- and five-shot auto-bracketing, and Nikon’s Picture Controls. The 2016-pixel 3D Matrix Metering with Scene Recognition System and 39-point AF system (with 9 cross-type points, and 7 points that can function at ƒ/8, great news for teleconverter users) with 3D Tracking and Auto Area AF provide excellent performance in these areas. In Live View mode, the Df features the same contrast-based AF system as the flagship D4 pro camera.

The Df can shoot at 5.5 fps with focusing for each shot, in bursts of up to 100 JPEGs or 29 14-bit RAWs. The rechargeable EN-EL14a lithium-ion battery is good for around 1,400 shots per charge, per CIPA testing standards, and the shutter has been tested in-camera to 150,000 cycles. The body features the weather-resistance of the D800, with a single slot for SD/SDHC/SDXC memory cards, UHS-I-compliant. There’s no built-in flash, but there’s a hot-shoe that accepts Nikon Speedlights (the Df is also compatible with Nikon’s i-TTL wireless Creative Lighting System), as well as a PC terminal for studio flash systems. You can add the optional WU-1a Wireless Mobile Adapter and download images (and operate the camera remotely) with a smartphone or tablet. The Df is also compatible with Nikon’s optional GP-1 and GP-1A geotagging GPS units.

Of course, the Df can use all current AF, AF-S, DX and AF-D Nikkor lenses (like other full-frame Nikon DSLRs, it automatically crops to 1.5X DX format when a DX lens is mounted, producing 6.8-megapixel images). FX (full-frame) lenses range from 14mm to 800mm (DX lenses go down to 10-24mm, but that’s equivalent to 15-36mm with the DX crop), including many with VR Vibration Compensation. But, unlike other Nikon DSLRs, the Df is also compatible with classic Ai and non-Ai Nikkor lenses with full-aperture metering. Concurrently with the Df, Nikon has also introduced the new classic FX-format AF-S Nikkor 50mm ƒ/1.8G Special Edition lens honoring the design of the classic Ai lenses (and the Df camera). Dimensions are 5.6×4.3×2.6 inches and 25 ounces.

Estimated Street Price: $2,749 (body); $2,999 (with 50mm Special Edition kit lens).


Olympus OM-D E-M1

Olympus kind of started the current retro wave with its E-P1 PEN mirrorless camera in 2009. The E-P1 and its successors are based on the look of the classic compact Olympus PEN half-frame 35mm cameras of the 1960s, and while they’re excellent image-making devices, none has a built-in eye-level viewfinder (an electronic viewfinder is available as an optional accessory for some of them).

Enter the OM-D, based on the look of the classic compact Olympus OM-series 35mm SLRs of the 1970s. The original OM-D E-M5 drew a lot of praise when introduced in 2012, and the current flagship OM-D E-M1 is becoming popular with pros as a go-anywhere system camera. Actually, the mirrorless E-M1 is also the successor to the last Olympus pro DSLR, the E-5: Yes, it’s that good.

A “mini-DSLR”-style mirrorless model with a rugged freeze-, dust- and splashproof body, a state-of-the-art, 16.3-megapixel Micro Four Thirds Live MOS sensor and powerful new TruePic VII processor, the E-M1 offers a feature set that goes well beyond that of the E-5.

The new Dual Fast AF system provides great lens versatility. The camera uses 81-point contrast AF when native Micro Four Thirds lenses are mounted and automatically engages 37-point on-sensor phase-detection AF when legacy Four Thirds lenses are used. (When continuous AF is selected with an MFT lens, both AF systems work together to improve tracking performance.) There are 57 Four Thirds and MFT lenses currently available, all designed specifically for the Four Thirds/MFT image sensor. These include 32 Zuiko and M.Zuiko Digital ones from Olympus, providing focal lengths from 9mm through 300mm, plus an 8mm fisheye. With the sensor’s 2X focal-length factor, this provides users with focal lengths equivalent to 16mm through 600mm on a 35mm camera. Note that an adapter, preferably the new weather-sealed MMF-3, allows you to attach Four Thirds lenses to the E-M

You can choose a single AF point or activate a 3×3-point group or let the camera choose the AF area. Super Spot AF lets you pinpoint focus on a tiny subject or a tiny area of a subject. There’s not only face-detection AF, but also eye-detection AF, which can be set for nearest-eye, right-eye or left-eye priority. You can also quickly focus anywhere in the image merely by touching the spot on the LCD monitor. For manual focusing, focus peaking is available.

You might think that devoting sensor pixels to AF instead of the image could reduce image quality, but only about 6% of the 16.3 million pixels are devoted to AF. The E-M1’s TruePic VII processor delivers effective noise reduction and lens aberration corrections, and the sensor produced the highest score yet (by a point) for a Four Thirds-format sensor in’s testing. The E-M1 also incorporates the Olympus excellent 5-axis sensor-shift image-stabilization system, which compensates for yaw, pitch and roll, as well as vertical and horizontal shift, and works with all lenses. The system allows you to handhold steadily at shutter speeds 4 EV slower than without, per CIPA measurement conditions.

A new super-large, eye-level electronic viewfinder features 2.36 million dots and a 1.48X (0.74X 35mm-camera equivalent) magnification, with a minimal 0.029-second display-time lag. The EVF is complemented by a 3.0-inch, 1037K-dot, tilting touch-screen LCD monitor.

There are lots of control dials and buttons, making it quicker and easier to set many camera functions, and a lot of customization is possible. The BLN-1 lithium-ion battery provides 350 shots per charge (per CIPA standard); the optional HLD-7 Battery Grip holds a second battery and doubles shooting capacity. Built-in Wi-Fi, in conjunction with the Olympus Image App, lets you upload images to your smartphone wirelessly, operate the camera from your smartphone and geotag images using the smartphone’s GPS.

The E-M1 can shoot at 10 fps with focus locked at the first exposure and 6.5 fps with continuous AF. A big buffer lets you shoot up to 41 RAW or 95 JPEG images in H advance mode. The built-in intervalometer will shoot 1-999 images at intervals from one second to 24 hours. Video capabilities include 1080p, 720p and 640×480, all at 30 fps. Sound is stereo via built-in or external microphone. There’s also a 720p 10 fps time-lapse mode. Dimensions are 5.1×3.7×2.5 inches and 15.6 ounces.

Estimated Street Price: $1,399 (body only).


Leica M Typ 240

Leica has been making M-series rangefinder cameras since the M3 model in 1954 (yes, there were M2 and M1 models, but curiously, the M3 was the first). So the current M Typ 240 isn’t a throwback to the look of the past, but simply the latest in a long line of highly respected imaging devices. It looks like a classic Leica rangefinder camera because it is a classic Leica rangefinder camera. But it’s digital.

The Ms were 35mm film cameras until the first digital one, the M8, in 2006. The M7 35mm camera is still in production, but the top digital Leica is now the M Typ 240. It’s the first Leica to use a CMOS sensor (a 24-megapixel “full-frame” one), and thus the first to offer live view, live focusing and video. It also produces the best image quality of any Leica digital camera by a wide margin.

Focusing is manual only. Like all Leica M cameras, the M Typ 240 provides excellent rangefinder focusing and can use all of the superb Leica M-system lenses. It can also use Leica R-series SLR lenses via optional R adapter. It provides live-view focusing on the 3.0-inch, 920K-dot LCD monitor, with focus peaking, and you can add the optional Visoflex EVF2 electronic viewfinder for eye-level electronic viewing and focusing, if desired. (Note that you have to use live viewing with the R lenses; the rangefinder doesn’t work with them.) Leica’s fast Maestro image processor optimizes image quality and speeds operation. Startup time is about one second, and maximum burst rate is 3 fps. Images are stored on SD/SDHC/SDXC cards, and can be saved as uncompressed or lossless compressed DNG (RAW) or JPEGs. Shutter speeds range from 60 to 1⁄4000 sec., with flash sync up to 1⁄180 sec. TTL flash is possible via the SCA-3502-compatible hot-shoe.

Video capabilities include 1080p and 720p at 25 and 24 fps, and VGA at 30 fps, with mono sound via built-in microphone or stereo via external mic.

As you’d expect of a Leica, the M Typ 240 is ruggedly constructed, with top and base plates machined from solid brass and the body manufactured in one piece from high-strength magnesium alloy, covered in synthetic leather. The body is splash- and dustproof (but the M lenses aren’t). Dimensions are 5.5×3.1×1.7 inches and 23.9 ounces.

Estimated Street Price: $6,950.


Fujifilm X-Pro1

The X-Pro1 was the interchangeable-lens follow-up to the company’s popular retro-style APS-C fixed-lens X100 (see sidebar), introduced a year later in 2009. Featuring something of a classic Leica-style look, the X-series cameras feature a unique Hybrid Multi Viewfinder that lets you switch instantly between an optical eye-level finder and an electronic one. The finder automatically adjusts magnification and frame lines to suit the lens in use.

The X-Pro1 has a clean, retro-style body incorporating a magnesium-alloy chassis and die-cast aluminum top and base plates, and a leather-like covering. The precision-milled control dials allow you to directly set shutter speeds and exposure compensation. Aperture rings on each lens let you set apertures in 1⁄3-EV increments, while focusing rings permit manual focusing (albeit electronic “by-wire” focusing, not mechanical focusing).

The X-Pro1 employs a 16.2-megapixel, APS-C Fujifilm X-Trans image sensor, which has a unique RGB filter array that differs from the conventional Bayer grid by featuring a more random pattern that minimizes moiré and false colors, which, in turn, allows Fujifilm to do away with the sharpness-reducing optical low-pass filter employed by most Bayer-sensor cameras.

The X-Pro1’s mirrorless design permits a flange-back distance (the distance between the lens mount and image sensor) of just 17.7mm, allowing for lens designs that locate the rear element much closer to the sensor than with DSLRs. The new X mount also features a wide opening, allowing for wider-diameter rear elements. The result is light more evenly delivered to the sensor for higher resolution across the image frame. Currently, Fujifilm offers 11 lenses for the X-series cameras, from 10-24mm to 50-230mm for 35mm-camera-equivalent focal lengths of 15mm to 345mm.

The X-Pro1 is primarily a still camera, but can do 1920×1080 full HD and 1280×720 HD video at 24 fps, with stereo sound via built-in microphone (but no external mic jack). Clips can run up to 29 minutes in length. Dimensions are 5.5×3.2×1.7 inches and 14.1 ounces.

Estimated Street Price: $1,099.

Fixed-Lens Retro, And Not

Fujifilm‘s 12.3-megapixel X100 was its first compact APS-C-sensor camera, featuring a built-in 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm on a 35mm camera) and a classic Leica-style look. It also introduced Fujifilm’s unique Hybrid Multi Viewfinder that lets you switch instantly between an optical eye-level finder and an electronic one. The former provides the brightest image and minim
izes shutter lag, while the latter provides an excellent live view of the image.The X100S improved upon the original X100’s APS-C sensor with a 16.2-megapixel Fujifilm X-Trans II APS-C sensor with on-chip phase-detection AF sensors to complement the unique X-Trans filter array (see the main article for details on that) and a higher-res version of the Hybrid Multi Viewfinder. So you get pro image quality and good AF performance, all in a stylish, much-smaller-than-DSLR package. The X100S measures 5.0×2.9×2.1 inches and weighs 15.7 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,299.

Actually, now there are a number of excellent fixed-lens cameras with compact bodies and DSLR-sized image sensors, although lacking a classic retro look. Leica’s X Vario features a 16.2-megapixel, APS-C CMOS sensor and a built-in 18-46mm zoom lens (equivalent to 28-70mm on a 35mm camera). Dimensions are 5.2×2.9×3.7 inches and 24 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $2,850. Leica’s X2 features the same sensor and a built-in 24mm lens (equivalent to 35mm on a 35mm camera). It measures 4.9×2.7×2.0 inches and weighs 11.2 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,995.

Nikon’s Coolpix A features a 16.2-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor and a built-in 18.5mm lens (28mm 35mm-camera equivalent). It measures just 4.4×2.6×1.6 inches and weighs 10.6 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $1,099.

Ricoh‘s similar GR has a 16.2-megapixel, APS-C CMOS sensor and a fixed 18.3mm lens (28mm 35mm-camera equivalent). It measures 4.6×2.4×1.4 inches and weighs a mere 8.6 ounces. Estimated Street Price: $799.

Sigma offers three DP Merrill cameras, all featuring the unique Foveon X3 image sensor that records all three primary colors at every pixel site. (Conventional sensors record just one color at each site, producing the missing colors at each site by interpolation using complex proprietary algorithms and producing color moiré that generally requires use of a blurring optical low-pass filter; the Foveon sensor doesn’t need the OLPF filter and thus can deliver higher resolution for a given pixel count.) The DP1M has a built-in 28mm lens (equivalent to 35mm on a full-frame camera), the DP2M, a 45mm equivalent lens, and the DP3M, a 75mm equivalent lens; all three lenses were designed specifically for the Foveon sensor. All three DP models are 4.8 inches wide and 2.6 inches high; due to the different lenses, they differ in depth (2.5mm, 2.3mm and 3.2mm, respectively) and weigh 12.0, 11.6 and 14.1 ounces, respectively. Estimated Street Price: $899 (each).

Sony offers two versions of its RX1 full-frame “pocket camera”: the RX1 features a 24.3-megapixel, full-frame Sony Exmor CMOS sensor with an OLPF, and the RX1R, a similar sensor without the OLPF. Both have a built-in 35mm ƒ/2.0 lens designed for the camera and sensor, measure 4.5×2.6×2.7 inches and weigh 17.0 ounces—the most compact full-frame digital cameras available. Estimated Street Price: $2,799 (each).

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