The Camera of the Future Isn’t From the Past

The Camera of the Future Isn’t From the Past


In an insightful essay about the “graying” of photography , Kirk Tuck opines about seeing 50-year old men proudly displaying their huge DSLRs while hanging out at the counters at the Photo Plus Expo in New York last month. The generation that obsessed over pristine primes, low noise and 16×20 prints has been supplanted by a gaggle of Snapchatting millenials for whom photography is no different than a text conversation.

As many pundits have pointed out, photography has become a form of communication in a way that it wasn’t when film and processing was expensive. A visual communication that transcends language and cultural boundaries that is being created and evolving at a prodigious rate.

I bring this up because of the trend of “retro” camera design, most recently, today’s announcement of the Nikon Df DSLR (disclosure: I am a Nikon shooter), which featured a marketing campaign centered around its vintage design.

There is nothing wrong with a vintage design. Good design is often timeless, and having dials instead of a hierarchical menu system can be a good thing. But who is the target market for this $2750 body?

Given the awesome D4 sensor that is packed into this body, one could argue that this is a defeatured, lower-cost D4 in a smaller body. That all sounds great on paper, but I suspect that buyers in this price range will opt for the Nikon D800 with its 36MP sensor and video capability.

And this is all good and well if you are a 50 year old white guy, or perhaps an indie filmmaker who wants that shallow depth-of-field look for their next Vimeo short.

But what about the next generation, most of whom are content to use their smartphone because they always carry it?

There will never be a mass movement back to point-and-shoots from the camera phone because convenience trumps quality, and by the way, cameraphones have startling good quality. But there is a segment of users in the millions who do want a dedicated camera. They consider themselves photographers, they desire better low light capabilities, they want optical zoom, and they are willing to deal with a little extra weight.

I am that guy. And I considered the Nikon Df because I wanted to use my fast glass and have faster focusing. But by the time I slap on a 35mm f/1.4, I’m suddenly lugging 3 pounds of camera instead of the sub-1 pound of my Sony RX-1. And although I might gain phase detection focusing (e.g. faster focusing), I can’t instantly Facebook my higher quality shots because there is no built-in Wifi (Nikon offers a plug-in accessory) or GPS. That camera I carry around all the time? It’s a personal communication device, and sometimes I don’t want to wait until I get home to dump my 24MB RAW files into Lightroom to generate an obscenely large JPG that will never be printed.


The future isn’t the Nikon Df, the Olympus OM-D EM-1 or the Fuji X100s. The future isn’t the Sony QX-100, which awkwardly attaches to my phone. The future for photographers willing to carry around a dedicated camera adopts paradigms from the phone. WiFi, GPS and a touch screen are built-in, and its open source software allows me to launch Instagram (or whatever app is the soup du jour) and have the camera automatically pair with my phone so I don’t have to do everything twice. The future uses technology and design to free us from analog constraints. The future is optimistic, and the utopian future makes us want to catch glimpses of the next future — not peer backwards and yearn for the past.

I don’t know many things, but I’m pretty sure the camera of the future isn’t from the past.


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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 32 comments for this article
  1. Valerio at 5:22 am

    Many people don’t want the future, Allen, rather are nostalgic of the past. This is Df target.

    I don’t think it is a bad camera to be fair, what I found really irritating is that what you get in US for less than 3000$ in UK costs the equivalent of ~4400$ and this is not just taxes difference it’s Nikon disappointing policy.

    Maybe I get a flight to NYC, come back to visit you and buy one there!

  2. Antonio M. Rosario at 7:39 am

    I both agree and disagree. Nothing wrong with retro design that’s been updated. I love the new Ford Mustang, the Chrysler 300, and other industrial designs that borrow from the past. This new Nikon borrows som nice looks from older Nikon’s which I love. There’s something great about holding an object where design has some meaning (I want to have nice things). Truly, we could be walking around with a box with a built in lens (iPhone?) and take perfectly great pictures with it. Do I *want* to? Well, sometimes. Other times I want to hold something in my hands that helps me to complete the feeling that I *am* a photographer. A nicely designed camera does that for me.

    That said, charging $3,000 for something like this is absurd and destines it to be an object desired not for it’s abilities but for its looks. Meaning that well-off photographers and those longing to own a “status symbol” are to be the market for this retro designed machine, not the students of photography, or the photojournalists, or the nature shooter. It reminds me of the gold-plated Nikons of the early 80’s. Something to *display* rather than really use and get dirty and worn.

    Funny that Allen says the camera from the future is not from our past especially when the future, and present, of photographs *is* from our past. Consider all the “retro” filters now applied to pictures…

  3. shel at 8:46 am

    Will said:
    “I agree. This just seems like good marketing that panders to a group of people who aren’t really paying attention.”

    ummm . . . I thought the effectiveness of ALL marketing is inversely proportional to the amount of attention people are paying.

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  5. David G. at 11:17 am

    The problem with this article is simple: it confuses sound, proven design principles for outdate, “retro” ones.

    There is nothing anymore outdated about putting control knobs on a camera than there is anything outdated about putting a steering wheel in a car. We have the technology available to use something other than a steering wheel – but the wheel is practical, convenient, and accepted. So we probably will not be seeing any cars on lots with joysticks or any other control mechanisms any time soon. Does that make any car with a steering wheel retro? Not anymore retro than a camera with knob controls. There is nothing outdated about good user interfaces.

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  7. Radford D at 1:25 pm

    While this isn’t camera for me, I do see it might be a fit for someone looking for a full frame camera that is cheaper in price than a D4. And retro is cool, right? Look at all the hipsters posting to Instagram using filters from 1960, spending time to make their images retro. I want to spend the time in the moment, capturing the photo, the art, the world around me, not chimping over my phone punching at the screen to get the latest noise out to Facebook before I get back to my car. I would say any person with any camera is a photographer. And every photograph, from a phone or from a D4, is a form of communication. There are a lot of photos coming from phones these days — it’s easy. It doesn’t take much skill to snap a photo with a phone and post to Flickr or Instagram. It may be communication, but the “art” is sometimes lacking. There’s a lot of noise out there. I hope we don’t all evolve into phone photographers. If we do, we will start to see kids picking up the bigger cameras to look retro, like us 50 year old white guys. That what happened with LPs.

  8. Tom Parkes at 1:27 pm

    As a 50 year old white male I remember knobs and dials the first time round and honestly can’t say this camera appeals to me. But Nikon’s job is to sell cameras not invent the future (the camera division is just to small to take wild punts) and initial interest in the Df seems to indicate they have a market for it. Nikon may be late to the retro party but since Fuji’s well regarded line-up is entirely rangefinder inspired I’d say Nikon will find enough buyers to justify building the camera.

  9. Raj at 11:04 pm

    DOA. Stop giving us the same and just give us the D400. I love Nikon but give us what we have all been waiting for…and watch your inventory get swallowed up…

  10. Anonymous at 8:33 am

    @Raj, the problem is we’ve all been waiting for different things. I’d like to see the D4 sensor in a D800 body. I have a suspicion it won’t happen. If Nikon wants to innovate though, how about peaking and Zebras for video on a DSLR? Ought to be achievable.

  11. Tom Parkes at 8:34 am

    @Raj, the problem is we’ve all been waiting for different things. I’d like to see the D4 sensor in a D800 body. I have a suspicion it won’t happen. If Nikon wants to innovate though, how about peaking and Zebras for video on a DSLR? Ought to be achievable.

  12. Stephen at 1:42 pm

    Disagree completely. The camera of the future is the camera you choose to bring with you. For me, my camera of choice will never be a smart phone, a digital point and shoot, or a DSLR. It wouldn’t be a retro designed digital camera either… It will be a film camera. I am not 50, but I am a “white guy”.

  13. David Parry at 6:28 am

    I don’t know much either but I am pretty sure the future of the camera is a camera. All this lazy nonsense about how much it weighs, if your a fully grown human being and think one camera one lens is heavy something is very wrong.

    What you seam to have failed to grasp is that there has always been people who shot because they enjoyed the form, professional or not and people who shot because they wanted it in their family album. Both are as valid as each other but are completely different. Do you really think that new technology will change human nature so much that people will no longer want the right tool for the job.

    Slap a zoom lens on the front of your phone all you like, now try to keep it still at low shutter speeds, oh their is no weight phone to balance the lens. Will they be developing phones with big flash units that you can bounce/soften/ use off camera because i don’t know many photographers who like the light from tiny direct flashes on phones and see many phone users wanting a phone big enough to achieve that.

    Those of us who like to point shoot get a decent picture and show all our friends immediately the phone is king but to suggest the DSLR (retro styled or not) dead is ridiculous. Photographers will continue to want manual control, fast lenses good flash, in short the best technology available to achieve the picture they have in their mind.

    I am a 30 year old white pro photographer.

  14. Shane Srogi at 6:16 pm

    From an educators stand point I see things a little differently. Every beginning workshop I teach people have a real disconnect between buttons and menu functions and how those numbers relate to creating an exposure. The Df and camera’s with dials gives people a visual reference, a something to turn and come up with a result. It helps people learn faster. Numbers on a LED screen or on an LCD back don’t have much meaning. Personally, I’m happy that Nikon is creating camera aren’t just econoline versions of the Flagship models.

  15. Angga at 3:43 pm

    …you all bunch of motherfuckers who never appreciate a good design is not always looks like the future, is Nikon said DF is the future camera?

    For Will, good marketing? you old bastard know that Nikon brand is a world wide brand, right? so they don’t need a good marketing, if it’s good camera they will share the news

  16. eperlan at 12:17 pm

    Didn’t Chase Jarvis nail it with his notion that “the best camera is the one you that’s with you…” ? Stop with the teeth-gnashing, go make pictures.

  17. Deniz Saylan at 1:00 pm

    eperlan is totally right. Its the picture not the gear that counts. we are wasting too much energy in discussing what the industrie want to sell to us. Rather go and take pictures. What ever…. with your phone, or an old shoe… doesn’t care if the picture works. Otherwise: its a crapy picture, but the guy used a blablabla camera…. so what?
    Look to all the really famous pictures… most of them are technically insufficient and badly taken, but they have soul, they touch us, we remember them…. nobody says oh well its a dying soldier, unsharp, shaken, so dump it. no. its touching. it raises discussion. its not a better picture because taken with a Leica, nor its a worse picture taken by a smart phone.
    Best regards, Deniz

  18. Nemo niemann at 2:45 pm

    All I can say is, what a load of horse crap. And yes, I AM over 50 and a “white guy”. First of all, what a bigoted comment to begin with. I”ve been a working pro for over 35-yrs, and I’m a Canon shooter. I’ve longed for years for a camera sans video. When I want to shoot stills, I shoot stills. For all the poser photographers who think they can do it all with a camera phone, think again. I can shoot with any camera and produce excellent work — it’s what I get paid to do. But what do I want for a $50,000 shoot. Not a poi and shoot. Not a camera phone. Kudos to Nikon for producing the Df — retro look or not. Canon, are you listening?

  19. bennybee at 3:52 pm

    Yet another bulky blob of camera that bobs on your belly from left to right. And one which still has that antique flopping shaving mirror inside – wasn’t that invented somewhere early in the past century (by Exakta or something like that…)?

  20. Mark L at 4:44 pm

    I really don’t understand a lot of this, especially the last line of the article – the camera of the future isn’t from the past. Well, duh. The author is basically evaluating the camera on a a set of criteria it was never designed to address. It’s another camera. It’s designed to sell more cameras to some people, not everyone. Nikon is a business, and this is actually a pretty smart move on their part from that perspective. There is no such thing as the camera we’ve all been waiting for. The ideal camera for all people will never exist, there are too many different ideas of what people want or need. I have a D800, and am very interested in this camera as a much more affordable alternative to the D4. I really don’t care how it looks, as long as it meets my needs as a tool. Why is the styling and coolness factor such a big issue? Buying a camera (or most anything, for that matter) to impress others is such a waste of time. The people you’re trying to impress really don’t care anyway, they’re too busy trying to impress you with something they’ve got. Attracting attention to oneself as a photographer with some fancy or cool camera isn’t going to get you better pictures, in fact the opposite is more likely to be the case. eperlan and Deniz nailed it – thanks guys. Anybody know what kind of typewriter Ernest Hemingway used? Answer – who cares? He certainly wouldn’t have been a better writer if he had used the latest computer styled to look like an old typewriter, even if that retro computer was the future of literature.

  21. Bob Loblaw at 12:12 am

    From bennybee – Yet another bulky blob of camera that bobs on your belly from left to right. And one which still has that antique flopping shaving mirror inside – wasn’t that invented somewhere early in the past century (by Exakta or something like that…)?

    Really? if you don’t like the camera then don’t buy it. Problem solved. Why is it bad if a company comes out with a camera that you don’t like but someone else might? That’s not a rhetorical question, I really would like to know. It’s so amazingly prevalent lately that any new camera that comes out has to be THE answer to all our dreams and wishes. Never going to happen.
    If you want a lighter camera, buy a GoPro. A heavier, bulkier camera is actually much easier to hand-hold at slow shutter speeds. What’s more important, your comfort or getting the best photograph possible in a given situation? As for your comments about the mirror – wow, it’s hard to know where to begin. The SLR was invented in the 1920s. Do you finally have a better solution? The Canon Pellix came out in the mid-1960s and never really went anywhere because of the light loss to the film. The same applies to modern-day digital sensors. The wheel was invented eons ago. Does that mean it’s no longer relevant today? Will a fixed-mirror result in better photographs, and can you or anyone actually stick their head inside a camera lens mount in order to shave? If not, your reference, and your whole premise in those regards is absurd.

  22. aksuoh at 10:37 am

    I recently looked at and held a Fuji 100s, another “retro” style camera. Immediately it just felt right as instincts were able to triumph over menu surfing and teeth gnashing just to take a damn picture! . while I haven’t picked up the Nikon Df yet I’m assuming my reaction
    would be similar to that of the Fuji. This has little to do w/ retro design but mostly good simple functional design. Remember driving a stick shift? While most would agree they were a lot of fun, the fun was derived from the fact that you were actually “driving” the car not vice versa. I believe these cameras offer similar experience.

  23. Christi MacPherson at 4:17 am

    As a 40 something pasty blue guy ( I’m a Scot ), I’ve got to say the whole 50 year old white guy schtick is itself getting pretty old. Definitely very tiresome. I mean it’s not ageist and it’s not racist if it’s not targeted at a particular age group and skin colour? Is that the thinking? Because if it is, you’re wrong.

    Starting focusing on the images as opposed to the demographic and photography will be the better for it.

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