They don’t make ‘em like they used to By Thomas Whitaker
I’ve recently fallen in love with two vintage film cameras that I own, and have my heart set on eventually owning a classic Leica M3. My love of these cameras has drawn me to notice something when sitting them next to my newer cameras. Side by side sit my digital bodies which are the 550D, 40D and the X-E1 and the film Asahi Pentax and the Canonet. It’s then that something becomes very apparent when you pick them up and hold them in the hand, they certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to.
I should make a note of why I am so keen on this aspect of the things I own. I’m also a Graphic Designer as well as a Photographer. My long time best friend is a brilliant Industrial Designer and comes up with some amazing concepts and products. Working with him has rubbed off on me, and I have developed quite a taste for the styling and materials of a product, as well as its workings. Looking at camera’s new and old there are some very interesting differences. The saying ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used too’ keeps ringing in the back of my mind when looking at them. We’ve made some huge leaps in technology but I often wonder what have we have left behind?
Before we go any further, I want to squash any argument about the flagship models from manufacturers and their construction. This is a view on the camera landscape as a whole; point and shoots, range finders, SLR’s everything. As far as brand goes it doesn’t really matter, one is not better than the other and vice versa. In general they are all very similar in their own way and basic concept.
Picking up the different cameras and different styles, examining the materials of each, it becomes apparent that I prefer the old mechanical film cameras to its newer digital cousin. Their operation is the perfect way to describe it, mechanical. Sliding the reload lever, moving the dials and shifting the aperture on the lens, you can feel everything react within your hand. Like using a manual gear box on an old car, you feel everything move and react to your movements; I don’t think you get this anymore with a newer camera. The dials, the buttons all feel numb, it feels distant.
The Asahi Pentax was built in the 1960′s and the Canonet was built in the 1970′s, they are both mechanical operation so don’t need a battery to make them work. The Canonet has a battery to run the light metre and shutter priority and nothing else, no battery- no worries. The Pentax has nothing. No light metre, so there is nothing electronic in the camera. Sure technology advanced with new things, the digital sensor took over from film and is the consumer choice. Phones changed rapidly and now have more power in them than a computer of a decade ago. But what did we sacrifice getting to where we are? I think in a lot of things we lost the soul of the product, consumerism took over and the demand was for new, new, new! Coming to the age of instant gratification where social network lets everyone know what we are doing right now, apps like Instagram thrive on the concept of instant gratification. The average photo life span is said to be that of 3-4 hours, after that you disappear into the abyss of the Instagram universe. That’s insane which ever way you look at it!
So what has the land of high demand of the newest thing brought us? We now have rapidly out-dated products that will be very lucky to see out a decade of use. Manufactured generally quickly, cheaply and in very large numbers, creating a product became about the bottom line and the profit margin. Go pick up your camera, chances are its made of plastics with only pieces of metal where it is absolutely necessary. My 550D is three years old and has pieces of the grip falling off, I know other people who have the same problem. Now my gear gets uses but never thrown around I always take care of it but something three years old shouldn’t have things falling off it. My Grandfathers 1960′s Asahi Pentax which has been around the world, still works perfectly. Every shutter speed is correct, mechanically fine, the mercury battery on the external light metre ate away the electronics, however the camera itself is perfect. This camera is about 50 years old! I really can’t see my 550D being around in 50 years let alone working.
Another thing that I have noticed, particularly with the modern cameras is styling has gone very bland with shape. DSLR’s went into cookie cutters, point and shoots became blocks with screens and rangefinders disappeared almost altogether. Sure some of the cameras of old looked similar but nothing says more than camera companies making very popular cameras that are styled on those of yesteryear. Olympus OM-D M5, styled on the OM-1, the Fujifilm X100 pays homage to the Leica M3 and well Leica’s styling team are in the same mentality as Porsche’s ”if it aint broke don’t fix it.” That’s why a new Leica M and one from the 1950′s and 60′s look very similar, much like Porsche’s 911. These new cameras that have that classic styling, are the hype of the camera world and really brought back style to the camera market.
Has one company kept the same recipe though throughout the years? Not looking for a cheaper option and coming up with some incredibly innovative products? Looking at the legendary Leica and their M brand of cameras they have not strayed too far in terms of design over the years, and continue to swim against the tide of cheaply made construction and emphasis of huge numbers in small space of time. They are still heavy, still built tough and exude craftsmanship, holding a Leica you get the feeling somewhere in Germany there’s someone very proud to say that they crafted that camera. Sure Leica cameras are relatively expensive but you do buy into one hell of a heritage. Leica may not as be advanced as some other digital manufacturers but you can’t debate the preference of some of the worlds greatest photographers.
In summary I am not saying to abandon digital cameras, I know I won’t be. There are loads of benefits to digital; however it’s such a shame companies have moved away from making equipment which remains timeless, moving towards stamping out mass produced low cost units. That is what we’ve left behind; the personality of a product.