The phrase “Classic Camera” for most of us likely conjures images of a Spotmatic, a Canon AE-1 or a Leica III, all metal and glass models with old school knobs and dials that require a strict diet of film.
But the first camera with a CCD sensor was available in 1975, and the first DLSR emerged as far back as 1986.
So for me, I think we’ve been in the digital camera age for long enough now to acknowledge a growing number of digital classics.
It’s true that the vast majority of digital cameras feel simply like clever yet soulless electronic devices in the same category as a TV, vacuum cleaner or microwave.
But I’ve discovered a handful with enough intelligence in their design, promise in their performance, and charm in their little electronic souls to be considered modern classics.
At least in my eyes.
Examples that come to mind for me are the Pentax K10D, Ricoh GR Digital (I have the III model), and Pentax Q.
Here’s why I’m still drawn to buying old(er) (pre-2012ish) digital classics, and indeed why in another not too distant dimension I’m probably the curator of a digital classic cameras museum.
My 2006 era Pentax K10D cost something like £90 last year, and was around £500 new. My Ricoh GRD III also demanded a heady £530ish when new in 2009, and mine was £150. The 2011 Pentax Q fetched £600 new in 2011, mine in mint condition with 01 prime lens was £120.
The simple fact is I now use cameras that were high end and well beyond my budget when new, for what I consider an incredibly reasonable used price today.
2. Fewer MegaPixels
Hang on, surely the higher the MP, the better the camera? I’m not going to get into the science of the endless MP race, but I’ve used my 2006 Samsung GX-1s with its 6MP CCD sensor and 40+ year old Takumar lenses extensively, and been delighted with the results.
Most of my main cameras now are around 10MP, which is probably unnecessary. But even with 10MP, there’s an excellent balance between having enough detail in the images, but them not being huge bloated files that take up crazy amounts of HD (and cloud) space to store and are slow to process.
I have experiments in the pipeline to shoot with much lower MP cameras (or use the lower res modes of my existing cameras) to see how much really is enough for me to be able to share online and print at at least 8×6 inches and be happy with the final images.
From rediscovering my Sony Elm 5MP camera phone recently, I already know it won’t be 10MP. It probably won’t even be 6MP.
3. Intelligent design and interface
I don’t often pick up a very modern digital camera, but the times I have I’ve been overwhelmed by modes, buttons, menus and at least 37 icons on the display at any one time. Back to that category of over clever gadget rather than a joyful tool that becomes a comrade in art making.
My older cameras like the GRD III and Pentax manage to still pack in all the creative control you need, whilst at the same being simple enough to point and shoot, if that’s what you want.
The physical design of these bodies is great too, with a real photographer in mind, who likes to have a decent grip and the controls in intuitive and instinctive places. Much like the best classic film cameras.
The vast majority of modern digital cameras are pretty much sophisticated computers with a lens stuck on the front. Similar to what I was talking about with the design and interface, a number of older cameras I’ve used seem to be alive with a charm, a personality, a soul.
In other words, with these digital classics it’s possible to have an emotional connection, and see them as a trusty companion in seeking out and capturing beautiful photographs.
Genuine charm is difficult to measure and describe, but some just ooze it without even trying.
5. CCD sensors
As with the MegaPixel arguments, I’m no expert in sensor technology, and my interest is pretty limited. But I do know from experience of, say, my Samsung GX-1s, Pentax K10D and Ricoh GRD III, all of which have CCD sensors, they can produce very “film like” images, especially compared with the more clinical and sterile look I’ve experienced with later CMOS sensors.
The historical theory is that earlier digital cameras were designed and optimised to help their images look like the film photographs that photographers were so used to and, from the sales perspective of the camera manufacturers, had to be lured away from.
Again, not something it’s easy to scientifically gauge. You just look at the images of some digital classics and can’t help but be warmed by their look and feel.
6. The challenge of siding with an underdog
Even a moderate modern digital camera these days can make incredible looking photographs in the hands of virtually anyone who can find the on switch and the shutter button. Look at the vast range of highly capable smartphones with cameras on the market today.
I had a Sony NEX for four years that was very difficult to not make a technically great image with. But whilst I admired it, I never loved it.
Older digital cameras require more user input, more thought and more experience to get the most from them, not to mention their more limited technical capabilities. I enjoy this challenge, and the fact that I can create more than satisfying images with a camera most would consider an underdog, and that cost me a tiny fraction of the latest Sony or Canon.
7. Rejecting the essential upgrade mentality
Our modern lives are utterly saturated with essentially the same advertising mantra – If you don’t upgrade to our latest product, your life will be irretrievably miserable and all of your family and friends will disown you.
Maybe I exaggerate, but only slightly.
Everything from cars to cameras, and hair products to hoovers are constantly pushed to us as if all other versions before have been entirely useless and only the latest and greatest will do.
I take great delight in disengaging from this brainwashing.
Yes of course in any industry there are genuine technological advances that make possible what was not before.
But, for the vast majority of us making photographs today, can we create anything more beautiful or emotive and inspirational with a camera that was released last week than one released a decade ago? I strongly suggest not, and for many of the reasons above I would argue we can actually make better photographs with these older, simple digital classics, and have way more fun and engagement doing it.
Finally, the pachyderm on the patio.
I know what you’re thinking. But what about the planned obsolescence of anything digital, and the fact that inevitably it will die at potentially any moment, never to take another picture?
Yes, this is a risk, and I personally wouldn’t spend hundreds on a camera that might blink its last shutter actuation imminently.
But look how many of us still use classic film cameras equally dependent on electronics, like the Pentax ME and all its successors, the Minolta X series, or the aforementioned Canon AE-1? With their advanced years, they’re surely more likely to expire than a camera that’s only a decade old, or less?
Looking at it another way, look how many of those film cameras from the 70s, 80s and 90s are still going strong, tens of thousands of images on. Again, if they’re still firing, and also completely dependent on electronics to make a picture, then far newer digital cameras must be a much safer bet for those nervous of digital death?
Whilst I don’t plan to emulate my alter ego from another dimension and fill every last shelf with a digital classic, I do expect to continue to enjoy those I have, and explore a few more here and there along the way.
How about you, do you have any digital classics you’d like to recommend?
Please let us know in the comments below (and remember to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).
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