Given the growing interest in film photography, should Canon and Nikon consider making brand new versions of the AE1 or FM2 for today’s retro enthusiasts?
Both Canon and Nikon have rich histories, and given that analog photography is enjoying increasing levels of interest, could now be a good time to update one of their classic designs, while throwing in a few refinements along the way?
Out of the two, Nikon would perhaps be better suited to such a move. The company's recent decision to embrace a retro design for the mooted Zfc suggests that it is keen to tap into the affection that customers hold for its older cameras as a means of building brand loyalty. As a high-end body, the Df might not have sold in the numbers that Nikon hoped, but an affordable APS-C body with chunky dials that throws buyers back to the 1970s and 80s could be an inspired move from its marketing department that needs to carve a Nikon niche into today’s offerings.
Interest in Film Is Growing
You’d be forgiven for thinking that, since the digital revolution, shooting on film is now more popular than ever. There are countless YouTube channels run by hardened film aficionados who shoot everything from 110 through to 8x10, and last week, Destin Sandlin of SmarterEveryDay reminded his ten million subscribers that these chemical processes are fun and have a touch of magic to them. In an era when a Sony a1 can produce more images in an afternoon than Cartier-Bresson shot in his entire lifetime, there’s something about film, its physicality, and its slower processes that make the experience feel more authentic than digital. In the world of marketing, that sense of authenticity carries a lot of weight.
Certainly, the media would have you think that prices of secondhand cameras are increasing and that film processing labs are busier than ever, but what is the reality? The Darkroom, a California lab that’s been operating since 1976, has definitely seen growth in recent years. “Our staff numbers have doubled from a couple of years ago and we expanded our lab to keep up with the volume,” Trev Lee, chief photographer for the Darkroom told me, adding that interest on social media continues to gather pace. “Yes, interest in film is definitely growing.”
Once seen to be sounding its death knell, the digital era has made shooting on film far easier. Scanning at home can take advantage of your existing camera, and labs now bundle scanning in with their developing services. Once you’ve sent off your roll of film, you have the option to never see it again; instead, you received a cloud storage link giving you a batch of beautifully scanned files at high resolution, all free from dust and scratches. Your archive of film no longer demands the same commitment of time and resources, and those digital files don’t grow mold, either.
With that in mind, would retro-loving customers like to see a manufacturer such as Canon or Nikon update one of its classic cameras or would that remove all of the fun of digging through eBay and sifting through thrift stores before landing yourself something that may or may not work?
Leica Leading the Way?
Leica seems to believe in the potential of analog, with a new film camera due to be announced sometime in the next four or five months. According to Leica Rumors, an M film rangefinder that’s similar to the M6 TTL is on its way, and hopefully, without such a hefty price tag given that they currently sell for three or four grand secondhand.Leica makes an interesting comparison as this is not a company that produces cameras for the mass market. Instead, these are niche offerings, often with limited runs geared towards a very small market of enthusiasts who genuinely love the brand and the unique experience of shooting on a Leica camera. Many might sniff, but the appreciation exists, and I’ll spare you the analogies of Biros and fountain pens. They’re nice, they’re expensive, people like them, and they pay good money for them (which, of course, makes them particularly susceptible to mockery).
Would it be worth Nikon doing something similar? The brand affection certainly exists, as does the growing number of people shooting film alongside an increased appreciation for an aesthetic that makes you feel like Gordon Parks, Don McCullin, or Steve McCurry. For me, such a camera would have to be mechanical (or nearly) and lean heavily towards the stylings of the FM2 or perhaps the Giugiaro-designed F3 and its iconic red stripe. This would necessitate a die-cast alloy chassis and, inevitably, here’s where we run into problems.
The cameras of the 1970s and 80s were built like tanks, and there’s no shortage of gear available on the secondhand market. A film camera would already have a very limited appeal, and the cost of machining a device that has 21st-century precision and perhaps one or two other refinements would make such a camera expensive, and as a limited-run item with value as a collector’s item, we’re now heading towards Leica territory.
With the camera industry struggling with a decline in sales that has since been compounded by the global pandemic, not many companies — least of all Nikon — are in a position to take a punt on a niche hobby. That said, maybe Canon could look to crowdfund such a project and perhaps make more of a success of a revamped AE-1 than it made of the disastrous and quickly-forgotten IVY REC, a camera whose design team seemed to forget that teenagers have smartphones.
In Short? No, Don't Be Silly
So sadly, the answer to the question of whether Canon and Nikon should make a new film camera is almost certainly no. As much as this camera would be a fantastic exercise in further endearing a brand to its existing fans and perhaps acquiring a few new ones along the way, it's hard to imagine how it could be financially viable, and given the number of film cameras rolling around on eBay, anyone looking to indulge in some analog joy is not struggling for options.
However, it’s fun to speculate what such a camera should be. What would your ideal, newly designed, technologically revamped film camera look and feel like, and do you think that anyone but yourself would buy it? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
Lead image by G_a_D_o used under CC BY-SA 2.0
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