The build quality of old cameras

I can’t be the only person, I know I’m not, who bemoans the “plasticization” of products today, cameras in particular. Perhaps because of my engineering background, I can tell the difference between a product built to a high standard, and one that is not, and the difference bothers me. It seems we have made a step backwards, in the name of cost savings, or profitability.


Here shown is a Kodak Retina IIIC film camera from the mid 1950’s. It was sold as the pinnacle of the amateur 35mm market and reflected the best of the German optical and precision tradition. The body is a solid chunk of metal and just holding the camera is a pleasure. The matte chrome finish just radiates quality, as does the leather case with its velvet lining and chrome trim accents. Not much plastic to be found anywhere.

Some time back I inherited a modern SLR, a film camera, and upon opening it up I discovered that the entire film channel was made of plastic. The hinges on the back were plastic, and parts that required precision were plastic; the whole camera was plastic except for the optical glass, and who knows, maybe that was plastic too. The irony of all this was that the camera featured exotic electronic exposure and focussing circuits, a tricked out viewfinder with all kinds of lights and whatnot, and was billed as a precision device for its time.

This has been going on for a long time. Even on a professional DSLR, it is not unusual to discover that the battery door is plastic, just waiting to snap off. Lens mounts are no longer machined out of brass, but are plastic too, and with that comes a focussing ring that sticks and lurches. Even expensive cameras lack a precise feel.

Contax G2

This Contax G2 has a body of titanium, thus the creamy matte tone. Fit and finish put to shame the most expensive DSLR; the camera radiates precision and instills confidence as a result. It was produced in Japan in the mid 1990’s and could not be sold today at anything approaching a reasonable price.

Contrast that to the film cameras in my collection. Once you leave the box camera category, the cameras for both amateur and professional use are mostly metal. The fit and finish of the parts is excellent, or at least designed with some regard for durability. These old film cameras do not feel like toys, which is the feeling you get from so much of the product sold today.

In saying this, I have the highest regard for parts of molded plastic along as they are used where they make sense. For example, I have a plastic slide holder for my scanner and it is a miracle of complexity that mounts slides in position. If this part had to be machined from metal the cost would have exceeded that of the scanner itself. It’s all a matter of the right material in the right place.

I have concluded that good product design comes out of the vision of its human designer. Steve Jobs proved this with the entire line of Apple products wherein no detail was left untouched and thought about. From a conventional view, such products, always more expensive, should be failures on the market. Apple’s success has proved otherwise. People will pay for something that looks right and feels right. If only our tools, the photographer’s tools, were all built to the same standard.

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