Of Retro and Vintage, True and Fake, in the World of Digital Photo

Tue, May 26, 2015   02:56 PM

Designed as retro. Styled as retro. Controlled as retro. Gripped as retro. Vintage. All-out vintage. The newest, poshest digital camera looking like a one-dollar Kodak point-and-shoot, a contemporary of pin-up posters, Ford T or, at least, Elvis and Woodstock festivals. What is a point in cameras pretending to be parts of equipment in World War II, placed among iPhones and hi-tech gadgets, over the other signs of modern time? Is it completely nostalgic, or have some more practical reasons behind? Let us discuss this matter in some details.

What do you feel or want when you say “retro”? Retro-looking camera and accessories, retro-looking content of photos or retro-oriented shooting style? These three elements are quite different, and what you feel about each of these elements defines what you really need to suit your desires and feelings. No “retro” camera, real or fake, can help you shooting a retro-looking picture amidst the signs of modern days. Moreover, again, you have no need to retro optics and processes (like a film photo) to shoot the “retro” picture at the studio layout or museum exhibition.

The third element, retro-style methods of taking photos, is a principal question of completely different logics. You have no need to use films, colorized gradients and chemical cross-processing to get any effect you wish to get (except if the effect is your personal pleasure for operating with just the described processes, though). Instead, looking at “retro” control elements, such as in Fujifilm X-E2 or Nikon Df, you want to grab the complete control over each stage of taking a shot. No more, although this task is very big by itself; do not underestimate it!

The moment related to retro style is using old manual optics on modern cameras. This can be reasonable due to financial, aesthetic or, rarely, pure artistic aspects of the practice. Again, you cannot take a retro-looking shot just using the retro-looking lens. It is a simple instrumentation, not an artistic solution itself. Moreover, you can use oldest and simplest lenses with only three to four glass components to shoot brilliant photos of modern-looking things, such as street photos depicting cars, buildings, diode lights and other signs of contemporary life!

The Simple Algorithm

To define what are you want from the retro cameras, you may use the following “yes/no” sequence of questions. (Bold phrases are final answers, describing the vast majority of situations commanding you saying “yes” on the entire questions branch.)

Are you interested in the shooting process?

  • How you are looking with retro cam and accessories?
    • Purchase the stylish camera! Being it modern, it’s fine; else, you do not need to shoot with it, so do not bother to grab an old equipment to suit your style.
  • Do you need the mechanized controls, like aperture and shutter speed dials?
    • Purchase the modern camera with manual controls, like Nikon Df, Leica or Fujifilm X-T1.
  • Do you like shooting on film?
    • Really?
    • Do you feel a need for 6×6 or 6×7, or any other size bigger than FF?
      • Purchase the most advanced film camera, like Bronica for Type 120 or Nikon F for 35mm films.
    • Do you like to collect the old cameras?
      • Do not mind about photo quality or “retro” style. Just collect cameras you want!
    • Do you like the old lenses and their optical effects?
      • For collecting purposes or due to financial restrictions?
        • Purchase a mirrorless camera and a couple of adapters for all your optics.
      • Are you hope to catch the “zeitgeist” using the old manual lenses?
        • It’s a crap.
    • Are you shooting lomography?
      • This is an art completely different from photo; you can do what you want!

Are you interested in retro-looking pictures?

  • Do you want to shoot retro-looking, nostalgic or noir pictures?
    • You can use any modern camera; this is no need for specific instruments and processes!
  • Are you need to reconstruct the specific scene, time or mood of a period?
    • Use studio and the crafted (or purchased) accessories; shoot to any camera you want.

Are you in doubt what you really need?

  • Shoot a couple of films with any old, mechanical or semi-automatic camera.
    • Do you like manual controlling of the shooting process?
      • Purchase the modern camera with mechanical control dials (see above).
    • Do you like old cameras and lenses?
      • Start to collect it; this is an occasional activity to shoot using it!
    • Do you feel the spirit of old things, the esoteric flavor of film, etc.?
      • It’s a crap.

This definitive method can clearly describe for you what you really want from the retro style in photography. Again, it can save a lot of time, money and the feel of self-esteem for photographers constantly seeking their own style and approach. Some solutions described in this algorithm will be analyzed in details below.

Retro and Vintage

Sellers and reviewers constantly merge and obscure these two notions. Let us explain with clarity: the “retro” is a visual or functional imitation of some old approach, while the “vintage” is an old thing itself or a modern replica of some old item. The modern digital camera with a fake leather grip and mechanical control dials is a “retro”. The exact copy of Petzval lens in a brass tube is a “vintage”, as well as the original Petzval produced at 1890’s.

In my opinion, retro-looking cameras and lenses have much more potential than to serve as an example of contemporary spirit. These control dials allowing modern users to shoot with a sense of full control over the shooting process. The photography is a couple of related non-linear processes, an area difficult to learn and great by possibilities provided. Full control over any non-linear process is a headache for casual operator but a must for pros, and having all these dials and fine-tuning settings at hand is a component of assured, confident management of the shooting process.

Therefore, it is an error to point the manual control components exclusively to “retro” style of cameras. Much more popularity of manually controlled cameras is taken due to the full control over the shooting process. Many professional photographers (except journalists) use their highly automated cameras in “M” or, perhaps, “A” modes, controlling the shooting parameters manually up to a last bit. Dedicated dials with clearly readable marks instead of programmed control wheels is just a logical step to increase this control. This is no “retro”; it was practiced on old cameras as the necessary thing, and now it is merely an option. That is all.

Therefore, manufacturers are completely refuse to believe. The most modern, most equipped cameras with manual controls can contain dubious solutions among with the functionality described before, as a component of “retro” style. Yes, these restrictions are artificial. No any problem was to make Nikon Df with a typical modern video function, as well as equip it with ever slightest grip and place the slot for SD card somewhere off the battery slip. No, this can destroy the ‘retro design” (and, to be honest, the price tags for Nikon product lines)! As the result, the excellent camera lose (subjectively) about a half of its advantages due to inadequate restrictions! No, no, no! People do not want to “purchase brands”; people searching for real things! The fake “retro” cannot indulge the real problems.

Old Lenses for All

What we can got when we are installing, say, an old Trioplane or Summilux to the modern camera? Advantages can divide to some categories, e.g.:

  • A good lens with a great bokeh or wide aperture, for a small price or for a free;
  • The possibility to use the legendary optics, such as Leica, Zeiss, Pentax “limited” or Zuiko;
  • Testing and observing your collection of vintage lenses;
  • Spiritual feeling provided by esoteric things related to optics legends and photo myths.

I do not want to discuss the relevancy of each criteria described above. Just think about every of these criteria, to learn how you feel about it. If any of these criteria is principal for you, use it when you take or purchase the old lens. Or, else, you can feel a sudden moment when you will stay at your room loaded with many crap lenses you do not want to shoot, do not want to see and cannot sell due to the immanent crapness of these items. Please do not organize this trap for yourself; grab old lenses with a strong feel of purpose, and you will be free from self-objections!

Film Cameras Today

It is great to shoot films. All you need is a good film, a good camera and equipment, good skills in photography and a good operator able to process your films using just a way you are need. The last is the most difficult today, as processing films at home is an arduous and dangerous task (remember: some chemicals are deadly poisons!), and having a food lab in vicinity is like having a handful of diamonds just in your pocket.

These are no effects of film shooting that cannot be simulated on practice by digital image technologies. Rare exceptions are specific film coloristic, which is difficult to simulate, and the paraphernalia such as “analogous” grains and image artifacts. This is not a call to drop a film photography and doing digital shots forever, although a bit of common sense can advise you not to stay with old-looking film cameras if you are want to go forward. However, the film shooting itself is the art almost completely independent from digital photo; doing it is like to paint with oil instead of modern acrylics. Do one, other or both, as you feel a need to do. Be no afraid!

Again, the film photo cannot exist without film processing, and the film processing is a pleasure with a heavy price tag! Do not try to take great results processing your films in next photo kiosk; develop your films by yourself or with a trusted specialist. And developing films at home requires costly equipment, significant time and extreme care; please remember it always!

Moreover, a Word about Taking Retro Pictures!

This is a matter of artistic choices, not of technical equipment. At first, I shall repeat the simple rule:

There are no needs of retro shooting or retro processing to take pictures in retro style.

A few words about technical aspects of retro scenes. The first is about a white balance of artificial light sources in these pictures. Almost any of these light sources can be only a fire or an incandescent lamp, having a color temperature of about 2000-3000 K. More “hot” light sources, especially linear-colored fluorescent lamps, can spoil the feeling of retro lights on a color photo. (Black and white shoots are not affected to this issue.)

The second common error of shooting retro pictures is a mess between retro and noir. The retro-styled photos usually must not depict tears of time over the items exposed on a shot; no rust, no webs, no patches etc. The noir style has often a main theme of decomposing, destruction of all things when time passed; the marks of time and troubles described above are important (or, perhaps, main) components for noir shots.


I hope I can sketch some borders between the “technical” and “spiritual” aspects of retro photography, as well as between “retro” and “vintage” items and equipment in this article. Therefore, I wish you to take a lot of brilliant and aesthetic pictures, using the technique you feel appropriate and the style you feel the great for your mood and reason, to be always satisfied with your photo equipment and results.

Best regards!

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