The soon to be introduced Nikon Df has raised a heated debate among our readers. That is understandable, of course. Because Nikon is bold enough to charge $2750 for a camera that is basically a retro D610 with a D4 sensor, with some of the functionality removed on purpose. But let’s put the price question aside for a moment and focus on the design part of any camera, modern or otherwise. Remember the old Nikon FM2, a true classic. Remember the success of the Olympus PEN and the Fujifilm X series. And at this point, let me raise a provocative question. Does a camera have a soul?
A silly question, isn’t it? How can a camera have a soul? It’s just a piece of plastic, glass and metal, copied again and again. It is a tool. But that, that is the real pickle. As I wrote in my Mamiya RZ67 Pro review, the best part of film photography – and something digital has severely lacked in comparison – was the involvement in the process of it all. Film – at least with manual film cameras – makes you slow down, makes you think about every single step you take. Makes you take every single step on your own, consciously, carefully. Want a setting changed? Rotate a dial. Turn a knob. Feel the physical feedback you camera gives you, hear it click in a sort of satisfying manner. Forget to do so and there is no LCD screen at the back to check the result prematurely, no way to know beforehand if you screwed something up. And at first, running away from such complexity is a relief. After-all, digital cameras offer so much room for mistakes and complexity of film photography is certainly not for everyone! It is like eating out at a restaurant after a long home-made sandwich diet. But as the time passes, some (not all) start to miss the sandwiches and the perfectly served, neat restaurant food becomes tedious. You want the involvement back. “Make an ordinary, daily, routine activity that bit more special, personal, intimate and meaningful, simply by making it slower”. Slower and less rational.
I am not done with analogies just yet. A painter needs inspiration to work on his newest masterpiece. Inspiration he can find in all sorts of things, good and bad. The former might include an early morning sunrise, a beautiful light touching the roofs out on the street. A music note, a storm. Someone walking by. For the result to come together perfectly, everything needs to be just right. Because all those little details set the mood, set the tone for thoughts and, in doing so, add depth to your work. So, perhaps the painter needs an old, battered brush, too, as part of inspiration. It is not perfect, but the painter knows it so well, he can do wonders with that brush, he feels better using it. A writer needs his typewriter. Yes, he can use a modern computer and save time by doing so. But a novelist is no machine. He can not simply start writing. He, too, needs the mood, the thoughts. And so he will wait for the right time of day (or night), for the right state of mind. And he will use his favorite typewriter that he loves the sound of so much, if that typewriter adds to the right mood. It might have a key missing. It might be more exhausting to write with. But he will take it over a laptop any day, because that typewriter is necessary for the right state of mind which, in turn, helps write better. Much better.
On the face of it, the typewriter is so much inferior to a laptop. A laptop can do the exact same thing, only better. On both, you press a key which prints a letter. So, in other words, you could write the exact same thing on both machines just as successfully. And some novelist would not care for the typewriter at all, because the laptop is just a tool. Just like a modern camera is just a tool. It can, very successfully, get out of your way and let you do your thing. But other writers need the old, cumbersome approach to feel better, and by feeling better achieve their maximum creative potential. And it does not necessarily have to be a typewriter, oh no. To each his own. That is the key point.
Which brings me back to camera design. On one hand, a modern digital camera can be a simple tool meant to achieve a certain result. Much like a car that is needed to get from A to B, a D610 is capable of giving you the exact same result as a Nikon Df. But what if it is not the result that you seek most? What if, to feel the necessary enjoyment of having created something, you need to enjoy the process as much as the result? You can board a plane and get somewhere. Or you can take an old, classic car, and take a road trip. A painful one, long and tiring. But at the same time, so fun, so rewarding and unforgettable, you will gladly drive back home and never regret it. Yes, a camera is just a tool. Some need it to just get out of their way, just do what is asked of them and not draw any thought, any sort of attention to it. For others, if that tool makes you want to take pictures, makes you want to go out and spend time just wandering about, looking, observing, damn right it has to be everything you need it to be. It has to be ugly, it has to be gorgeous, it has to be heavy or lightweight, digital or film, technically brilliant or severely flawed. Whatever you need it to be. And so the design is important. It may seem shallow at first, but if you wake up one morning and notice your silvery Fujifilm X-E1 reflect light on your writing desk and it makes you want to pick it up and go shooting at 5 in the morning, it’d better be everything you need it to be, however shallow at first glance. You prefer the Sony A7 that I think is utterly ugly? Great! You just want a modern, well thought-through camera that feels comfortable in hand for long periods of time? As long as it works for you. In any case, design is important. It either adds to your creativity, or adds to it by getting out of your way.
And so we can answer the silly question. No, of course cameras do not have souls. But they do have characters. Some are just tools, others are friends. Tools you learn to love and use to the fullest. They can become personal or remain just simple technological achievements that allow you to get your result faster, more technically perfect. But even in that case, you start to love that piece of gear for what it is and what it allows you to do. You just love it for different reasons. For someone, it is the speed. For someone else, it is the look. Or dials. Or lack of any external control whatsoever.
Nikon Df is a controversial camera. It is limited, unapologetically photography-centered and pricey. There is no denying that when looking at what it offers on paper. But if you think that, consider the fact that it might just not be meant for you. Would you buy it if you had the money? If no, there’s no reason to go berserk because it is so different from what you use and what you prefer. Yes, the D610 makes much more sense in many cases. But here is a simple fact – Df will be hated and loved. And, with that, it will be crazy popular. Exactly because it looks the way it does and has those “limitations”. And exactly because of the price.