If you’ve read my rants before, you’ll know I have a thing about ‘retro’ cameras. It’s not that I love them, but that I hate how many manufacturers do retro so poorly. The Nikon Df, for example, was an utter Frankencamera: a D600 with the sensor of a D4 and the body of a…I don’t even know what. Its styling, dials and switches were intended to harken back to Nikon’s 35mm SLR glory days. Instead, it was a lesson in style over substance, with small fiddly manual controls (to the point of being unusable) and a control workflow completely unsuited to modern image making.
Compare this to say, the Fujifilm X100V, which offers seamless automatic and manual control and very simple modeless operation. Yes, it’s housed in a ‘retro’ body, but it’s a sharp design that follows the function of the camera and not the other way around.
Which is why my interest was piqued with Nikon’s announcement of the Z fc, a new DX-format mirrorless that combines “the latest … technology with classic design and functionality”.
Oh gosh. Look at that thing. Unlike the ungainly mess that was the Nikon Df, the Z fc looks as gorgeously balanced as the FM2 that inspired it. Nikon’s designers haven’t slavishly followed the design of a forty-year-old camera, however, but taken the best parts of the classic camera and let modern control schemas guide the rest. And unlike the Fujifilm X-Pro3, Nikon has given photographers the agency to either be ‘distracted’ by the LCD screen or fold it away by including a fully-articulated 3″ screen.
In many respects, this is retro done right, but it also demonstrates the limitations of these designs.
Firstly, as I’ve discussed before, the 35mm cameras that inspire these ‘retro’ designs were products of their time. Not only were they informed by the prevailing trends and fashions of the day, but they were limited greatly by contemporary materials technologies.
Want a straight edge? Sure, no problem with metals. Want an ergonomic grip? Hmm…not so much. When design technologies evolved, we were finally able to produce cameras that were shaped to our hands, rather than being limited by them.
How far camera design and technology has come is particularly apparent when comparing the Nikon Z fc to the Z 50. These cameras are essentially the same inside—both with the same 20 megapixel sensor and processor—but are radically different on the outside. And while the Z fc does look gorgeous, I’d pick the Z50, with its substantial grip, any day of the week.
Design aside, the Nikon Z fc feels like a bit of an orphan. As one of only two APS-C models from a full frame-focused manufacturer, there’s little chance we’ll see much in the way of DX Z-mount lenses in the future. The 28mm lens announced with the camera, while welcome, is a full frame lens and unnecessarily large and slow for the Z fc and Z50. If APS-C is your preferred sensor size (and you have a predilection for ‘retro’ design), Fujifilm has you covered with a range of cutting-edge cameras and brilliant glass (pair an X-T4 with an XF 27mm WR and you’re laughing).
There’s no doubt about it — the Nikon Z fc is a stunning-looking camera. It’s everything we wanted from the Nikon Df with none of the Frankencamera vibes. Unfortunately, it’s probably arriving too late and into the wrong camera system to have much of an impact on the market. Its competition is well-ahead in terms of features (higher-resolution sensors; in-body image stabilisation; better range of lenses) and it differs little from its DX stablemate, the Z50. I really want this camera—and the Z system—to be a success for Nikon, but with plenty of competition in the market, most people would be better off spending their money elsewhere.