I don't know if it was olympus, leica or fuji who first came up with the vintage look digital camera. However now it has just gone too far, with Olympus prefering to 'quote' mid century Leica film cameras rather than their own original PEN F in their new reworking of this brand name.
Canon first dared to make a better ergonomic camera and a leap if not a quantum one, in the EOS range of 35mm film DSLRs in the 80s. They were almost shockingly modern and insultingly plastic. Now we fly plastic planes from both Airbus and Boeing around the world and have internet tablets like something from a 70s sci fi. Yet we also have a plethora of rather crappy looking, polished alloy and fake leather , random diameter knob studdes mirrorless system and mid to high end single lens compacts.
Olympus were saved by beauty......or rather they knew they were almost two years behind the competition on sensors, yet they dared to come up with the modern day PEN series, which quote the style ques and overall user æsthetic of their original crop framed 35mm film cameras. PENs then and now, are the poor man's Leica. Today's PENs though have always featured some enthusiast level functions, like flash radio remote, all the different shutter-aperture modes, raw orf output and 'a whole bunch' of other stuff. Also in contrast to their 4-3rds partner come rival Panasonic, olympus has a better Jpeg engine for both the photojournalist on a deadline, and the uninitiated would be hipster who bought on style over content and 'caus grandad had an Oly. Back to the hipster, they got a hangover from the E system, art filters which in 2010 were more instagram freindly than those questionable warts on Oly enthusiast heaven E series DSLRs. Olympus must know that some buyers will only use programme mode orherwise and giving them a helping hand to create an OOC image in a trendy or kind of 'gee whizz' style.
Also PEN struck the death knell of the wee, and often noisy, flippy up Mirror as integral on most all single lens reflex cameras. Enthusiasts felt as betrayed as when OM 135 range was dropped, only this time Olympus moved into new waters, leading the way in electronic viewfinder cameras with the OM-D range. They probably picked up more previous OM 135 users than they ever did with the E series, and had a new retro camera for the style conscious, with a slighly shrink fit 70s or 80s OM look. And now we are back to the 135 Canon EOS which eat olympus for breakfast ferom 1989 onward.
The EOS had far better ergonomics than the staid, boxy competition which was basically making cameras with 1967 structure and limited electronics. Canon struck gold in moulded plastic with AF, and in terms of value sales lead the market in 35mm dslrs. Indeed even the E series Oly are really influenced by this sea change in camera design and accompanying manufacturing methodology. With AF and more advanced electronic control, you could take better images with the EOS. Twisting to focus was made a thing of the past most likely by this one produxt range. Peole ewvwn used them strapless, the modern youtube review poseurs prefered 'acapella' carry style, gesticulating and wafting the cameras like Churchill did his cigars.
Retro look ia on the one hand possibly a marketing stylists reaction to what has been a fairly fugly road in the digital sensor camera age. Olympus and their E1 ugly duckling, not to mention some abortionate zoom compacts. Freed from the 35mm or APS sized film plane and reeling space, deaigners often didnt quite know what to do around a flat pike of lens, sensor and viewfinder componentry. Perhaps it was Leica's tenacity to hold onto it's heritage and allow theier glass owners to cross over seamlessly to senor bodies,mor perhaps it was a kind of hipster radar blip in Oly markerting, but PEN looked retro as Catherine Hepburn on a sunday afternoon TCM - and it caught the imagination of the affluent, style conscious yuppie of 2010. Olympus had the worst sub APS-C size sensor quality, and with only 12mpx, so they needed to deliver other buying queus to this segment.
Perhaps the basic oblong box format of the PEN and OMD is actually cheaper and easier to build than a curvy, ergonomic camera which meets the hand like a womans buttock and invites tender, secure caressing and indulgent tactility. Perhaps Oly are locked in the style by not only their marketing department and percieved current brand equity, or their mechatronics are all optimised for the shoe box layout out, I don't know.
Not as mentioned, that Oly can't do ergonomics - the e520 was ok, the 600 better and the E5 really did have a kind of Pentax K thing on the go......and maybe that is where they exactly did NOT want to follow, into a quirky also ran niche where weather proofing and a two lens-does-all offering competes with mid range "Canikons". They needed style queus and brand heritage to anchor a psychological, if not quite emotional bond to prospective owners. Also Sony saved their bacon , twice, firstly with a cropped down sensor from their APS-C state of the art 20-24 mpx sensora, and then by buying stock to keep the post scandal company afloat. Finally they could compete with mid range DSLRs and rival higher end and FF products in terms of size to image quality and user definable functionality.
Now the market is flooded with retro cameras and compacts which have the same shoe box form. They are by in large not very ergonomic and at worst some quite serious offerings are blighted by in particular, obrtusive dials and buttons which are too easy to activate or alter accidentally during ordinary handling. Also we have some great cameras falling short of their actual potential and most likely, actual price point they could command. Take the LX100 from panny. Ok, you have to get past the dire out of camera JPEGs and get used to batch filing- which makes some people feel big and clever - but really to have to correct Panasonic's output when you take the only camera you'll need on vacation or want to deliver a breaking news item to the photo editor's inbox. Beyond that though there is a fantastic lens for the type of photography people will do with this camera, and traditional hard controls any seasoned photographer with some grey hair will feel fully satisfied with. But its still a shoe box, slightly retro, with poor ergonomics. Also it isn't weather and dust proofed which are features which could have raised the camera to a must-have for proffessional photo journalists.
Pentax dared to keep up some concept of tough ergonomics in their K range but now the cameras seem to be a little boxy and even undersized for their weigth in the KS2 and the k50/70. Many have criticised the GH range from Panny as being a little small for the typical western, male hands. The fact is that cameras in the mid to high marrket don't have to look a particular way, they have to take amazing photos which lure enough of consumers away from their Mobile phone camera to make niches in the market have a market in the niche. Six hundred dollars is now again, a lot for a camera to the uninitiated when you also buy a 500 dollar mobile phone which does the job of snaps and holiday 'scapes, with direct share to social media witthin seconds.
There is then a need to trade up enthusiasts and appeal to seasoned pro's and 'copyright John Smith-Jones Images' two weddings under their belt pro-ams. For people who really want to shoot and not be conspicuos consumers with retro jewelry round their necks, then ergonomics and weather seailing are two uptrades which cost fairly little compared to the price premium they help secure. OK pentax/ricoh kind of have to have something to offer in the DSLR market at mid priced APSC cameras. But in compacts and mirrorless really it is wide open for a 'proffessional' opening, while in DSLR there is room for a video optimised offering which has some degree of camcorder ergonomics and live knob and dial fiddeling on the fly.
The latter is probably not Oly's bag - they are likely to remain a stills system on 4-3rds with IBIS and live off glass and peripheral sales the next couple of years as the format reaches its limits in stills photography and dminishing returns in performance become uneconomic. There is rumoured Full Frame, but Elvis coming back from the moon is more likely unless Sony decide to own them and relaunch the alpha full frames in a parallel world with olympus doing the user interface and jpeg engines, plus maybe a return to two ZR Zuiko pro lenses which cover all as with the E system's 12-200 (24 - 120 : 100 - 400 f2.8's)
The way to go is smaller and easier to handle, and better video imho in any mirrorless system or single lens pro level. Now that pro level IQ and speed of glass at least, is a lot cheaper than it was a few years ago, and the must have in camera adjustability and pre-settings pro's want from the D3 days are well documented, while the nice to haves and never actually used settings can be kept out. Essentially this has been Leica territory and top end enthusiast compacts in the 600/900 dollar region. The LX100 has shoe horned itself into being an amateur camera with some appeal for pro's and price-quality snobs, where in fact it should have dared to be a pro level photojournalist camera with weather sealing and a touch screen at more like Leica pricing - say a grand.
As I predicted before, mobile phone cameras are going to eat more and more into the compact market, moving up a notch with fake f 1.2 layered image bokeh, 4k video and passable quality zoom, shift sensor mpx maxing and digital crop zoom with re-interpolated pixelation. This eats into the percieved need for blurry back grounds and a 'pro' look which then eats into how much a mid range camera can demand in price and how many people see the benefit increment as being large enough to buy a second camera to that (or those ) in their mobile. Olympus should follow the LX100s lead and come up with something fast, sharp, ergonomic and wonderful.