Nostalgic design mixed with today’s tech is a heady enough brew to have many of us feverishly reaching for our wallets – particularly when we’re talking about the relationship photographers have with their cameras.
A classic retro design camera screams ‘heritage’ and longevity, not nouns normally associated with the latest tech, typically implemented with eventual obsolescence in mind. And when we’re paying big bucks, getting something that looks like it was built to last and will do the job reliably and consistently, just like in the old days, counts.
Plus, in the digital age, when everything is about minimalism and simplicity, getting hold of the best retro cameras with manual dials, levers and switches undoubtedly makes for both a more tactile and engaging experience. We feel like we’re actively involved in the making of a photograph, rather than being passive bystanders to the process.
And then there’s the fact that classic-looking cameras with their retro faux leather faceplates and grips simply look the business, much like a classic sports car does. Who wouldn’t want to be seen out and about with such a head-turner? Especially when it takes great digital images a step above what the average camera phone can achieve, or, in the case of the best instant cameras, are a hell of a lot of fun in terms of immediate gratification and responsiveness.
So with the above in mind, let’s examine some of our favorite blast-from-the-past, retro-looking and classic handling cameras deserving of a place in our hearts and our camera bag alike.
1. Nikon Z fc
The photography perennial has almost forgotten about DSLRs in recent years, so focused has Nikon been on building its Z series range of interchangeable lens mirrorless compacts. While the latter are crammed to the gunnels with up-to-the-minute tech, the Nikon Z fc is the most deliberately retro of the bunch, its chunky exterior and busy-looking, manually adjustable top plate dials wholly inspired by the Nikon FM2 film camera of the early 1980s.
With the Z fc now available in more contemporary black as well as classic silver, its manufacturer is proudly wearing its heritage on its sleeve, marrying the film era’s functionality and process with today’s digital convenience and dexterity.
2. Fujifilm Instax Mini 40
Proving we don’t have to spend a fortune to revel in a timeless look and feel camera is the classic design of Fuji’s Instax Mini 40. Its mix of black and chrome complete with a dimpled faux leather surface means it will cleverly appeal as much to the nostalgic parents who are buying the camera as the teenager it’s being gifted to.
While its look isn’t a million miles away from more grown-up cameras in Fuji’s mirrorless X range, here we’re gifted the magic of instant film, with the Mini 40 spewing out credit card-sized prints to the delight of selfie lovers and partygoers everywhere. Truly one of the best instant cameras that bridges the generational gap, a further plus is that it is available for an almost pocket-money price.
• Read more: What type of instant film do I need?
3. Olympus E-PL10
The Olympus brand may have been jettisoned in favor of OM Digital Solutions, but as far as its cameras go, but one of its final flings before the changeover was the retro-styled Olympus PEN E-PL10. This is an entry-level, interchangeable lens mirrorless camera complete with a flip-down LCD screen to enable selfies, plus a pop-up flash to provide today’s influencers and content creators with extra illumination.
Available in a white, brown, or black exterior, the faux leather faceplate and grip add a feeling of luxury, such retro detailing even carrying over to the lens release button alongside the lens mount. Put simply, this is a classic-looking camera that won’t just deliver instantly Instagram-able pictures, it deserves to be the subject of an Instagram post all by itself.
• What's the best Olympus (OM-System) camera?
4. Fujifilm X-Pro3
This high-end X series mirrorless camera, available in a choice of titanium, classic black or scratch-resistant ‘Duratect’ finish is old school in so far as it is designed for street photographers who want to trust their instincts while shooting, viewing subjects via an eye-level OLED viewfinder rather than at a back screen LCD.
Yes, there is a regular LCD here, but it’s ‘hidden’ in favor of a smaller screen visible when the larger one isn’t, and, in true retro style, the smaller one displays the particular Film Simulation mode in use.
For those who love the convenience and responsiveness of digital photography, but miss that distraction-free in-the-moment feeling of analog photography, the Fujifilm X-Pro3 delivers the best of both worlds. Even if we were constantly tempted to cheat and flip the hidden screen open to examining the shot we’d just taken.
5. Leica M10 Monochrom
There’s no autofocus option on this manual rangefinder camera that only shoots black and white stills – hence the name – while it further eschews video capture. But, while there is a tranche of modern conveniences deliberately omitted, it still costs as much as a house would have done in the 1970s.
Thankfully the build and execution are ‘classic Leica’, being tank-like in feel, due to a brass and magnesium alloy body with a black chrome finish. As a concession to modernity, at its heart is a sensor specifically developed for a ‘pure monochrome’ camera, enabling a high, almost medium format-like 40.892 megapixel resolution, plus an enhanced low light performance.
With a whisper-quiet shutter further making it ideal for street photographers who like to hang back in the shadows, a 1940’s style trilby hat, pencil-thin mustache and trench coat are all surely essential get-ups when using the Leica M10 Monochrom.
• Read more: these are the best Leica cameras
6. Pentax Optio I-10
It may ‘just’ be a point-and-shot compact camera with a fairly basic operation, but this palm-sized, retro-styled device from a decade or so back that came in regular black or a special design white/cream resembles a much grander digital SLR that’s been shrunk in the wash.
And, in our opinion, it’s all the more desirable for it, in terms of cuteness. While its old school 1/2.3-inch CCD sensor may be as small as its chassis, at least we are offered a decent-for-its-time 12.1 megapixel stills resolution, coupled with a more generous than average 5x optical zoom; internally stacked when the camera is inactive.
Though we’ll have to resort to the second-hand market to find one these days, the Pentax Optio I-10 is a real curio that we reckon could become beloved by future collectors. Check out our guide, if you're looking for the best Pentax camera currently available.
7. Nikon Df
Another classic camera from the past decade, the Nikon Df can with hindsight be viewed as the precursor of the present Z fc mirrorless; except the Df was a full-blown full frame digital SLR that at the time boasted the same 16.2-megapixel sensor as Nikon’s flagship D4, plus weather sealing to match its D800. In short, this was another marriage of the latest tech housed in a ‘heritage’ chassis that doffed its cap to its maker’s F series 35mm film SLRs of old.
The throwback to yesteryear ensured the Nikon Df features plenty of manually operated dials and levers to send traditional photographers who love to get hands-on into fits of delight. Like Leica with its M10 Monochrom, Nikon also decided to omit video capability entirely from this camera, to the further pleasure of the retro-loving purists wanting to cut out any new-fangled gubbins and focus on the essentials, and the undoubted ire of others.
• Read more: these are the best Nikon cameras right now