Top 10 weirdest camera designs of all time
Andrew Fildes counts down the 10 strangest camera designs of all time - the good, the bad, the weird, and of course, the downright ugly.
Sometimes I imagine a corporate meeting at the headquarters of some big camera maker. The marketing guys are sitting around a table looking at the latest model and faking all the expected respect. But inside they are dying – they’re thinking, “When did the engineers go mad, how did they get this turkey past management and how do they expect us to sell it?” They know that when it bombs, they’ll get the blame.
There are a number of cameras so insanely ugly or strange that I’m amazed that they ever got off the ground. Each new direction in photography seems to throw a few up – the shift to Autofocus, the transition to digital. The design engineers attempt to redefine the camera and a few get to market. They tend to fail, gloriously. We are a conservative lot and we prefer not to take photographs with something that belongs on the set of Alien. But some, strange as they are, do become very popular indeed.
I have concentrated not only on the cameras that I rather like myself but ones that we could actually find and use – that is, not too expensive, collectible, ancient or obscure. I have also excluded hybrids, cameras that are something else as well as a camera; radio cameras, camera binoculars, and anything designed for medical applications (colonoscopy, anyone?) The cameras in this list were all designed as simple, mass-produced models that anyone could buy and probably didn’t, if they had two neurons to rub together (which may explain why I own several of them).
10 CANON PHOTURA, EPOCA, AUTOBOY JET (1990-93)
Is it a torch, is it a stubby holder or is it a plumbing fitting? No it’s a camera. A strange, early autofocus superzoom with a range of names. In Japan it was an Autoboy Jet, as an allusion to Astroboy perhaps? It’s a viewfinder with an odd set of features – the lens cap is both the on switch and flash head – at 25m GN it’s about twice as powerful as a normal digital SLR pop-up flash. 38-105mm zoom – 38-135mm in the second model (yes, they did it twice!) and the later ones had captions as well as a date function.
It must be a weird design – it was selected for the collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art. They were expensive and slow by modern standards but with a surprisingly good lens. Some pros used them as one-handed grab shot cameras, I believe. This one is a fun user apart from the expensive 2CR5 battery but if you’re left-handed, forget it!
9 OLYMPUS ECRU (1991)
One of a run of Olympus design experiments based on a film compact chassis – 20,000 made so not just a concept camera. It looks like an Art Deco clock. Ecru means ‘unbleached’, off-white - and so it was made in pure white of course, not an ivory colour. Perhaps irony is not a strong point in the Oly marketing department. This is Olympus’ rational –
"Ecru" is French for "unbleached." The name of this concept camera was chosen to symbolize its intended role as a tool for living an intellectually enhanced life as natural as unbleached cloth. This concept is symbolized in the white body of the camera, which was sold as a limited edition of 10,000 units in Japan and 10,000 overseas
Perhaps it sounds more sensible in Japanese? And perhaps not. There was an earlier 1988 ‘O’ Product but that’s not as ugly-weird. Oh, hang on, yes it is!
8 ZENIT PHOTO-SNIPER
If you want something guaranteed to get you arrested if you use it near a sensitive area or a politician, what better than a Russian Photo-Sniper? A 300mm f4.5 Tair lens on a modified film body so that it can be focussed and triggered from the gunstock. No digital version yet. Looks seriously cool but it’s an insane idea in the current climate. I was astonished that they’re still making them. Two versions available, based on a 35mm film Zenit 122 or 412, knocked down into a fitted case. Available online from Moscow stores from about $275-$300, plus a large chunk of postage and perhaps a few questions from customs officers.
7 THE (PETRI) FOTOCHROME DISASTER
One of the great disasters of photo-marketing. The Fotochrome was made for a US photo retailer, Harrison’s in Florida, as a challenge to Polaroid. It had a paper positive ‘film’ pack underneath but it wasn’t instant – you had to return them to the shop for processing. Not just any photo shop – the chain that sold them. The images were a tiny 8cm x 5.5cm. Petri made thousands of them and promptly went broke. Most of the cameras promptly broke as well and were returned. The whole idea was a dud anyway. You can still find one in a box, new and unused from time to time. And it’s one of the weirdest designs ever.
6 KONICA AIBORG SUPERZOOM (1991)
This seems to have been made expressly for Darth Vader, to match his new hat – except that the name reminds you more of the Borg. We weren’t assimilated. In the annals of ugly, it should have its own page. Konica described it as ‘ellipsoidal’ with a subtle glitter effect on the front panels. Subtle glitter?! Strewth. It’s another early AF Superzoom but not common – I’m trying to find one now for my collection.
5 RICOH MIRAI – OLYMPUS AZ-4
The original ‘Bridge’ autofocus SLR superzoom, a trial co-operation between Ricoh and Olympus. It’s another brick with a drop-down handle like a movie camera. Ricoh tried sticking a digital back on it and then gave up. Olympus used the experience to launch a series of IS cameras throughout the 1990’s, instead of getting into proper AF SLRs like the rest of the business. Perhaps this caused their financial crisis?
4 AGFA CLACK (OR WEEKENDER) (1954-65)
Lomo schlomo! This Bakelite beauty did it better long before those daft Russian and Chinese plasticams. It takes eight 6x9cm images on 120 film. To allow for the rather ordinary lens, it curves the film around the back for a more even exposure. It was expected that the image would not be enlarged but simply contact printed – people were less demanded then. ‘Clack’ refers to the sound of the shutter. One speed, two apertures and a close up setting. Good luck! They’re common, cute and cheap – strange and lots of fun. When everyone has a Holga, whaddya get...?
3 THOSE PECULIAR NIKON COOLPIX SWIVELLING DIGITALS
Nikon loved to make swivelling cameras. The original Coolpix 900 series of the late 1990’s to 2001 were very popular and solid. They were replaced by the 4500 and then the S4 10x Superzoom of 2005. I have a 950 as they’re good for infra red. Swivel designs are strange looking but quite handy if well thought out – shooting with angles is nice.
But the oddest design was the Coolpix SQ. I think it was supposed to look square or possibly like a letter Q. You could use it flat but there was no fun in that. If you turned it back for a self portrait, the lens obscured half of the already small 1.8” LCD display. Pocket weird.
2 ARGUS C3 ‘BRICK’ 1939
Not so well known in this country but as common as housebricks in the US and about the same shape…and weight. The Japanese called it the ‘Lunchbox’. Made in metal and bakelite from 1939 to 1966; Argus kept trying to discontinue the thing like an ugly, evil child that wouldn’t grow up but the Americans kept buying them in boatloads. Three interchangeable lenses I think. The late Matchmatic model which has a tan leatherette and a light meter attachment is popular with Harry Potter fans as it was used in one of the movies. Cast for it’s weirdness, no doubt. They’re easy to find online, crude but simple to use and a real eye-catcher. You can even buy bright colour new leatherette covers for them.
1 POLAROID SX-70
Yes, I know, it’s very fashionable and fun to use and you want one but – LOOK AT IT! Collapses flat and guillotines your fingers in the process. Spits the print out the front. No other camera looks anything like it! Only Polaroid ever used Sonar for autofocussing (and it was the first autofocus SLR). Sounds clever until you try to focus through a window. The ‘bat ear’ sensor can’t hear through glass. It’s great, it’s a classic, but it IS peculiar.
Reckon we missed one? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments box below.