Film cameras have evolved tremendously since they were first developed, from the plate cameras of the 1920s to the Kodak land cameras of the 1950s, the rangefinders of the 1960s, and SLR boom of the 1970s and 1980s. One could argue that they're still developing today in the 'toy camera' market. Nonetheless, was there a 'golden age' in film camera design?
Judgements about the merit of various eras in camera design are always destined to be subjective. One must recognize that camera design did not sit still for a reason-that constant improvements like lightmeters, through-the-lens metering, instant film, built in flash, and automatic focus came about and in fact prospered because consumer demand indicated that that was what the market wanted. Digital cameras today, however much some (myself included) may resent some aspects of them, represent what the vast majority of the public want-a simple, no-brainer design that can take photos anywhere , under almost any light conditions, and without any particular skills, with an instant review of the image available. Nonetheless, if one consciously restricts oneself to the medium of film instead as Lomographers do, was there a particular ‘golden age’ in terms of film camera design? I’m going to argue that there was, and that that era was the 1950s.
The 1950s was certainly the golden age of the TLR. Everybody was attempting to produce cheap ‘Rollei’ copies, and 120 film itself was still cheap and widely available. The TLRs of that era reached what I think was a peak in terms of mass-market consumer perfection. Their inherently simple, all-mechanical design meant that there was (and still is) practically nothing that can go wrong. But more than that, the proliferation of perfectly decent triplet lenses-on Yashica C and Ds, on the Lubitel series (the Lubitel 2 being I think the peak of Lubitel design), or on the Welta Weltaflex, Welta Reflekta, or a Japanese Wardflex or Ricohflex-all in fact put perfectly decent TLRs within the grasp of the ordinary public. These triplet lenses lacked the uber-sharpness of a Rollei (in particular they’re acknowledged as ‘soft’ at wider apertures, with swirly bokeh which is actually rather an attractive feature) but they compensated by offering more contrast between bright light and shadows. The all-manual TLRs of that era therefore offered a great middle of the range camera capable of producing excellent images. They were complemented at the lower end of the spectrum by attractive simple bakelite cameras like the Pouva Start or Druopta Pioneer, with great plastic lenses, and by the dawn of perfect ‘monster’ cameras like the Pentacon Six or the Mamiya C2, forefather of the entire awesome Mamiya ‘C’ series, at the top end.
So what went ‘wrong’ afterwards in my view? Well, whizzbang technology like electronic aperture priority started making cameras rather more delicate instruments. The Zeiss Contarex, introduced in 1958, and a design disaster whose lack of reliability actually bankrupted the company, foreshadowed much of what was to follow. The introduction of batteries and selenium lightmeters (many of the latter of which are now effectively non-functional) reduced the working shelf life of cameras. Increasingly, cameras without the right batteries or with a dead selenium cell became no more than pretty-but useless-metal bricks. An increasing array of technology designed to make photography easier meant that in practice a lot more could go wrong. The SLR boom of the 1970s began to sound the death knell of TLRs, and also reduced 120 film to increasingly ‘high art’ photography status rather than allowing it to remain an everyday and affordable consumer staple. SLRs themselves began to assume a certain identikit design functionality-Nikon and Olympus started this-which today has culminated in all digital cameras being increasingly indistinguishable black lumps of plastic. Film cameras became ‘perfect’ for those uninterested in aperture, shutter speed, film speed, or depth of field, but also more boring, more disposable and interchangeable, and surprisingly more fussy (compare the reliability issues of some 1980s cameras today, some of which already practically come with ‘buyer beware’ signs, compared with their far cheaper 1950s counterparts). And that’s about where digital came in…