There are few gadgets that cause us such strong emotional reactions as cameras. From the ultra modern compacts to the most ancient of pin-holes, there's just something magical when you get one in your hand. There are, however, a select few that cause us a stir before they even get that far.
This week is Style Week on Pocket-lint and the focus of today is photography, so it would be remiss, no, cruel of us not to begin by taking a look at the best looking cameras to have ever graced the shelves. Some are still available today, some hard to find and some only available to the very wealthy indeed but which is the one that you would choose?
Nothing says instant photography like a Polaroid and nothing says Polaroid more than the fantastically retro SX-70. Still highly sought after today, the SX-70 was a high end piece of kit when it came out. The first to use the classic Poloroid SX-70 film, it was, in fact, a single lens reflex (SLR) camera and able to process and print colour snaps on the spot in broad daylight. Quite a feat at the time.
More importantly, of course, it looks beautiful. For some, that 70s wood panelled look might be a touch Griswold family station wagon but, for most, it’s a winner. The clever part is the way it collapses down to a flat packet which was originally pictured as small enough to fit in a gentleman’s suit pocket. The design meant a seriously complicated optics system which included three mirrors in order to see what was going on down the lens.
Combined with the genuine nickel-copper-chromium plating, it was understandably pricey. These days, you can still pick one up second hand in the usual places and even in the brown leather finish too. You might want to grab a stack of film while you’re at it.
Leica M8.2 Safari Edition
It would have been easy enough to populate this entire list with Leica cameras but, if we really have to choose one above all the others, it’s got to be the Leica M8.2 Safari Edition. Quite simply, it’s stunning.
If you’re not that familiar with the Leica M cameras, then what you’re actually looking at, believe it or not, is one of the first digital rangefinder cameras that the company made. The M9 has gone on to take over with its full frame sensor and superb looks of its own but it’s this Safari Edition, of which only 500 were ever made, that really puts the icing on the already deliciously tasty cake.
The all-metal magnesium alloy body of the camera, topped and bottomed by plates cut from solid brass, is already a wonderful thing to behold but turn that mottled finish olive green, add a tan leather strap and Billingham case to match and you’ve got a thing of true beauty indeed. They were $10,000 when first on sale in 2008. Expect to be paying more than these days - if you can find one for love or money, that is.
Frankly, any of the Rolleiflex medium format film cameras would do. They all look stunning and actually very similar as well. That’s all down to the TLR system. That’s Twin Lens Reflex rather Single Lens Reflex. The idea is that both objective lenses on the front of the camera view the same scene at the same focus which is why the two are connected. One is for the actual picture taking and the other to send the image of the scene back into the camera and onto a mirror set at 45 degrees so that you can see what’s going on as you look straight down on top of it. Make sense? No? Doesn't matter. They just look great.
You’re supposed to shoot from the hip - or the waist, at least - and wind the film on with the handle on the side of the machine. Basically, you get to feel all Austin Powers as you leap about snapping through frames like there’s no tomorrow. You can still pick up a Rolleiflex 3.5 at the usual places and you don’t quite have to spend the earth to get one either. What it will cost you is bags and bags in film and processing. Still, with those Zeiss lenses on the front, it may well be worth it.
White Pentax K-m
It’s a little frustrating that all you have to do is paint something white and people go for it but if that fact isn’t proved by the iPhone, then it certainly is with the Pentax K-m. Ultimately, the K-m is a fairly standard DSLR that errs on the side of the attractive but in bright livery it just stands out as a stunner in the way that 99 per cent of all other modern DLSR cameras simply don’t.
Specs-wise, it’s a fairly ordinary to unconvincing machine reflected not least of all in the very achievable price tag of under £400 which includes a matching kit lens. Don’t let that put you off though. The white Pentax K-m will raise eyebrows - both in a good way and bad - the moment you pull it out. It’s not to everyone’s tastes but it certainly makes an interesting first foray into the world of DSLR photography.
Nikon Coolpix P300
The Nikon Coolpix P300 isn’t quite the pinnacle of compact power in terms of image quality and features - if you want that kind of thing, look more towards the Canon S95, Panasonic LX5 and Olympus XZ-1 - but it does edge the competition in style and design. While the LX5 goes most of the way there in terms of boxy, utility looks, the P300 takes it home with so many smooth black panels and severe edges that it looks like the kind of thing that might come out of a modern day USSR were the grand state still flourishing today.
Fully manual and completely affordable, the P300 is nice and minimal pretty much all over until you get to the rear where there had to be a quite a huddle of button controls lest it might barely be considered a camera at all. Yes, it’s a bit of a rip off of the Sigma SD1 stylistically but you can’t blame Nikon for doing it better.
The 70s and early 80s was a superb time for camera design - certainly looking back it from 30 years in the future. Of course it may just be that these are the first decent cameras many of us had in our hands courtesy of parents who’d splashed out back in the day and lost interest some time in the interim. Either way, there’s an undeniable emotional connection with these big, boxy, black and silver, chunky, wind on and click machines with shutter releases and mirror slap to die for.
We really could have picked any one from the Canon FTb, A1 or F1 through to the Minolta XD7 or any of the Pentax M range but, for us, it’s the grace and style of the Olympus OM-1 that seems to encapsulate the reall essence of these 35mm SLR cameras, all the way down to the shutter speed dial on the top with its roulette wheel grip. Almost makes you want to break out the film again.
Olympus PEN E-PL1
It’s not the latest and greatest of the Micro Four Thirds family but Olympus still hasn’t managed to beat one of its older mirrorless interchangeable lens camera for looks. Whereas Panasonic, the other partner in this format scheme, has primarily gone for features and convenience, for Olympus it’s all been about the art from minute one.
Looking much like the original Olympus E-P1, the E-PL1 features the same winning colour scheme of white with a tan grip that had carry around photographers drooling over this thing as a fashion accessory before they’d even worked out if it could take decent pictures or not. Still available at a cut price £238, it will still deliver a very decent shot as well as HD video too.
Pentax 645D Limited Edition
It’s going to be a touch too mock mahogany Rover dashboard for some people but the Pentax 645D Sport Burgundy edition of the 40-megapixel medium format camera was named the winner of the Camera of the Year award at the Camera Grand Prix in Japan in 2011. Getting hold of one is not easy with even the Pentax online store not giving much of a clue as to who’s stocking them or how many there are going to be in the run.
Either way, this weather-sealed, lacquered beast of a camera is going to be out of the price range of most who seek it. Even the standard 645D comes in at $10,000. We dread to think how much extra Pentax will tack on to the limited edition.
From the sublime to the ridiculous, for something probably more affordable than anything on this page and made from little but plastic - including the lens - is the quite amazing looking Holga 120. Again, medium format, but this time on film, it’s become the firm favourite of the retro-photo-o-philes who hang out at the Lomography stores of the world.
Made in China, it has an entirely low-fi aesthetic and image production often leading to the vignetting, blurs and light leaks that can make this form of analogue photography so much fun. You can pick one up for £20. Yes, £20. What are you waiting for?
Leica III (any of them)
Ok, so we couldn’t resist squeezing another Leica camera into the list. We just couldn’t forget about the Leica III because it’s just so utterly bizarre. A cross between the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a mad scientist’s laboratory and a Philip Pullman fantasy adventure, it’s actually quite possible to pick one up still for around £500 given that they only went out of production in the 1960.
This contraption of a camera will still take cracking pictures to this day and you’ll be able to attach some of the best glassware around to the front of if you can find the money to stump up for the odd £1k+ lens. With more knobbles, bobbles, dials and spy glasses than anything else you’ll ever see, it’s completely unique and known for just that by enthusiasts the world over.
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