If it isn’t already apparent, James and I love old things, and when it comes to cameras, you can’t beat the classics. Cameras of the past were simpler to operate, more fun to shoot, and just plain looked better. Given the choice, I’ll pick a humble Minolta SRT-101 over a Canikon D420 Mark XVIII any day of the week and I’ll look better shooting one, too. But most of the timeless cameras we all love hail from the mid 1980s or earlier. Which begs the question, what happened between the glory days of leather and metal and today’s era of DSLRs?
Well, the ‘90s happened. The decade that brought us Dunkaroos and the Macarena also brought with it a scourge in the form of plastic-fantastic, homogenous camera design that manufacturers would milk for far too long. As such, many cameras from the ‘90s are forgotten and often reviled.
What are we children of the ‘90s to do? Sure, we had Nickelodeon and the Nintendo 64, but we’re hard-pressed to reminisce about a decent Nikon, while older photo geeks wax poetic about their timeless machinations of brass and titanium. But were things really that bad? Though marred by many marketing and manufacturing missteps, the film industry actually reached its technological zenith in the ’90s, with manufacturers scrambling to outdo each other year after year. This obsession with technology combined with the explosion of the photographic mass market resulted in the most capable film cameras ever made, along with some of the most hilariously designed cameras of all time.
It’s about time we gave these machines a proper tribute, so here’s our list of the most quintessentially ‘90s cameras. Whatever that means.
No. 5: Polaroid 600 Spice Girls Edition
I’ll kick things off with a camera so ‘90s it almost hurts – a Spice Girls themed Polaroid 600. The 1980s were very good to Polaroid. For a long time it seemed like every self-respecting tourist owned a cork board peppered with white-framed snapshots. Looking to ride this gravy train through the final decade of the century, Polaroid updated the little, folding box that had carried them through the ‘80s, endowed it with the infamous curves of ‘90s design, and began manufacturing countless special editions of the 600.
What pushes this camera to a spot on my shortlist is, of course, the Spice Girls theme and decor. It’s a glorious testament to the empire that was the ‘90s pop music industry, and the industry’s increasingly pervasive mass merchandising methods.
Everything about this camera screams low-budget, low-effort and mediocre quality; even the Spice Girls decals are just stickers. But that was the spirit of late ‘90s pop capitalism; sacrifice quality for quantity and milk the latest trend for all it’s worth. Polaroid paid dearly for this reckless behavior in the next decade, but who cares? It gave us a Spice Girls themed Polaroid. And I really, really want one.
No. 4: Olympus Infinity Stylus Epic / Mju-II
Not everything in the ‘90s was built around mindless pop frivolity. Some companies thrived in a market based around quality and consumer knowledge, chief among them being the masters of the compact camera, Olympus. While earlier decades saw Olympus redefine the abilities of super compact cameras with the XA series, the ’90s saw them perfect the genre with the Olympus Infinity Stylus Epic (or Mju-II for all you non-Americans).
If the previous Polaroid was a gross culmination of ’90s design, the Olympus Stylus Epic is the same’s idealized expression. Though it possesses the same noncommittal ’90s curves, these curves help the Stylus fit deftly into the palm of your hand for a more comfortable shooting experience. I won’t mince my words here; the Olympus Stylus Epic might just be the most well designed and beautiful camera of the ’90s.
It’s also one of the most ubiquitous cameras of the era. The Stylus Epic reigned supreme among the dime-a-dozen point-and-shoots of the decade simply because it was a fairly-priced, easy-to-use camera with an incredible lens. Sure, there was the Contax T2 and the Nikon 35Ti, but these were uncommon luxury accessories for the rich, rather than a blue-collar compact camera. The public bought in, and the Stylus sold in unbelievable quantities. What that means today is that Stylus Epics can be found hiding out in many a garage sale, flea market, and thrift store.
No. 3: Nikon N90s
Nikon’s kind of like Cher. Somehow, they come back every decade with a #1 hit. And if “Believe” introduced autotune in popular music, the Nikon N90s heralded Nikon’s true entry into the autofocus arena. Sure, I could’ve picked the F4, but the N90s is a better camera. Plus, just look at the name. It literally says “90s”.
Naming conventions aside, the N90s really is Nikon’s greatest hit of the decade. It featured a faster autofocus and a slimmer profile than the pro-level F4, while still offering almost all of the pricier camera’s high-end features. And I’m not alone; the N90s was loved by many professionals due to its simplicity, high quality, and rugged nature, qualities that few equated with the often fragile technology of the ‘90s. The N90s helped dispel the notion that autofocus cameras were unreliable toys only suited for amateurs.
Of all the cameras on this list, the N90s is the one I’d recommend to any serious photo geek. It’s the biggest bang-for-your-buck film SLR, bar none. Everything is here, a 1/8000th of a second to 30 second shutter speed range, full PASM mode selection, center-weighted, spot, and matrix metering, an AE lock, fast autofocus, a durable metal chassis, and a suite of lenses many working photographers today still use and swear by. This is the photographic world’s best kept secret, and it would behoove any serious shooter to own a copy.
No. 2: Minolta Maxxum/Dynax/Alpha 9
Because the ’90s represented film’s technological golden age, I had to include what I consider to be the most innovative and technologically advanced camera of the decade. The award goes to Minolta’s swan song, the Maxxum 9.
There’s no two ways around it; the Maxxum 9 is a technological masterpiece. It possessed nearly every photographic innovation ever; PASM mode selection with matrix, spot, and center weighted metering, eye-start AF, mid-roll reload, 5.5 FPS built in motor drive, AF lock, AE lock, a top shutter speed of an absurdly fast 1/12000th of a second… and the spec sheet goes on and on.
But as we’ve seen with certain recent DSLR designs, it’s extremely easy to make a camera this feature-heavy complicated and unwieldy. Fortunately, Minolta’s design team were at their peak brilliance while designing the Maxxum 9. It’s comically easy to operate, and it’s one of the easiest cameras for today’s digital shooters looking to make the transition to film. In fact, many DSLR design cues find their genesis in the Maxxum 9. But to this day, I’d be hard pressed to find a modern DSLR that shoots as well as the Maxxum 9 did at the tail end of the ’90s.
No. 1: Konica AiBorg
And the number one spot on the list goes to the most shamelessly ‘90s camera of them all, the Konica Aiborg. Konica themselves described this camera as “futuristic”, “black”, and perhaps most curiously, “ellipsoidal”. These descriptors sound like the ramblings of an uneasy marketing team, so the photographic populace came up with a much clearer name – the Darth Vader camera.
The Konica AiBorg takes the number one spot because it epitomizes the overwrought and confused design of the ‘90s. It’s bulbous, it’s plasticky, and it’s coated in rubber. If that wasn’t enough, a ridiculous feature set showcases an obsession with excessive automation that defined the decade. These include a 39-exposure multiple exposure mode, and a long exposure mode capable of 100 hour exposures. Very useful.
Perhaps more than anything else, the AiBorg represents the infectious optimism of the 1990s like no other camera. No terribly massive wars, a booming global economy, TV shows about nothing… The weight of previous decades had lifted off our collective shoulders, and it felt as though we were finally free to do anything and everything. We attempted these things without fear, but it also meant we sometimes launched our ambition without hesitation or thought. The Konica AiBorg perfectly embodies the rash optimism that made the ’90s so much fun.
Honorable mention: the Pokemon Camera
One final spot goes to my personal favorite, the Pokemon camera. Just look at it. It’s everything that made the ‘90s great; a classic anime, shameless merchandising, rotund plasticity, and bright primary colors. It’s a glorified disposable camera, but who cares? Half of it’s a Pikachu and the shutter button’s a Diglett. If that doesn’t conjure memories of watching the “Bye, Bye, Butterfree” episode of Pokemon while eating French Toast Crunch in a Shaquille O’Neal jersey on a Saturday morning, then you’re either too old or too young.
And that does it for my list of the most ’90s cameras ever. Love it? Hate it? Did we miss any? Think we should spotlight another decade? Let me know in the comments.