These Failed Camera Designs Were (and still are) Pretty Terrible

Reading the pages of CP, it would be easy to assume that every camera made before the digital age was a masterpiece of design and function. But that’s so, so wrong. Today we enjoy the luxury of editorializing; we choose to write about special and interesting cameras. But for every Maitani masterpiece or incredible Rollei, there are ten or twenty real stinkers.

Take, for a start, the Konica AiBorg. Infamous among camera collectors, the AiBorg is one of many machines that promised to revolutionize camera design. At its release in 1991, Konica marketed the camera with such catchy verbiage as futuristic, black, and perhaps most curiously, ellipsoidal. The public decided these descriptors weren’t quite colorful enough, and quickly dubbed the AiBorg the “Darth Vader Camera.”

The camera epitomized the overwrought and confused design of the 1990s. It’s bulbous, plasticky, and coated in rubber. If that isn’t enough to put us in mind of Tim Burton’s Batman, the ridiculous obsession with excessive automation and silly gadgetry will. The AiBorg offers shooters a 39-exposure multiple exposure mode, and a long exposure mode capable of 100 hour exposures. Very useful.

It also doesn’t help that every button is hard to press and positioned as if Konica’s target consumer was a starfish. The multidirectional rocker switch on the back, right corner controls zoom, plus some other actions that aren’t entirely obvious. The function selectors for things like flash, multiple exposure, and other indecipherable modes are as intuitively marked as a Pharaoh’s tomb.

Konica missed the mark. The future they envisioned never came to be, and the AiBorg (thankfully) failed to change the game.

Four years earlier, Kyocera had tried a similar experiment. The brand’s designers started with the proverbial blank slate and attempted to design a revolutionary SLR camera. The result was the Samurai series, a range of half-frame 35mm film cameras whose chief claim to fame was their interesting physical shape.

Styled more like video camcorders of the time, the Samurai was unlike any stills SLR made before it (in shape, at least). It featured a fixed 25-70mm zoom lens, push button zoom controls, autofocus, built-in flash, and a surprisingly robust list of other stuff that looked good on a late-80s spec sheet. The camera was sold under both the Kyocera and Yashica brands, and was marketed as the ultimate vacation camera. They even released a left-handed version for the criminally under-served southpaw population.

The fact that SLR design didn’t change all that much in the twenty years following the Samurai’s release tells the rest of the tale. It just never caught on. Perhaps this had something to do with reliability and performance? An “RS” button on the camera resets the machine in the event its microprocessor locks up. This seems, somehow, suboptimal.

Or perhaps it was simply the fact that the standard SLR design had long ago been perfected. The Samurai was a classic case of breaking something that isn’t broken in order to fix it. Dumb.

Equally dumb was Kodak’s The Handle, an instant camera made in a period of time in which nearly everything was ugly (1977). At the time of its release, this camera was the ugliest object in the known universe. With no cohesive design ethos, it’s a plastic, clunky square with a rectangular protrusion jutting from the front.

The titular handle exists, presumably, because holding things is difficult and this makes it easier. As if this abomination to the senses wasn’t enough, Kodak did what Hollywood does; released a sequel that no one asked for. This equally repulsive camera was cleverly named The Handle 2, and it improved on The Handle in zero ways. Good job.

After just four years of production, Kodak was sued by Polaroid (inventor of instant photography) for patent infringements. Kodak lost. They were forced to cease all production of instant film cameras and instant film, and pay Polaroid $925 million. This happened in 1981, a time in which $925 million was more money than many countries’ GDP. In today’s money, that’s about $1.5 billion. Ouch.

Kodak was also required by law to pay damages for emotional distress in the amount of $20 to anyone who’d ever accidentally set eyes upon a The Handle

Lest you feel we’re singling out some sad sacks, or if you happen to somehow love one of the mentioned cameras, rest assured we’re equal opportunity critics. These few machines aren’t the only gaffs we can think of. The past sixty years are packed with plenty of other photographic missteps.

The Leica M5 nearly sunk the company, financially, and the later R series machines have been described as softballs with a lens mount. And though these cameras are arguably among the better performing Leicas, people still have a hard time accepting their unusual designs.

Apple’s Quicktake 100 was, essentially, a Belgian waffle with a lens. Except a waffle makes better images.

The APS film format, intended to revolutionize film photography, was a massive expense that was fatally flawed before the first roll had ever left the factory. A smaller image area compared with 35mm film made it useless to pro shooters, and the nearly immediate advent of digital photography made it useless to amateurs. Bad planning, bad timing.

And let’s not dwell too long on the fact that Minolta invented the selfie stick as an accessory to go along with their “innovative” disc film camera, the Disc-7. Why, Minolta? Why?

Now don’t get me wrong; most of the cameras we’re lambasting are perfectly capable of making excellent photos. But forty years on, it’s not enough for a camera to make good photos. A film camera worth talking about in 2018 needs also to be well-designed, easy to use, and a treat for the senses. These rather unfortunate cameras remind us of just how special the truly special cameras are.

Got a camera you absolutely revile? Tell us about it in the comments so that we may also point and laugh.

Do you want one of these wretched cameras (or maybe a good one)?

Find them at our own F Stop Cameras

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  • Reply
    March 7, 2018 at 7:16 am

    Even as a kid, I thought the Kodak Handle was extraordinarily fugly. Looking at it now, I’m immediately reminded of my mother’s AMC Pacer. The Handle screams for some wood panelling. The 70s really were the nadir of design.

    Also, the M5 to me looks more like a Zorki than a Leica. But I still wouldn’t kick it out of bed for eating crackers.

  • Reply
    Andrew Swingler
    March 7, 2018 at 8:07 am

    Considering how dreadful Kodak’s Handle looks, it seems even crazier that Lomography’s new Instant Square seems to be aping the same design (can you call it that?) aesthetic?

  • Reply
    Mike Ricciuti
    March 7, 2018 at 9:21 am

    Fun story–a few comments: The M5 really is a great camera. Try one. Also–not everything from 1977 was ugly. Remember that Star Wars and the Nikon FM debuted that year.

  • Reply
    March 7, 2018 at 9:24 am

    Nice and accurate write up, and a good selection of some of the most aesthetically challenged and unwieldy of “classic” camera models. I’ve used both the Konica and the Kodak (with Instax Square film and an insert card) and the Konica’s small and oddly placed viewfinder is nearly impossible to find.

    Reaching back a bit further, one model that stands out as a “love it or hate it” example of mid-century gaudiness is the Revere Eye-Matic EE127, a very bulky specimen that represents one of the few 127 format rangefinders out there. The Kodak Instamatic 704 and 804 might be a similar example, which I hesitate to mention because I happen to really love them.

  • Reply
    Merlin Marquardt
    March 7, 2018 at 12:02 pm

    How about more about APS?

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 7, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Do you mean write about more APS cameras? We have a bunch of them, but wasn’t sure if there’s interest. Let me know!

      • Reply
        Merlin Marquardt
        March 7, 2018 at 12:27 pm

        I meant more about APS in general, but articles about APS cameras would, of course, be of interest too. Whatever you write will be great, I’m sure.

      • Reply
        Paul Mison
        March 12, 2018 at 7:48 pm

        APS cameras seem to have come out just that little bit earlier than web pages that still exist, so they’re underdocumented at best. I also wondered while I was reading the article whether you’d feature any of the SLR designs- I’ve only seen tiny pictures of them but there look like companies tried to market some rather strange almost circular APS SLRs, and I’d be curious to see how odd they really are.

  • Reply
    Huss Hardan
    March 7, 2018 at 12:13 pm

    You had me at The Handle. You lost me at the Leica M5.

    The Leica M5 aka The Lumberjack Leica is the best film camera Leica ever made.

  • Reply
    March 7, 2018 at 2:07 pm

    what is that hideous Ricoh in the lead photo?

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 7, 2018 at 2:24 pm

      Ricoh Mirai. A capable camera with a nice lens, honestly, but pretty horrible ergonomically. Slow, clunky. Olympus offered the same camera but called it the AZ-4 (I believe).

  • Reply
    March 7, 2018 at 11:00 pm

    Every single Kodak Disc camera made was an abomination.
    Unless you needed something to place your beer can on.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 8, 2018 at 8:30 pm

      I’ve got a bunch of Fuji disc film, if you’re interested in trying it……….

      • Reply
        March 9, 2018 at 2:10 am

        Dwayne’s Photo is the only place I know that develops disc film.
        But no. Hard no. Hail no! No. Just no.

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    March 8, 2018 at 7:12 am

    I’m of the opinion that the Argus C3 was a terribly designed camera. Capable in the right hands, but ergonomically a nightmare.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 8, 2018 at 9:49 am

      Especially when that focus grease dries up. I think I’ve still got scars.

  • Reply
    March 8, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    When I saw the title I immediately wondered if the Samurai would be on the list!

    I am informed they are quite good for street photography as people just assume you’re taking video. I’m actually kind of curious to try one.

  • Reply
    William Sommerwerck
    March 8, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    Perhaps later I’ll have the time to discuss the Fotron (not Photon), It was one of the most-ill-conceived cameras ever. It was supposed to make photography simple, but it needlessly complicated things.

    I’m not a Leica expert. If someone could point me to an explanation of what was wrong with the M5, it would be appreciated.

    • Reply
      James Tocchio
      March 8, 2018 at 8:20 pm

      Nothing was wrong with the M5, it was just a misstep at the time of its release. It was the most advanced rangefinder Leica had made to that point in time, and even today it’s one of the most technically capable film cameras to bear the Leica nameplate. It’s a little bit larger than the previous M rangefinders, and a massive departure from the traditional “Bauhaus” design that M fanatics had loved since the original M3. The lack of sales success was mostly the result of a knee-jerk negative reaction to change. Decades later, Leica fans have finally started to accept it and even enjoy it, but at the time Leica had an incredible challenge to sell them because their diehard fans didn’t like it and most other pros were buying SLRs.

    • Reply
      March 10, 2018 at 3:04 pm

      The Fotron is a pretty famous awful camera with some innovative features like the built in electronic flash (no flashbulbs!) and rechargeable battery (no need to replace the battery!) but the push-button design reminds me more of a blender.

      I nominate the Fotochrome camera that took proprietary direct positive film cartridges that had to be mailed back to the company in Florida. The owner of the company was later convicted of assaulting a former employee.

  • Reply
    March 9, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    I miss the Rolleiflex SL26 in that list.

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