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

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

2200 1238 James Tocchio

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

Follow Casual Photophile on Facebook and Instagram

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio
  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • 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.

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

    How about more about APS?

    • 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!

      • 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.

      • 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.

  • 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.

    • The Leica M5 was brilliant; the earlier cameras were too tiny. I own a Leica R8 and it is also close to perfect!

      • Agree with the Leica R8 – still the best camera these guys ever made
        and still a lot of the “pure believers” never accepted this break in design !

      • I wholeheartedly agree with half of your contentions. The R8/9 is derided by armchair bloviators who’ve never used the camera, much less ever held one. They are indeed the finest SLRs of their age, or of any age. The M5? Feh. How does one say, “WTF?” in Deutsch?

  • what is that hideous Ricoh in the lead photo?

    • 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).

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

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • 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.

      • Yes, the M5 now has a following. I looked at one in Campkins in Cambridge in 2008 but didn’t buy it as the owner only offered a desultory discount for immediate sale. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t but. I much prefer the regular shape. It’s not difficult to see why the buyers were put off: cannot use retractable lenses – Oscar Barnack’s Ur Leica of 1913 had a retractable lens, ditto the 23 null serie pre production prototypes of 1923/24 and the 1 model of 1925 (called the A by the factory so now its the 1A) had a fixed retractable lens. The factory suggested putting a band of Dyno Roll tape on the lens barrel to prevent it being retracted and thus snapping off the meter cell arm. This, from the makers of the finest 35mm film camera in the World! Then the loony idea of 2 strap lugs on just one end of the camera? Howls of indignation from established users!! I’ll stop now.

        • The collapsible lenses were not that common, and not being able to use them should not be decisive. The camera is a gem!

          • You can use them; you just can’t collapse them. I remember seeing a metal collar that went around the lens tube to prevent accidentally collapsing the lens. Don’t remember whether it was a Leica item or third-party after market.
            In any case, you’re right. By the time the M5 was introduced, the collapsible 50s, even the Summicron, were not the best choice.
            Photographers were not interested in “character,” or bokeh either, in the 70’s.

      • I sold quite a few of them.

    • 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.

  • I miss the Rolleiflex SL26 in that list.

  • Here’s one especially for folks that think changing batteries is too much trouble. 🙂
    The Kowa Made (or just designed? I’m honestly not sure.), Graflex branded Graphic 35 Jet. This thing used CO2 cartridges to advance the film and cock the shutter!
    Mike Butkus has a copy of the manual available on his website if you’re interested.
    The gas driven advance is wonderfully wacky, I think, but the shutter release is what really bothers me about this camera. It isn’t a button to press but a lever, on the front of the camera that is pulled to trip the shutter then moved back to its original position to set off the “Internal Jet-O-Matic Motor.” And you’re instructed to wait to be sure the shutter has closed before doing so.
    I was out bid the last time I saw one come up on ebay. That was a long time back and they don’t seem to show up very often. Next time, maybe.

    • CO2 cartridges? As in a soda siphon? Oh dear. And this designer actually got a job, designing cameras? As my late Father would have said: “I can make a better noise with my arse” (he was a very vulgar man).

  • My sister had a Handle. Don’t recall her using it, even when film was available. I do remember it siting in the hallway closet for many years after Kodak got sued.

    In 1996 my fiancee and I bought the first ELPH. It was really neat, although the images never were. However, the look of the ELPH models influenced many digital P&S Canons for years afterwards.

  • Its an old thread and I must say I enjoyed the article and it is nicely blogged, but you went to far in dogging the Yashica Samurai. The Samurai 1 is a great shooter and winning in a Holga shootout any day. Shoot on a tripod and you can achieve very good resolution for sharp 8×10 enlargements. Certainly good for dreamy wide open portraits with a bunch of induced flare and cross processing hues. Plus you can shoot a lot more frames and faster. It is still a good camera for action, once it focuses and starts firing. Preset focus is good for split second timing, but it will lock focus and shoot fast in long focus shots, but not cluttered foregrounds. The motor drive has a pretty fast cycling rate for a cheap camera like 3 frames a second.
    The Samurai was not a failure. It was manufactured for at least 7 years in three different models and a sub variation or two including the ONLY LEFT HANDED camera ever built, to my knowledge. The Samurai ZL.
    Overall not bad product performance for a ‘weird stinker’. I have 3 that still work fine and shot the last roll of Kodachrome ever developed by Dwaynes in Parsons, KS through it to get 75 & 1/2 nice half frame positives. I loaded it up once with a home-reload roll of thin Efke 100 film to the tune of 100 frames on one roll! The original model of the Z has an intervalometer on the back with time stamp. So ‘not a loser’ camera.
    Besides being a decent street-fighter, the best trick the Samurai does, like most half frame cameras, is in the production of thematically related Triptychs printed on one sheet of paper which can present an aspect of the passage of time, a tool that is sometimes hard to find in the artisan’s toolbox. Good for panoramas, too and recreation of photo-booth effect.
    For an added mind-blower, realize its nearly exactly like a 35mm movie camera in its format and film transport. You could make a stop-action cartoon with it and have the roll film directly tele-cined to movie film or video.

  • I just bought a Konica AiBorg from Great Britain that is announced as fully functional. I think I’ll get some shots of very astonished people. The technics is not bad for street photography.

Leave a Reply

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop

All stories by:James Tocchio