Old Interfaces Versus Mid-Life Versus New

Something struck me looking at all the different camera designs flying by these days: the camera makers might not have figured out what works best. 

Let me use three distinctly different approaches to illustrate my point:

  • Leica Vario X — 1950's rangefinder style forced into the automation era
  • Current Nikon DSLR — sophisticated button-and-dial approach
  • Samsung Galaxy NX — leaked upcoming NX mirrorless camera running Android

When automation hit the cameras back when I was only a child, cameras had aperture rings and shutter speed dials (cameras without removable lenses sometimes had aperture dials instead of rings). You supported the camera/lens with your hand under the lens so you changed the aperture by rotating the ring with your thumb and maybe your middle or ring finger without really moving your overall hand position. You changed the shutter speed by moving your right hand away from the shutter release and moving a dial. Okay, so how do you automate that? By putting an A position on the dials/rings. If you want complete automation (program mode), you set both to A. This is the Leica Vario X design.

This approach can be a little problematic and slightly inflexible. Before we had in-viewfinder displays, you had to take your eye away from the viewfinder to look at the setting you were making. If you were in "program mode" and wanted to adjust it from what the camera was doing, you generally had to spin two dials. In some designs those dials were both on the right top of the camera (like the current Vario X), which means you pull your hand position away from shooting position to make any change. The net effect of this old interface approach is that you have a tendency to be either in shooting position or setting position. The camera is at your eye for shooting and you live with your settings, or you move your eye and/or hand to change settings and you won't be shooting again until you're done.  

Photography is about moments in time. A great camera design never lets you miss the moment, even if you were in the middle of making a setting. Priority should always go to the shot, and you shouldn't move your eye from the viewfinder nor your index finger from the shutter release to make most changes. At least as long as we use our eye to compose and react and our finger to select the moment. (I put that last part in partly because of Google Glass, where you can blink to take a picture and you may over time simply rely upon your head position to compose.)

While I've started by picking on the Vario X here, I should point out that Leica did bring a fair amount of direct control out to where it isn't particularly intrusive on the shooting priority. You should be able to change any of the major things while composing, whether at the LCD or the optional EVF. It's not terrible in this respect, it's just not optimal.

Now let's fast forward from Leica's latest iteration of their same-old design to Samsung's new-fangled attempt, to be announced this week (try this link if you haven't seen it). Note one thing about the camera: virtually no buttons or controls. We've got the iFunction button and a dial, but that's about it. Everything else will apparently be set by phone-style tapping on the LCD. A far worse problem than the Leica Vario X for shooting, as far as I'm concerned. There appears to be little you can change without moving your eye from the viewfinder on the new Samsung NX. Either that or that one button and dial are overloaded with functions, which is just as bad. 

I can't begin to count the number of times I've been in touristy places watching the family photographer (typically dad) with his sophisticated camera trying to get it set right while the family posing in front of him is exhorting him to get on with it; they want to move to the next opportunity, like, you know, yesterday? This is, of course, one of the reasons why we have the All-in Automatic modes in cameras. 

But Samsung appears to be totally all-in with the Galaxy NX. And that has me scratching my head. Exactly why do I want a smartphone interface on what is a high-end product competing against very sophisticated high-end products that have more direct control? It appears to me that Samsung hasn't actually properly identified the customer for high-end cameras and what they want to do. My experience with their current Galaxy (16mp compact camera) has been that if you use it as a big smartphone with a long zoom, it's mostly just fine (e.g. just press the shutter release and let the "camera" do the rest), but if you really want to control things, it becomes slow and cumbersome and your eye is never composing the shot (let alone your index finger taking it) while you're making those changes. So why would we want this design in a sophisticated mirrorless camera? I didn't want it in a compact camera (and neither has the marketplace as far as I can see). 

Which brings me to mid-life designs. Nikon started with aperture rings and shutter speed dials. The F4 was the last pro camera that they designed that way. Somewhere along the line in their design collaboration with Giugiaro, the notion of button+dial came up. After trying it on a couple of cameras, it became the center of the Nikon SLR (and now DSLR) design space. There are two notions at play in the idea: eye stays at the viewfinder, index finger stays on the shutter release. As much as is possible. It's why many of the buttons on the pro cameras are on the left top of the camera and the Command dials are slightly tilted from horizontal on the modern designs. 

Don't get me wrong. Nikon certainly hasn't perfected this (and Canon with their similar design using overloaded buttons and vertical command dials hasn't, either). They often do things that seem in violation of the basic design tenant. Still, I'm confident that in most of my shooting with my Nikon D4 that my eye is almost always at the viewfinder and my index finger rarely wavers far from the shutter release, at least when I'm making changes to the major settings (AF, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, WB, etc.). It's one of the primary reasons why a D4 (and the D3 series before, and to a slightly lesser degree the D700/D800) are such compelling cameras for shooting spontaneous things like sports and events. (I'd say the same thing about the Canon high-end designs, with one small difference: the button and dial positions tend to pull your right index finger away from the shutter release more than do Nikon's. But your finger doesn't have to move far to get back. I can live with Canon's design, too.)

It strikes me that we mostly know what the "right" interface is for cameras, at least for sophisticated shooters. Yet the camera companies keep tinkering around the edges of it, trying something new, or violating the high concept for some unknown reason. I sort of mentioned this with my Coolpix A review. I tend to shoot with this camera with the optical viewfinder. Unfortunately, with my eye at the finder, the exposure compensation button and ISO buttons—both on the left side as they probably should be to keep hand positions correct—are blocked by my face, which means to change those things I'm moving my face back from shooting position and losing my composition. I can reassign the exposure compensation button to the front Fn button, but I can't set Easy Exposure Compensation (for P, S, and A modes) as I can on the DSLRs, nor move ISO to the Fn button. Thus, spontaneous at-the-eye shooting is compromised slightly from what it could be. I doubt that any Nikon Coolpix A designer actually considered the optical finder when shooting, unfortunately.

This points out that the design goal isn't "button plus dials" or "buttons on the left" or any of the other physical properties of the controls, but rather the conceptual philosophy. Nikon got the physical stuff mostly right (still too many buttons that feel the same, though), but forgot the conceptual philosophy that drove the physical design choices they've been using. 

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one with this response. Serious photographers all seem to relate to cameras that invoke old, established philosophies well, and not to all these new-fangled, totally reinvented interfaces that have no real conceptual center that's associated with the photographic choices the shooter wants to make while still being ready to take a shot at a moment's notice. Just once I'd like to pick up a camera that gets it all right. Samsung's announcement this week will be a step in the wrong direction. Leica's last week wasn't enough of step forward from their old position. Goldilocks like the one in the middle.

text and images © Thom Hogan 2015 -- all rights reserved
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