#261. Menu envy. Not.

By Paul Perton | Opinion

Jul 29

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Many pundits flesh out their reviews with (usually) lengthy and often caustic gripes about interfaces – the way the camera communicates with you and how easy it is to set, or change a specific function.

Read any Web review. There’s always a section on the menus and how hard (usually) or easy (rarely) it is to get things done.

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Having foolishly unlocked the usually nailed down controls on my NEX-7 a couple of days ago, I got some first hand experience and a mild kind of panic; what am I going to do if I can’t get this damned camera back to where I know what’s it’s doing?

The exposure values and ISO on the rear LCD were all over the show and I was ready to toss the whole thing into the nearby loch. WTF I cried to the heavens?

Calm yourself. Take a deep breath. Look at the LCD – what’s changed?

Turns out, I’d managed to change the shooting mode from my invariable (A)perture priority to (M)anual. One level down and a turn of the big wheel on the back and I was back in business. Not before locking those all-too-easy-to-accidently-change bloody controls up again though.

Sunset stream

Sunset stream

Happily restored to action, I got to thinking just how much of the functionality Sony et al pack into their cameras. I really use very little, just set up and shoot. Just a guess, but that’s probably about 5%.

I use:
Aperture priority
Exposure compensation
Focus peaking
LCD for occasional chimping

Doesn’t seem like much does it? Especially when you consider that this tiny photographic marvel also has somewhere north of a million different LCD icons, a flash, shoots video, HDRs, panoramas and even has an exposure setting that allows the user to tell the sex of various wild animals at a distance. Yaaaaaawn.

Right now, the only thing I want it to have is GPS to save me either using a less than useless iPhone app, or endless satellite images on Google Maps.

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Of course, my 5% is probably different to your 5%, but do we really need Vivid, minute JPGs and/or 3D sweep panoramas? Who uses all that stuff and should Sony be encouraging those that do to use such a powerful camera for what is really just messing about?

What’s your experience?

Do you do Vivid? Is VGA important to you? Hand held twilight? Are users such dolts that they don’t know what a tripod is?

Should we be demanding less of this meaningless complexity, or at least access to the software to select what we want in a menu and only that?

In a world where camera makers did as their users asked, we’d get this degree of customisation, but then our cameras would be “Pro” versions and cost 15% more because of all the extra R&D necessary. Huh?

C’mon. I’ve given up a couple of hours of my holiday to think this one out. It’s your turn now.


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  • Ken says:

    “Of course, my 5% is probably different to your 5%”

    Taken seriously, this proposition largely undermines the rationale for the post which includes it which, I have to say, visits familiar territory without discovering much that is new. Most cameras aimed at enthusiasts need to be learned. Depending on how familiar one is with modern digital cameras, this can take a while – maybe as long as a few hours – not so long compared to the time it takes to learn to use other powerful tools (Photoshop – Lightroom – a car – a violin). Not doing your homework guarantees frustration, doing it well produces a tool that customised to individual needs by forgrounding those needs (eg by assigning them to buttons) and placing other features, which other people need or which one may need later, further down in the menu. Over time, needs will change and the photographer who has done her homework will be well placed to make the necessary adjustments so that her camera remains useful to her and to deal with any problems which arise as a result of random button-pressing or dial-turning. Sometimes these will be as simple as changing the mode back to “A” from “M”. This has certainly happened to me more than once, but I am not sure that I ever saw it as providing much of a basis for an argument about the complexity of User Interfaces. If you want a powerful and flexible camera you can’t expect it to be idiot-proof (I don’t mean that personally, except insofar as I am referring to myself).

    I loved the illustrations – some nice shots of Scottish water.

    • paulperton says:

      Ken,aAll you say is essentially true. My point(s) of departure are:

      I think we should be vociferous about what we want and how we want it. Without dissenting voices the manufacturers of anything will simply assume that their efforts are adequate and not try any harder. The fact that I don’t cover new ground is not the issue. What is important is that the ground is covered.

      The kind of utility I’m asking for is an essential challenge to designers, developers and manufacturers. Until Apple delivered the iMac, we all thought computers were beige and ran Windows. Likewise the retro VW, smartphones, tablets and the many things we now take for granted. If there’s no continuous push from the marketplace for simpler, easier-to-use and more predictable technology, there’s no pressure on the developers to deliver.

  • pascaljappy says:

    OK, and now a third point of view. Over 60 years, the interface of cameras had converged towards a consistent set of functions and function placements. Yes, there were variations, not least the focusing differences between reflex and rangefinder cameras, but it didn’t take a manual to describe how to use a specific new release. You just grabbed the camera and used it.

    Why, then, has digital been an excuse for such a divergence of user interface and user experience? By what mysterious magic have the most essential features disappeared from the dashboard to be replaced by utterly uninteresting ones? By what reasoning should ISO settings be relegated to a third level menu?

    Has any car manufacturer placed the steering wheels of its new products in the boot during the transition from fossil to electric???? I think not.

    So I too would like to petition the big names in photography (change.org, anyone?) but for a back to the future return to sanity. Sony, for all its sensor goodness, is one of the worst offenders here, but far from the only one. Olympus and the micro 4/3 crowd seem far more intelligent in their approach, which is also evident in their open specification. Power to them!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Oh, and, great pics, Paul! That last one is fantastic. Is that 3D Supavivid ? Ahem 😉

    • Ken says:

      “By what reasoning should ISO settings be relegated to a third level menu?”

      That would certainly be a PITA, and I am glad it isn’t the case on any of my cameras, all of which I have customised so that the features I want to use are easily available to me. They are made by four different manufacturers and the UI starting points are very different, but the end points after customising are similar enough so that I don’t have much trouble switching from one to another. I just need to run quickly through the buttons and dials to remind myself where I have put things. The features I need at the top level are focus mode and manual focus assistance, drive mode, exposure mode, ISO, aperture, speed and white balance. All my cameras, after customising, make it easy for me to access all or most of these.

      I find it interesting, Pascal, that you should praise the Olympus UI, because it gets hammered by reviewers. I hated it when I first encountered it, but, after putting in the work, now have it sorted, and have concluded that there is nothing wrong with complexity as as long as it is accompanied by enough flexibility to allow for customisation, which I see as essentially amounting to simplification around my specific needs. All my cameras have features I don’t use much, or don’t use at all now but may use in future, or will probably never use, but I don’t feel any inclination to argue that any of those features should be removed, because someone else undoubtedly uses them and because, after my first run-through with the camera and manual, I need never see them again.

      Paul, I certainly think it is important to think creatively about user interfaces, but I like interfaces which allow me to do that, so I am less than enthusiastic about any notion of standardisation or simplification around what someone else would like.

      • pascaljappy says:

        It baffles me that Olympus should get such a bad rap. Based on my year-long ownership of an E-M5, not only do their cameras produce stunningly good image quality, but using them is pure joy. My only criticism would be the size being a bit on the small side.

        I too have customised the essentials but can’t really understand why the logical placement of the basic ISO, exp comp, aperture, speed & exposure mode of the film years should have been so randomly redistributed since. It worked for everyone, which can hardly be said of today’s ergonomic re-shuffles. I’d be surprised if 1% of A7r owners used some of the exp mode wheel settings that could be used for far more valuable functions, for instance.

        All this feels like an industry in its infancy where it’s really had the best part of a century to mature.

  • Gianluca says:

    I couldn’t agree more: camera ought to be designed by photographers and not only by engineers. Btw, I think this is not a problem just with Sony (I’m an exceedingly happy owner of a Nex 7 myself after years of full-frame Canons).

    All the companies should, at least on their top models, concentrate more on substance and less on gimmicks. There has to be a reason why when I pick up my Rolleicord using it is pure joy, while when I used to pick up other cameras (I don’t make names to avoid starting a war!) felt like work…(and I’m not a luddite, if anything I’m something of a nerd, I enjoy technology and programming).

    In fact just a couple months ago I wrote on the same subject an “open letter” to Fuji and Sony – at the moment the only two companies innovating, bar Olympus (but m4/3 is not my cup of tea) – to express my wishes for my next camera and a rant against the engineers’ mentality.

    If you want you can read them:



    but basically they say that, like Olympus back in the OM days, the camera companies should work closely with actual photographers asking what they want, and this before sitting at the design table, not after the camera is ready like an afterthought, when the only option is then fixing something in the firmware.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thanks Gianluca. The Contax G1 on your open letter page is indeed a great starting point of a mirrorless design.

      I suppose the catch-22 with all this is that trailblazing companies like Sony who devote so muc effort to inovating are more likely to pay lip service to the old-school ergonomics that we like. If they did, it would probably slow down the innovation process. So I’m happy to live with flawed masterpieces such as the Sony A7r, up to a point. But I still feel that incredible design errors such as the whole image review process (on the A7r) have nothing to do with innovation oversight and more with absolute sloppiness. And that’s just a shame.

      • Gianluca says:

        You nailed the problem Pascal: sloppiness is indeed, in my opinion, the capital sin of modern photographic – and not – industry.

        When your only goal is improving the short term financial situation and not making a product that makes you proud “perfection” is not a concept you strive for.

        Considering the foolish economic theories of the day I suppose that even paying just one photographer as a consultant during the design process is seen as a waste of money…

        • paulperton says:

          It’s sad Gianluca, but most of us would give our time and advice quite freely. Even so, my phone rarely rings and Nikon et al have clearly lost my e-mail address 🙁

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