Intimate camera handling versus menu driven convenience-appliance use.


When I mention how strange I find it that some people pick out a feature, or lack of feature, on a camera and call it a "deal killer" I think I'm just reflecting how differently people approach their creative tools. I find myself wondering why other people make the trade-offs they do with equipment and am sometimes puzzled by which compromises are most important to them.

To use an example: If two cameras were equally capable of making very, very high quality images but one camera was designed to feel much better in the hand, and have a better overall interface, while the other camera was less comfortable in use but had features such as two card slots (presuming the competitor has only one card slot) or included GPS, which one would I choose? Well, of course I would choose the one that I'd enjoy having in my hands for hours at a time, possibly over the course of years.

But equally experienced photographers of a different mindset might choose to ignore ergonomic shortcomings in order to have the piece of mind that a dual card slot might bring, or to leverage the (very questionable) advantages provided by GPS (which I find a worthless concept for any but hardcore travel photographers).

People are free to choose whatever combination of handling, build and feature sets they want but choices that diverge from mine always cause me to stop and try to decipher why they value the very things that seem to fly under my radar while being willing to put up with various operational discomforts instead.

I think I finally figured it out. The answer lies in the way the two different contingents think about cameras in general.

I started thinking about the difference in the way people use their cameras and feel about their cameras in the context of how groups of people use their smart phones. At first I thought it was a generational thing but many people older me by a long shot are virtuosos with their phones. They know all the cool apps and controls, they whisk around town creating personal hot spots, doing their banking and using their phones to control their daiquiri blenders, the temperature of their bathwater and to automate the bird feeder in the back yard. I bought my iPhone to make and receive phone calls and only recently mastered texting. I think of products as singular tools despite adoring the "idea" of Swiss Army knives.

If I had to chose between a phone which makes it easy to make calls on and to get texts with versus a phone that could do a million more things I know I would gravitate to the simpler phone just because the onus of having to master a thousand apps and a dozen pages of menus makes me tired and makes me feel as though all of our time is leached away learning a million useless control steps but the tool is never really pressed into actually doing the art. Or the call. Or the whatever.

My preference in a camera will generally be how it feels to use it. How much it becomes a trusted ally in helping me do the things I want to do and create the images I want to create. I spend long days with my cameras and generally have one by my side most waking hours.

If you shoot the same way and in the same style most of the time you either get used to the feel of the camera or you grow to dislike it. Whether you persist with a camera that makes your brain/hand combination unsettled for the sake of either specification satisfaction or some feature you can't find anywhere else depends on your individual disposition.

I see cameras as very, very specific tools. More so since I started shooting video in earnest with the GH5S. I tested that camera for stills and it's fine but it is so much a dedicated video camera that this is all I find myself using it for. If I want to shoot video I pick up the GH5S. I like the video files from the camera more than anything else I've shot since the days in which we shot 35mm movie film. I may, in fact, try to trade my original GH5 for another S variant just for that reason. But I don't see the GH5S as an "all arounder" and won't take it along in situations where I my intention is to just shoot photographs.

At the other end of the spectrum I find the Nikon D700 to be a very, very comfortable physical camera with a very well thought out and uncomplicated physical interface design. It is designed for one this only and that is to take photographs. It is unencumbered by video, GPS, Bluetooth, Wi-fi and all the countless modes that more modern cameras fester with and so it has a clear intentionality of purpose and seems to convey that sensibility of intention to a daily user. To put it clearly it is a camera that becomes more and more transparent to the process the longer one uses it and gets comfortable with it. And, at the bottom of all camera design and use isn't the real idea to make a camera which doesn't distract from the process with poor handling and unnecessary operational complexity? It is for me.

A quick way to tell whether you prefer a "pure" experience or "need" the complexity of a feature rich camera is this: Do you know what all the function buttons on your camera are programmed to do and do you use all of the function buttons on your cameras in the process of making your photographs? Do you routinely use Bluetooth or wi-fi in the daily routine of making your own, personal, not-for-publication photographs?

If you answered yes then you are probably the same type of person who understands all the myriad possibilities of your smart phone and how to access them. We are opposites. Our camera choices may never converge. And that's the starting point to understanding how I'm going to approach my approach to the new Nikon Z cameras. I'll be evaluating how well they work as shooting cameras; not how many check boxes they tick. I'm ordering the Z6 as it makes the most sense.

When I get back from San Antonio this evening let's look at what Nikon's real intention for the new cameras is, as expressed by the insanely well designed lenses as represented by the 35mm f1.8. See Michael Johnston's most recent discussion of this lens at theonlinephotographer.com

I'm headed down to San Antonio to visit my dad and have lunch with him. I'm taking along a Nikon D700 and the 85mm f1.8. Should be a nice day for a visit. Happy Sunday!


Doug said...

Kirk: I definitely fall into the "how it feels" camp. I shoot a Fuji X-T1 and rarely touch anything except the ISO, exposure compensation & shutter speed dials, plus aperture ring. I've added a very comfortable and lightweight aftermarket hand grip, as well, which greatly improves the ergonomics. Simpler is better for me. Complicated menus, 10 function buttons, etc. just annoy me. I was a dedicated F3 user for years. I'm hoping the new X-T3 will suit me while adding a better autofocus system. We'll see about the Z6. Might be great. Might not. Look forward to your thoughts if Nikon ever actually delivers one into your hands. LOL!

Anonymous said...

If I don't buy one of the Z cameras it will be because they may not have a reliable focus system for anything that moves (almost everything I photograph). Been there, done that.

Edward Richards said...

I am not sure that using an ancient dial phone tells us much about using a smartphone, but I suspect previous camera use might tell us something about current camera use. If you started with a Nikon F or Pentax Spotmatic or Leica M3, when those were the state of the art, you got comfortable with limited controls and resulting zen of mostly concentrating on framing and focusing. You also put a lot more thought into those because you have a limited number of shots available. If started with a press camera shooting things that moved, like sports, you really paid attention to timing shots because you only got one.

Mike Rosiak said...

I look for a "toaster." Simple and obvious interface. Dedicated function.

My criteria for any software or hardware, that I apply universally.

Anonymous said...

"Do you know what all the function buttons on your camera are programmed to do and do you use all of the function buttons on your cameras in the process of making your photographs? Do you routinely use Bluetooth or wi-fi in the daily routine of making your own, personal, not-for-publication photographs?"

Oh, hell no. Life is too damned short for that. I know how to do what I need the camera to do, and little else. Ditto for post-processing software. I'd rather spend my time on things I enjoy (including photography) than on mastering bunch of (useless to me) features that a camera design engineer (or a camera marketing specialist) thought the camera had to have. And I don't own a smartphone. I don't think it is an age thing either, as I am "only" barely into my 50s.

Hope you had a good time visiting your dad.


Craig Yuill said...

I absolutely, positively DO NOT want to encode GPS co-ordinates in my photos. Quite frankly, I think that the people who consider it to be a must-have feature in a camera really need to get their heads examined.

I once attended a workshop given by an expert in the potential dangers of social media. He pointed out that smartphone cameras could include location details (such as GPS co-ordinates) in photo files. If we were to take a photo with our smartphone at home and then post it to a site like Facebook, anyone who was able to see that image could get our home location from the photo file. It would likely be no one intending to do any harm - but it could also be a stalker, a kidnapper, a con man, etc., etc., etc. I immediately looked at the settings of the camera app of my smartphone at the - sure enough, location details were included in photos by default. I immediately turned that setting to OFF, and was really thankful I received this information.

Don't get me started on the one-card "problem" with the new Nikon mirrorless cameras. I have never used more than one card in a digital camera, ever. And so far, no problems!

Kodachromeguy said...

"Menu driven convenience-appliance" use. Well-stated! I must be really old school. I just don't understand how contemporary "photographers" get all worked up and declare the lack of something is a "deal-killer." Makes me think they really are not photographers at all, just internet forum complainers (especially on the infamous Dpreview). That is why I love a camera as simple as a Leica M or a Rolleiflex. One setting before you take the picture: exp. index on your light meter. Then for the picture: only 3 settings: shutter speed, f-stop, and focus. Click, and the picture is done. Move on to your next subject.

Anonymous said...

As an occasional hardcore travel photographer, I often need to choose feature over form. Yes I need that dreaded GPS, and the built-in kind preferred, as the appendage type that fits on the flash shoe w/dangling cable is just asking to be smashed or decapitated. And yes, using a cooperative smartphone as the receiver is operable, but requires one to lug it around too, eventually to find its battery also exhausted.

This has somewhat kept me in the 2011-2014 era of cameras, which was the golden age of embedded GPS. But I still feel somewhat exonerated, in that Messrs. T. Northrup and G. Laing still opine in its favor.