5.14.2021

Camera menus. Does operating a camera in 2021 have to be much, much more arduous than using a camera in 1991?

The first menu page one sees on the back of a Leica SL2 camera. 
Almost everything a photographer needs to do work.
And, if you are shooting exclusively raw probably 
all the basic settings you'd want. 

 I love reading Michael Johnston's blog every single day because it's great, it's well written, it's usually very interesting, and....I disagree with him about 25% of the time, which forces me to think more. I feel the same about Thom Hogan's blog. Both are vital resources for photographers and, especially in Mike's case, they provide a deep understanding of, not necessarily the nuts and bolts of current photography but, the trajectory of its progress and art forms.

I think all three of us are in agreement about certain camera company's "eccentric" and complex camera menu structures. I can imagine that Olympus might have sold twice as many cameras in the past ten years if only they had made their camera menus much, much simpler and much easier to understand. But we each have written about overly complicated menus in the past...

Most of my disagreement with Thom, philosophically, is his almost endless refrain that camera makers have all dropped the ball because they didn't make sharing images directly from digital cameras as easy as sharing images from an iPhone. I still think of cameras and photo sharing as two separate parts of photography, much like shooting a roll of Tri-X is totally separate from making a fine, black and white print from a Tri-X negative in the cozy comfort of your darkroom. I get that he goes out on distant locations for longer periods of time and still wants to share images but I'm not sure immediate sharing is "critical" to the pursuit of most, non-breaking-news photography, or photographers. I may come around to his point of view at some point but I doubt it will be soon since, over the last four years, I've permanently abandoned Facebook, Twitter, 500PX and now, Instagram. My propensity and proclivity for instantly sharing some image I've just taken is trending toward zero. Art shouldn't be instantly regurgitated like lunch from a sparrow's beak to her waiting young... 

And I'm not quite ready to splash out for another cell data plan at AT&T to insure prompt delivery.

I don't know if Thom has actually had experiences with a camera that can do what he imagines he wants one to do. I have. I was a tester for the Samsung Galaxy NX which featured a 5 inch screen, bluetooth, wi-fi and even cellular data capability, all the way back in 2013. It was a horrible way to work. And the Android OS that camera ran on (and which enabled it's multi-path image transmission) hasn't gotten that much better over the ensuing years. At least not where cameras and photography are concerned. 

But everything else Thom writes about is well reasoned and cogent so I have to think that rather than he being "wrong" and me being "right" we're just coming to the same concept from two different points of view. 

My disagreement with Michael is of the same nature, we're coming to the practice of camera operation from two distinctly different sets of experiences and workflows. The most current example lies in the interesting blog he wrote yesterday in which he outlined his concept for reducing the complexity and frustration for enthusiast photographers when confronted with daunting and overly complex camera menus. 

In short, he proposed being able to set up a new camera by having the maker supply a computer program that would walk one through each setting, explain the features and benefits of the setting and then allow it to be registered in the program. He also proposed being able to exclude feature sets that were of no interest to an individual photographer (video?) to prevent making the on-camera menu too complex. 

After a person was walked through the menu on the computer program, and the photographer had made his selections and customization he would then be able to easily transfer the whole newly created menu of choices over to the actual camera and install it there. At that point the camera would be set up exactly as the owner thought best. Mike's idea is that this would render decision making in the field, while using the camera, much easier and less complex. And it would yield a higher success rate.

His underlying premise is that many or most of the current camera menus are far too nested, complex, overly    re-programmable and require, on set up, a guide or expanded glossary of explanations. And I feel his pain; I have owned many, many Olympus cameras. Loved the mechanics and the imaging. Despised the menus. 

But I think that adding a computer to the mix is just another way of adding complexity and removing the photographer from being able to make agile decisions and to take advantage of real time testing in the field. I'm already using my computer as a darkroom and a firmware support device for the cameras and I don't feel the need to depend on my base camp computer more than I already am. 

As far as interface complexity goes I would point any photographer who consistently has problems with the overwhelming choices of most cameras to take a look at the menus in the current Leica SL2. It's pretty much the same menu as is presented in the SL2S and the Q2 cameras from the same maker. It's a model of simplicity and while it doesn't come complete with interactive guides most photographers who've been using other digital camera menus will find the Leica version a model of straightforward simplicity. 

I've included the top level menu page of the SL2 above. At the top you see "Photo" on one side and "Video" on the other. This is a touch menu. When you touch Photo you only see photo options in your menu. When you touch Video you see video options in your menu. And the menu changes its graphic look between the two settings so you know at a glance which menu you are currently in. 

The block directly under that shows you the current camera settings. 

The series of pictograms under that (which are user programmable) show you: drive mode, focus mode, focusing pattern, autofocus settings, metering pattern, and white balance in the top row. 

In the bottom row you'll find (at least on my camera) settings for: file type (Jpeg, DNG), card format icon, user profile, control locks (programmable), phone app, and finally an icon that takes you straight into the main menu.

Everything can be selected either by touching an icon and then using one of the wheels on the camera body to scroll through the selections or by using the wheels and the joystick. In the top menu I can quickly re-format an SD card, select a new white balance, change my ISO, change aperture and shutter speeds, use the touch screen or buttons to change exposure compensation or just about any of the other daily use camera controls. 

The screen is nearly as responsive as using an iPhone. Everything I need in order to complete most commercial projects, as well as for personal shooting, is presented and available on that one screen. And, if I need to go into the main menu it's set up remarkably well, and in only five pages of selections, none of which requires one to scroll beyond the bottom of each page. Yes, there are sub-menus but they are clear and concise and are mostly for fine-tuning features that you'll likely set only occasionally. 

My difference of opinion about what Mike suggested is that while we both agree that current camera menus should be much easier to understand and use, and that camera makers should make setting up a camera much easier and straightforward, it's not necessary to add yet another device to the mix but rather to have the camera maker design and implement menus that make sense, are logical to use, and which can give you the option for big, macro operation of the camera (the top menu) and then an increasing ability to fine-tune underneath that large and essential menu with more micro adjustments located further into the menu. 

The rear of the Leica SL2, the SL2S, the Q2 and the current M series cameras has, basically, three big buttons next to the screen. One is for the menus, one is for playback and the third is for scrolling through different screen views (with or without peaking, a level, the amount of info you want on the rear screen, etc.) They are joined by an on/off switch, a small button next to the finder that, logically, allows you to scroll through how the camera presents the EVF, and then, on the top right edge, a scroll wheel which can also be clicked. The overall cleanliness and simplicity of the interface is breathtaking. 

I'm certainly not suggesting that everyone with an interest in photography (Mike's "enthusiasts") rush out and buy Leicas in order to reduce the stress load caused by crappy menus but I am suggesting that camera makers could take much bigger strides on making menus palatable for users without resorting to yet another application for my desktop computer. (And, God Forbid that I might have to replace a camera in the field after having been acclimated to walking through set up with a warm cup of tea in one hand and a 27 inch screen in front of me along with the soothing voice of artificial intelligence spoon-feeding me the basics of photography). 

If a small company such as Leica, with a very small footprint of sales, can make such a great interface for their whole, current family of cameras just think of what a camera company with deep pockets, such as Sony or Canon should be able to accomplish.....if they really wanted to.  And maybe that boils down to the real issue. Do they even care?

There is one more difference in perspective between Mike's point of view and mine. Mike reviews more cameras than I do, doesn't (as far as I know) shoot day long or week long assignments with one model or brand of cameras, and so doesn't develop the same muscle memory or basic memory for the long list of menu items a single camera may offer. I've currently put over 40,000 images on the Panasonic S1 I've had for a little over a year. It's one of seven cameras I rotate through while shooting. But after 40,000 tries I've gotten acclimated to the camera menu in a way that a casual user never will. The repetition of pounding through settings is the core of learning a process. And maybe that's the point from his perspective; that many in his audience would benefit from a simpler set up because they aren't using the camera with the frequency or depth of service that might be required for some people (like me) who don't remember menu item positions very well. And I'll admit that I've never been good at memorizing menus...

But rather than put the burden on the photographer by adding complexity to the whole process (computer, new program, transferring results to the camera) we should be demanding menus that are logical and nice to work with in the first place. We've seen that it can be done. The tech is already there and the Leica "experiment" proves that the organization of menus can also be conquered. Let's conspire to put the onus back where it belongs! On the camera makers! 

After all, an automobile is far, far more complex than a camera and look at cars available today. Anyone can sit down, toss the key fob into the center cup holder and be moving in 30 seconds. If we had to configure our cars first on our home computers and then depend on our own I.T. skills to make the right choices and to transfer the settings correctly to our cars I'm sure thousands more would die on the road every day. If they could even get started out of the driveway. 

All that being said (written) I'm sure that Mike's idea has a commercial application since I'm certain a subset of photographers would be happy to embrace it. As far as it being an "original" thought I will remind that at one point in time Nikon professional film cameras could be connected to computers to change camera functions and to download system info. At least I remember it that way. Can anyone add to that?

Mike and Thom are both daily reads for me. I don't always agree but they're almost always on the right track and they add good knowledge for us. Now, if only Mike can get over his ongoing struggles with comment moderation.... (big smiley face icon strongly implied 😄). 


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