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November 10, 2011

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It's all about not having to keep track of state as a user. It's no coincidence that for interfaces that really matter - car drivers' environment, airplane controls, industrial plants, complex medical devices - the designers choose stateless ("modeless") controls for the important bits. The same control always controls the same thing. One thing is always controlled by one and the same control.

State doesn't have to be bad, though. You just need to make sure the user doesn't have to keep track of it themselves. "Aperture priority" is arguably a stateful control; when you set that the other controls on the camera behave differently than in manual. But the manufacturers make very sure you always know you're in that state - the clearly marked "A" in a different color on the dial, and usually an "A" or similar in the viewfinder too.

My favourite text editor is Vim, which is very much a stateful editor. It has three separate modes, and just about every key works differently depending on the mode. But again, it is always obvious which mode you're in, so it doesn't add to your cognitive load.

Is the Sony obvious enough? I wouldn't know of course, but like you, I suspect from the pictures that it is not.

Reminds me of the difficulty in controlling a sound system and DVR for the TV. Without the TV screen you are lost. To do a simple change of increasing the bass or treble response, there is now no button to turn, it takes about 5 minutes to go into the menu system and set up the 'audio' response. To record anything, one now has to spend 5 minutes getting the TV to talk to the DVR to set up a recording schedule.

The most frustrating thing, for me, about every digital P&S or DSLR camera I've used is the learning curve for figuring out just how to make the tool do what it's designed to do (Aghh), then forgetting what I learned and being required to re-learn the same thing. Although some were quicker to pick-up on, with every one I've used the learning curve got in the way. I'm sure if I used the same two or three cameras for hours a day, every day, the curve would straighten out quite a bit, but still....Why is all that stuff needed? Too much of the time my eye comes off the viewfinder or is diverted from the LCD screen to make sure I hit the right button to get to the right menu then sub-menu to get to the setting that should have been made possible with one or two quick dial turns.

I have the same problem with the telephones where I work. They do so many things that just getting the darn phone to do what an office phone should do requires an unnecessary and frustrating learning curve (after two years I still don't know how to put the phone in speaker mode).

Maybe I'm just getting old, or maybe the manufacturers know that in the long-term, future sales will be made to those people born and raised in an environment of techno gadgetry, and to whom these seemingly complicated menus will be second nature. Beauty does lie in simplicity, but the "beauty" of a tool is not in the simple way it is made to look (the aesthetic), but in the simplicity of how it functions as a tool.

cfw

My first digital camera was the Nikon D40X. One of the complaints I read of this camera was its user interface. Critics complained that you had to use the graphical user interface to change anything. For me this was a plus. That's because I didn't have to check all over the camera for a setting or the camera's current status. It was all at the graphical user interface. A few months later those same critics were praising that same graphical user interface.

I now have a Nikon D5100 (I wore out the D40X) and even more of the controls are in the graphical user interface. Good.

I just visited the DPReview site to take a look at the Sony NEX 7 and was impressed by the entire line of NEX cameras. The cost of the NEX 7 will prevent me from considering one but my biggest worry is the variety of lenses and their quality. I would really be interested if they had a series of prime lenses for the NEX. Maybe a really good 24mm.

I find it interesting that one of the most expensive cameras the general public is offered, the Leica M9, has the simplest user interface. They evidently realized that photographers work best when they are looking at the subject not the camera. Does anyone really need scene modes? I predict that the next wave in camera design will be cup holders.

I just visited the Sony site (should have done it earlier) and they do have a really nice 24mm lens. It's the Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens.

Now this is getting very tempting.

John,

The Carl Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 has a suggested list price of $999.99. Because of production problems related to the flooding in Thailand, it may be months before this lens or the NEX-7 are back in stock. Perhaps the temptation will have diminished by then. I have to admit the combination sounds sweet on paper though.

This is something which has baffled many (or all) digital camera users, ever since digitals came into use.
What is preventing the digital camera makers from making camera with "ordinary controls" like what we used to have in the pre-digital era?
Ranjit Grover, India

Ranjit,

Nothing is preventing them in the absolute sense. In fact, companies such as Leica and Fuji are enjoying great success with cameras that have a retro design and controls.

The reason most companies don't do this is because they aren't making cameras for the small percentage of enthusiasts who prefer simple external controls. They are making them for people who buy cameras based on the list of features they see on the box and in online reviews. Unfortunately, the more features there are, the more difficult it becomes to link each one to a single external control. So they take a significant amount of operational control away from the photographer and substitute auto modes and menu settings. Auto modes and extensive menu settings perpetuate the casual user's impression that "the camera is smarter than me," so most use only a fraction of what's available. Judging by the success of such cameras, most people like this approach--which is why manufacturers have little incentive to change, unless they're going after a niche market like you and me.

I have to say, I disagree with about everything you wrote.

The idea of comparing the intuitiveness of a webpage and the intuitiveness of a digital camera is simply idiotic.
A webpage exist as a fleeting experience amongst the thousands of other webpages that a person may visit. Hence the need to understanding the webpage immediately. A camera is a tool you will learn to use, and then use for many years.

The question about if you can immediately identify the shutter button: Yes I can, it is the large button that falls right under the index finger. I can know this because that is an INDUSTRY STANDARD.

I find the NEX-7 a master piece of industrial design. It looks sleek, but that is of little importance to me. More important are the big dials with immediate feedback on the rear LCD as well as in the big viewfinder which will tell you not only which dial does what, but also at what position they are. You will learn to operate it in a very short time, if not immediately. You can't tell what the set aperture and shutter speed is when the camera is off, but that is about the only disadvantage there is.

I see that Nikon FM3A had exposure compensation. That must have been quite top-of-the-line for its time. But don't tell me that it was very easy to change exposure compensation. If I am right you have to press the tiny button next to the dial, and then turn the dial. Not something you would do with the viewfinder to your eye, eh? I use exposure compensation all the time. Having it set to a dedicated dial on a modern digital camera is a great luxury.

You said "....--which is why manufacturers have little incentive to change, unless they're going after a niche market like you and me."
That was a great honor for me to be clubbed with you!
Thank you for that.
Ranjit Grover, India

>>The idea of comparing the intuitiveness of a webpage and the intuitiveness of a digital camera is simply idiotic.<<

Did I touch a nerve? The word "idiotic" is a bit harsh, don't you think? Invective aside, you make a lot of good points. It's valuable to hear from an NEX-7 owner. Thank you for your contribution.

Some people feel that disparaging a person that has an opposing viewpoint somehow strengthens their own argument.

@JesperMP: Useful comment, but perhaps you meant to type "inappropriate" instead of "idiotic"?

I guess I'm an old fart but I agree with Gordon on this one. I have been reluctant to jump into digital from my film cameras because of the user interface. Yeah, I got a entry level DSLR with kit lens in 2009 because the price had dropped to $340, still a lot for me to spend. It is an Olympus E-410 and is OK for color snapshots and a few other things. But! My 37 year old OM-1 is much easier to focus and I am so used to it that it that it's operation is intuitive. Before any reader pops up and says 'well...why don't you just buy auto focus lenses for your E-410?' The answer is simple. I already have a really good collection of OM mount Zuiko glass, 6 primes, from 24mm to 300mm purchased years ago. To duplicate the equivalent angle of view on the 410 would entail at least 2 high quality zooms, $1100 in loose change this retiree can't spend without serious consideration. So I use a $25 adapter and make the best of it. I've got nothing against the advantages of digital. It's real nice to be able to change ISO at will and on vacation there is no big bag of film. I can carry 2000 exposures in a shirt pocket! But I would really like a shutter speed dial, aperture ring and real manual focus for a fast prime on a big contrasty screen (the eye focuses on contrast, not just brightness). So.....when I pick up my OM I'm home and I have a brand new sensor on a flexible substrate for each exposure with a flick of my thumb. I seriously doubt my E-410 will still be working 37 years from now but I'll bet the OM-1 is still useable in 2046.

I'd love to try the NEX-7 out. It certainly is different; in fact, the complete opposite of the likes of the Canon G-series, which has loads of external buttons.

I'm sure that the design team put a lot of thought into it and that there must be some logic to it. But I would find it annoying to constantly have to glance at the rear LCD screen.

I have a Nikon FM2T which I still keep for sentimental reasons. Still waiting for a digital back that I can use with this camera!

This an interesting debate and a neverending one. As far as I'm concerned, I'm pleased I'm currently using my Leica M9 and Fuji X100 most of the time, as they basically share the same layout: a shutter-speed dial on top and an aperture ring around the lens. Which I'm very familar to, having started photography more than 40 years ago. Of course I owned many "modern" cameras since my shift to digital, but I always found the mode dial to be totally useless to my needs. I definitely would want a shutter-speed dial instead, or an exposure compensation, which is the perfect surrogate when using in aperture mode a camera which is devoid of such a dial knob.
This said, I'm under the impression that a unit equipped with three fully configurable mechanical dials like the Sony NEX 7 could be a clever answer to both "visions". I look forward to the opportunity of an hands-on trial here in Rome. The neverending debate is close to an end, perhaps?

>>I'm under the impression that a unit equipped with three fully configurable mechanical dials like the Sony NEX 7 could be a clever answer to both "visions"<<

You may be right. The rear LCD has a graphic display that indicates the current dial functions as you change modes and/or groups of settings. In default configuration, when you are in aperture-preferred mode the left dial controls the aperture, the right dial controls exposure compensation, and the dial on the back of the camera controls the ISO. In shutter-preferred mode the left dial controls shutter speed. In manual mode the left dial controls shutter speed, the right controls aperture, and the back dial controls ISO. Once everything is configured to your liking, the NEX 7 should be quite fast, comfortable and intuitive to use. I look forward to seeing whether your review confirms this.

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