Driving Your Camera
by Sean Reid
Common Sense: A Short Introduction To The Series
The following essay is the second in a series of short essays that I will be writing periodically for Luminous Landscape. The series name - Common Sense - was inspired, though very loosely, by a famous pamphlet written by Thomas Paine at the time of the American Revolution (or War For Independence, as some prefer to call it). In it, he begins by writing:
"Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages,
are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour;
a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right,
and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason."
My work as a reviewer puts me in regular contact with various people in the camera industry: product managers, designers, camera engineers, optical engineers, marketing staff, etc. And through both my reviews and direct conversations with these professionals I try to give my sense of the strengths and weaknesses of a given camera or lens. My goal is not just to evaluate but, hopefully, to also offer some constructive suggestions that might be useful for the design of future equipment. My site, Reid Reviews, is written primarily for serious photographers (professional and amateur) and so I concentrate my efforts on tools that may be useful to them.
Having now been in this kind of dialogue with the camera industry (directly and indirectly) for several years now I've found that certain themes, certain aspects of design, come up again and again. My feedback to them often relates particularly to four areas: overall ergonomics and body design, the directness and effectiveness of key controls, the ways in which one sees the subject and the effectiveness of focusing systems. And what I find is that certain ideas that I once assumed to be matters of common sense aren't always considered in a camera's design process. I'm certainly not the first reviewer to notice that certain basic aspects of functionality don't always seem to make it into the designs of various cameras. Michael Reichman, for example, has long advocated for quick access to mirror lock up and controls that work when one is wearing gloves. Yet how many cameras feature both?
So I'm writing this series of articles both for people who use cameras and for those who design and manufacture them. Camera design teams, on the whole, tend to consist of very talented people who are balancing many seemingly contradictory goals. Designing an effective camera is not an easy process at all. But I offer this series as one person's perspective on some aspects of what we might call "common sense" in camera design.
Part Two: Driving Your Camera
Saxtons River, Vermont 2007
Imagine, if you will, the following scenario...
It's midday in winter and you're driving your car on a winding dirt road past a farm and through a forest. Out of the corner of your eye you spot a deer running into the road just a few feet in front of you. You want to swerve but your car has no steering wheel.
Instead, you tap on the car's touch screen and attempt to make the following series of selections.
Menu > steering
Steering > turn left
Turn left > swerve
Unfortunately, your car hits the deer (or vice versa) long before you've made it to the first menu selection.
There's a reason that car makers give us direct physical controls for the key operations of driving. Steering is done by a wheel and response is nearly instant for most modern cars. Throttle, brake and clutch are normally controlled by foot pedals. The wheel and these pedals can all be operated completely by feel even if the interior of the car is pitch dark. The turn signals switch is on a stalk near the wheel - so is the wiper switch and the headlight dimming control (unless the latter is on a floor switch). The shift lever is near at hand (automatic or manual). The emergency brake/hand brake is also at hand or under our left foot.
So we can turn, accelerate, brake, shift, clear rain or snow from our view, signal our turns, adjust our lights or make an emergency stop all by feel. In short - we drive largely by feel. An experienced driver - for example - does not need to look at a gear shift to change gears successfully.
Can we imagine wanting any of these controls buried in a menu on a car computer screen? Would we want our children riding in a car that didn't have these direct controls?
Photo Courtesy Mazda USA
Driving is a process controlled by the hands and feet as guided by the eyes and mind. Cameras don't normally interact with the feet directly but photography is otherwise a similar process. The next time you drive, consider taking a moment to become aware of all the different ways your body is interacting with the car's controls. We tend to take all that for granted. But the reason we can take it for granted is because the controls design works. The only time we really notice a control (in a familiar car) is if doesn't work well.
With proficient motorcycling (and with this term I give a nod to my friend David Hough) the entire body is used to guide the motorcycle. And there's a degree to which that is true for photography as well, especially when a camera is held at our eye as we slow our breathing and still our bodies for the moment the shutter will be released.
I love to drive and to ride motorcycles. So I often think about how ergonomics and controls design affect the ways in which I interact with a car or motorcycle. I'm also teaching my daughter to drive right now and that experience has intensified my awareness of the ways in which cars work. For a motor vehicle, these kinds of ergonomics are essential to driving control and thus to personal safety.
Photo from a shoot the author did with the Epson R-D1
for a Robb Report magazine article in 2006
Now the designs of camera controls, on the other hand, aren't normally a life or death matter. But tell that to the wedding photographer who misses the most important shot of the day or to the sports photographer who misses his or her picture of the most exciting play in the game. When we're photographing a dynamic subject (be it a moving person or a changing sky) any clumsiness in the design of a camera's controls can interfere with our ability to create the picture we want to make. This can be especially important when someone is paying us to make that picture but it is also important for the pictures we make for ourselves.
Automobile makers, as a rule, don't fool around when designing the key controls of a car. Camera makers often do. Some camera designs seem to reflect fashion much more than function. If some camera's controls were made into their automotive equivalents the resulting cars would likely crash moments after they left the driveway.
A car manufacturer might hide radio or HVAC controls in a computer menu but they won't hide steering or braking in a menu. They know we might tolerate being cold or hearing the wrong music for awhile but we won't be willing to veer off the road while we fuss with a computer screen trying to adjust the car's course or make it stop. Some camera makers, on the other hand, make it complicated for for us to accomplish tasks as simple as manually focusing or changing shutter speed.
So how well does your camera drive?
A car's controls should be designed to help one's eyes stay on the road. Does your camera allow you to keep your eye on the subject? How much does it interfere with that view....and with your concentration?
The key controls in driving relate to steering, braking, shifting, seeing the road, etc. So what are the key controls in photography (aside from the shutter release)? I'd suggest that they are the following:
Focus (including focus mode)
There are others, of course, but these five are things that many of us monitor and change constantly. I believe we should be able to see and change the settings for all of them quickly and easily (just as we can make a car steer, accelerate and brake). Other important controls might include mirror lock-up, metering mode, internal ND filter switching, etc.
For a long time, we've had film cameras with controls that are well designed for functions like this. Focus is on a lens ring, aperture is on another lens ring and shutter speed is on a top-mounted dial. Of course, EV compensation is a relatively modern control and ISO is controlled by selecting film (and development methods) so we don't see those controls on most older film cameras (many of which feature no automatic exposure modes). But since the 1960s, at least, SLR camera makers have designed cameras so that they hold their lenses at maximum aperture (for focusing and finder brightness) until the moment of exposure.
We used to be able to take these elements of camera functionality for granted. We could pick up a film camera and have it figured out and dialed in pretty quickly. But the common sense we used to see in camera design hasn't always made it to 21st century digital cameras. There are times when I test a camera and shake my head saying silently to myself - "What were they thinking?" It seems certain that at least some camera design - intended for serious photographers - is done with insufficient input from experienced photographers.
A natural example of traditional and effective ergonomics can be found on a camera like the Leica M9 with, lets say, a Leica 50/1.4 Summilux ASPH. mounted. Focus is controlled using a lens ring which also includes detailed markings for focus distance (extremely useful for zone focusing). Aperture is controlled by a marked ring. Shutter speed is set using a marked dial. Alternate lens framings can be viewed by moving a lever. These are camera equivalents of proven automotive controls like the steering wheel, brake pedal, shift lever, etc.
The M9's ISO and EV controls work well enough but they're not as quick or simple to use as those dials and rings.
The first M camera was designed in a mechanical age - an era during which much of the world's work was done by machines rather than computers. And these machines were guided by human beings. We now live in a world in which a lot of work is done by computers talking to other computers through electronic connections. In fact, a lot of current digital cameras might work beautifully if they were electronically controlled by another computer rather than by a human being. Some of their interfaces almost seem to be designed for a computer talking to another computer. One makes settings on them using a series of selections which are almost akin to programming steps: select "A", confirm, select "B", confirm, select "C", confirm, exit, etc.
But we are not computers. We have arms, hands, fingers, eyes, etc. and cameras should be designed to interact well with those parts of our bodies. We connect with a device physically and comprehensively not digital-ly and serial-ly. We don't move through the world by making a series of "0" or "1" decisions. Our thinking is often complex. We sometimes need to be focusing a camera as we frame and as we tweak shutter speed - for example. Just as a car allows us to steer, clutch and shift at the same time so too should a camera allow us to quickly and physically change multiple settings simultaneously. I suspect too many cameras now are being designed - at least in part - by people who spend a lot of time in front of computers, cell phones, tablets, etc. and perhaps not enough time going out into the world with a camera so as to observe how that machine interacts with the eyes and hands.
For starters, I think it might be helpful for camera designers/engineers to begin any design process by spending some time with older mechanical cameras (SLRs and rangefinders, ideally) just to remind themselves of what those cameras do and why. Those examples shouldn't just serve as a inspirations for the "look" of a camera but rather for its function as well. That is to say, a new digital camera design should seek to be *at least* as functional as those older cameras in *all* respects - especially those that involve seeing the subject, focus and exposure. One would also want to factor in newer key controls like exposure compensation and ISO. Though those exposure controls weren't part of traditional film photography (for much of its history) they are important now.
Ergonomic design is not - or at least should not be - an obsolete idea. Do we - for example - consider a car's steering wheel "outdated" or "obsolete"? It has been in use for well over a hundred years because it is a simple and elegant design that works well. We still have brake pedals and gas pedals for the same reason. Some makers are experimenting with electronic alternatives to the foot clutch for manual shifting but there's still much to be said for feeling the car's dynamics through a clutch pedal.
Now, of course, controls don't have to be traditional in order to work well. While there's a lot to be said for analog style rings and dials, cameras like the Nikon D300 or Pentax K5 - for example - have contemporary-style controls that are very well thought out. Consider the focus mode switch on the D300 - its action is good, it is located logically near the lens mount and one can set its position quickly by feel alone - much like a manual gear shift on a car. Just as one can feel the different gear positions in a transmission a photographer can learn to feel the auto-focus mode positions set by the D300's lever.
On the K5, a thumbwheel controls aperture and an upper wheel controls shutter speed (importantly, these wheels don't change their function in different exposure modes). The resulting settings are displayed both on the camera's top LCD screen *and* in the finder. Its a modern solution to the task and it works well.
I'm fortunate to live in a part of the world where there are lots of twisty roads that cross mountain gaps and follow the curves of rivers. And, in a day's ride, I can be traveling along the edges of the Atlantic ocean. So I live in a beautiful place where driving or riding on back roads can be a real pleasure.
When I'm operating a well-designed car or motorcycle on roads like this I find that, after a while, it sort of disappears around me. My body is interacting with its controls but those interactions happen naturally and with little conscious thought. When a vehicle disappears around me I find that my concentration is on the road, on the scenery and on a general sense of motion (on a motorcycle it can feel a bit like flying).
Photo from a shoot the author did for Rider magazine in 2001
A good camera can do the same thing. It disappears, in a sense, and allows the photographer to concentrate on the subject. It really becomes that fabled extension of one's eyes, hands and mind. I've quoted the great Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz before who observed: "I see the thing, I feel the thing, I make the thing". I think that's really how it should be with a good camera.
I test a lot of cameras, of course, and some of them - despite their strengths - I would never use on a professional shoot. They are too intrusive. Either they interrupt my view of the subject or they're awkward or they force me to give them special attention just to change key settings. They fail to disappear and thus don't really allow me to get on with my work.
Back View, Fuji X100
I've been thinking about this subject a lot recently as I've been working with the Fuji X100. Many of the controls on that camera make a lot of sense ergonomically. Its EV compensation dial, mounted on the top of the camera in easy thumb reach, is the best EV control I've yet seen on any camera. It's finder mode switch, a lever that falls readily under one's index finger, is also an excellent design.
Front View, Fuji X100
The X100's focus mode switch, a simple slider, sits naturally where it can be adjusted by one's left thumb. Full slide up is manual focus, middle position is AF-S and full down is AF-C. So one can set the camera's focus mode position by feel just as her or she might shift the gears on a car. On the first example of this camera I tested, that focus mode switch action was stiff and tended to overshoot its middle position. But the focus mode switch on the second, newer, example of the camera I'm working with seems to work better.
Side View, Fuji X100
The X100's aperture ring and shutter speed dial (ideas wisely borrowed from other film and digital cameras) work very well so long as one wants to change exposure in whole stops. One can see their settings at a glance and change them by eye or by feel.
But if one wants to tweak exposure in 1/2 or 1/3 stop increments (as I often do with digital) he or she must then use a series of secondary controls on the Fuji. Couldn't the ring and dials simply have been designed with half stop markings and detents? That would make life a lot simpler for the photographer. And wouldn't a dedicated ISO dial have suited this camera well? The Fuji's exposure controls are close to being excellent - the designers just haven't yet followed the concept all the way through. No company has yet done that but various designs are getting closer and closer. The shutter speed dial on the M9 works in 1/2 stops, for example, but wouldn't a marked ISO dial also make sense on that camera?
Pentax 40/2.8 Limited
Perhaps the aspect of the Fuji that disappoints me most - on a camera that has so many excellences - is the concept and execution of its manual focus system. Pentax, with their pancake prime lenses, has shown us that compact lenses can be affordable and auto-focus while still allowing true mechanical manual focus (with distances marked right on the lens barrel). That direct focus coupling allows manual focus to be quick and to have good feel. The marked distances on the focus ring are extremely useful for zone focusing.
These Pentax lenses are designed to cover an APS-C sized sensor (which is what the Fuji uses). If Pentax can do this, couldn't a company like Fuji (with all its years of auto-focus lens design experience)? Instead the X100 uses a strange "fly by wire" focus ring system which provides confusing feel along with no indication of focus distance on the lens barrel. The manual focus ring on a camera is like its steering wheel. That focus ring tells the camera where to focus just as a steering wheel tells the car where to go. It has long been one of the most central controls on a camera. Drivers who enter a car will naturally rest their hands on the wheel and perhaps turn it a little. Photographers who pick up the X100 naturally tend to move the focus ring as they look through its finder. But, as Michael Reichman has already explained in his review of this camera, this ring on the Fuji is a problematic control. If one had to rely on it to steer a car, that vehicle would be in a ditch in short order.
The Fuji also, as of this writing, doesn't always hold its aperture wide open when one is manually focusing. So one may well be trying to visually adjust focus while seeing the subject on an EVF at - perhaps - F/8. The Ricoh GXR does the same thing. The Leica X1 used to do this as well but the company listened to reviewer/customer feedback and fixed the problem in a firmware update. Holding the lens aperture wide open for viewing and focus is a very basic functionality that SLR film cameras had sorted out even in the 1960s. But somehow, certain modern camera designers seem to have forgotten how important it is to be able to see manual focus at the narrowest depth of field available. After all, the X100 is not a rangefinder camera. One can only manually focus it by scale or by eye using an EVF.
Of course, one yearns for these things on the Fuji because so much about that camera makes good ergonomic sense. It's a much more functional device than, for example, cameras that force one to change key settings using menu items on a video screen.
There are a lot of cameras on the market and we couldn't possibly - in this article - look at how each one of them "drives". But if the reader finds the general analogy useful then I suggest he or she consider using it as a kind of litmus test when trying out a camera. Do the camera's controls work at least as well as the key controls on an average car? Are they physical, direct, easy to sense, read and change? Do they disappear and thus support one's concentration when photographing or do they disrupt it?
For example, many EVF cameras like to replace one's view of the subject with an image of the picture he or she has just made. Would we want a car to replace our windshield view with a picture of the road as it appeared a moment before? I would think not if we were still driving. And if one is still watching the subject and making pictures he or she may not want his or her finder view continually disrupted in this way. Fortunately, some cameras allow us to turn off this feature.
In the past, I've often described the camera as a tool but that analogy is now being used so often that it risks becoming a cliche. But a camera, for a serious photographer, is certainly not a gadget. The degree to which it is cool or trendy matters much less than how well it works.
There's a reason we haven't yet replaced the steering wheel. And there will always be a need for cameras that drive well.
Sean Reid's latest articles includes an extensive review of the Fuji X100 which was recently updated with the results of various field and studio tests (including a file quality comparison X100, Leica X1, Sigma DP2s and Leica M8.2). He has also recently published a comprehensive review of three fast 28 mm lenses on the Leica M9 and a review of the Sigma DP2s.
Sean Reid, an American, has been a commercial and fine art photographer for over twenty-five years. He studied under Stephen Shore and Ben Lifson and met occasionally with Helen Levitt. In the late 1980s he worked as an exhibition printer for Wendy Ewald and other fine art photographers. In 1989, he was the first American photographer to receive an artist-in-residence grant from the Irish Arts Council in Dublin, Ireland. His commercial work is primarily of architecture, weddings and special events. His personal work is primarily of people in public places. Most of his newest reviews and other articles can be found at Reid Reviews: http://www.reidreviews.com. The site concentrates on reviewing equipment intended for professional and serious amateur photographers but also includes a wide range of essays about various aspects of photography. It pays particular attention to rangefinder camera equipment and compact cameras for serious photographers.