Camera Ergonomics

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By Christopher Moss. Dr. Moss is a family physician in Canada. He has been using film cameras for over forty years as an amateur and still enjoys doing it.

Using a camera in a fluent and efficient fashion is vital if you’re going to get the photograph that suddenly presents itself to you. Camera manufacturers can either help or hinder this, by designing a camera’s controls to be as intuitive and accessible as possible. It would seem to be in their interest to help in this way, but the fact is that it isn’t. How can that be? Well, sadly, only a small subset of photographers are interested in a camera that works with them in this way; most want a camera that will do it all for them, and technology has not yet advanced to a state where this is compatible with taking the best possible photograph in any given situation.

Manufacturers follow the money and make cameras that help the average buyer achieve something most of the time. No camera maker wants a disappointed buyer, so they turn out designs that automate and simplify everything so that an inexperienced user can get something worth posting to their Facebook page. That is as it should be in a capitalist world, and the rest of us really can’t complain if we want camera manufacturers to stay in business and continue to feed our needs. It is true, however, that the automation and simplification has got to the point that a photographer who wants more than a minimal degree of control over a picture has to work against the ergonomics of many modern cameras. This isn’t a new problem, as a few examples will show!

The Pre-Electronic Era

Lots of old cameras tried to make life simpler for not just the amateur, but for the completely ignorant photographer. In the days before any kind of autofocus (beyond the depth of field of a small aperture) or auto-exposure (beyond the latitude inherent in negative films) this didn’t always work so well, but expectations were different too. Remember when a photograph was said have ‘come out well’? And if it didn’t satisfy it was said that ‘it didn’t come out’? There was a kind of black box that an exposed film entered, and it might come out or it might fail to come out, but the workings of the black box were inscrutable. Well, a very little thought tells us that this was a way of excusing a multitude of sins, from inept exposure, failing to hold the camera steady, getting the focus horribly wrong, not taking off the lens cap, all the way through the chain to some error in development and the film ‘being lost’. All happily under the umbrella of ‘it didn’t come out’ which answered any query and was never questioned. My first camera was a Univex AF-4 from the 1930’s that had only one control – the shutter could be set to instant or time. Nothing else at all, which was very convenient for the user, but likely to lead to disappointment when the film came back. Later a Number 2 Kodak Autographic Brownie came along from the mid-1920’s, and it allowed shutter speeds of 1/25 (“Clear”) and 1/50 (“Brilliant”) along with “B” and “T” for those who had confidence in what we now call risk- taking behaviour. Focusing was limited to Portrait, Near View, Average View, Distant View and Clouds/Marine. If you couldn’t quite figure out which to use, you had the ready fall back that the photo didn’t come out, which was probably just as well, all things considered.

ergo2The Univex AF-4: “AF” Does NOT stand for “Auto-Focus”

But not all was so obscure and not every photograph required all fingers and toes be crossed. Miniature photography in the form of the Leica and the Contax cameras during the same era as the models mentioned above had multiple exact shutter speeds, apertures and distances that could be set. The addition of a rangefinder allowed the focusing to be precise, but exposure values were still generally estimated, or at best measured with an extinction meter (my father had a dandy little device that had a wedge of opaque material inside, and he looked through it and tried to read off a scale of numbers. The last number that could be read was entered on a handy slide rule on the outside of the casing and apertures and times could be read off. All this allowed great precision, but wasn’t for the masses of people who wanted to take a snap without being expert in the dark arts of photography. The next stage of affairs for those folk was the invention of the C-22 colour negative film process, which had enough latitude to allow the widespread sale of Instamatic cameras using 126 film. Fifty million cameras were sold between 1963 and 1970, many with no controls beyond a shutter release and a wind-on thumb wheel, and the more sophisticated having two shutter speeds (sunny and cloudy), and two focusing distances (a head and shoulders outline and a mountain). Many of us will remember the dull grainy quality of the prints that came back from these mostly under-exposed films that we took on our holidays. Most of my memories of my early teens have taken on that veiled look as a result – I’m remembering photos of those times! Better latitude came with the C-41 process in 1972, but this was offset by the marketing decision to push 110 size film as a replacement for 126 film. Kodak must take some blame for selling us less film at higher prices and requiring new cameras to be bought. This was probably the lowest point of unskilled consumer photography in history.

Electronics

In the meantime the descendants of the Leicas and the Contaxes had continued to evolve, and the development of the single lens reflex from early Exacta and Kowa models had proceeded to the point where very good SLRs were challenging the dominance of the rangefinders. The addition of electronics was the catalyst that almost destroyed the rangefinders, as Japanese SLR manufacturers adopted these improvements and Leica did not. From the mid-1960’s onwards we saw closed-aperture metering, then open-aperture metering, then auto-exposure quickly develop. Powered film wind on came quickly as a development of motor-drives, until it was available in consumer point and shoot cameras. Despite Leica’s early interest in auto-focus, they let others introduce it into the market and from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s it became the norm in SLRs and compact cameras. Notice how the term ‘point and shoot’ has crept in there? This was the first time a camera could be used the way my Univex AF-4 was used in the 1930’s, but with auto-focus and auto-exposure to save the day from the ‘it didn’t come out’ problem. Briefly, cameras of this era became easy, simple and reasonably reliable to use. There weren’t a dozen different exposure modes, and while auto-focus quickly diverged into single and continuous forms, there weren’t dozens of AF points to choose between or activate in groups etc. All that nonsense came along soon enough, but it was still mostly manageable until the next big thing.

 

ergo3A Contax G2, a High-Point of Electronic Film Camera Design

Digital

Once cameras produced digital images there was a huge change in the way cameras were used and controlled. Manufacturers seemed to feel that endless complexity could be introduced and hid it all in so very many menus that could be accessed through arcane combinations of button pushes that required one of those mythical teenagers who could program your VHS recorder in the days when no one else could. Most buyers of digital cameras don’t explore all the menu options and the thick small print manuals that used to be offered before it was decided that all this was more cheaply put on an optical disk or, better yet, available for download online, were hardly welcoming models of simplicity and clarity. The most byzantine set of menus and controls I have met with so far belong to the Olympus OM-D series. Nice, small, light cameras with decent picture quality – but those menus! Having set it up I shall hope I never have to do so again. In use, I have to try out various wheels and buttons to see what they do, or have been user-programmed to do. That’s neither quick nor efficient.

What Would Be Ideal?

There’s not much point in talking about mechanical only cameras here, as the only ones in production are the Leica M-A and large format cameras, which were probably designed in a world where ergonomics had never been invented. But a modern camera with a light-meter and autofocus? Lots of things that can help or hinder there! I believe the ideal camera could be set to allow all the usual controls to be easily accessed with physical dials and buttons if desired, with each allowing for an ‘Auto’ position if the user wanted the camera to take care of it for him. At a minimum, this means an aperture control, preferably as a ring on the lens, but at the very least as a thumb or finger wheel on the camera body. The same applies to shutter settings, but since more users prefer aperture priority over shutter priority, the setting for this can be a traditional dial on the top plate or a thumb or finger wheel as available.

ISO must also be able to be set outside any menu system, and can even be a dial in an awkward place or a menu setting for a film camera where it is set just once per film, or a wheel, dial on a digital camera that is reasonably easy to access, even if this means taking the camera from the eye. At the very least, a dedicated button and instant access menu on the LCD of a digital camera is needed. Things like the parameters used in setting up auto-ISO on digital cameras can be buried in menus, but switching from the lowest native ISO of a sensor (best quality) to the highest necessary for this particular photograph via Auto-ISO have to be available quickly and easily. Finally, exposure modes ought to be easily changed between spot, centre-weighted and matrix with a physical control.

When we consider focusing, a physical control to change between manual focus, single autofocus and continuous autofocus is by far the fastest way of changing between them. Niceties like how to choose which autofocus point to use, which group of autofocus sensors to use and so on can be relegated to the menus, as far as I’m concerned as I tend to set them once and stick with that setting. I suspect I am not alone in using autofocus in a way that would disappoint the clever engineers who made these devices. I want single autofocus on the centre of the viewfinder. I want to focus on the important part of the scene with a button press, hold that focus and recompose and fire.

Anything else at all is rarely used by me. If I were a sports photographer with fast-moving subjects I would have to get into all sorts of continuous tracking autofocus between various groups of focus sensors, but for goodness sake, keep that stuff out of the way of the majority of us who don’t need it! Talking of focus lock with a button press, it is pretty obvious that a half-press of the shutter button is the easiest way to do this. A separate button for exposure lock would be nice, as focusing on the part of the image desired isn’t always the same thing as getting the exposure right after you recompose.

Some Examples of What We Can Do if We Try

I’m not sure how many cameras I have owned or used over the years, and come to that, I’m not even sure how many I own right now. Some things are best left unsaid. But some stand out more than others and I’m going to describe in detail the cameras that I have found to be the easiest to use from the point of view of ergonomic efficiency. Firstly a purely mechanical camera without no electronics at all. All it needs is an aperture ring, a shutter speed dial, a shutter release and means of winding on the film. It doesn’t get much simpler than this, but even here design considerations can make all the difference. Compare my 1963 Leica M2 with my 1971 Hasselblad 500c. Apart from the slightly awkward film loading system (which I actually like more than that in modern Leicas as the take up spool grips the leader so tightly it is easy to rewind the film and leave the leader out), the Leica just works.

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My left hand controls the aperture ring and focusing tab on the lens, while my right index finger turns the shutter dial, presses the shutter release at which point my right thumb can wind on the next frame. The only pause comes when I have to meter the light and reset the aperture and shutter controls. When I had an M7 and an MP even this obstacle was removed. The Hasselblad is also far easier to use than a present day compact if you want to do anything other than auto-everything. But, it has to be said, it’s not as simple as the Leica. While the controls are different, focusing, shooting and winding on are just as simple. It’s the lenses with their coupled aperture and shutter speed controls that complicate things.

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Hasselblads are not designed for those who want to estimate an exposure, the use of the EV ring on the lens pretty much requires the use of a meter, and once it’s set, the coupled aperture/shutter rings can be turned together to allow some decisions about a suitable combination. Hasselblads have their quirks, and everyone sooner or later makes the mistake of changing the lens with the shutter uncocked (you cannot reattach that lens until the shutter has been cocked by careful use of a strong screwdriver), and who doesn’t forget to remove the darkslide at least once per session? Generally, though, they work pretty smoothly, and are simple enough, like the M2, that it’s hard to mess up from a control point of view.

Next, let’s look at something far more complex—a camera from that brief era when auto-exposure and autofocus had yet to be combined with the menus of a digital camera. I’m going to spend more time on this as there is far more to describe, and far more to get right or wrong! The Pentax 645n was a medium format film camera made between 1997 and 2001. It has no rear LCD and thus no menus, so everything that can be changed must be changed with a physical control. It is a large, rather heavy, boxy camera as might be expected from trying to have a medium format camera with a powered wind on and all the batteries needed to drive it (especially as this was made before lithium ion batteries were in common usage). Despite it’s weight and size, it stands out from the crowd in ease and speed of use, simply because the designers thought carefully, and also, I have to say, because they didn’t have the option of hiding settings deep in nested menus!) Let’s go through the available controls:

1. Focusing. The camera can be used with autofocus or manual focus. In a moment of inspiration, all the lenses for this camera (except for the small standard 75mm/f2.8) had their focusing rings made so they could be pushed forwards, revealing the words “Auto Focus” on the lens barrel, or pulled back, covering those words and switching into manual focus mode. So by simply grabbing the focusing ring, pulling back and twisting you have manual focus. Push forwards and a half-press of the shutter button gives you autofocus again. Very nice indeed! On the back of the camera body are two sliding switches, one that selects either ‘Servo’ (which you might call Continuous these days) or ‘Single’ autofocus, and the other which selects either a single or three AF sensors. Autofocusing is triggered with a half-press of the shutter release, and holding the shutter button in this position locks the focus. Easy!

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2. Exposure. There are traditional aperture and shutter controls with a ring on the lens barrel for aperture and a dial on the top plate for shutter speed. Both have an ‘A’ position in which the setting becomes dependent on the setting of the other control. So if the Shutter speed dial is set to ‘A’ you can manually set the aperture and the shutter speed will be automatically set ie aperture priority exposure. Alternatively, the aperture ring can be set to ‘A’ and the shutter speed dial can be manually set, resulting in an automatic aperture selection ie shutter priority exposure. If both controls are set to ‘A’ the camera enters a Program mode, and uses combinations of aperture and shutter speed that it’s designers think best. This cannot be shifted to other combinations, but to be honest if you want to do that you ought to be using one of the priority auto-exposure modes anyway. There is a ‘Memory Lock’ button under the right thumb which can lock exposure for twenty seconds after a single press, or if the shutter button is half-pressed during those twenty seconds the locked exposure will remain in effect until the shutter is finally released. I simply hold it down as long as I want the exposure locked, and release it if I want to re-measure exposure as this is simpler and easier. Three metering modes are available, and a dial under the shutter dial has three positions for Spot, Centre-
weighted and Six-segment (these days: matrix) metering. The other control related to exposure is a dial on the top plate at the left which controls exposure compensation in 1/3 stops from -3 to +3 stops.

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3. ISO. There is a small LCD on the top plate, and this is used in combination with a switch under the exposure compensation dial to set ISO. If the switch is held in the position marked ISO (it is spring loaded and will return to normal as soon as you release it), then ISO may be changed with the up and down buttons on the top plate, the ISO showing in the LCD as you do so. This is the least convenient of the controls, but for a film camera it doesn’t matter as this is set when a film is loaded and not changed until the next film, if a different speed.

4. Drive mode. Around the shutter release is a collar with settings for single, multiple and timer. Pretty obvious.

5. Other controls. Only three more – a power switch which has three positions: Off, On (with sound confirmation of focus) and On with no sound. Secondly there is a multiple exposure switch which lets the shutter cock without the film winding on, and finally a depth of field preview lever to close down the aperture. The only remaining button is the lens release.

For all the fact that this is a large and heavy camera, it is easier to use than most as the controls are easily visible and accessible. It’s a shame that it’s descendants, the Pentax 645D and 645Z have many of these functions accessible only via menus, as there really isn’t any reason other than expense not to have dedicated controls for the important and frequently changed items in addition to a menu system for selecting just whose face gets recognised and sepia toned to what degree! The digital Leica M cameras pretty much get this right, with physical controls for the important stuff, or at least a dedicated button to take you straight to the right menu (eg for ISO). And so far, it has only been Leica that has been eccentric enough to make a digital M with no menus, the M-D, which will appeal strongly to users of film cameras, given that it allows all the same controls that a film M has, and a lot fewer options that would normally be set on a digital camera. There will probably be little opportunity for other manufacturers to show their skills in designing cameras that can be used easily without relying on automatic functions, as the marketplace dictates cameras that can do more than their competitors, not less, and at the same time they have to be idiot-proof. Of the three modern cameras I have (Nikon D810, Nikon F6 and Olympus OM-D E-M5), all have been set up the way I like them and I never touch the menus any more as it took a very long time to get everything just so. It means I can use them as I want to, changing apertures and shutter speeds as I go (though I really don’t like control wheels over traditional controls) and not worrying about stuff I won’t miss. I guess I am trying to use them with the same basic controls that I can use on the M2 and the 500c, and even on the 645n I rarely change the autofocus or metering settings. So it’s possible to use a modern camera the way you used a film camera, but the lack of standardisation across brands still means that when you go back and forth between them there can be confusion about which control wheel does what. I think it’s worthwhile to try to do this, as it saves the confusion of too many choices, speeds up the use of the camera so that you can concentrate on getting the shot, and allows the satisfaction that comes from feeling that you made the photograph, not the camera.

2 thoughts on “Camera Ergonomics

  1. kodachromeguy

    Interesting comments. Another camera to add to your collection of ergonomically well-designed picture-making machines: the Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex (TLR). You cradle it with both hands at chest level, left hand controls focus, right hand winds film and cocks shutter with one back and forth movement, and thumbs control the wheels that adjust aperture and shutter speed. It is refreshing to use a Rolleiflex after trying to adjust a modern camera via its baffling menu system.

  2. chrism

    Quite right—I have one. The other camera worth mentioning that lived in that brief time when film met auto-focus and menu screens hadn’t been invented was the Pentax SF-1 (or SF-N depending on where you lived). I have a couple of them and they are delightful to use, although noisy and the auto-focus is slow. None of that matters for my kind of photography. Since they can be bought for $25 now, I suggest anyone interested buy one for fun, and see how a camera can work with you, rather than as something you have to fight with. There were a few later Pentax film cameras such as the MZ-S, but they cost more now so aren’t so useful for demonstration purposes.

    Chris

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