Jumping Between Cameras

(commentary)

During my break I made a comment to one of my fellow travelers that if you want to start a successful business just take any service or product and make it more convenient. Truly more convenient. Fedex made quick delivery of packages convenient. Fast food restaurants made meals convenient. Amazon made buying books convenient. This list of business successes that made things more convenient for customers is endless.

Sure, price and quality have something to do with the equation of success. But at equal price and quality, convenience will win. 

The origin of that simple thought I expressed was, as is often the case, precipitated by my current camera use. On my break I was juggling six or seven cameras, all but two of them new to me. 

I can say without equivocation that trying to do anything when jumping back and forth between six different user interfaces and designs is an exercise in frustration. One camera has dials, one has buttons, another wants me to touch it, another is a hybrid approach, one uses a cryptic overloaded button interface, and one is what I’m familiar one. 

The funny thing is how bad the design I’m familiar with is when I try to intermix its usage with devices with different interfaces. It becomes too easy to overlook a setting when you’re not dialed into a single design ethic. 

I should explain, one of the cameras I was juggling is a new 4K video camera with more buttons and dials and doodads and switches than I can count. Heck, it has 10 (I think) programmable buttons, which then work differently than their on-camera labels once you load them up ;~). Two important buttons seem to be way too easy to accidentally trigger. It took me three days of shooting to get to the point where I was even halfway comfortable that I had everything set as I wanted it. Fortunately that point happened before I was met with a Big Cat Diaries type of unique event.

But then I picked up my familiar Nikon DSLR and immediately didn’t notice that it was still set at ISO 3200 when I probably needed no more than ISO 400. So much for optimal data capture that day. 

If you think I’m rambling and don’t have a point, I actually do have a big point, and probably some small ones, too. 

One of the things that keeps getting talked about is the whole “switch” thing. “Should I switch from DX to FX?” “Should I switch from Nikon to Canon?” “Should I switch from DSLR to mirrorless?” “Should I switch from Nikon DSLR to Sony A7?” 

Simple answer: no, not if you want to keep your sanity. As many of you know I complain if Nikon so much as changes a menu item order or renames something. Progress sometimes dictates that there be changes, and sometimes designers can and do figure out a better way, but more often than not a lot of the changes we see within a manufacturer are unnecessary and unwarranted and totally irrelevant to anything useful. 

The big point is this: if you keep switching cameras—as I had to do over my break—you’re going to make mistakes in setting things and therefore you’re going to capture non-optimal data. So when someone tells me they absolutely must have the latest sensor with six additional megapixels and a third of a stop expanded dynamic range, I’m going to scoff. Forgetting to reset my ISO on my D7200 was essentially worse than had I been using the previous generation of camera set optimally (e.g. D7100). The more you switch, the more you make mistakes like that. 

I’ve mentioned this before, but early in my career I had a sadistic mentor who’d never send me out on assignment for the paper with the same equipment twice. Most of the time what he did is send me out with with gear that was totally inappropriate to the situation. He sent me to a track meet with a TLR once, and asked me to concentrate on the sprints. If you don’t know what that implies, TLRs have look-down viewfinders where motion goes the opposite direction than in reality. A runner going from right to left in front of you looks like they’re going left to right in the viewfinder, for example. Try follow framing something with a TLR and you’ll know how tough the assignment was.

He was trying to teach me an important point or two. First, it wasn’t about the equipment, even then. Good photographers returned with good photographs no matter what they were handed to shoot with. More important, it made me think more about the shots I was trying to take. Rather than improvise and try to keep up with what was happening in front of you, you needed to think about the photo you wanted to take and get yourself set for it. He was teaching me framing and timing the hard way.

So do you really want to be sadistic to yourself? Wait, that’s masochistic, isn’t it? Do you really want to be masochistic? Then keep switching cameras every time the latest and greatest hits the markets. The camera makers will be happy. You, probably less so. 

Which brings me back around to convenience. Nikon does some convenient things. With a few idiosyncrasies, some small differences, and a lot of appendages, the user interface has remained the same since the N8008 decades ago. Lens and flashes from the 80’s still work, though maybe not as well as the latest and greatest, as Nikon keeps adding automation (more convenience). 

But realistically, are cameras convenient these days? No, not really. All those things that Nikon has been doing are baby steps of convenience, except for that one big step into digital. I remember a heated argument (for a Japanese) I had with a Nikon executive about the (then unannounced) Coolpix C???. He felt it was convenient because it was Android based, just like a phone. I told him the opposite: it wasn’t convenient as a camera. 

As good as the recent A7 series and other cameras have been, it’s intriguing to me that the designs are more convenient for the manufacture than for the customer. The whole PlayMemories thing should be convenient, but it isn’t. I went to shoot a time-lapse with my RX100 Mark IV and discovered that I hadn’t loaded the time-lapse app to the camera. Uh-oh. I’m in the middle of Okavango Delta. No Internet access. 

Now, it’s my bad that I didn’t load the app when I was still in the office. Still, even then the whole process of getting the app over to the camera is a multi-step pain in the butt fraught with sub issues. For example, the battery in the RX100IV is remarkably underwhelming. I’ve had it run down many times while in the middle of trying to do something. 

Which brings me to one of those little points: big batteries are more convenient than small ones. While I’ve mastered the task of recharging batteries in the wild, having to constantly do so is another of those pain points centered in the solar plexus.   

I think there should be a sign above every executives’ and designers’ desk: “Did what you just removed, added, or changed make it more convenient for the customer?” Violate that precept at your own detriment. Customers move towards convenience. You should, too. 

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