Why Not Think of Capture as "the Negative"?


An exchange with a friend who guides in Yellowstone got me thinking a little more about some of the design decisions that are going into our current DSLRs these days. In particular, somehow I kept coming back to "image size" and how Nikon handles it even though that wasn't what our discussion was about.

Let's see, we have a number of ways to influence that:

  • Large, Medium, Small. The JPEG Image Size settings.
  • 1.2x, 1.3x, 1.5x, 5:4 Crop. The Image Area settings.
  • 1:1, 3:2, 5:4, 16:9 aspect ratio. In the RETOUCH Trim menu.
  • Arbitrary sizes. In the RETOUCH Resize menu.

Four different ways to set the eventual output, and in four different menus. 

As a photographer, what I really want to do is this:

  1. Capture optimal data (basically raw).
  2. Output as desired (either the raw file for later post processing, or a finished JPEG of my size and aspect ratio choice, or both).

So what I really want is a camera that shoots NEF(raw) as a "negative" and allows me to choose how to output:

  • During shot: add a JPEG of a certain size with a certain aspect ratio.
  • After shot: use the camera to create a JPEG of a certain size with a certain aspect ratio from my raw "negative".
  • After ingest: my computer software of choice will handle size and aspect ratio.

Wait, am I suggesting I always capture the full frame, even if I've selected a crop (e.g. equivalent to Image Area setting)? Yes, I am. The crop markings in the viewfinder aren't precise. Too often I've found that I'm missing a few pixels, so I tend to frame slightly loose now. Moreover, sometimes in looking at images I see that I probably would have preferred a slightly different aspect ratio (for 3:2 versus 5:4 I find this to be somewhat common).

I know I'll get some push back from people on "but you're saving more data than you might actually use and thus need bigger cards and more computer storage." Yeah, sure. Not really an issue, I think. Storage just keeps getting bigger and cheaper (per byte stored). Plus, if you're buying expensive DSLRs, those costs are a nuisance, but not the primary driver of your overall cost of shooting.

But even if I were to set my camera to JPEG, I still don't want to have to deal with four different menus—two pre-shoot and two post-shoot—to get the actual image I want. 

We got to where we are because of the iteration-driven design protocols Nikon uses and the fact that we have different teams working on different things. These teams are "adding options" but they're not coordinating efforts well, especially in terms of thinking like an actual user. 

Another good example of the not-thinking-like-a-user problem crops up with the Effects position on the Mode dial. Select that, and you can't shoot raw. All you get is the final output in JPEG format (which you may have to post-process to get to the aspect ratio you want ;~). Say what? That's an all-or-nothing approach and basically commits me to the camera's processing, no matter what. You're either doing special effects or you're not. Another damned "modality," which Nikon loves to use in their designs. X precludes Y, Y precludes Z, Z precludes X. 

Don't get me wrong. I want all these features (though many of them could be app add-ons so that I don't clutter my menus for normal shooting). I just don't want them the way they're designed. 

Over and over and over I see the Japanese camera companies making the same design mistakes. I've mentioned it before, but Nikon (and others) really need to get up to speed on goal-directed design, not iterative add-ons. My old partner and buddy Alan Cooper has written a couple of seminal books you might want to check out in that respect: About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design (affiliate link), and The Inmates are Running the Asylum: Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy (affiliate link). (He's actually written other books, as well, but those are his most recent, and ought to be required reading—and understanding—for all camera designers.)

Now, my title for this article is a little more broad than the specifics I've written about. The examples I point to are sub-sets of the bigger problem. Back in 2009 I began directly lobbying the camera makers to rethink what they were doing. We use cameras, including smartphones, for a purpose (goal). We always have. But back in the film days, it was somewhat obvious that the "best negative" was the goal of the capture. Heck, Ansel Adams even wrote a brilliant book on that which pretty much settled the issue. 

But here's why I chose the title I did: take a look at the latest Nokia smartphone. Those 41 megapixels, what are they? Why, they're the negative. From that, the user can define the output (zoom, aspect ratio, output size, etc.). The smartphone makers are very close to getting things right. The DSLR makers? Still iterating down non-connected paths in such a way that Nikon would now have you: 

  1. Set multiple menus on your DSLR.
  2. Shoot with your DSLR.
  3. Maybe (more likely probably) change the output with the DSLR (RETOUCH menu).
  4. Send via WiFi to your Nikon app on your smartphone.
  5. Potentially use another app on the phone to get things exactly the way you want them (especially true if you're not using one of the Big Two social sites, as not everything is accessible from the Nikon app).
  6. Output to the cloud, social sites, etc.

Meanwhile, the smartphone user just sets, shoots, and sends. Ouch. Why is it again that we have three fixed JPEG sizes and compressions on the DSLR, but not every option in one place, and no real ability to output what's needed without recourse to more menus? 

It's as if you have to take your film to one place to be developed, another place to be proofed, and still another place to be printed right.  

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