Friday, 6 June 2014

Musings on Camera user interfaces

All cameras today come with an array of automatic, 1 click options.

A cheap camera will have a "take it all" only mode. As you go up the scale you may be able to choose between different scenes such as portrait, landscape, razzle etc (I may be wrong about the last one). Even when you get to the top of the range DSLR, you will still find 1 click modes.

Most of the time these modes are great and certainly take a lot of the effort out of taking simple photos. However they have their limitations and anyone who solely relies on them will not get the best results out of their camera. You often see people with top of the range £1000 DSLR's round their neck, who quite clearly have never moved the dial off full auto. For a cash constrained photographer, this is a pretty disheartening mode of behavior. It is the equivalent of buying a Ferrari and driving it everywhere in 2nd gear.

Cameras full auto modes are now pretty sophisticated, and weigh up a wide range of factors when taking the photo. Some will even do clever things like faces detection. However leaving all the decisions to the camera is akin to letting your mother choose your wife. You will get something broadly acceptable, but not necessarily what you want.

As you move from being a happy snapper to a photographer, it is important to envisage the photo you want and then learn how to communicate that to the camera. In order to do this you must learn to manipulate not only the aperture and shutter speed, but also controls like  the ISO level, exposure compensation, focus mode and exposure modes.

Sometimes this must be done in the split second between seeing the image you want and pressing the shutter. Which is akin to rubbing your tummy, patting yourself on the head, while standing on one leg on a high speed turntable. So it is no surprise that sometimes you get it wrong.

So why not just leave it on auto? Well the problem is that the automated modes are so good now that people think the camera has almost achieved sentience. However as a programmer, I am fully aware of the limitations of software. The algorithms the engineers use are sophisticated, but dumb. It may compare 200 parameters in a blink of an eye, but it does not have the vision of an artist, only the simulation of one.

So to get the best out of a shot we need to explore the functions and decide things like, what sort of depth of field do we need? is the background or foreground to bright? Do we need to increase the ISO to get more light at the cost of more noise in the photo?

All these features are available on a modest DSLR and even on some compacts. But accessing them in the mad half second before you press the shutter can be a struggle even when you are fully acquainted with your camera

My Sony has a number of features that help in this and some that does not.  One of the great things about the Sony DSLR range is because of the SLT technology, you get a lot more information in the viewfinder than most makes of camera. So as well things like exposure and shutter speed, you can get a histogram indicating the exposure range. I must admit however, that I have been slow to take advantage of this feature. To often I am concentrating on the subject, but used properly the histogram allows you to change the shutter speed, aperture and exposure compensation to their optimum values.

One negative feature is the movie button. Now I never really get the idea of movie mode on DSLR's. It is something that a lot of camera manufacturers push, because it sounds like a good idea. Why buy two camera when you can have it all in one? But the truth is it is a bit like having a 6th finger. Possibly useful, but more likely will get in the way when trying to do something. I think it would be far better if they concentrated on the basics like a better rear screen rather than adding all the gubbins need to to take movies.

Unfortunately on the Sony, the movie button it is very close to the exposure compensation control. When in a hurry, it is very easy to press it by mistake. Now you can disabled it, so that it only works in movie mode. But annoyingly instead of just ignoring the button press, it presents a warning dialog informing me I have pressed a disabled button. This I have to clear to carry on. This is not what you want when you are desperately trying to take that perfect wildlife shot.

However annoying this is, the truth is that the DSLR user interface has not moved on much over the years. As the number of parameters you can control increases, so does the workload on the poor photographer. It is about time camera manufacturers revisited this and thought of better ways to control their cameras.

It is surprising really that no one has come up with something better. There has been some improvements using touch screens as a way to get to parameters to indicate the focus point. However this requires taking the eye from the viewfinder to the screen. As a DSLR user, I really value the viewfinder and I want to be able to do as much as I can while my eye is stuck to it. Because the Sony system allows more information to be super-imposed on the viewfinder it is surprising that they have not been more  innovative in the use of it.

What is required is 2 things. A easier way of accessing the key parameters and better way of visualizing them. The latter is a challenge to the mechanical designers, but there must be something better than a collection of buttons and D-Pads. Maybe a trackball or a joystick or maybe just better dials. Unfortunately camera design is very conservative so it will be a brave manufacturer who attempts to mess with the standard look. Saying that, who would of predicted that the age of the push button mobile phone would end so abruptly when Apple brought in the iPhone.

The visualization process is easier to envisage. What is needed is better ways to visualize the data as we look through the viewfinder. Not only show the present aperture/shutter settings, but also the ISO and exposure compensation values, together with the exposure histogram. What could also be visualised is how these settings would change. So if I modified the ISO, what would the shutter speed change to in aperture priority mode.

Of course it would be useful if this information could be conveyed to me in the viewfinder as I compose the shot, and this is where Sony could use their SLT technology to their advantage.

Anyway those are my ideas. I'll leave the implementation details to the designers. Just send the check in the post.

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