Shifting gears

I was halfway through a superb BLT sandwich for lunch today when
I had the following thought “Why haven’t cameras taken on the same approach as
cars”. Ok I can see that this makes no sense so I’ll rewind a bit. The wife and
I were having lunch and watching an old episode of Top Gear, the British “real”
version, and they were trying to find the first car that drove and felt like a
proper car and not some working proto-car. They decided that the Austin 7 was
the mold that all other cars followed because it’s control layout made sense
and didn’t require three arms and a leg to operate.

The blokes on Top Gear came to the conclusion that in the
development of the automobile all cars up to the Cadillac Type 53 in 1916 were
experiments in mechanics and what we would now call user interface: how you
physically operate and control the device. The Austin 7, which came about in
1922, took what the Type 53 had right: the now familiar pedal layout, electric
starter, steering column mounted controls … and put it all together in a
package that was 1/4th the price of the Caddy and with that licensed
the Austin 7 to numerous other car manufacturers around the world. The pattern
was established and since then, 90 years now, we have been quietly grateful for
not having to be genius gymnasts in order to drive a car: everything is right where
it needs to be.

Why haven’t the camera companies done this? Every time a new
camera hits the streets the controls are different in some way from even the
model that it replaced. You have to relearn your basic tool every time. Worse
you get used to the old camera and have to fumble your way through the new and
improved one for maybe a few months just so that it becomes second nature. I
got in the habit of toting around the owner’s manual because until I had
accessed every necessary function two dozen times there was always going to be
a “Huh?!” moment on a shoot where my expensive professional tool was turned
into a near useless doorstop. Out comes the manual; flip-flip-flip, Oh! Push
this button while rotating the sub-control wheel, scroll down to this menu and
change the mode to …. GOTCHA!

That gets boring, if not frustrating, real quick. The
computerization of our cameras has been a boon in terms of our ability to have
minute control over our tools but it’s made much of this flexibility and power
needlessly difficult to access if not harness. We just get more buttons, more
functions, more menus and more ability but most of us really only need to
access about ten controls to use our cameras, focus, ISO, aperture, shutter
speed, shutter button, playback, delete, protect, flash compensation and white
balance. The rest seems like it’s thrown in to impress the non-professionals who,
let’s face it, way out number us pros but buy enough gear to keep the price
down so that we can afford it.

I ended up stumbling in to this mode of thought with two
different photographers just last week. One is a journalist who was bemoaning
how his spiffy new D4 has control layouts that are just different enough from
the D3’s that he used for years that he has to stop and think, always a bad
thing, on a shoot so that he can access this function or that. The other is my
buddy Dan the Architectural dude who has been loving his wicked D800 for about
a month but mentioned that it’s so much more complicated, kinda his words, that
he can’t find that sweet function when he needs it. Out comes the manual which
is awful when the client is standing next to ya while you look like a total
tyro. Worse, he is setting up a shot and the camera starts doing something that
he didn’t intend, like bring up the Virtual Horizon, and then ya can’t get it
to stop. Argh!

The easy way would be to just shoot a Leica as they haven’t
changed the button location since the invention of radio. Ok not really. They
had to put a screen and buttons on the back with the digital M series but
everything else is just like it was in 1958.

This is why I use cameras that all are the same model and as
a result have the same physical layout. When I first went pro my bodies of
choice were the Nikon N90s and I eventually had three of them. First one, then
two so that I could run the standard wide lens/long lens two body combo that
newsies need to have. But when one of my bodies broke and I had to borrow a
friends F4s for a shoot I was flummoxed. I knew the F4 well but it was
impossible to seamlessly go from one body to the other while covering news and
not have to constantly remind myself where the shutter dial was. That’s when I
got the third body: a shelf sitting backup.

To me, your tools need to be not an extension of your hands but rather an extension of your mind. Just as you practice a myriad of concepts to turn them into useful techniques you practice working with your tools be that a hammer or a paintbrush. When the tool changes that well formed system of muscle memory is fouled and your creative/reative abilitly will be to some degree lessened untl you have reproduced that prior level of mind/body/tool integration. Although I love getting usefull new tools I loathe having to slow down and practice using them so as to truly make them usefull.

As of tomorrow things are going to get more complicated
as I will take possession of a new Nikon D800 body. Not to replace my D700’s;
they are and will be for some time my work horses. But for commercial work and
HDSLR video. Luckily the control layout isn’t that different than what I’ve
been used to for four years. But there will be differences and I will have to
deal with that. Sigh!

WhenI become Emperor, I will gather all the genius industrial designers and kinesiologists
and figure out how to design stuff with the least amount of  buttons and menus necessary and then make that
stick. Yeah, like that will happen …