JANUARY, 2013

Photography has always been an interest of mine, though lately I seem to have become a lot more focused – excuse the pun – on it, which could have something to do with some recent camera purchases.

Cameras are especially delightful gadgets; it shouldn’t be that surprising that Flickr and Instagram became as popular as they did. A camera is perhaps the ultimate interactive device; becoming an extension of the eye; recording memories; creating framed canvases of light and shade, color and line. As master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson put it:

 

To photograph: it is to put on the same line of sight the head, the eye and the heart.

 

And then there’s the physicality of using cameras, particularly enthusiast and professional cameras. You can turn rings and knobs, press buttons, touch panels, screw and clip things on to them – all just wonderful. They’ve also become highly sophisticated, computerised devices with layers of onscreen menus to tweak and settings to customize. Thinking back to my first purchase, a compact Olympus OM-2n SLR 35mm film camera with a 50mm Zeiss 1.4 lens, it was a beautifully crafted piece of machinery with its film advance lever and folding rewind lever, single ASA/exposure compensation dial, shutter speed and depth of field rings and the sophistication of its then innovative through the lens metering system. Back then the conventions of using a camera were pretty straight forward: insert a film, match the speed setting on the ASA dial, tweak the settings on the lens rings to suit the scene, shoot, then wind the film forward in readiness for the next shot.

analogue cameras

In today’s digital world, camera functionality has become a lot more sophisticated and for a lot of people who use anything other than a basic point-and-shoot model the options can be daunting – and, today, even the point-and-shoot cameras come equipped with a load of options. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter, because even the most complex cameras can be used in automatic point-and-shoot mode. The problem with that is a camera’s capabilities aren’t used to their potential and the photos may not be as good as they could be.

It seems that camera makers have been grappling with the problem of how to make cameras that are becoming increasingly sophisticated, easier to use.

It’s interesting to see recent developments in the digital camera market as innovative mirrorless compact systems have become more established as alternatives, in many cases, to full frame 35mm SLR cameras. It’s also interesting to see how different manufacturers are applying different philosophies to the design of their new cameras in terms of hardware and interaction, or UX, design. The examples below illustrate the range of different approaches.

 

Classic mechanical interface – Fujifilm

This is a company with a serious photographic pedigree, producing classic camera films like Velvia and Astia, cameras for Hasselblad, lenses for Leica and Nikon and lenses and digital technologies for the film and TV industries.

Fujifilm’s X series of cameras are a marriage of traditional and modern. The cameras’ retro design consciously evoke the classic rangefinder cameras of the 1950s and come with dedicated dials and lens rings, often with optical viewfinders, and it’s possible, when shooting, to manipulate these cameras without scrolling through on-screen menus, just like the good old days. The design invites the user to play with the physical controls, and judging by online reviews and forums, a lot of photographers have taken a liking to these cameras and I’ve got to admit I’m a big fan of the these machines. I love the feeling of controlling settings with my fingers; much like an instrument that produces music when tapped or plucked, this kind of camera interface seems more responsive when composing images.

 

Hybrid interface – Olympus

Olympus has been in the camera business since the 1930s, developing the hugely successful Pen and OM camera systems in the 1950s and 1970s, respectively.

Olympus have mined their own archives to create some innovative digital cameras: the cameras of the PEN interchangeable lens system cameras, introduced in 2009, and the OM-D E-M5, the first of a new digital system introduced in 2012, carry the spirit of their film camera namesakes. Olympus has consistently reduced the size of its offerings, in comparison with their competitors’ products, and they continue to do so with their digital cameras; both PEN and OM-D are Micro Four Thirds systems – a standard developed by Olympus together with Panasonic. While the cameras do have buttons and dials – and the OM-D E-M5 allows customisation of some of these – they also have touch screens, so that settings for these cameras are changed through a mix of touch and button manipulations, while the E-M5 features programmable dials for user preferred customization.

 

Streamlined digital interface – Sony

Sony was a late entrant into the camera market, releasing its first digital point and shoot Cyber-shot camera in the mid 1990s and getting into high-end cameras with the first of its Minolta based α cameras in 2006.

The NEX series, introduced in 2010 with the release of the NEX-3 and NEX-5, is Sony’s interpretation of the mirrorless camera. Unburdened by a photographic heritage, Sony has taken an innovative ‘electronics company’ approach to the design of its NEX cameras, which sport sci-fi hardware design with a minimum of buttons that serve multiple purposes, depending on what the photographer is doing. Similarly, the traditional flash hot shoe has been replaced with a multi-use accessory port. Like the Olympus cameras, the NEX models feature tilting rear screens. Sony has designed these cameras as sophisticated point and shoot machines, their hardware simplicity prompting minimal user interaction, the cameras’ internals providing high quality images.

 

Minimal interface – Lytro

Lytro, a company founded in 2006 by a former Stanford University researcher, turns the photographic process on its head; with a Lytro camera, a photographer doesn’t need to manipulate on-board controls to ensure they can capture an optimal shot.

Looking like a gadget from Star Trek, the Lytro camera is a minimalist rectangular tube of anodised aluminium and silicon with a lens set on one end and a touch screen on the other. A shutter button and zoom slider are built into the silicon casing and manual setting controls are hidden in the touch screen. The controls will be very familiar to those who use smartphone camera apps.

The genius of the Lytro system is that there’s no need to worry about focus when shooting; the camera takes ‘living pictures’ than can be refocused to taste afterwards on the camera or a computer. In the same way, it’s also possible to shift the perspective of the photos. The recorded image can therefore be used to create any number of variations of the subject.

Regardless of personal preferences, it’s great to see the different approaches to user interaction that manufacturers are taking in their design of new cameras, from milled metal dials to tilting OLED touch screens and light field image sensors. With projects like Google Glass on the horizon, further innovation looks certain in the field of photography.