The Deknobification of Cameras

Exposure with Kiev film camera
Exposure with Kiev film camera, by b1ur

Yet another technology leak occurred recently.  This time it was the not-so-highly-anticipated Sony A290.  I have an A200 and I love it.  It fits my hands perfectly.  It has a simple, intuitive interface.  Just the right amount of buttons, knobs and switches.  Others might think it needs a second control wheel or an LCD screen on top, but after using this camera for 2 years, it seems just right to me.  The A290 has the bare minimum amount of buttons, forcing the user to dig into the menu every 3 minutes.

I know that digital cameras are more complicated than the space shuttle, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are still only four controls that are truly necessary: ISO, aperture, shutter speed, shutter release.  The rest is gravy.  Lumpy gravy with lumps of smile detection, blink detection, 38 scene modes, and sausage.  That’s the brilliance of the Canon S90.  It has enough control wheels to control the necessities with menus to get the less used options.  Granted, once you enter menu-land, you won’t return until days later with sore fingers.  But you don’t have to use the menu very often at all because the controls were thoughtfully laid out.  And they exist!

That’s the problem I see with the new Sony NEX cameras and the Olympus EPL-1: not enough knobs.  You have to menu dive to get to anything.  I blame Steve Jobs.  Wha!?  That’s right, I went there.  It’s Steve’s war on buttons that has convinced product designers that buttons are ugly and should be banished.  The iPad is a beautiful object, but it’s beauty comes at the cost of a USB port, an SD slot, and even a keyboard that some people tend to find useful (if only there were a product out there that included all of those things… oh yeah: the laptop).  At some point, form stopped following function.  Recently, it seems, form tied function up and left it for dead in the desert.

One of the reasons that I enjoy using older cameras so much is the mechanical controls.  I like the feel of rotating a ring to set the aperture and spinning a knob to set the shutter speed and ISO.  If we keep taking away knobs and dials and control rings, everyone’s camera will start to look like this:

Fisher-Price toy camera
Fisher-Price toy camera, by John Kratz

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