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04-21-2010, 09:41 AM   #1
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Proposal For A Custom-Interface Direct-Control Camera

Introduction

I have been thinking of the ergonomics of camera bodies. How can the most important functions be placed close at hand while relegating less-used features to more obscure places? And how can this be done without cluttering the body? I think that the current designs leave a lot of room for innovation.

In this article I present a model for a Custom-Interface Direct-Control camera. I call this the CIDC in a nod to Mike Jonhston's DMD. This article was promised a long time ago but it has been difficult for me to pin down exactly what I am looking for and why today's SLRs leave me with a sense of unease, like they are compromising me as a photographer. So I started by looking at film cameras and what people say they like about them, concentrating on the user interface and ergonomics.

It was also important for me to work out for myself the nine-dimensional nature of photography. This pinpoints the exact parameters that we, as photographers, are trying to change. From all of this background research I got to the CIDC.


Fundamental Photographic Parameters

Digital cameras seem to have inherited a bias towards shutter (T) and aperture (A) controllers; ISO (I) takes second place. Yet all three of these are fundamental parameters when it comes to taking a shot. Pentax has innovated with the ISO-centric modes (available on the K-7, K20D and K10D) but I think this could be taken further.

It used to be the case that we set aperture using a ring on the lens and shutter speed with a dial on the camera. The great thing about this is that the settings were plainly visible even when the camera was off. Having physical settings is more obvious and responsive than looking at screens. Of course, back in film days ISO/ASA was set by the film that was loaded (either automatically or manually). In order to change this value we had to use different film. Cameras that had interchangeable backs were a boon in this regard.

With digital that restriction is no longer in place; each shot can be at a different I value. Many take this for granted without realising the paradigm shift that has taken place. But this means that our camera should be giving us full control over T, A and I equally.

What this means is that each of these three parameters need a physical controller, a dial that can be set and read easily. In addition, each needs an Automatic setting for telling the camera to control that parameter. I would place the A and T dials on the top-front and top-back of the camera, so that they could be controlled with finger and thumb -- much like (or even the same as) the K-7. The I dial can also be on the back, perhaps oriented to the vertical to distinguish it.

With physical dial readout there's no need for the top-surface LCD panel. The viewfinder and back LCD displays might need a slight redesign to compensate, but I think nothing substantive would be lost by ridding us of this vestige. Put the LCD on a hinge and you can see it from any angle. This frees up more space on the body, especially important if we wish a small camera that we can still control with gloves on. (Current Pentax bodies are getting close to this.)

The various combinations of A settings on the three proposed dials covers everything from manual to fully automatic modes, so there's no longer a need for the mode dial. For example, Bulb setting is a function of shutter, so it would be on the S dial.

There would be plenty of scope for customising the program line between T, A and I. That might require a rather sophisticated menu interface. Or why not set this graphically using software on the computer and download it to the camera? Real control freaks might welcome this opportunity! But again, this is an implementation detail.


Exposure Compensation Considered Harmful

Even exposure compensation could become a thing of the past, since we can simply disengage an automatic setting and choose the precise setting we require. In order for this to work fluidly, the dial would have to take up from where it was initially set by the automatic process. This is a little tricky to explain, so let me do so with an example.

Say we are shooting at T = 1/500s and A = f/4. We realise we need EV +1 to tell the camera to let in more light. This is equivalent to one of two things: changing T to 1/250 or changing A to f/2.8. Which one happens? That depends on which is under camera control. If we have set T manually but A is on Auto setting, then aperture will change. If we have set A manually but T is on Auto, then shutter speed will change. If both A and T are on Auto, then the programme line dictates which will change. But since this setting is hidden away in a menu somewhere, we may not always be aware of how the camera is responding to our request. And this is a bad thing; the photographer is out of control.

Instead, consider the case of A and T both being set to Auto on a camera without an EV dial. We wish to apply EV +1 and so must choose whether to tweak the A or T dials. There's the difference right away: we choose. Moving one dial off-centre adjusts exposure in kind. (And in addition we can of course tweak the I dial instead. Result: more control.)

But in order for this to work, the increments must be relative to the currently set values. This means that we cannot have "hard" dials with numbers painted on, like on our old film cameras, because they cannot operate in relative mode. We need "soft" dials which show their settings in the viewfinder and on the LCD, dials that can react relative to the current automatic settings.

This system begins to look a lot like that already in place on the Pentax bodies mentioned above. They have a front and rear dial that controls parameters in exactly the way I have mentioned. They do not go far enough, true, since only two dials must control three parameters. Furthermore, the mode dial is still required to indicate parameter priority. But the special Pentax programme-line mode takes us most of the way towards our goal.

We can finesse our proposed system further. For example, with all dials working relatively, it is convenient to have a reset button that gets us back to the automatic settings. Actually, Pentax has thought of that as well: it's the famous Green button. The dream CIDC system is becoming a reality!


Continuing To Simplify

I know this might be contentious, but I would rid the body of dedicated buttons for functions like RAW, drive mode and so on. These clutter the interface and it takes time to learn their positions and quirks. Instead, the camera would have soft buttons that can be assigned whichever functions the user desires, cycling between drive modes, white balance, image quality, shake reduction, whatever. Instead of a hard-wired Function button give us a user-customisable menu, where we can place everything we commonly need. Instead of a dedicated compass of controls, make each one assignable.

Certainly these controls can still have their default settings, but fewer switches and knobs would be required to match the same parameter control. This is based on the premise that one never needs to actively consider and change all of these functions at one time.

Then, let us save these settings to a flash card, so we can load them up on a different body. Give us a menu to save and recall a dozen different configurations, so we can instantly go from a body optimised for sport shots to one optimised for flower macros. Give us a menu page that displays on the LCD all the assignments, in case we forget.

Some of these ideas have been implemented on other cameras, but never in complete fulfilment of the ideal of customisable direct control.


Conclusion

The result would be a body with fewer controls but more actual control. It would combine the ergonomics of film and range-finder bodies with the central processing power of today's digital cameras. It would be simpler, more explicit... more photographic.

And it can all be done with today's technology by simply applying a different way of thinking, and by discarding some of the dead wood of the past.

So, come on! Who will be the first company to give us the CIDC camera?

04-23-2010, 05:32 AM   #2
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May I take the opportunity to comment?

Lots of great ideas, some as you mention do exist or almost exist.

Customizable buttons? - Great idea. However, the manufacturers must remember that we DO still want buttons (I do). I don't want to have to go through many menu options to change one thing. Many professional video cameras still have lots of 'finger' adjustments for that reason. Lots of soft buttons (well, a reasonable amount) on the camera does sound good.

Saving settings to flash card & computer? - Lovely. Should have been done when digital cameras first came out. Actually, the old Minolta Dynax/Maxxum i series SLRs from the late 80s had a function similar to this. You bought datacards that would set the camera to a certain mode (sports, landscape etc) or a custom card that would let you save various items for settings.

Dropping the top LCD? - Hmmm, only if the back LCD can be programmed to stay ON when adjusting controls or the viewfinder can be redesigned to have a really GOOD display of information. Perhaps a 'heads up' data display mode that could be superimposed on the viewfinder and one of your soft buttons could be programmed to activate/deactivate that mode. I'm 50 and need a LOT of light to read things in low light including the settings on my camera. The illuminated top LCD on the K20D is one reason I bought that camera.

Just my few cents worth.

Michael

Last edited by mtansley; 04-23-2010 at 06:55 PM. Reason: Minolta Dynax/Maxxum i series date from 1980s, not 1990s as I'd put before
04-23-2010, 12:19 PM   #3
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Thanks Michael for your opinion. I should note that I am not saying every camera should be this way, but that it makes good sense for at least some to be on offer that follow this paradigm. Especially those that need to be small but still usable. I find the K-7 is a great size (don't own it but have tried it out) but the buttons are simply too cluttered. There will always be those happier with a larger body. In that case there is room for more controls.

As for the top display... I find it useful on the K20D but that is only because the back LCD is not as good as it could be (in terms of layout I mean). The improvements in the K-7, with direct access to menu functions, are excellent. If this was articulated and one had more control over what info was displayed when (as you say) I would never need the top panel and would readily sacrifice it for better control layout and more grip room.
04-23-2010, 07:05 PM   #4
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Thanks for your comments on my comments.

I agree with your LCD idea. If it was designed the way you have described it and it could be left on during certain operations (or when I say it should be left on!!) then the top LCD is not needed although the back LCD should be visible under almost direct sunshine. Go one step further with the back LCD, why not as well as articulation, include the ability to 'snap' it off completely with it being attached by a small cord. Often I've thought that with a better live view (yes, I know some hate it) a removable LCD would be invaluable for macro work (bugs, flowers etc.)

Also, the back LCD display layout should be completely adjustable by hooking the camera up to a computer and reprogramming it. If I want a display that only shows the shutter speed and ISO in a large font then why not allow me the option to have that. Since all these digital cameras are just basically computers, it shouldn't be too hard to allow that function.

So when can you get this model into production?

Michael

04-23-2010, 08:01 PM   #5
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I like the idea, although I see it as very impractical from a marketing perspective.

Mostly, though, I'm posting to poke fun at "Exposure Compensation Considered Harmful". Who's the bigger geek - you for using the phrase, or me for recognizing it?
04-24-2010, 05:16 AM   #6
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QuoteOriginally posted by Marc Sabatella Quote
I like the idea, although I see it as very impractical from a marketing perspective.
It would be marketed with lots of hype as the new big thing and all semi-pros would line up to try it.

QuoteOriginally posted by Marc Sabatella Quote
Mostly, though, I'm posting to poke fun at "Exposure Compensation Considered Harmful". Who's the bigger geek - you for using the phrase, or me for recognizing it?
Both, I'd say. But it's a classic paper. I've seen lots of people steal the phrasing as an homage. It's almost to the point of being a meme.
04-26-2010, 02:19 AM   #7
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QuoteOriginally posted by rparmar Quote
What this means is that each of these three parameters need a physical controller, a dial that can be set and read easily.
I'd go a step further.

What you describe is a mixture of Pentax and Leica. You miss some beauty along the road.

I really would have three dials (A,T,I) as you describe, but with the setting being painted on it and one setting being A. This is Leica's beautiful way.

As you note, one is missing ergonomic opportunities then. Therefore, I would paint each dial's scale with a mini AMOLED display, brightness controlled with a light sensor the camera does have anyway. I would have two colors: green digits for automatic setting and orange digits for manual settings. Each dial has a green button switching digits back to green, so, there are three green buttons. If you turn a dial, the digits become orange. Because it would never actually display "A", you'll know immediately which value you would set it to. Also, the dials stop at either extreme end. Dials with programmable stops do exist (just a variant of force feedback controllers).

Besides green or orange, settings which correspond to this wheel set to auto (green), or two or three wheels set to automatic, could be highlighted "recommendations".

To see the dials "rotate" all by themseves when you play with the camera in-store makes the camera a very desirable thing too. Of course, the "rotation" would be an illusion created by the AMOLED animation played when switching between two settings (showing at least two intermediate stages).

The camera as I describe it would be like an iPhone. A new user experience where everybody wonders how it could ever have been different. With all other cameras like the not-so-smart phones prior to it.

The dials may be thumb wheels or real dials. It doesn't matter much. I'll probably go for bigger than now thumb wheels, 'A' front right, 'T' rear right, 'I' front left. The mode dial would disappear anyway as it is obsolete. The AMOLED digit display would be such that at least three readings are visible simultaneously. The green button could be to "click" each wheel into the body.

Last edited by falconeye; 04-26-2010 at 02:37 AM.
04-26-2010, 02:45 AM   #8
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Yes I very much like the idea of using soft buttons - I think it's fairly inevitable as they're already in use in my industry (in a sense the e-dial on the K-7 already works that way). I find modes quite annoying and unneccessary but for others I imagine they're invaluable. I'm sure I'm underusing my camera but for 90% of what I do I just worry about f stop and more or less do the rest manually. But then I really only do landscape stuff.

Not sure about ridding us of the top LCD - if you're using LV or if you've got the main screen switched off then I personally find it useful to still see that info somewhere. Also when it's on a tripod low near the ground that top display is invaluable too.

04-26-2010, 05:33 AM   #9
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This stuff usually makes my eyes glaze over but I've found this--in combination with the 9 dimension piece--pretty interesting. I love lucidity! ;~)
04-26-2010, 06:26 AM   #10
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QuoteOriginally posted by falconeye Quote
What you describe is a mixture of Pentax and Leica. You miss some beauty along the road.
Yes, that is the combination I rather had in mind.

And yes, I actually did think of responsive interactive dials similar to how you describe. I did not introduce them in this article in order to not freak out those more resistant to change.

You read my mind! Or maybe it is the next logical move and we both came to it by following the same thought pattern.
04-26-2010, 06:29 AM   #11
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If you are near to the ground, for macro work etc., use the articulated hinge to move the LCD to where you want it. If the next Pentax line-up does not have an articulated screen they have really dropped the ball.

If you've got the main screen switched off, then, er, don't.

Last edited by Nass; 04-26-2010 at 06:50 AM.
04-26-2010, 06:46 AM   #12
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QuoteOriginally posted by rparmar Quote
If you are near to the ground, for macro work etc., use the articulated hinge to move the LCD to where you want it. If the next Pentax line-up does not have an articulated screen they have really dropped the ball.
Agree. Before I stepped up to dslr, I had a Oly C-5060 Wide Zoom and found the articulated screen very useful. That was 7 years ago (!)
04-26-2010, 06:55 AM   #13
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QuoteOriginally posted by rparmar Quote
If you are near to the ground, for macro work etc., use the articulated hinge to move the LCD to where you want it. If the next Pentax line-up does not have an articulated screen they have really dropped the ball.
Yeah, or removable screen with a lead or even one that, when removed, communicates back to the camera using WiFi? Unlikely but I'd like it
QuoteQuote:
If you've got the main screen switched off, then, er, don't.
Heh - for nighttime stuff I always have the main screen off and just the top one on
04-26-2010, 07:51 AM   #14
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Nass accidentally edited my last post, but since then it's been quoted as is, which is OK.

I think the bit that went missing was something about the ability to overlay LiveView with the photographic parameters momentarily. More finesse in how we control the LCD display would definitely help make the top panel redundant.

Also, I imagine all LCD screens will be operated by touch within a year or two. It's inevitable.
04-28-2010, 04:49 AM   #15
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QuoteOriginally posted by Marc Sabatella Quote
Who's the bigger geek - you for using the phrase, or me for recognizing it?
I'll try and top that by remarking that it wasn't Dijkstra who came up with the title but Wirth (of Pascal, Modula, Oberon fame) the editor of the issue which contained Dijkstra's article.

BTW, Robin, I disagree with your "exposure compensation considered harmful" position. You state that the photographer is out of control. But he/she really isn't. Selecting Av or Tv should be a concious decision and if one isn't in the right mode than one simply changes it.

You seemed to have forgotten one very important point about exposure compensation: The camera is still in auto mode, compensating for any dynamic change of light in the scene. I just gave it a hint regarding the overall exposure. I'm in full control as I instructed the camera to dynamically adjust exposure exactly the way I want it. I wouldn't want to chase changing light by continuous manual adjustment of one of two dials. Perhaps I missed something.

Falk's proposal sounds really nice but I wonder how exposure compensation comes into it.
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