As photographers, we’re often on the bleeding edge of technology, and these days, the bleeding edge often includes an app for that. However, manufacturers are increasingly relying on apps to control their hardware at the expense of dedicated physical controls — and it’s a practice that must stop.
I’ve found myself purchasing products that I love using, but that I end up leaving because of the fear that in a year or two, I’ll be left with an expensive brick after an app is discontinued. Case in point is the Nikon KeyMission 360, a camera that I’ve lauded for being one of the first affordable 4K 360-degree cameras that stitches footage for you. I wonder about its long-term viability. There’s no screen on it to change settings and there is all of two buttons on the camera, one for photo and one for video. If Nikon decided to stop supporting the app one day (and given the financial issues as of late, a not entirely unrealistic possibility), I’d be locked into whatever the last settings I had on the camera were without any hope of changing it.
With 360-video cameras, this isn’t an uncommon practice. Nikon’s not alone. Samsung’s Gear 360 line of cameras relies on convoluted software or an app to stitch the footage for both of its models. There’s not much you can do without it, though there is some degree of controls to change settings right on the camera.
I spoke with my dollars. The Garmin Virb 360 has been my latest choice because it combines the best of both worlds: it stitches in-camera and has a screen to control settings. And buttons, so many buttons. There’s even a nifty slider that locks in place to start video recording, something I wish I could see in more video cameras.
360-video cameras aren’t the only ones scaling back on screens and buttons. I bought a Syrp Genie Mini that, while great for time-lapses, left me a little uneasy about whether I’d be able to use it in the future if the company or the app ever went away. I’d also constantly run out of batteries on my phone for long time-lapses. It was enough for me to upgrade to the full Genie. There has to be a way to put a small screen on the mini version somewhere, if just to offer a piece of mind and the ability to give my phone a break.
The Apps Giveth, the Apps Taketh Away
Sometimes, key features of a camera go away when an app dies. Panasonic’s Lumix Link app is a prime example. It’s an app that provides wireless functionality to many of Panasonic’s cameras. If someone bought Panasonic’s flagship camera four years ago, the GH3, they’d find themselves limping along with a buggy app that hasn’t been updated since 2013 on their iPhone. And with the next iOS update, it’s practically guaranteed to stop working entirely. I’ve used this app to remotely film myself for instructional videos as well as transfer photos to my phone for social media posts live during breaking news coverage. Once this feature goes away, so will the number of times I pull the Panasonic out for either of these purposes.
A Nikon F6 purchased in 2004 has the same features today as it did brand new, and that’s the way it should be. If anything, features should be added over time (a la Fuji via firmware updates) but never should a consumer lose something because the company didn’t feel like keeping a software developer employed.
Batteries Aren't Ready for This
There’s another, more practical reason I don’t want to control everything from my phone. I already have a hard enough time keeping my iPhone 6s charged through a normal day. When you add the strain of running a camera through an app my phone’s done. To shoot enough footage for this relatively short 360-degree video of Montauk Point Lighthouse, I needed to bring two extra battery packs with me to get through the day, one for the KeyMission 360 and the other for my phone.
Until phone batteries get remarkably better, it’s poor form to make a user run everything from an app.
If you make stuff for photographers, think about how they’re going to use your product. There’s no reason to force the use of complicated pairing processes and convoluted software when dedicated buttons have screens worked well and fast for years. Quick set up and tear down is always better than messing with a fiddly app.
My experience moving from the Nikon KeyMission 360, with its distinct lack of direct controls, to the Garmin Virb 360, that has nothing but controls – and an app, has been the lightbulb moment where I realized how much I really appreciated a well thought out physical interface over an app.
Maybe a focus group somewhere once persuaded a clueless manager that an all-app interface was the way to go. Maybe it’s just companies jumping on the shiny app bandwagon. But let’s call this trend what it is: lazy design.