The One Thing That Every Camera Manufacturer Needs to Fix

The One Thing That Every Camera Manufacturer Needs to Fix

In 1995, Casio launched a revolutionary product: the QV-10. It was the first camera to feature an LCD that showed what you were shooting. Ever since, manufacturers have run terrified at the prospect of having to implement a basic feature that has still not been properly designed, and there's a good chance that this won’t happen in our lifetimes.

I like to think that shortly after the QV-10 hit the market, the senior executives of all the major camera manufacturers put their rivalries aside and gathered in Tokyo to discuss the insurmountable problem that lay before them: how to design the menu system. The chief executive of Casio stood up and, having felt that his company had done enough, decided to pass the baton. “Has anyone programed a VCR before?” he asked the assembled gray suits. The response was a mixture of blank faces and terrified expressions. A hand finally went up. “OK. You’re in charge. See what you can do.”

The groundbreaking Casio QV-10

Menus Are Every Camera Manufacturer's Nightmare

Research and development departments at the likes of Nikon, Canon, and Sony are huge. Millions of dollars are invested every year in improving sensor technology and refining beautifully crafted products that become the creative tools of countless photographers and videographers around the world.

Despite these vast budgets and impressive concentrations of technical expertise, one element has remained completely beyond reach: the menu. Cameras are supposed to be magical boxes that allow us to go and capture the world, but ease of use has been far from the forefront of anyone’s mind. Very much an afterthought when it comes to getting a product to market, menus are archaic, complex, and seem almost designed to make the experience as unpleasant as possible. Why?

Initially, it was probably because no one knew how to do it. As technology has progressed, the situation has been compounded by new features that overlap across multiple categories. Secondly, the small screens — especially in a 3:2 landscape ratio — do not lend themselves well to the vast amount of information that can require seemingly endless scrolling.

Thirdly, the menu is probably the last part of any camera that gets designed and most likely comes at a stage when R&D budgets are exhausted and deadlines are looming ominously. Engineers and technicians absorbed with tweaking sensor stabilization and autofocus performance are likely to spare little time for making a menu system that’s functional, never mind pretty. If a company told you that they handed the job to an intern just weeks before their newest mirrorless effort was due to leave the production lines, you would not be surprised.

If Ergonomics Are Important, So Is User Experience

When it comes to changing the settings on your camera, user experience does not seem to be on the radar of anyone at Canon, Nikon, or Sony. With the possible exception of luxury brand Leica, Fujifilm is alone in understanding how a sense of refinement felt through handling a camera contributes to the creative process. (Feel free to correct me in the comments below.)

Sony and Olympus appear to be the worst culprits, and there are times when navigating those menus where you have to wonder if anyone at those manufacturers has ever designed a menu before in their lives. The Sony a7 III is complex, and the menu system gives the impression that it was cobbled together in piecemeal fashion as new features were implemented over the course of the design process. Abbreviations are weirdly inconsistent, and some menu items are inexplicably capitalized. Designing the menu seems to have culminated in a final phase where the overriding attitude was “Ah, sod it. They’ll figure it out.”

The Broken Dreams of a Disillusioned Project Manager

Alongside some degree of logic, the other aspect that needs to be addressed urgently is the appearance. Menu systems don’t necessarily have to be pretty, but there’s no excuse for making them deliberately ugly. There’s a reason that creatives used to prefer MacBooks to PCs: “Intel Inside” is a logo that looks like it was jauntily designed by someone’s mom in the 1980s. Quite why you would want that visible every time you open your laptop is a mystery, and quite why PC manufacturers thought it would be nice to inflict upon people as they designed magazines, cut videos, and edited photos is truly baffling. (Answer: money.)

Intel Inside logo

The Intel Inside logo. Of course, this excruciating eyesore doesn't affect the performance of a laptop, but it may make you want to throw it out of the window.

Just because it’s a menu system doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to use complementary colors and pleasing typefaces, and this goes for the rest of the interface as well. I want a tool that is refined and makes me feel like I’m using a sophisticated blend of technology and ingenuity, not an expensive box bodged together from the broken dreams of a disillusioned project manager. There’s the suggestion that ZEISS might be able to do it, and they barely make cameras.

Time for Change

We’re at a stage with LCDs that manufacturers have even fewer excuses for not addressing these issues. Screens are bigger, higher resolution, and more importantly, touch-sensitive. We don’t need skeuomorphic icons and pointless animations; some refined touches and a healthy dose of logic would be more than enough.

So, how do we convince the camera giants that it’s necessary and where is this expertise going to come from? Did all of the user experience engineers in Tokyo get wiped out simultaneously in some horrific accident? Surely, there are still a few knocking about and in search of a job. Even if there’s only one, perhaps he or she can do a few months at Canon, then move to Nikon, and then spend a few years with Sony. For the sake of camera owners around the world, let's hope that one turns up soon.

If you’re a user experience engineer or a usability analyst with some knowledge of cameras, feel free to post a link to your C.V. in the comments below. Maybe Tokyo will be in touch.

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Previous comments
Benton Lam's picture

I'm amused by all the "it's a professional tool, just go memorize it" argument. It echos of all the hardcore computer users deriding Windows 3.11 and Mac - It's a professional tool, just remember the command line.

I have no problems using the command line, but it doesn't mean it's the preferred tool of choice for every occasion.

Just because many of us have adapted to the menu systems, doesn't mean they don't need a shake up.

Nick Haynes's picture

Sure. I'm a retired Unix systems manager. All my work was done on the command line. I now use linux: do I stick with a dumb terminal when I can have a nice graphical display and tools? Ermmm... no.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks Benton. I'm not alone! It's weird how many people are aggressively satisfied with "mediocre" when "nice" is so little effort.

Eric Salas's picture

If you have a problem with a menu system I suggest you begin with what’s behind your eyes and between your ears.

They include instruction booklets for those who can read, there are YouTube videos out on how to setup your camera by all the well knowns, and every manufacturer includes custom buttons and options to essentially bypass the menu system...

Stop blaming companies because you lack ability to comprehend simple instructions.

Andy Day's picture

Thanks for the snark. The degree by which you've missed the point of this article is amusing.

Eric Salas's picture

I didn’t miss anything, read this messed up thread and that’s what I’m commenting on. Nothing was directed towards you so no need to get your panties twisted.

While I’ve got your attention miss, nice article. You actually wrote something instead of giving us a link to YouTube and we all appreciate that.

Steven Magner's picture

“To the people that have” might have served a better lead in to your response.

Eric Salas's picture

If it was a response I would agree however this is a comment section so if a comment is directed towards anyone they would be tagged or named.

Nick Haynes's picture

So far as Sony is concerned, maybe the camera designers need to visit the phone designers. Sony has those capabilities.

I realize that right now the needed processors are too big for voice recognition but a whisper to change ISO, Aperture, Shuttter, Bracketing,, exposure compensation would make me very happy.

Will Murray's picture

Can you do a follow up about companies that are getting it right? I hear Leica and Hasselblad are doing good things.

Carl Murray's picture

Good article, that a lot of the comments seem to have missed the point of. Just because it's professional grade equipment doesn't mean it needs to be difficult and annoying to navigate. As if overcoming the complexity of the menu systems is some kind of right of passage for being a professional photographer or something?

Would love if every time I wanted to try a new feature on my camera I could figure it out without having to watch several half hour long youtube videos, almost ENTIRELY because the menu systems totally suck.

totally agree with Andy!

I was really disappointed with the A7RIV, Not in regards to the technology of the sensor and the autofocus, but in the fact they hadn't really pushed the redesign of the body and the
Menu system.
Sure they have changed the grip a bit, but it's not enough, they really needed to lengthen the Body a bit so our fingers are not spending the whole day rubbing on the Len's.
It could have been so much better with a 20% increase in body size in length and height and Still be in a reasonably small package.
As for the menu system, they added a paltry Couple of improvements, passing over the 'my dial' setting that was introduced with the A9 software update recently, that for some inexplicable reason is not coming to A7III or the A7RIII, is it reliant on a processor issue? I doubt that.
Sony has a touch screen that still cannot be used
To navigate the menu system which is just crazy.
The best menu system I've seen is hasselblad, clean and intuitive.
This isn't a rant, rather a clear understanding after
Using the A7III for a year, what we need is an iPhone revolution
In U.I as the current state of affairs inhibits the use of the camera in certain situations where your hunting for that one elusive thing you need, but barley use.

Usability. There's a reason companies like Microsoft spend millions on Usability Testing, because that's the connection between the person and the machine. I write software, I know the importance of menus and usability. Not only the placement in categories, but it's sometimes the order in which they are under their parent. Little things can mean a lot when it comes to the user experience. I should not have to memorize where something is, it should be obvious.

Jerry Norman's picture

I've used Nikon DSLRs and a Panasonic video camera in recent years. I think the menus on these are serviceable but suspect there is a UX breakthrough lurking out there somewhere that will revolutionize how we interact with our cameras. I do however, have strong feelings about Sony's poor UX in some of their other products. These include a Sony alarm clock that has tiny, sharp bumps on the buttons that require so much force to press it is very painful to the finger tip. I've also had a Sony mp3 player and a Sony sport cam. Both had menu systems that were very illogical to me. It seems to me that across all three of these products UX was at best an afterthought.

John Seigner's picture

My cell phone changes setting by voice command (some training required for phone and operator). If you want the future of cameras look to cell phone design. Your touch screen will look just like your phone's, (let's face it the next generation of photographers will be more conversant with phone style menus) voice-activated commands and AI will replace the current cell phone menus. Eventually, menus will be a thing of the past, replaced by voice command. Could be some pretty noisy wedding ceremonies though.

Deacon Blues's picture

Seriously? "Creatives" prefer Macbooks over PCs because of a sticker that you can remove in like 5 seconds? GTFO.