Who Else Wants Sony to Change This One Thing?

Who Else Wants Sony to Change This One Thing?

Canon managed it. Nikon managed it. And, thinking about it, the new mirrorless cameras from Panasonic would feel weird if they didn’t have it. If I could change one thing about my otherwise awesome Sony a7 III, this would be it.

Sony has pioneered the development of full-frame mirrorless technology, slowly being caught by the likes of Canon, Nikon, and now, Panasonic. In its desire to create a body that was refreshingly small and compact, Sony ditched one feature that perhaps felt like a hangover from the DSLR era: the top deck display. I want it back.

I can understand the logic: with the EVF and rear display, a lot of changes can be made while staring at a live version of what will be the final image, allowing you to see numbers slide around and have those changes reflected instantaneously. Why would you any longer need a top deck readout, especially when it’s taking up precious real estate on a body that’s supposed to be as small as possible while still packing in a full-frame sensor along with some stabilization?

The Sony a7 III top deck

The Sony a7 III. Lost: One top deck display. Several million former owners. If found, please return as soon as possible.

In playing catch-up, Canon, Nikon and Panasonic have decided that, contrary to what Sony would have us believe, full-frame mirrorless cameras are not supposed to be significantly smaller than their DSLR predecessors. As Scott Kelby mentioned on one of his recent podcasts (YouTube link), “Sony suckered the world into thinking that mirrorless cameras were going to be light and small.” Clearly, Canon et al were not falling for it and chose not to try and make their cameras as small as possible, thereby maintaining the ergonomics that have kept their vast number of customers happy over the years. In doing so, the supposedly redundant top deck display has not been ditched, and I can’t lie and say that I’m not jealous of those Canon RF and Nikon Z shooters with their conveniently presented information.

The top deck display of the Nikon Z 6

The top deck display of the Nikon Z 6. Subtle, refined elegance?

The other factor that makes me wish that Sony hadn’t been so brutal in trimming the excess is that by having information on the top deck, you can declutter your EVF. Instead of having your exposure details, compensation, battery levels, and card info taking up lots of space, all of this information can be left on the top deck display and you can focus on the image itself without having to keep toggling through the display settings to bring it back each time you need to check something.

I’m interested to see whether Sony addresses this in the a7 IV when it appears in the next couple of years, though I suspect it will be sticking with its “smaller bodies are the future (even if the lenses are bigger)” mantra. Top deck displays seem to be undergoing something of a revolution at the moment, with the Canon R (though notably, not the smaller RP), the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7, and the Panasonic S1 and S1R all featuring a display. Panasonic’s top deck display maintains the clunky LCD watch stylings of yesteryear, while Canon and Nikon have made a conscious effort to improve this part of the camera, increasing the quality and inverting the colors to create something that actually looks quite smart.

Top deck display on the Canon EOS R

The top deck display on the Canon EOS R. I'm not saying it's pretty, but it's a significant improvement over what went before.

Fuji has never had to play this game, preferring its tactile dials and knobs full of numbers that are a pleasing throwback to analogue. However, this has just changed with the announcement of the rather incredible GFX 100. This camera is mind-boggling, but let’s be honest: like the rest of their medium format bodies, it’s not the prettiest. Functionality has clearly been a priority, but in order to try and keep some of their analogue tradition, Fuji has done something rather funky: the top deck display features virtual dials. I’m not quite sure why this pleases me so much, but it does.

Fuji GFX 100 dials

The sexy dials found on the top of the new Fuji GFX 100. Other camera manufacturers take note: this panel does not need to be an insult to aesthetics. Photo courtesy of Robert Baggs.

I really appreciate the tiny size of the Sony a7 III, but it came with a few compromises, and this is one of them. I can live with it, but Sony, if you’re reading, please consider adding this feature in the future. At the very least, make the rear display show something that is easy to read and not an assault on my sensibilities. As photographers, we’re quite visual folk, and weirdly enough, we tend to like things that look nice.

Sony a7 III rear display

The Sony a7 III. Fill your soul with beauty. Go forth into the world and capture the sublime. But try not to look at this readout while you're at it.

Perhaps then this is actually a sign of what I actually want Sony to do next. In my eyes, if it wants to continue snaffling an ever-growing share of the market, it should give a little thought to user experience. We like to think of ourselves as artists, not machine operators, and the finishing touches can make a real difference. Sony’s menu system is a bit of a car crash (and thank god that custom buttons mean that it can be largely avoided), but let’s be honest: most cameras have menus that look as though they were designed in the 1990s. Perhaps they were cobbled together by middle-aged men who long ago resigned themselves to the idea that functionality and beauty are irreconcilable, so there's no point in attempting either. Surely, it wouldn’t be much of an investment of time and money to abduct a couple of hipsters from Mountain View, lock them in a room in Minato for six months, and see what they come up with.

So, Sony. You made the full-frame MILC smaller and lighter, cramming in some groundbreaking features and cutting a few corners here and there in order to create something that I love to shoot with. I really hope that the next step is to make it refined, allowing us to feel like we're holding a machine that inspires creativity rather than expensive box built out of rainy days and spreadsheets.

But perhaps it's just me. Be sure to let me know whether you agree by leaving a comment below.

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Previous comments

Yes, i miss that lcd very much.
It's very, very annoying to always have to look on your screen (wake it up first, or go to the right mode) or finder to know the settings. I want to see them with just one look. Actually i like the analog dials of Fuji the most. Even before starting up de camera you know exactly the settings.
Besides this i want a full screen overexposure warning (blinking) view back modus, and not that terrible mini screen with 3 rgb channels next too it.
These are the real practical things that matter most.

A top LCD is okay. I think it's more of a aesthetic thing. However, I really want the dang shutter curtain to come down when I change lenses. Canon's mirrorless does it, Phase One does it. That is the thing that drives me up the dang wall.

Richard Downs's picture

When pondering my own switch a year or so ago (I swapped a Nikon D700 for an A7iii a few months ago, finally) I knew ergonomics would be the biggest threat to my enjoyment. Much has been said about how Nikon and Canon have decades of experience over Sony when it comes to handling, etc. and it's a valid point, but how many years does it take? The A7iii is an absolute marvel and I love using it, but it does feel odd in the hand. Sony, get your best designers and engineers in a room with an A7iii and turn the lights out. Pass the camera around and just feel it. The A7IV will design itself in minutes.

I have a similar problem—when holding the camera alone—how I never take photos. When holding the camera with, rather, a lens on it, I have no such problem. Actually, then, the camera, supported mainly by my left hand under the lens, seemingly vanishes in my right hand. And in watching YouTube videos complaining about the form, I see the same issue—their holding the camera without a lens on it—whereupon I wonder why in the world they're demonstrating that.

Mark Darnell's picture

I see no point in placing info. on the top deck especially with a Sony Alpha. These camera bodies provide all of this info on the LCD screen. If a shooter wants to see this info from a horizontal plane rather than a vertical one that can be accomplished by simply flipping the screen to the horizontal position.

Gary Threlfall's picture

I don't care

Ken Johnson's picture

Honestly I don't miss the LCD screen at all. I shoot with the A7R3 and A9 and once I committed to them, the menu system and general operation of the cameras became easy. In fact, after shooting Canon for 24 years, now when I go back it feels like the Canon system is complicated. I love that I can adjust settings and rate photos on the fly without ever taking my eye away from the EVF. The ONLY thing that still catches me out on the Sony is the fact that the zoom rings go in the opposite direction of Canon. But, they're not the only ones that do that.

Gergö Nyirö's picture

Well, you can customise the desired info to be displayed on both the lcd and evf, the INVISIBLE GREY focus point is a much bigger issue in my opinion. I really hate it

There's an LCD display setting on Sonys specifically made to emulate the top panel of DSLRs. Why clutter up things with more displays?


Besides, top LCDs on DSLRs only existed because the only other way to see your settings was looking through the viewfinder. Mirrorless doesn't have that issue, as the rear LCD displays the exact same thing as the viewfinder does. With way more information than an older segmented LCD, inside or outside of an OVF, could ever display.