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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96 Comments

Tony Tumminello's picture

Top-plate LCD and lack of joystick are my two primary complaints for my Olympus E-M1 Mark II, though to be fair I'm not really sure where it would go considering the size of the camera and how they would have to relocate dials and a bunch of buttons. I always miss those two features when going from my DSLRs to the Olympus.

Michael Jin's picture

Sony should have just made the A9 as big and rugged as the 1DXmkII or D5. I think they would have gotten way more professionals converting if they did.

Fritz Asuro's picture

Yah, but Sony wants to save money. The whole third gen Alpha 7 series camera shares the same body, meaning they don't have to manufacture different bodies and most parts will work universally with any of the three cameras.

Michael Jin's picture

I actually think that having a series that shares the same body and parts is a great idea and one that more companies should probably follow. I just think they should have made a more rugged "9-series" that used a bulkier body while leaving the "7-series" as their smaller full frame cameras. Might end up being too many different SKU's, and too much overlap, which Sony is clearly trying to avoid, though.

Isn't that like asking Tesla to build a F-150?

Michael Jin's picture

Sure, why not? They're already thinking about building electric trucks so why not an electric pick-up?

They will be (if Rivian doesn't beat them to it)...and Ford is building electric trucks... But it was more of an comment about market segmentation and retail strategy. Tesla pushed Ford faster to electric. Sony pushed Canikon to ML. But did not target the F-150 from Canikon.

Michael Jin's picture

In terms of market segmentation and retail strategy, every single one of Sony's cameras has been designed squarely to compete with one of Canon and Nikon's DSLR offerings. The A9 was supposed to be their answer to the 1DXii and the D5. In many ways, it's superior to both, but at the same time, it failed to really capture that user base in part because of the lack of long lenses at the time, but also because Sony overlooked the ergonomic issue.

The question is whether they will continue to stick to their guns with the A9's current form factor in future iterations, whether they will release a different series altogether for a more full-bodied camera, or whether they will make the next iteration of the A9 larger. Another question is whether Canon and Nikon will continue on their path to quasi-emulating Sony with this "small and compact" thing while not really being that or whether they will shift their design back closer to their SLR roots complete with larger cameras and dual card slots even in enthusiast models.

With Canon and Nikon both talking about mirrorless equivalents of their top-tier cameras and the Sony A9 probably due for a refresh in the next year or two, the next generation or two are going to be an interesting ride for the industry.

Fuji also did this with the X-H1, so they've also been on board for quite a while.

I would need much more changed for me. My single Sony mirrorless experiment has not convinced me to dive any deeper. I find their menus to be so cludgy that it's just a non-starter for me. I do like your idea but without a complete overhaul of their menu system I'm just not interested.

Michael Jin's picture

The menu system is something you pretty much learn once and then get used to, though. Once you customize your camera, there's not a whole lot of time required in it unless you're doing drastically different types of shoots from day to day.

Simon Patterson's picture

I've been using Sony mirrorless for 5 years, and I've never really learned nor got used to the menu system. On each occasion I need to access it, I find myself cursing it every time!

Michael Jin's picture

I guess it's just a personal thing, but I owned the A7RIII for a whole 6 months before I sold it and I was pretty comfortable with the menu system within a week... Coming from Nikon, I actually had far more trouble in the past attempting to acclimate to Canon's menu system than Sony's which I actually found odd considering how so many people bash Sony's menus while praising Canon's. I guess we're all wired a bit differently.

Same for me Simon. I have been using mine for several years in certain situations but it is always awkward.

Tony Tumminello's picture

"I find their menus to be so cludgy that it's just a non-starter for me."

Olympus:

https://i.imgur.com/3HAJGmg.png

(I say this as an Olympus owner)

Having used both Sony and Olympus, I find Sony menus to be pretty bad, and Olympus menus to be dramatically worse. Sony I can live with. Olympus drove me nuts.

Matthew Saville's picture

As a gear reviewer, I spent months customizing the Sony A9 and A7R3 to my liking. At first, I hated everything about them. But, don't confuse the extremely steep learning curve of a highly professional tool, with actual superiority/inferiority. In other words, once you really figure out the Sony system, there are actually a lot of advantages, things that allow it to be more versatile than the competition especially for those types of photographers who do a lot of different things including both photo and video.

Don't get me wrong, there are still things I absolutely dislike, and think are truly inferior, such as the grip depth/design, and some of the other ergonomics and menu interface issues. However, after having spent nearly 6 months with the A9 and A7R3, I'm actually missing quite a few of their features, now going back to the Nikon and Canon systems that I've been using for 15+ years.

Simply put, you just can't judge a complex, professional tool in a single afternoon. You will never have a good experience with such a complicated device within the first few hours, even days.

So, you can either stick with what you've got, or you can push through the learning curve and see what it's actually like to have a system with the advantages that something like an A9 offers. Which are, indeed, truly game-changing.

What did I say that implies the opinion was formed in a single afternoon? I have had and used an NEX 6 for years and it is still painful. I have spent many years in the technology industry. It isn't like I"m a stranger to complex menu systems.

Matthew Saville's picture

The NEX is an extremely remedial, outdated camera. You should definitely spend a year with an A7iii or A9. It's got a whole lot better compared to the junky beginner cameras of yesteryear.

Seriously? You know so much about what I do and don't like and what I photo that I should "definitely" spend my money on cameras I am not interested in even though I have no desire to change systems.

I think you should definitely go purchase a Bugatti auto. It is far better than your current car (even though I don't know what it is anymore than you know what camera I am using).

Matthew Saville's picture

A recommendation without knowing what car I drive? Fallacy. You specified that your experience with Sony was limited to the NEX 6, and that it was what "convinced you not to dive any deeper".

I was simply letting you know that if that one (old) camera is the extent of your experience, you might want to give a newer generation camera a chance.

Don't get me wrong, I still prefer Nikon's menu system, but Sony's is now manageable enough that I'm happy to master it in exchange for the impressive features the cameras offer. But hey, if none of Sony's features/qualities are attractive, that's fine! If it ain't broke...

However, you did imply that with a complete overhaul of their menu system, you might be interested. That's the reason why I bothered suggesting you try it again.

NEX menus are completely different from Alpha menus. Thank god...

dale clark's picture

I have not missed the top display. My rear lcd pretty much stays tilted up anyway.

Oh no, I hope Sony won't go the same way and take the exposure comp dial away for yet another electronic display.
Why would that declutter the EVF? I don't want to raise my eyes from the viewfinder everytime I want to change my settings.

Michael Jin's picture

Because other cameras with top-side displays somehow lack exposure compensation? I don't really follow here...

They lack a dedicated exposure compensation dial

Michael Jin's picture

I guess I I don't get the benefit of a dial dedicated to exposure compensation. I get its usefulness as a feature, but I'm not sure why you would dedicate an entire mechanism solely to it. Nikon just has an EXP COMP button that you hold down with your index finger while operating the rear thumb dial and it works just fine. It's something that's always confused me. Mind you, I have the same opinion about a dedicated ISO dial which tons of people seem to love, too.

Yeah maybe I'm just spoiled since I was a Fuji user before getting the a7III and I absolutely loved having a dedicated dial for everything 😁
Holding down a button whilst using my dials is the most awkward thing for me, tho I get what you are saying. I think it's just personal preference (as always).

Paul Lindqvist's picture

I think it's a matter of habit, I'm too see no point in having dedicated iso/exposure comp dials. Since we do as we always have done on DSLR using a button and a dial.

The main reason for me not jumping all over the A7riii instead of the A99ii (with pretty much the same sensor) was that the A99ii gave me the build, size and ergonomic I was used to.

Creature of habit. :-)

Martin Del Vecchio's picture

Michael Jin said "I guess I I don't get the benefit of a dial dedicated to exposure compensation."

It's critical for video, particularly in my use case. I record plays and concerts with two cameras, and the lighting changes can cause real problems for auto exposure. The mechanical dial is a life saver.

I just wish Sony would not limit this to +/- 2 stops. The dial is +/- 3 stops, and photo mode gets that full range. But for some reason, video mode is limited to +/- 2 stops.

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