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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.