Written by Gordon Lewis
Is it just me, or are today's digital cameras getting downright sneaky? The companies that sell them would like you to believe their programmable wonders will take care of all everything that gets in the way of your creativity—trivial tasks such as focusing, exposure, white balance, and contrast compensation for example. Then, as soon as you give these cameras your complete and unquestioning trust, they do something completely unexpected and just plain Wrong.
Have you ever had the focusing point you so carefully selected shift elsewhere and without warning? Have you ever set the touch screen feature to “off” only to discover that the camera has somehow turned it back on again, and not only that, but also exposed twenty perfectly focused frames of your buttocks? How about seeing the white balance change from neutral to cool when you switch lenses, even when the new lens is pointed at exactly the same subject?
Don’t even get me started on focusing accuracy and consistency. I’ve owned cameras that will chose a different plane of focus every time I activate the AF, even when the camera is on a tripod and the subject is motionless. (Can a rock breathe?)
I’ve learned over time never to mention such quirks and inconsistencies when referring to a specific camera, because some expert user will invariably appear from the ether to inform me that, had I taken the trouble to read sidebar number two on page 229 of the recently revised PDF edition of the owner’s manual, I would clearly understand that the camera was faultless and had done exactly what I had programmed it to do. My fragile ego can survive such humiliation; I just wish my mis-focused, poorly exposed photos could.
I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but at times I become so paranoid and distrustful of some cameras that I resort to manual settings—or at least I try. How truly manual can such settings be when the lens has no aperture ring and the body has no shutter speed dial? Given that even manual settings are programmable, there’s always the chance that whatever your camera was set to when you shut it off may not be what it’s set to when you switch it back on.
For some, this unpredictability adds a sense of fun and adventure to their photography. For me, it fosters a sense of wonder: I wonder what devious little tricks my camera has up its sleeve for next time. Am I the only one who’s had this experience? Am I the only one who feels this way? Or have I only scratched the surface of the perfidies today’s cameras are capable of? I’d truly like to know.
Harvard alum Gordon Lewis has written about those treacherous cameras for decades, for many photography magazines. Most recently he is the author of Street Photography: The Art of Capturing the Candid Moment, published by Rocky Nook.
©2015 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
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Bob: "My experiences are similar to yours. And as Hugh Smith noted, figuring out which setting you inadvertently changed just so you can figure out how to reverse it, only brings added frustration.
"I use Olympus cameras, and agree with John Krumm that it helps to stick with one system and learn that as well as possible. But while I like the cameras and especially the lenses, I'm frustrated by the lack of quality documentation for that company's products. They might as well have not added a bunch of features, because I haven't yet figured out how to use them. I know, I know, it's my fault; I should spend more time learning how it works. (But I checked an actuarial chart and I’ve only got 25 years left to live. So I obviously don’t have enough time to waste learning my way through some Byzantine menu system.) I finally complained to Olympus after receiving an offer to purchase a video to help me use their camera. They sent a courteous response, a printed copy of their full manual (which wasn’t much better than the abridged version that’s included in the box), and a coupon for a discount on another Olympus product. (I used it to purchase their 75mm lens, which I really like. Yet it it strikes me that the outcome of that whole interaction benefited Olympus rather more than me.)
"My day job has been with a software company that writes ERP (enterprise resource planning) software for businesses. While the company spends significantly to produce documentation, it also receives ongoing requests for content. The interface on my phone frustrates me, as does the interface for cable TV and the Internet service I get through the cable company, and on and on. I think the lack of documentation for technical products borders on being unethical. The fact that there’s a manual of sorts sent with a camera isn’t enough. I’d like the scenarios that the features were designed to address described in the documentation, along with better procedural documentation for implementing those features. If they’re too difficult (which is to say, too expensive) to document, maybe the companies should design the interfaces so they’re easier to use in the first place. The other day I overheard a colleague who works on user experience telling another colleague that the most effective product demonstration he’s given involves showing customers how to hide all the fields they don’t use on our complex data entry forms. To be clear, all those options make the product powerful; you can tailor it to fit a wide range of business situations. But the complexity makes it awfully challenging.
"Personally, I don’t see this changing until users demand better interfaces and better documentation as criteria for purchasing the next updated camera. That’s a long way of saying that I don’t see this changing."