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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50 Comments

michaeljin's picture

Really? THIS is what every camera manufacturer needs to fix?

Rob Mitchell's picture

Nope. I’m ok with the Nikon menu system to be honest. I don’t need all and every function every time I pick it up. The buttons that do the work are all at the fingertips anyway.

Alec Kinnear's picture

I'm a long time Canon user. Never had an issue with the menus. In the 5D Mark I menus were refreshingly simple (most of the functionality added since then is psychological noise with marketing jargon). Shot Sony in parallel for over three years. Endless horror show and menu hunt to find weird functionality. MyMenu in the A7III was better but not good.

Moved to Nikon with the Z6 (goodbye and good riddance to Sony) for carry camera and mirrorless and video. Since added a D4. Was able to pick up the menu system (significantly different but sensible) in an afternoon. Menu frustration on a scale of one to ten:

* Canon: 1 on early models, 2 on recent models
* Sony: 7
* Nikon: 3
* Fuji: 1

Yes, the most sensible menu system I've touched has been Fuji. So easy I didn't even remember it at first. Leica also makes sense. Panasonic is not impossible.

So bad menus structures mainly belong to Sony. Nikon and Canon have to be careful not to let a deteriorating situation get worse.

Rob Mitchell's picture

Good feedback.
Indeed, Fujifilm do have a pretty slick menu. However, I stopped using them because I found the actual controls too flimsy and fiddly. That rear thumb wheel/button and fat thumbs with dry skin, no feedback, I was forever pressing it instead of rotating it.

Alec Kinnear's picture

I have moderate sized hands with thin fingers and no significant callouses. I had no issue at all with that back thumbwheel. I love the functionality it offers - push to zoom or zoom out, wheel right to make larger, wheel left to make smaller.

The Fuji interface paradigm (classic analogue SLR) vs the Canon/Nikon paradigm (classic digital SLR) is a fascinating contest. I far prefer the classic analogue SLR interface but the classic digital SLR interface wins in an efficiency contest. It sidesteps the ever more pressing issue Fuji faces: how to maintain separate settings for stills and video.

Not to mention it allows simple custom settings on the mode dial: U1/U2/U3 or C1/C2/C3.

Colin Robertson's picture

Ehh... I have a Canon EOS R & Fuji X-E3. Menu's on the canon are definitely better IMHO. Canon's are not only laid out more sensibly, but they're significantly easier to navigate and use.

Alec Kinnear's picture

Interesting, to my mind they are both good. Miles better than Sony and somewhat better than Nikon.

Will Murray's picture

I find that beyond the format function, I don't use the menu very often.

Rob Mitchell's picture

That's even a 2-button combo press on the D850 (and many other cameras of course)
The Z7 seems to have forgotten about that hardware option to reformat, so I put it into the 'My Menu' tab.

Rk K's picture

It's a professional tool. The menu isn't supposed to be easy to use and understand or pretty. The purpose is to be fast and efficient once you've spent months getting familiar with your tool. Current menus achieve that just fine.

Colin Robertson's picture

Would you go back to a flip phone after using an iPhone? No. This is a ridiculous argument. The easier to use the less you have to think about them and the more you can focus on the creative side of photography.

Rk K's picture

That's a silly comparison, for a variety of reasons, but most important is this: interface design for consumer and professional use is very different. Design principles, purpose, everything changes. Just compare a phone app or a Web browser to a 3d dcc tool like Maya for example.

The tool I mentioned takes months to learn, years and to master. But once you do, the speed and efficiency you can achieve is far higher than with any consumer oriented content creation toy.

Alec Kinnear's picture

I accept your argument that a modern digital camera menu based on current functionality must be complex. I do not accept the argument that the camera menu must be difficult, arcane and badly arranged (Sony) with related settings scattered in a haphazard way in three or four different menu groups.

Rk K's picture

There's a method to the madness in Sony menus. Fortunately, with all the customisation, the buttons, quick menu, and the custom menus you never actually have to use it.

Alec Kinnear's picture

Reprogramming every camera body and remembering what I stashed on all the custom buttons got old very fast. Yes my Nikon Z6 is less flexible about the buttons but 1. there are more of them 2. they are in sensible places 3. they are labelled 4. I can see through the viewfinder and use the controls at the same time (left-eye shooter) 5. the viewfinder is much better 6. it doesn't pinch the fingers (A7III did with most lenses) on my shooting hand.

Sony cameras are no fun since the NEX 5T (it was so small you had to love what it could do with a tiny AZ 35mm f2.8) and the menus were basic enough they stayed mostly out of the way. I've shot great photos with Sony but one of my happiest day in photography was bundling up all my Sony gear and selling it off.

Colin Robertson's picture

I used Maya for years before changing careers... you’re half right—you need quick access to many tools to get the job done efficiently, but once you find your workflow and the set of tools that work best fo you, you want them to be as accessible as possible. I always appreciate UI improvements to the tools I use—if they can make things easier and faster, awesome. What are the benefit of Sony’s menus being more complex than say, Canon?

Rk K's picture

Sony menus are just like you explained with Maya. They have way more options, features and customisation than Canon, which is overwhelming at first. But just like with maya, you can bind the options you need to the buttons, dials, the fn quick menu and the custom menus, so you only see the tools you use. Sure, they could name the menu options better, but overall, I prefer this to any other system.

For amateurs (of which I'm one), yes. Will Zeiss do it? Maybe, but it won't win over customers at Leica prices. Strangely enough, it's probably Sony that may end up actually doing it, once they'll realize that ppl don't care for their phones, but for their cameras only, and put the phone division to work for the camera division, and not the other way around.

michaeljin's picture

The last I heard, Zeiss is using Android on their camera. I highly doubt other manufacturers will follow suit.

Will Murray's picture

Perhaps on consumer and prosumer models. We're about to see the widespread adoption of computational photography in the camera space and I'd be hesitant to make any predictions.

I like the Olympus Super Control Panel (SCP). You can complain about the rest of the menu, but as long as new features are added to cameras, menus will always be complicated and organization will always be imperfect. But the SCP brings easy access to the controls that are most often changed by most people.

Your mileage may vary. Maybe, your most common subject requires frequent access to features not in the SCP. The easiest way I see to solve that is manufacturers can design a customizable SCP. You decide which features you want access frequently. Everything else will be stuck in the maze menus and sub-menus.

The only thing I cannot change on my camera using only the body buttons is WB and since I shoot in RAW I don't care about that most of the time anyway. My Canon allows me to make custom menus with tabs and items under each tab for stuff like Auto-ISO range, interval timers, AEB & mirror lockup.

I agree menus could be nicer but I struggle to think of anything important to change that I cannot change on the body itself.

Daniel Medley's picture

Just give me an option to view a raw histogram and I would be happy.

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

Just what exactly would make the menu better? Some flashy UI? Cute icons? A professional camera is a tool. Have you ever seen a million dollar CNC machine with a flashy UI?

Rob Mitchell's picture

Exactly. Last thing I want is an app on the camera crashing because of some compatibility issue. Or being on a Job after skipping the 'Update your drivers' warnings and have the camera not actually work because of that.

Colin Robertson's picture

You're making the assumption that better menu's mean the camera will be less reliable?

Rob Mitchell's picture

You're assuming the menus would actually be better. Which would be based on personal opinion. Which I have already stated in my own comment on the article. :) I don't an issue with the menus on my Nikon. It's the buttons on the outside that do the majority of the work.

Nick Haynes's picture

Not that I would know how to use one, but CNC controls seem pretty advanced to me. Flashy too, sometimes.

jacob kerns's picture

I have not yet found a camera system where the menu system is an issue. I have Nikon, Sony , Canon and hopefully be adding Fuji to list soon. Menus don't bother me I guess.

I have no problem with Canon or Nikon. As I never used the others, can't talk about their menus.

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