Touch Versus Dials

I've long been thinking about why so many younger folk who grew up taking photos on phones seem to like the "dials cameras," such as the Fujifilm X100V or the Nikon Zfc/Zf. There's a clear pattern of this being true, both anecdotally as well as in the results from a few surveys I'm privy to. 

The usual proclamation is that it's a retro trend that is propelling the desire for those dials cameras, but I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that isn't really the case. Retro, trend, fad, whatever you want to call it, all seem more like a justification to me than an explanation. 

Let me give you an alternative reason why these dials cameras may be appealing. 

When all you have is a display and no physical controls as you do on a phone, you have one of two possibilities for control: gestures or overlays. That's it. A gesture can invoke something, but the number of gestures that make sense is limited. I was around and designing software back when this was first being investigated. Tap, double-tap, tap-hold, swipe, drag, pinch, and...well, everything else starts to get more complicated—witness Apple's "spread thumb and three fingers"—more difficult to describe, and easily both forgotten and accidentally triggered. 

Even having just a half-dozen gestures can be tricky, because there's nothing that tells the user what they are. They have to learn and remember them. The more gestures you add, the harder they are to learn and remember. But even with only the base five of gestures, someone has to demonstrate them to you and you have to commit them to memory. Gestures are direct in use, but indirect in the sense that they aren't common sense until you learn them.

If you've used an iPhone from the beginning, you'll note that the Camera app has changed from day one to the present. Moreover, you can get other camera apps, as well, and they, too, basically add the same things that Apple has been: overlays. You use part of the screen for virtual buttons and controls, basically. In its current form, Apple by default makes the image area less than the full display size so that they can create a "control band" at the top and bottom. If you change to 16:9, the bottom band changes to overlays. In essence, each of the current 10 basic virtual controls are either a menu (bring up choices) or a toggle (change to the other option). 

So let me ask a basic question. Apertures are important to depth of field and shutter speeds are important to subject motion. Both are things you'll learn are important in photography as you start using a camera more. What's the aperture or shutter speed on your iPhone? 

Good luck finding that with Apple's app. Even with some of the so-called "pro" camera apps that are available, dictating or holding a particular aperture or shutter speed choice is sometimes problematic, as the iPhone's computational use of the image sensor will fight you in some edge cases. 

Which brings us to dials. Let's say you're a teen just learning about photography and have been using your phone for that when you start to realize the importance of aperture and shutter speed. What kind of camera would you want? That's right, one where that's clearly controlled by something that's labeled. Call it a "dial" ;~). The fact that you can say it's also retro trendy is a nice bonus. 

Dials are great for learning (and controlling) some clear basic photography tasks, tasks that are even more important the larger the image sensor is and the more singular the capture is (e.g. opposite of phones). Lately I've seen some on the Internet asking the question "is a dials-based camera better for learning the basics of photography?" The answer to that is yes. As long as the dials don't lie to you ;~).

Here's the thing: Canon and Nikon—the primary drivers of modern camera design for the last 50 years—all very early on learned something about dials that's a bit equivalent to the touch problem: you can't litter the surface of the camera with dials. Moreover, to look at a dial you have to look away from the viewfinder. If you put that information in the viewfinder, you don't need the dials, only a fast way of changing the values. All of which led to the modern button+dial interface. 

In the "best" version of button+dial, your hand and eye positions don't really change as you're framing. The Nikon Giugiaro design, which continues to this day (except for the Zf and Zfc) generally holds the right hand position intact with the right middle finger controlling a horizontally aligned front dial and the thumb the horizontally aligned back dial; your index finger stays over the shutter release. In most DSLR versions of this design, the left hand pushed a button while the right hand moved a dial. The Z System tends to violate this (though not so much the Z8 and Z9). Indeed, Nikon designers have talked about using the right thumb to reach critical buttons, but that's a contradiction to the Giugiaro design. Tread lightly, Nikon. 

Canon's button+dial implementation used vertically aligned dials and often an overloaded button complex that was difficult to distinguish by feel. I considered it an inferior approach because it distorted your right hand position to make a change, and often took your index finger off of the shutter release while making said change.

But that's not important to today's point. What I'm describing here are three levels of UX (user experience) control with a camera: 

  1. Touch (used by phones)
  2. Dials (used by retro/legacy cameras)
  3. Customizable button+dials (used by high end modern cameras)

Some people would be perfectly happy with #1, and just not worry about controlling more than touch easily allows. Some will be perfectly happy with #2, as it opens up direct control of two very important attributes (and a hidden one in ISO). The top practitioners aren't bothered by complexity but more importantly value fast useful-to-them change without missing a beat, so want #3. 

Looking back at it, I can now more clearly see why compact cameras died off (well, at least most of them). Camera makers were being challenged by phones doing better and better jobs at #1 while also achieving better and better image quality. I've got an older Coolpix camera sitting on my desk at the moment, and it illustrates the issue: Nikon used a dial to basically control 10 automatic things ;~). Then they panicked about all-auto functions and added button functions—mostly on the Direction pad—that aren't instant, but procedural. Worse still, through a menu system that wasn't touch capable (and changed with the automatic mode). So all they did was add a great deal of confusing complexity while still not allowing the user to set aperture and shutter speed! Who wants that? As it turns out, no one. Over time, Nikon started adding "more lens" because that huge telephoto reach was something phones couldn't do, but you'll notice that this didn't help them sell compact cameras all that much, did it? 

Fujifilm and Nikon are finding some resonance with the dials cameras, and if you agree with my numbered UX progression, you can understand why. I'm not sure Fujifilm and Nikon understand why, though. Their marketing departments keep telling me "these cameras are fashionable with the youth." I now believe that they're missing a key point. If they keep trying to design for fashion and style, they will discover diminishing returns and even make wrong decisions.

As a thought test, consider the Ricoh GR. Why isn't it regarded as fashionable and trendy among the young moving up from a smartphone? It's not a dials camera, and putting a bright blue or orange ring on the front is not what that crowd is looking for. 

Right now when I talk to the college-aged group about camera desires, understandable direct control, vlogging usability, and interchangeable lenses seem to be the three big bullets on their wish list in order to move from a phone (or an action camera). Being able to say it also looks retro cool is a bonus. 

The CP+ show in Japan every February tends to always have one or more panel discussions that intersect with this topic. But the comments I hear made on those panels by the Japanese camera designers and marketing teams aren't getting their market evaluations correct, in my opinion. Moreover, they often take credit for something they only discover after the fact (e.g. that the dials cameras resonated with many younger users). 

I'd love to debate my hypothesis above with the camera designers themselves, but that ain't going to happen, so I just present it to you instead ;~).

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