Working A Camera


Steely Dan (the Soundtrack to my life but don’t let me get started on that….), Walter Becker and Donald Fagin, had a faintly damning phrase for a certain kind of musician. They said “he can work the saxophone”. It was as opposed to “he can play the saxophone”. It came into my head as I finished a book on the menu system of the new Olympus Pen F.

The modern digital camera has a  labyrinthine menu system that can help you work the camera but can’t help you ‘play’ it. As with a musical instrument, though,  until you can work it, you can’t play it.  The difference with a saxophone or guitar or piano is that  you know what will happen when you work it. You will get a note.

With a camera menu, you need to know quite a lot before you can understand what a menu setting will do. Not only that, knowing what it does won’t necessarily tell you why you might want to do it. When I started writing my books, I thought that I would just rewrite the manual from a photographer’s point of view rather than a camera maker’s. As I did it, I realized that that didn’t cut it with a digital camera, essentially a dedicated imaging computer..

Take something straightforward like Exposure Bracketing. “Set this and the camera will take a picture one stop over and one stop under plus the regular meter reading”. An old timer film camera user will understand that right away. You set the exposure yourself via shutter speed and aperture. Sometimes the meter is wrong and bracketing allows for this, You can’t know which is the correct exposure until you see the results, maybe weeks later so bracketing is a safeguard.

But what if you’ve only ever before used a fully automatic digital camera? That’s the case with many people buying their first ‘proper’ camera. What does ‘a stop over’ and a stop under’ mean? All you know is that you point the camera and press the button and it’s 90% that the picture will be fine.  You are used to accepting a ‘good enough’ picture on a compact but having paid out maybe £750 for a your proper camera, good enough isn’t good enough. So, in my book a brief explanation of exposure itself is necessary so that you can understand why you might need exposure bracketing. Which beggars the question, why not use it all  then time then? Having answered that, the question becomes “then when do I need it”. So you need to learn and recognise the circumstances under which metering is fooled. And Post Focus. And Anti-Shock Silent. And so on.

At which point, my simple rewrite of the manual ‘for the rest of us’ as Apple used to put it, starts to look even more complicated than the manual I was trying to simplify. I find the best technique is to use the function until I it is utterly clear in my head. Then write it. Leave it and re-read it. Start again. Repeat several, sometimes many times. Eventually it seems about as clear as I can make it  . Why does it take so much longer to express something in 100 words than it does in 1000. I remember reading once about a writer who, having written a long letter to a friend finished it by apologising for how long it was and explaining that he didn’t have time to write a short one! I now know what he meant.

Even having simplified the menu, you find that it isn’t enough for total clarity because some menu settings are interdependent. On Olympus, if you want the level gauge to show in the viewfinder, you can set it, very handily, to show when you half press the shutter button. But only if the EVF is set to a certain mode which makes the image view smaller. With my day to day handling of Micro Four Thirds cameras, I know that and make my settings accordingly. I know from experience what store I set to a big EVF image and what i set to seeing the level gauge before every shot. Without that experience you just have to decide which it’ll be and go with that until it annoys you enough to want to change. If that is three months after setting it, what chance you’ll remember how to get back to it?

I finally decided that there is a point at which trying to simplify something starts to make it more complicated. It would be hard to sell a book on the basis that it was ‘differently complicated’ . I call my books, for example the Pen F one,  ‘The Olympus Pen F Menu System Simplified’. It would be a hard sell as ‘The Olympus Pen F Menu System Differently Complicated’. Some things are inherently complex and can only be simplified up to a point. You have to know when to stop.

There’s a paradox in modern cameras. They offer you stunning ease of use. So much is done automatically that only the keenest of keen enthusiast photographers need learn what were once the foundations of the craft. How would a person with a 1960 Rolleiflex fare if he didn’t know the nuts and bolts of film speed, aperture and shutter speed? There was no sports or landscape setting, all the technical elements had to be assessed and the camera set accordingly.

Now even assessment of the subject can be done by the chip in the camera and settings made accordingly with no input from the user. No insight necessary. However, that same pussy cat of a camera then offers Multiple Exposure with optional Gain and Overlay settings. Or 4k Post Focus Pre Burst. What? The pussy cat turned into a tiger.

It seems that that is what modern technology does. It sucks out the middle ground, serving the rookie and the wizard well but not the regular photographer with his hard-earned skills. At the bottom end they are rendered obsolete and at the top end they are the wrong kind of skills and of no value.

It’s those ordinary photographers, though, who are the backbone of photography. They want more control and quality than a smartphone can give and but probably won’t get much use out of the top end facilities. I think they tend to get tried and then left. The main part of even the highest tech cameras such as Micro Four Thirds still caters happily to us ordinary photographers. We can still make choices that the chip wouldn’t approve.

I hope that never changes.






16 thoughts on “Working A Camera

  1. Marciano

    David I hope you can help me with my problem. I have looked at almost all your movies on YouTube and you have a love for mft systems. I myself just jumped into the mft world. I now own the Gx80 ( also known as the Gx85). I ordered 2 lenses and I thought they were mft lenses but turned out they are ft lenses. I then ordered a kipon adapter to use on the camera. All fits perfect but the problem I have is that I get a message : current focal length setting :35mm. Change the setting? I then say yes and change it to the lowest number but I can not get anything in focus (manual) the lenses that I have or
    1: Olympus 14-42mm 1:3.5-5.6 ED
    2: Olympus 45-150mm 1:4-5.6 ED
    Hope you can help me on how I need to setup the camera so I can use the lenses. Or do you say get rid of the lenses and go find your self some mft lenses 🙂
    Greats marciano

    1. Post author

      Hi Marciano – you will have problems with Four Thirds lenses I’m afraid. They’ll focus slowly and not too well. With the GX80 you have one of the fastest focusing cameras made but it is wasted on those lenses. I’m sorry to say but if I were you, I’d sell them and get some Micro Four Thirds lenses as you mention. The difference will astound you and all the facilities of the camera will be available to you.

      1. Marciano

        Thank you for the advice David,consider these lenses gone 😁. I will go shopping for lenses made for the mft.

        Thank you


  2. Ashley R Pollard

    Just found your blog and wanted to chip in with my experience of upgrading from a Panasonic Lumix DMC GF1 to an Olympus OM-D E-M5 MarkII. The former is/was a digital camera, while the latter is a computer that takes pictures. I found myself anxious and rather perplexed when I first got the camera and managed to “lock” myself out of the hi-res mode for three days, which was one of those inter-dependency things.

    Also, the manual and the Young & Johnson book couldn’t help with knowing about the focus bracketing feature that had been added in the latest firmware upgrade: I’m hoping there will be another firmware upgrade that will allow hi-res focus bracketing – just because that would be awesome.

    1. Post author

      You’re right about your upgrade – camera to computer. I added the focus bracketing extra to my book on the E-5 Mk2, though there’s not a lot to it. It’s not that useful on a camera system that has quite a wide depth of filed by its nature. But it can be added so why not? I doubt there’ll be another firmware upgrade for the E-M5ll because Olympus will add any new gizmos to the next edition of the E-M1(2?) to differentiate it.

      The problem with Hi-Res bracketing would be that the camera already has to shift the sensor 8 times, taking time, for one Hi-Res shot. If someone set focus bracketing to 20 shots, say, the procedure would take so long to complete that it would only be of use for solid unmoving objects with the camera on a very steady tripod. But, who know? I dont have any communication with Olympus at all so your guess is as good as mine!

  3. Mark Turner

    My personal take on the problem of camera menus and usability is that a more robust system for customization would largely solve the problem of unnecessary complexity for many of us. I cannot figure out why the camera manufacturers have not allowed for creation of custom menus on your computer or smart phone, save them to a configuration file, and transfer them to the SD card on the camera. Software on the computer/phone could provide any amount of support to the user while setting up the custom configurations, provide for custom names for the configurations that will display on the camera (along with a brief summary), and completely solve the problem of lost settings after a firmware update. With proper software on the computer/phone, customization of all of the menus on the camera could be possible, too! And why limit it to just 4 custom settings?

    Heck, a feature like this could be made as a custom add-on at extra charge. (I know I’d pay a reasonable amount for it). And just think, it would create a great deal of consumer interest in comparing and trading custom configurations!

    1. Post author

      I am with you on the customization of menus. I hadn’t thought so far as setting up and saving configurations along with menu customizations on a PC but yes, a very good idea. And a dedicated ecosystem might grow up around it as you say. It would be an exciting development.

      I use a file explorer called Directory Opus. If you wanted to use everything it could do, you’d need a lifetime to learn it but everything in it, menus, configurations, file handling, appearance is configurable and savable and I now have a file browser/ handler that suits _exactly_ what I need to do. Custom settings are a major part of effective use of a digital camera but what you suggest would move that on considerable. And if you could write scripts with an APi, that would be very exciting.

  4. Simon Knight

    Hi David, I enjoyed your post and agree with the points you make. I am firmly in the middle ground that you describe and often find myself shouting at my camera when it acts in some unexpected way. I changed from an EM5 to a GX7 primarily because I find that the panasonic less confusing however I’ll be honest and say that the camera I really want is a digital OM2n or the camera described as the “Kidding” camera and reviewed reviewed here :

    Ooops the following is a bit of a rant – sorry but I do feel better for it 😉

    It seems to me that camera manufacturers are hell bent on adding more and more features without much thought on how they will be used or if they are even wanted. You mention “interdependent menu settings” which really annoy as they are so poorly implemented. For example, on the GX7 the flash may not be used with the electronic shutter for valid technical reasons. However, the camera allows the flash to be selected but it just does not fire which means I miss another shot (doh!). How difficult would it be to add logic that automatically selects mechanical shutter when flash is selected and posts a message telling the user? When the flash is deselected the camera would revert to using the electronic shutter am I missing something here? Software should help not hinder. And please don’t remind me of Olympus focus/shutter release options, how do I lock the focus?!!!

    With the GX8 panasonic present 4k video and a bunch of focus tricks. Well done, its all very clever but of no use to me as I wish to print at A3 and 8megs is not quite enough pixels. I don’t shoot video as its difficult to hang it on my walls plus I don’t have any 4k capable screens and full 1080p still seems new to me. I am happy to swap all the 4k and other tricks for a WiFi system that is simple to set up and use. At present connecting my GX7 to my Apple seems next to impossible. I would like to have a computer based software that allows me to control my camera and I find that the present tablet based or “finger painting OS” stuff does not cut it. I can here them screaming that there is no market and perhaps they are right but they could at least publish a list of commands so that third parties can create useful applications.

    And so on…….I’ll quit while I’m behind……. nows where is my OM2?

    best wishes

    1. Post author

      Good funny piece that, Simon, thanks for the pointer. It would seem to me that makers would do well to have some kind of user’s web page where they could say what they find awkward or illogical or would just like to change. It could search through previous requests to find identical ones so they didn’t get snowed under. To be fair, they do listen, Panasonic putting an Auto setting for the shutter so that it uses whichever is appropriate, for example.

      The GX7 has for some reason a rather weak WiFi output, I don’t know why. But connecting shouldn’t be difficult. I just switch on WiFI, select the camera on the phone’s WiFi list and that’s it. The desktop control seems to be for flagship models only, though at least Olympus’s (very good) software is free. I actually like the phone and (especially) tablet control and use it a lot, mainly for product type shots and macro, that sort of thing.

      I had an idea that you could supply the camera with a really basic menu system as standard, no video, no post this or HDR that. Then, simply add other stuff when you wanted it. A lot of desktop software does it, after all. It’s all there, just unhide it and place it where you wish as and when you want it. An API, necessarily limited, to the camera’s firmware would be great for 3rd party developers and might even set up a small ecosystem as you get with smartphone apps. I enjoyed the rant – makes me feel better too!

  5. Wolfgang Lonien

    What a coincidence – I just rediscovered “Deacon Blues” myself, and wrote about an analysis of it on my blog. And since I did, I’m listening to all my Dan and Fagen albums again and again.

    Concerning the Pen-F: what I find good about it is that they covered the back of the LCD, so once your camera is set as you like / need it, just turn around the display and forget about it. The machine is as complex as you want it to be, that’s the great thing.

    But I still love my E-M10 and E-PL5… 😉

    1. Post author

      Great Steely Dan video piece that. They seem to sound fresh each time you hear them after all those years. Panasonic have done the reversible back for many years and I’ve always found it an attractive feature. Power saving too. Also, no fear of damage if you put the camera in a back pack.

  6. Eric Valk

    David, that mirrors my feelings. I believe its the interdependencies which are not indicated by the user interface which make a camera system hard to master. This includes menu items which disappear in certain modes, and those greyed out. I’ve spent quite a few hours with both the Panasonic and the Olympus menu’s trying to discover what prevents my desired menu item from being available. It would be much better for the menu item to be visible and active, but when the user tries to use it, there is a message that says “this item not available because xyz is set”.

    1. Post author

      That would prevent a lot of frustration. Because I write about cameras and do books on them, I have much more experience than most users. Yet after several years with using no other camera type, I still find myself on the point of hurling the camera out of the window in frustration sometimes. Occasionally I even find I’ve solved the problem – but can’t work out how. That really is annoying.


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