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.