Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting


Lost in “Feature-land”…

About a month ago, I brought home a new advanced-level digital camera. 

But, before proceeding, I should explain that photography has been in my blood since I was in grade school.  My first camera, when I was about 9 years old, was a folding bellows type that had a simple viewfinder, one shutter speed, and a two-position aperture.   In later years this modest beginning blossomed into an arsenal of 35 mm and 2 ¼ format cameras along with various wide-angle and telephoto lenses.  A darkroom with color developing and printing capability followed.  But acquiring equipment was never my primary goal.  The capabilities that were added were always in the quest for better image quality and the ability to capture photographs that could compare to those done by photographers even more dedicated to this art. 

The technical side of photography never seemed that complicated to me.  Basically, there are only three parameters that one can vary when taking a photograph – the lens aperture, shutter speed, and focus.   For at least the last thirty or forty years, upper end film cameras have included through-the-lens light meters that were in some cases as basic as an analog meter with a pointer, or more recently, a bit more sophisticated with a row of tiny LED’s.  The film exposure was selected by centering the needle, or the glowing lights, based on a combination of shutter speed and aperture.  The choices were not that difficult to make.  If there were moving objects of interest then fast shutter speeds were good.  If there was minimal light, then larger apertures and slower shutter speeds were the suitable choice.  Setting the focus was equally straightforward -- decide on the subject of interest and then either look through the viewfinder and turn the focus ring on the lens or simply estimate the distance and set the focus ring to that value, in feet or meters. 

Now, three steps is something that I can remember – i.e. choose shutter speed and aperture, and don’t forget to focus.  I got it.  And a month or a year later – I still got it.   And no matter which camera I pick up, these steps are equally obvious and easy to locate.  The aperture and focus rings are always on the lens barrel and the shutter speed dial is on the body.  These simple steps very quickly become automatic and all the real attention can then be devoted to taking the photograph.

But, now we have entered the digital age – the age where computer intelligence is supposed to replace our own limited capabilities.  My new digital camera has automated everything.  It has auto-focus, automatic light metering, choices for light balancing, and yet other “features” that would require a much longer list to enumerate.  The User’s Manual for this camera consists of 278 pages of detailed instructions.  There are at least 22 buttons on the camera body in addition to menu selection and command dials.  The icons in some cases are understandable but in other cases seem quite mysterious as to what they may signify.  Many of the knobs and dials have multiple functions that can be changed depending on the selection from multi-level menus.  Just the auto-focus function by itself has 7 major choices and 23 sub-choices to cover apparently every conceivable situation.

However, here’s where the fun begins.  For every one of these automated choices there is an explanation in the User’s Manual for when it may not produce usable results.  Is there too little contrast in the subject?  The auto-focus may not work.  Is the light too dim?  Is there a strong pattern in the background such as windows on a building?  Does the subject of interest move to the side?  Caution, it may not work.  So in order to take a photograph using all this computer intelligence, first I have to decide which of these 23 choices best matches up with my current shooting situation, and then I have to set the “automated” focus feature first using the major choices followed by the sub-menu choices before I can take the picture.  There are at least 10 pages in the User’s Manual devoted to how to manage all these choices and under what circumstances each one may -- or may not -- produce acceptable results.  

On the last page of this long chapter explaining focusing features there is a short two-sentence paragraph devoted to “manual focus”.   It says that for manual focusing one should turn the focusing ring on the lens while looking through the viewfinder.  Ah ha… Finally, something that I can understand and remember.  I’m sure you can guess where my camera is now set and where it is going to remain set for as long as I own it.

The aperture and shutter speed settings are equally rich in “features”.  And once again, there are various options for compensating for special situations.  There is also a long list of automated choices for picture taking situations that one is supposedly likely to encounter.  However, as with automated focusing, every one of these “normal” situations has an accompanying description of when the camera may not produce good results and how to “compensate” when the desired outcome is not being achieved. 

And once again, near the end of a long chapter there is a short paragraph that says that the camera can be operated in a “manual exposure” mode using the built in light meter (just like the ones in film cameras) to set the aperture and shutter speed.  What a relief!   I can use this camera after all -- using my own brain and my own understanding of how I want the image to turn out.   And several months from now I will still remember where the two dials are that control these functions – shutter speed and aperture.              

Is it realistic to expect that the typical, or even technically savvy, person will be able to remember the multiple and multi-level functions of over 20 buttons and control dials?  Is it reasonable to expect that in a given shooting situation one will be able to work through dozens of options to find the best one?  I have by now spent quite a few hours with the User’s Manual, and with the camera, and I know for sure that some of the multi-level controls that I have by now figured out will no longer be with me a month from now. 

The question that I end up asking is – what have we gained by trying to replace the understanding of basic concepts with computer automation?  For taking good photographs, the basic concepts are not so complicated – just remember three things that need to be set and use the camera’s light meter as a guide.   With the computer automated approach, I now need to become a whiz at remembering menus, remembering which buttons do what, remembering what is in the sub-menus, remembering how to “compensate” when the results are not what I want, remembering how to choose from among the many scene options, remembering how to select the mode that allows for tracking a chosen subject, remembering how to choose the flash option for various situations, and yet countless others.

Sorry, but I won’t be able to remember all that unless I use the camera every day.   Therefore, thank goodness that the engineers who designed this marvel of complexity found it in their hearts to retain, deep within it, the simple concepts of focusing with a ring on the lens barrel and setting aperture and shutter speed with a traditional light meter.  That will make this a camera that I can use and enjoy.  I will be able to think about the images I want to create and not about which buttons need to be pushed and which menus I need to find before I can take a photograph.  Otherwise, by the time I sort through all of these menu choices, instead of taking a photograph of a beautiful sunset, I might only be left with dull dark gray clouds to capture.   

I would enjoy hearing from you on this topic or others.  You can contact me directly from this site, by e-mail at, or by phone at 425-898-9117.