Buttons Or Switches? Buttons Are Better!

My Canon 7D, like the 40D before it, has a feature I love and would find it hard to relinquish – three fully programmable custom modes, right on the mode dial. This makes it possible to sort out the myriad of settings in a flexible modern camera, and quickly get to a sensible starting point for a given type of shooting, and then, equally importantly, back to normal mode, without forgetting something important. My four main shooting modes are:

  • Normal: Aperture priority, default auto focus, single shot, auto white balance
  • C1: HDR / bracketing – like my normal mode, but with my standard two stop exposure bracketing and high frame rate multi shot on the shutter
  • C2: Action – shutter priority, tracking auto focus using the central zone, highest frame rate multi shot shutter control
  • C3: Panorama (manual everything) – manual exposure and white balance, defaulted to sensible “landscape” settings

This works brilliantly. Unfortunately in Canon’s marketing strategy it’s classified as a “professional” feature and not available (or only partially implemented) on their lower models. When I found myself a couple of weeks ago at the top of a mountain in Cortina D’Ampezzo with the 550D in “landscape” mode and then saw some interesting birds of prey I couldn’t set up quickly enough to get the shots.

Now I have two “enthusiast” cameras from Panasonic, the GH2 and the new GX7. To Panasonic’s credit, both have three custom modes. (The GX7 actually has five, but three main ones.) However, comparison of the cameras has thrown up an interesting issue. Like the Canon 7D the GX7 sets everything via buttons (and the general-purpose dials). Almost all settings are gathered up and remembered for the custom modes, and then presented back to the user via the very informative viewfinder displays.

The GH2 is different. Many of its settings are controlled on dedicated mechanical switches. While this may appeal to some photographers, it actually causes me two problems. Firstly on such a tiny camera the graphics for the switch positions are so small I can’t always read them accurately with my glasses on (my norm out of doors). Worse, it means they can’t participate in the custom modes. You end up with a situation where either the switches setting is just not memorised, or the physical position and the memorised one are in conflict. I think Panasonic default to the former, but it’s not 100% clear.

I’m not advocating putting a camera’s settings all on the menu – that doesn’t work well either except on very small or much simpler cameras. The 7D and GX7 both have enough buttons to dedicate to the main settings, and that’s correct.

So I think there are three important lessons in ergonomic design of enthusiast/professional cameras:

  1. Fully programmable custom modes are good, arguably essential,
  2. Dedicated controls for the main settings are also required, but:
  3. These should be buttons, not physical multi-position switches (see point 1)

And I suspect the GX7 is rapidly establishing itself as my preferred “carry round” camera. Now where’s the Capture One support?

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