Digital-clever film cameras

The late-model film cameras, the ones just before the Rise of the Machines, contain a lot of the functionality that transferred to digital.

My example is a very cheap Pentax MZ-5n body I found in a charity shop and joined to an existing Pentax autofocus 35-70 zoom. The camera was introduced in 1997 and has a poor reputation for breaking. It’s also 23 years old so won’t have improved. This particular one seems to be ok, but it owes me so little that I’m not going to cry if it stops working.

By the late 90’s the SLR camera makers were competing with cheaper compacts. This could be why the Pentax has a panoramic mode (a film mask) – to compete with APS and its ability to change formats. Mind you, my mum made accidental use of that facility at the time to create randomly-sized family snaps.

Electronics were getting smarter and faster and I expect ease of use was the thing. Nobody wanted to be selling a camera that you had to learn to use. Lock the lens aperture ring on A, turn the camera’s mode dial to P and away you go with a big version of a point-and-shoot. How many people using digital now are wondering about learning to go the other way and shoot in manual mode?

Anyway, with all the feature bloat you do get a lot of (fragile) camera for your money. Plus it’s a Pentax, so it’s backwards compatible with all their lenses. All you lose is some of the automation. Obviously the manual lenses won’t autofocus and the focus confirmation doesn’t work with screw-mount lenses. You can still shoot them though. You have to love the way Pentax look after their customers and their investment in lenses.

I’ll be comparing it with a Pentax K10d, their first “serious amateur” digital camera, introduced in 2006. As mentioned, the K10d is equally happy shooting the autofocus zoom from the MZ, although the APS-C sensor turns it into the equivalent of a 50-105 zoom

The MZ might have a frail body and internals, but it has some neat features that transferred to the K10. The focus confirmation in the viewfinder uses the same symbol; it can do evaluative, centre weighted and spot metering with similar abilities for the autofocus. It will do focus confirmation with manual lenses, although it does need fairly bright lighting. The autofocus will even do follow-focus. Shutter speeds run from 1/2000 to 2s in manual and out to 30s in auto. It will do half and full stop bracketing. By default it reads the ISO code off the film cartridge, but you can also set it manually. So this consumer camera had most of the bells and whistles in something that was a bit smaller than the K10. Which is interesting, as the MZ had to provide space for the film as well. But then, a digital sensor is thicker than film, and the K10 has a screen on the back as well.

So what’s this last hurrah for film like to use? The MZ feels surprisingly solid and grippy. Fitting a drive motor and a flash capacitor plus a larger battery into a film camera probably accounts for the protruding grip, which makes a real benefit out of a necessity. It has a data back, but this is sculpted to provide a thumb grip. Basically, I would feel happier carrying this around in one hand than something like a Pentax MX. This model of 35-70mm lens I’ve got on it is quite small, so makes a handy package.

Would I have bought one of these in 1997? Not so much. I did have a Pentax SF-X for a while, which was an older model, and found it a bit too fiddly. It also suffered problems with the mirror jamming in the up position. It did a job though, which was to drive some film past my lenses on a three-week trip to Aus. (Bought it second hand, then sold it on). So this may have put me off anything clever until I went to the dark side and got digital. Oddly, I think the kit lens that came with the SF-X when it was launched back in 1987 was the same zoom I’m using on the MZ-5 now. Did someone say backwards compatibility?


Enough of the history already; what’s it like to use? Does a cheap (these days) techno-marvel with the reputation of a hand grenade cut the mustard? Surprisingly, yes. Pop it on full auto everything and it’s easy to use. It switches on the same way as my K10 and fires-up quicker (and far quicker than some digital compacts. I’ve got a little Fuji compact that takes nearly five seconds to boot up.). For fairly close-in action this thing is great. I would also be happy using this on longer lenses for sport and action as the motor winder is useful. Of course, with the bug, I can’t get out to shoot some fast-moving close action.

Dalby Forest

I can show you what I would use it for though using some previous shots from its young nephew, the K10d.

Dalby Forest

This was fitted with a roughly similar lens that does the (equivalent) of 24-70mm at F4. What I was shooting was fairly quick action in a constrained space, in the open and under trees. So the 35-70 lens was about right and an automatic flash filled the shadows and sharpened the picture. Incidentally, the MZ works with the same flashgun I use on the K10. Probably because the flash started out on Pentax’s film cameras and migrated to their digital. Did someone say backwards compatibility?

If I was shooting something similar in the future on film, the MZ and the 35-70 would be first choice. Let’s hope we all get that chance.

Kissed with a seal

This was written prior to the latest lockdown.

Back in the water for some socially-distanced diving! Yay!

I should explain. There’s a group of us. Our reason for being a group is to take people diving who have physical and learning disabilities. Because you may not be able to walk on land but you can fly underwater. Covid stuffed that, as it did so many other things. We can’t safely do the necessary close contact and the pool we use has had to close. The side effect was diving withdrawal. I was showering with a scuba mask on. I was diving in lakes. We all needed time in the brine.

Then we got the opportunity to dive with the seals at the Farnes. The first attempt was cancelled due to the weather – we have to be able to get back on the boat so the waves can’t be too high. But then Poseidon smiled and we got to do some safe, well spaced and properly masked dives from an open boat (we’re missing it, not dying for it).
It was an auspicious start, looking at the rolling waves, as we left from luxury.nothing.twitching. Getting back on the boat is a serious business – we went to the outer group of islands near the Longstone lighthouse. Even the shortest swim to shore from there would be three miles. On the open water on the way out we lost sight of land when the boat was corkscrewing between wave crests. (Follow the link to the Farnes above and see how many ships have run into them).

We do try to get to the Farne Islands each year when the new seals are born. We are not there for the newborns but for the youngsters – probably last year’s babies. They are inquisitive and fun and both they and the adults seem to be comfortable with divers in the water. (Serious aside – if you do visit one of the places where the newborns are on land, do not disturb or bother them. It’s unkind for a start, and then realise that the mother weighs more than you and has teeth and claws. So take the longest lens you own.)

Sealed with a kiss
Sealed with a kiss

How close you get and how much interaction you have are totally controlled by the seals – they are beautiful and sleek swimming machines, and I’m a fat old bloke in a rubber suit. But if you’re lucky they will come over to see what you’re doing, nibble your fins and try to steal anything shiny. The yearlings behave just like puppies and mouth at you in the same way.



I have dived there before with a video camera as it’s small and has nothing to fiddle with but an on/off switch. This time I wanted to get some stills as well. So it’s my working-man’s dive camera – a humble Canon Ixus 750 point and shoot in a housing with an extra external flash. I’ve been fighting with this for a while to get the lighting balance right between the external and built-in flashes, but I think I’ve finally got it.

It’s a joy though, both to be back in the water and interacting with the seals. These are wild animals but they are inquisitive and happy enough to come up and nudge you.



There were a lot of seals in the water. Even some of the mature seals came over for a look, which is rare. They must have missed the taste of diver during these lockdown times.



Yes, it’s British diving, so it’s cold and murky. But who would want to miss an opportunity like this?

And for the photographically inclined, this is where autofocus and auto flash exposure pays off. Despite being in a quite kinetic environment, the majority of my pictures worked. I could never have done this with a Nikonos.
You also want the widest lens you can, to get as close as possible, to reduce the amount of murky water between you and the subject.
And just occasionally, you need a camera that you can work one-handed so that you can fend off a seal who wants to steal the shiny thing. I haven’t shown it here because it’s just a blur, but I have one shot of a seal pressing its nose against the end of the lens.

So that was my first and probably last sea dive this year. It reminds me why we do it.

Update on the instant camera

I thought it might be the perfect camera for social occasions; not that we get many of those these days. And it really is. Show it to the kids, take a picture and print it, then show them the buttons to use and let go. For anyone wincing at the cost of Instax (£15 for ten shots?), this works out at two prints to the penny. Sure, the prints are high contrast and low detail, but the fridge soon gets covered in them.

The added joy is that you also have a digital file, so you can make multiple prints or even print them in colour. Three images will fit on a single 100*150mm sheet of paper. The image quality, especially in the dark, is as rough as a badger’s arse if you pixel-peep but still perfectly acceptable at the normal print size of 83 by 48mm. Despite my moaning, it copes pretty well with low light so it’s great for sociable evenings under house lighting. The mono prints from the camera will only show highlights, but the digital files can be printed later in colour and hold much more detail.


I also like that the prints are wide and thin. I’ve written before about the fun of cropping to a 5:2 format to fit onto Moo business cards. These prints are about 7:4 so not as letterbox as the Moo cards but wider than normal.

Down sides? Squeeze it in a bag and you can turn it on and eventually drain the battery. So carry it on its strap and put up with the odd looks. Tear the prints off downward or risk a rough tear. Perhaps the strap is a bit short if you are bigger than a child. It won’t print while it’s charging. And that’s it.

This is definitely my party with friends camera. Not that I can do that presently. But when I get the chance again, it will be out with the bear-cam and cover the fridge with daft pictures.

My wife, who bought me the camera, was worried that I would think it was a gimmick and not use it. Instead, I love it (and my wife, obviously). It’s done two small bubble gatherings since June and it’s a hit. If I pulled out a normal camera I’d be shouted at to put it away and join in. The bear-cam gets passed around and we all take daft pictures of each other and then laugh some more in the morning.

Recommended for post-apocalypse parties.

The Werra – a socialist style icon

I got the loan of a Werra camera, as it is weird and I’ve always wanted to see just how odd it could be. I’m told it’s a Werramat model, which matches the description of the range of models in the manual (thanks again, Mr Butkus).

This is a stylish and sleek camera with some nice design touches. For a start, it has a deep lens hood. The hood is part of the design and stows backwards over the lens, protecting the shutter, aperture and focus controls. You do have to remember to focus on infinity before using it as a guard though, or the protruding lens can crack it. Score one to the idea and take one away for the execution. Give back maybe half a point – you won’t make the mistake of shooting this camera with the lens cap on. You can leave the lens hood covering the lens, take the lens cap off and shoot through the hole, at the expense of not being able to change the settings or focus. If you really wanted to.

Werra closed

You advance the film and cock the shutter by twisting a ring at the base of the lens. The twist is quite short, about 80 degrees. Why go to the trouble? To preserve that smooth and polished top plate, I guess. There is one control on the top of the camera – a large and nearly flush shutter button. This camera looks stylish.

Werra hooded

As a consequence of the smooth top and front, some of the controls were moved to the bottom of the camera. There you will find the frame counter, the release for the camera back and the film rewind crank. In use you will find yourself tipping and turning the camera a lot. Tilt it back to change the settings on the lens or to wind-on. Tilt it forwards to see the frame counter. In use though it is possible to twist the lens base and wind-on with your left hand while the camera is still up to your eye. When you do tip the camera over to see the frame counter, it is oriented correctly for reading. Nice touch.

Werra bum

There are some more nice design features on this model. For example, there is a tiny prism in the bottom right corner of the viewfinder that shows the aperture and shutter speed set on the lens. The lightmeter displays in the bottom of the viewfinder and is coupled to the lens settings, so you turn the aperture or shutter speed rings on the lens to centre the needle. That little rectangular patch to the right of the shutter button appears to be a bit of frosted plastic, but is actually part of the lightmeter and illuminates the scale in the viewfinder. The lightmeter itself is more than just a match-needle affair – if the light is too low for some combinations of shutter and aperture, a dark bar intrudes from one side of the metering scale in the viewfinder. If the light is too high, the dark bar intrudes from the other side. It’s a very clever way of telling you that some combinations of speed and aperture will not give good exposure under the present conditions.


The shutter is, from reading other reviews, also a clever thing. Where most bladed shutters top-out at 1/500, this goes to 1/750. It also has slow speeds going down to 30s. All this from a camera that, if the serial numbers work like Russian ones, will be 60 years old next year. So this camera was built at the same time as the Berlin Wall and was meant for export to obtain hard currency.

The Werra is a technical surprise. Compare it with say, a Praktica, which was also made in East Germany. The Praktica is a basic SLR with obvious controls. The Werra is a clever design with some useful functionality. The viewfinder has built-in diopter adjustment, for example.

So what’s it like to use? The lens is a Zeiss Tessar so should be sharp enough. To an SLR or rangefinder user it feels a little strange doing the whole business of metering and composing with the camera to your eye but having to take it away to set the focal distance on the lens. I carried a little clip-on rangefinder to check focus, but of course there is no flash shoe on the top of the camera to clip it to. The manual shows an optional flash bracket that screws to the tripod mount or a cold shoe that appears to fit over the viewfinder eyepiece.

The shutter is discretely quiet. The twisting film advance worked better than I expected but you need to make sure it fully returns to its start position. The negatives it produced were evenly spaced and different combinations of shutter and aperture gave consistent exposure. Not bad for its age. The film gate has the guide rails cut in a hatched pattern, which would have the effect of stretching the film and flattening it. Like I said: nice technical touches. It all feels very well made and functioning, very different to the Fujicarex I had. The Fuji felt like a very complicated machine working at the limits of reliability. The Werra feels well made, competent and a bit odd.

Werra inside
A is the clever guide rail. B is the export quality mark. C could be the housing for the clever high-speed shutter.

This was an export camera, which would probably appeal to the more technical photographer who would appreciate the details. The Werra range was developed and added features with something like seven models, of which this Werramat is the sixth. The sleek exterior of these cameras hides some good design and manufacturing. In the same year this was made Olympus released the Pen-EE with no settings and 72 shots per film. This mutated into the Trip, sold a squillion and the Berlin Wall (that went up around ’61) eventually came tumbling down. No philosophical insight intended.


I did like the Werramat but as a loaner rather than a keeper. They feel well designed and very well made, so worth a look if you fancy something a bit unusual but stylish or a very clever thing that hides its craftiness.

That, and washing your hands
That, and washing your hands

Thanks for the loan.

The Konstruktor challenge

“It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer” – that’s what we’re told. Or, if you use cheap old kit like me, it’s what we hope.

You’ve probably heard of the Sunny 16 cheap shots challenge or the Frugal Film Project (if not, you should). But here’s a different approach: what is the worst and least functional combination you can put together?

Why? Because it’s a challenge. How bad can it get before you really can’t take an interesting picture? Besides, we know that constraints increase creativity. And I should point out that I’m not doing this to say I’m a great photographer: I’m doing it because I’m bored with lockdown.

So what’s the deal? First, my worst or least useable camera. It was going to be an ancient Leidox that takes 127 film that I was going to try a roll of 35mm in. But it has several shutter speeds and apertures so that felt a bit like cheating. Then I remembered I have a Lomo Konstruktor. A fuzzy lens set at f10 on a plastic body offering 1/80 or B for shutter speeds. Hopeless focusing accuracy and dodgy film advance. Just what the masochist ordered.

Kon 1

For film I’ve got some positive copy stock that was meant for making contact prints from negatives. It’s probably got a negative ISO and was developed in paper developer under safelight (so it’s orthochromatic). It can do mid tones, but it needs careful development. Oh, and it is also very expired. I may have to shoot a few frames first with an adjustable camera to work out what to rate it at and how to develop it.

<Brief interlude – ISO 12 seems to work in Rodinal 1+25 for seven minutes. >

Then finally, what subject matter or conditions? It has got to be low light or night, hasn’t it? Mainly because ISO12 in a camera that’s fixed at f10 and 1/80 would need the light to be about a stop brighter than clear sunshine. So if I can’t do that, then I can hold the shutter open on B, which means at least a second so that I can count it. Or I could fire the shutter more than once and build up the exposure that way.

Konstruktor challenge
Fire the shutter multiple times to build-up the exposure.

Sat here reading a book during the evening I did a quick check and the light is EV3 at ISO12. That’s about fifteen seconds at F10, before any reciprocity. I’m going to need that B setting. My clever book of knowledge says that city streets at night are around the same light level.

Konstruktor challenge
That plastic lens flares a bit

The Konstruktor is also pretty awful at winding on, so I will be loading it with a short roll of around 24 exposures.

The die is cast. I would prefer the pie is vast, but the challenge is to cope with what I’ve got. What could possibly go wrong? Onward we march!

Konstruktor ~Challenge
Night shot – the only things that made it to the negative were the car headlights and a street lamp.

What did this prove, then? Nothing. But it was fun to push the limits of difficult. The Konstruktor is not an easy camera to use and ISO 12 ortho film is a bit limiting. But I was delighted to get some images and I will never again complain that my camera is awkward.

Fancy a go? It’s the kind of thing you could do with a chum by post: each assemble an awful combination of parts, swap them and see what you can do. And you may worry less in future that you don’t have the newest and best kit. Or you might start a new photographic movement.


I should have known. I would have known if I’d thought about it. Just as there is Rule 34 for the internet, so in photography: if you can think of it, there’s a movement and special interest group for it.

I was surprised to learn that there was a minimalist photography competition. Then I was surprised that I was surprised, as I said.

Not that it’s a bad thing – quite the opposite. I like the Zen balance of the fewest number of elements or the counterpoint of simple shapes. I’ve heard the idea that you should dress-up to go out and then at the door remove one item. Minimalism is, to me, the removal of all but the essential (don’t try to picture me going out in just my underpants).

Swinsty Reservoir

So I went and had a look at the minimalist photography awards. As you would expect, a mixed bag. Some is very good indeed while some is either too busy or just not very good. The way the competition is organised is interesting though and appears to be self funding. You pay to enter, the winners get cash prizes, probably covered by the entry fees, and get to download and print their own winning certificate. I may be totally wrong, but it has a sense of the vanity publishing industry for writers (give us money and we will print your book). I’m sure I must be wrong – the awards are backed by a magazine and the winners did get some press coverage.

Photography, like publishing, probably has a strong power law for the distribution of income: a few people make a lot and a lot make very little. There is a difference in the work involved though. Writing a book might take you a year, so it requires serious effort and commitment. Taking a picture is effectively free. This is why I hear of professional photographers being undercut by anyone with a camera and why people are asked to do work in return of ‘exposure’.

It used to be that book publishing was such an investment that there was strong filtering: a publisher would invest in a known quantity like a successful author but needed to be pretty certain before betting on a new one (hence the power law of income). The vanity publishing industry catered for the people who wanted to be published and were prepared to pay to obtain a box of books they could give to friends. And then along came print on demand. Now I can put my masterpiece online and give people a link to print their own copy. On the whole it costs less for the prospective author and probably sells as many copies. (I do know whereof I speak: I self-published a book that was later taken-up by a publisher, but that was due more to chutzpah than talent.)

What’s the photography equivalent? I suppose there are places like Instagram where you can effectively publish for free and places like Etsy where you can sell prints. Then there are ‘zines (who wants to even think maga in these times?). Most of these seem to be small-run, quirky, and are given away or sold for little more than cost (go read Charles Stross or Cory Doctorow about the margins and money streams in mainstream publishing). Small-scale guerilla publishing of pictures or words are marvellous and not to be dismissed. Just don’t expect to be Barbara Cartland. And I have no idea who the photographic equivalent of our Babs would be – Ansel Adams?

So why am I on my soapbox? I like minimalist pictures very much. I like a lot of the award winning pictures in this competition. Paying a fee to enter a competition may set a useful barrier to the less serious or committed (see above for the zero marginal cost of one photo) and it may build to a prize fund worth having. The winners probably got what they wanted and we’re all happy. So let me wind-in whatever neck I had extended and take the whole thing at face value. The correct judgement to use here is Occam’s razor, not Hanlon’s.

Go and look at the gallery of minimalist images and see what you think.

Update on shooting IR

Having converted a Panasonic camera to shoot infrared and built a little push-on hood to hold the special filter, I had second thoughts. Part of it was looking at the work of Pierre-Louis Ferrer on Petapixel and his own website. Obviously, I’m not that good, but I liked what he was doing.

I realised that I normally use mono film, so what was my reason for not putting the IR filter directly in front of the sensor? Besides, fitting the filter inside the camera did away with the fiddly lens hood.

I also had a close look at Ferrer’s work and I think he is using a luminosity mask to do split toning. He is applying a pale khaki tone to the highlights and possibly a touch of blue to the shadows.

So for my next trick I found a useful YouTube video on creating luminosity masks in Photoshop Elements (as I’m too cheap to spring for the full version, and it does all I could want). The basic idea is to create a mask that controls where an effect works, based on the brightness of the image. So you can do something like tone the highlights a delicate shade without changing the mid-tones or shadows.

On my first attempts I realised that the highlights in my IR images were totally blown out. Back to the camera and play with the settings. IR mono scenes are very high contrast and the camera was not holding the highlights. Since I actually want the shadows to go black, I set the camera to underexpose by one stop.

Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
Lower lake, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

I had a chance to go out for a walk in sunshine (I felt like a battery-hen on day release), so I took the remodified camera. With a dog lead round one wrist I was very glad to not be fiddling with the filter.

YSP sculpture
First go with luminosity masking

So the update is that I’ve fiddled with and adjusted the camera and learned a new technique.

Not bad for a day out.

Sony Cybershot T77 – the new Pen?

I’ve written about the joys of using an Olympus Pen for film photography, in particular its small size and light weight.

Now here is my digital equivalent, and it’s smaller, lighter and smarter.


The DSC-T77, as it likes to be known, is a tiny little digital camera that folds a zoom lens inside the body. There is nothing to pop out so it doesn’t change shape when zooming. The camera uses a drop-down sliding cover, so one flick of a finger fires it up. Or it would, if it wasn’t so shiny. Until I put some Sugru on this baby it was like handling a thin bar of soap.

Sony made a whole range of these, including waterproof versions.

The camera is genuinely tiny – just 94mm wide, 57 tall and 15 thick. I can hide it in my hand. In the package you get a 10 MP sensor and a zoom equivalent to 35-140. The down side to this is that the on-screen menus need a fine finger to fettle them. Sony provide a little plastic pointer on the wrist strap, so this serves in place of my stump of a fat digit.

It comfortably fits into a pocket and doesn’t even spoil the line of a suit. I’ve got an old wallet for a Blackberry that’s a perfect fit as a case.

The very small size and a useful macro capability make this camera good for pictures too small to get a different camera, or any camera plus your head, into. I’ve taken shots from inside a bunch of flowers, for example. The closest macro distance is 8cm.

The downside of the small size is a small battery. The camera seems to use the battery even when it is shut down – probably to maintain its settings and allow the quick start-up. I bought a second battery for it, so I’m in the habit of swapping-in the fresh battery before I take the camera out. The first start-up after a battery swap always takes longer, but thereafter it’s quick. Much quicker than my waterproof Fuji one, for example. Even so, if I was taking the Sony away for a weekend I would take both batteries.

It uses Sony’s memory stick duo storage card, but that’s no great problem as my card reader takes them. Plus it’s a snapshot camera. You put a card in, clear the old photos off as you go and never bother with a second card.

The lens and pictures are capable. I’d like to tell you how I’ve shot pictures of brick walls to measure the resolution and aberations, but that’s not what the camera is for and I can’t be arsed. This is a tiny little, easy to carry, quick to use, snapshot camera. The zoom lens is handy, particularly as it doesn’t trombone out of the front of the camera. The widest aperture runs from f3.5 to 4.6, which isn’t too bad since you can push the ISO to 3200 if you really need to. There is a tiny flash which is really only useful close up but does offer slow sync.


It also does face detection and various focus and exposure modes. What’s not to like? Granted, it’s small and fiddly. Since the camera body is so smooth, there are no dials and everything is driven by menus. This can be a pain trying to find things, so I tend to set the camera up the way I like it and then leave it alone. I would only tweak it if I was going into a known different situation – people running about or dark backgrounds, for example.

People sit under it to each their packed lunch.

So this really does fit with the idea behind the original Pen, in being an image note-taker. The zoom lens makes it more useful than a mobile phone camera and the quick start-up means that it is not less handy. It’s also smaller than my mobile phone.

A troll, caught by sunrise and turned to stone.

Let’s hear it for the snappy Sony!

Don McCullin at the Tate

Don McCullin has an exhibition of prints at the Tate Liverpool until the 9th May 2021. If you can get there, go. If you can’t, buy one of his books. If you can’t do that, at least look at some of his pictures.

Everyone who complains about refugees, asylum seekers or poor people should see these pictures (but they won’t.).

I’m overwhelmed. There is nothing I can say or add to his pictures. See them if you can.

We should all do our best to hold people with power to account and to be good to others. If you need a reason, see McCullin’s pictures.

The beauty of good design

There’s a great book called The Psychology of Everyday Things that was my introduction into why I found some things strangely difficult to operate. I remember a pal’s Alfa Romeo car that had a bank of identical, black, flush, push-switches to operate things like the heating and air flow. Not only was it impossible for the driver to use them without taking their attention away from the road, I can vouch for struggling to work out which one to use when I was the passenger. Was it in the Hitchhiker’s Guide that the spaceship had a black control panel of black buttons that lit-up black when pushed? Alfa got there first (or I suppose they would be called Omega).

Good design works because it leads you. Bad design breaks the flow or works contrary to expectations. Have you ever pulled on a door that had a handle, only to find it opened with a push? Poor design. There is a wonderful blog series called The Weekly Design Roast that I recommend for examples to make you weep.

In camera terms, I find that digital cameras usually have poor operating design. It’s probably because the camera is capable of so much and there is a strong commercial pressure to add features. You know how it goes – “ooh look, this one can do focus-stacking or that one can do HDR, or do I spend a bit more and buy the one that can do both?” And then we have no idea how to use the special function because we didn’t memorise the manual. A guy recently mapped-out the menu system of a Sony camera. That’s what happens when a very complex device is squeezed into a small package. Or when features are added to the point that they exceed the interface.

Canon did a thing with their digital compacts. It made sense in production to use the same processor in different models, so they disabled some of the features in the cheaper ones. And then we found out how to turn them back on again. The common component build is very sensible in manufacturing, and what an Easter Egg of delight for the fanboys who found out how to hack them. It also made sense to remove features from the simpler models in the range, and this was an easy way to control the feature set with a limited range of electronics.

Perhaps a better example is a humble clip. This is a thing used by sailors and divers to attach one thing to another. Exhibit A is a stainless steel item comprising five components and requiring machining, drilling and bending to assemble. Exhibit B is the alternative that does the same job with two components, only one of which needs bending. Good design makes manufacturing easier and creates less waste. The simpler clip also has no sharp edges that could damage a rope or fingers.


The opposite of this would be a microwave oven. What you want is to control the power, control the time and be able to stop and start it. What you get is usually so confusing that you need the manual. A manual, for a machine with two variables?

Or if you want an example of a very simple machine with poor design, take a look at one of those cute-looking anthropomorphic vacuum cleaners. They get stuck on every doorframe or piece of furniture. If you pull them, they stay stuck but the side catches open and the top falls off.

So what has this to do with photography? Camera design can be a collision of feature bloat and bad ergonomics.

There are cameras that it is possible to hold wrong – see the Contax/ Kiev 4.

There are some where you have to wind on before changing the shutter speed or you break them – see old Russian rangefinders.

Then there are cameras that make you wonder what the designers were smoking – how about the Konica AiBorg?

Or there’s my experience with The Ergonomic Disaster.


I’ve had a long-running fight with more than one digital compact to try and get the built-in flash to balance with an external one. And the clever dedicated flash for my dSLR needs me to carry the manual to have any hope of changing the settings. In fact, the flash is a microwave: it has strange controls with weird symbols and no obvious way to change the main settings. I admit to writing on my dSLR with a white marker to differentiate the metering control from the focusing control.

If I look at my Canon G9, an up-market compact, it has nine buttons, four rotating dials, two rocker switches and a shutter release. Some of the buttons bring up menus on the screen to choose more options. Some of the buttons are used a lot – flash on/off, macro on/off and zoom. Some I’ve never used, like print. There’s one button that I hadn’t noticed until I counted them and I’m not sure what it does.

I suppose the opposite extreme is my little Sony compact that has almost no physical controls and relies completely on menus and a touch screen.

I recognise that digital cameras are so clever, with so many options, that multiple controls or menus are needed. But perhaps what I want is the sort of design that was built into the BlackBerry phones. On the surface, they just worked. But there were features and shortcuts built in that you could use to do things easier or quicker. Using them gave a feeling of delight, but not using them didn’t get in the way of its core function.

What’s a well-designed camera then? I don’t know, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen or used one. You may think a camera is a simple design, so try this on a beginner:

This is a film camera. Wind it on after every shot with this lever. Yes, or it won’t take a picture. You will know the film is finished when it won’t wind on, but don’t push the lever too hard. Then press the little unlabeled button on the bottom of the camera. Pull up this little folding handle here and wind it round. There may be an arrow to tell you which way to turn it. Or not. You will know when the film is rewound when the handle turns easily. Or jams. Pull the whole winding thing up to open the camera. Yes, it does look like you are breaking the camera. Pull it some more. The back of the camera will then pop open. Pick up the film from the floor. And the camera. Try to wind the end of the film completely back into the cassette so you don’t shoot it again. No, twist it the other way. See that bit inside the camera that you poked your finger through? That was the shutter. Yes, it was important.

Why do you think point and shoots and compacts sold so well?

I’m not a klutz and I am comfortable with technology, but I can tell good design from bad. And there ain’t half some bad design out there. What’s your experience?