Do camera industry engineers have moms?

A few months ago, my mother dropped her trusty old Fujifilm Finepix S3100 camera (circa 2004) and broke it for good. She really loved that thing…all 4 megapixels, 1.5-inch LCD screen, 6X zoom, and ISO 250 of it. It had an electronic viewfinder, it was dead-simple to operate, and it felt comfortable in her hand thanks to the deep ergonomic grip. She didn’t care if it took terrible, blurry photos of her retirement party with all her friends present (it was a dark room). That camera just fit her.

Since I take a lot of photos, she enlisted me to help her find a replacement. I have to admit, I really enjoy researching these things, so I was happy to help. Unfortunately, the camera industry let her down.

Smartphone cameras are getting smarter all the time, but…

The first question was whether she needed a dedicated camera at all or whether she could just go out and get a smartphone and use that camera all the time. After all, smartphone cameras keep getting better all the time. But my mother likes to take a lot of photos of birds that visit her feeder, and she got really used to the viewfinder on her old camera. I reminded her that the vast majority of smartphone cameras don’t have optical zoom lenses (yet) or eye-level viewfinders (probably ever), and that convinced her that she really did want a dedicated camera.

Fixed-lens cameras are getting smarter still

Fujifilm FinePix S3100
The Fujifilm FinePix S3100 — my mother’s old camera, circa 2004. It offered a whopping 4 megapixels of resolution, a 1.5-inch LCD screen. and a maximum ISO of 250. 

Because of the rapid improvements to smartphone camera technology, manufacturers of point-and-shoot cameras have had to raise their photography game to compete, and that’s a wonderful thing. The lines are blurring between fixed-lens (a.k.a. “point-and-shoot”) cameras, mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, and digital SLRs. The public has started to catch on about the diminishing returns on ever-increasing megapixel counts and absurd zoom ranges, so the trend now is toward larger image sensors and wider-aperture (“faster”) lenses — for better results in low light.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K has a huge 60X zoom lens with a 35mm equivalent focal length range of 20mm to 1200mm. Image courtesy of Panasonic.

As the LCD screens on compact cameras have gotten larger and brighter, the public’s demand for cameras with eye-level viewfinders has waned. And that means cameras with viewfinders are becoming harder to find. Even long-zoom compact cameras like the Canon PowerShot SX510 HS (with a 30X optical zoom) are ditching the viewfinder to cut down on costs and bulk. (I don’t think this is a good trend; framing your shot through an eye-level viewfinder enables you to hold the camera steadier, and even the biggest, brightest LCD screen is hard to see in bright sunlight. This is especially important in low light and when using a long lens. Even though my Olympus Pen E-PL5 mirrorless camera did not come with a built-in electronic viewfinder, I bought an accessory EVF.)

For the most part, electronic viewfinders have been relegated to cameras with extremely long zoom lenses. One camera that my mother considered was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K…particularly for its viewfinder. But when she saw the way it looked with its 60X zoom lens extended, she bristled at how bulky and awkward it was. Besides, these ridiculous megazoom focal lengths are a bad idea anyway.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1
The Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1: a pocket camera with a small electronic viewfinder. Image courtesy of Panasonic Market.

So now we had three requirements:

  1. An eye-level electronic viewfinder.
  2. A maximum price of $300, or thereabout.
  3. Not enormous.

Getting two out of three would be easy, but getting all three would present a significant challenge. There are lots of fine and pocketable cameras under $300, but they don’t have eye-level viewfinders. The Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70K discussed above had a viewfinder and a low price of $249.99, but it was huge. The Sony Cyber-shot DSC0RX100 Mark III was compact, and it had an innovative pop-up viewfinder, but it also came with a sticker price of $799.99.

And then, miraculously it seemed, I discovered the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1: a pocketable (or purse-able) camera with an electronic viewfinder and a low sticker price of $249.99. It even had an extra large 1/1.7″ image sensor, which gave it an extra stop of ISO flexibility compared with regular fixed-lens cameras. I thought this would be the camera that would make her forget all about her old Fuji.

I read the glowing expert reviews and recommended it to my mom. She bought one, but she’s still missing her old Fuji friend. But why?

Smaller is not always better

There’s an old saying among photographers that “the best camera is the one you have with you.” It’s obviously true: that expensive full-frame dSLR with the massive lenses may be able to take beautiful photos when you have it, but if you find yourself leaving it behind all the time due to the bulk and weight, then it’s not doing you much good. Even the best camera is useless when it sits on a shelf.

But I’m learning that there’s a flipside to this: a camera that trades good ergonomic design for compactness might also get left on the shelf. And that goes double for my mother, who has impaired vision even with her eyeglasses and has endured carpal tunnel surgery on both of her wrists. That might have been why she dropped the old camera in the first place.

Take a look at how each camera is designed.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 Fujifilm FinePix S3100
Front View

LF1 front
The LF1 is a small, pocketable camera. It has a control ring around the lens that allows the user to adjust settings.

Fujifilm FinePix S3100 front view
The S3100 is a squat, stout camera that feels a bit more like a digital SLR than a compact camera. It’s substantially bulkier than the LF1.
Top View

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 top view
The LF1 has a mode dial with 10 modes. The On/Off button is placed on the outside edge of the camera, which can cause you to turn off the camera accidentally when reaching for the shutter. The zoom controls are connected to the shutter button, which means you can zoom and snap with the same finger.

Fujifilm FinePix S3100 Top View
The S3100 has a deep rubberized grip to wrap your hand around. The mode dial is simple, with only four modes. The flash pops up thanks to a dedicated button on the lefthand side.
Rear View

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LF1 rear view
The LF1 has a large 3.0-inch LCD screen on the back and a tiny 0.2-inch electronic viewfinder in the upper lefthand corner. A dial surrounds a rocker button which controls the flash, macro mode, burst mode and exposure. There is a menu button in the middle of the rocker. At the lower-right, a button works for deleting images, the Quick Menu and as a “back” button on the menus. It’s awkward, and I would have preferred more physical buttons and a larger EVF, even if it meant a slightly smaller LCD screen or a slightly larger camera.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The S3100 was a simpler camera from a simpler time. The 1.5-inch LCD screen is small and dim by today’s standards, but the viewfinder was larger (0.33 inches), and the buttons are more straightforward. I don’t care for the zoom controls being on the back. But it was quite a bit less intimidating to use.
Images courtesy of Adorama. Images courtesy of The Imaging Resource.

The 0.2-inch viewfinder on her new Panasonic is so small that she can’t see out of it, so it did not truly meet requirement #1. If Panasonic had made this camera just a little taller to accommodate a larger viewfinder, it would have made a vast difference without adding much bulk. A small handgrip on the front would have also been helpful while still keeping it in pocket camera territory.

For some reason, Panasonic opted to place the On/Off button on the outside edge of the camera so that she has to reach over it in order to get to the shutter button…which has caused her to inadvertently shut off the camera when she’s trying to snap a photo. I have read a lot of user reviews on this camera, and apparently she was far from the only one who has struggled with this problem.

By contrast, the S3100 had a deep grip for her to really wrap her hand around, and she had to turn a dial to turn it on and off. That seems wrong to me too because it did not allow for zooming in and out with the same finger that controlled the shutter button (the zoom control was on the back), but at least she didn’t find herself inadvertently turning the camera off. And, if she dropped a camera with a grip like that, her new gripless camera is even more vulnerable.

A smarter camera does not always lead to better photos

Slinky
Here’s a blurry photo from the Pets scene mode. This room gets pretty dark, but the camera SHOULD have chosen a higher ISO setting to allow for a faster shutter speed in low light to prevent the image from becoming blurry. A noisy image is better than a blurry one. Image courtesy of Mom.

Check out the mode dials on the top of each camera as well. The Fuji had four modes: auto, movie (240p, which is not even standard definition), manual and a scene mode with four scene options. But with such severe ISO limitations and a lens that ranged in maximum aperture from f2.8 to f8.7 across the zoom range, even the manual controls were quite limited.

By contrast, the Panasonic has a maximum ISO of 12,800 — and it can produce relatively noise-free images up to ISO 1600. The zoom lens ranges in maximum aperture from f2.0 to f5.9 across the zoom range, so that’s a significant improvement. It offers 10 modes: intelligent auto, program, creative control, shutter priority, aperture priority, full manual, movie (1080p full HD), a scene mode with 16 scene options, and two fully customizable modes.

My mom got overwhelmed by it all — she just wanted a camera that she could simply point and shoot. Yes, the intelligent auto mode allows that, but my hope was that she would venture out of this mode and get a little more ambitious. But the camera doesn’t do a good job of making this easy. Shutter priority mode should, by default, show the aperture, ISO and exposure values so that you can see the consequences of your shutter speed decisions. And the scene modes don’t help much either: the blurry cat photo was taken in “Pets” mode.

Bread Cornucopia
My mom took a photo of a lovely bread cornucopia she made for Thanksgiving. This room was a bit brighter, and obviously the subject was not moving around. It still looks just a tad underexposed, but it’s quite sharp.

Quite frankly, even I as a photography enthusiast struggled to find all of the settings on this camera. Trying to set up the WiFi Smart Transfer feature was an exercise in frustration, primarily because the camera’s text entry does not allow for spaces. Not very smart.

The LF1 had a lot of promise, and it does take excellent photos once you figure it out how to set it. But you shouldn’t have to set it quite so much to begin with. It should just work out of the box. Maybe the successor to the LF1 will correct these problems and be a much better camera for it.

So I have a message for the camera industry: you can come up with all of the whiz-bang features you want, but unless they work intuitively and you get the ergonomics right, you won’t sell many more dedicated cameras. If you’re not sure about how to best design something, ask yourself if it would make sense to your mom.

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