Reid Reviews

An Introduction To The "Common Sense" Series

The following essay is the first in a series of short essays that I originally wrote for Luminous Landscape. The series name – Common Sense – was inspired, though very loosely, by a famous pamphlet written by Thomas Paine at the time of the American Revolution (or War For Independence, as some prefer to call it). In it, he begins by writing:

“Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages,
are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favour;
a long habit of not thinking a thing wrong,
gives it a superficial appearance of being right,

and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.
But the tumult soon subsides.
Time makes more converts than reason.”

My work as a reviewer puts me in regular contact with various people in the camera industry: product managers, designers, camera engineers, optical engineers, marketing staff, etc. And through both my reviews and direct conversations with these professionals I try to give my sense of the strengths and weaknesses of a given camera or lens. My goal is not just to evaluate but, hopefully, to also offer some constructive suggestions that might be useful for the design of future equipment. My site is written primarily for serious photographers (professional and amateur) and so I concentrate my efforts on tools that may be useful to them.

Having now been in this kind of dialogue with the camera industry (directly and indirectly) for several years now I’ve found that certain themes, certain aspects of design, come up again and again. My feedback to them often relates particularly to four areas: overall ergonomics and body design, the directness and effectiveness of key controls, the ways in which one sees the subject and the effectiveness of focusing systems. And what I find is that certain ideas that I once assumed to be matters of common sense aren’t always considered in a camera’s design process. I’m certainly not the first reviewer to notice that certain basic aspects of functionality don’t always seem to make it into the designs of various cameras. Michael Reichman, for example, has long advocated for quick access to mirror lock up and controls that work when one is wearing gloves. Yet how many cameras feature both?

So I’m writing this series of articles both for people who use cameras and for those who design and manufacture them. Camera design teams, on the whole, tend to consist of very talented people who are balancing many seemingly contradictory goals. Designing an effective camera is not an easy process at all. But I offer this series as one person’s perspective on some aspects of what we might call “common sense” in camera design.

Common Sense Article One: Photographers Have Noses

As a rule, hand-held cameras are designed for people who are right-handed. The grip, shutter release, film advance lever (if there is one), shutter speed dial, top wheel, rear wheel, four-way controller, etc. are all normally placed where they can be operated by the right hand. Left-handed photographers, therefore, need to be somewhat ambidextrous to work with a typical hand-held camera.

Hand-held cameras – when they have eye level finders – also tend to be designed for a photographer who frames with his or her right eye. But, increasingly, camera designers seem to be forgetting that we have a nose right next to that eye.

When the small format (35 mm) film SLR was introduced, it was designed around three key components: the film cassette, the mirror housing/film gate and the take-up spool. Since it was assumed, in most cases, that the right thumb would operate the film advance lever, those components had to be arranged in left-to-right order – cassette chamber, mirror housing and spool. Since the camera’s eyepiece had to be centered in line with the mirror, it ended up in the middle of the camera body’s length (more or less). There really wasn’t any other place to put it. So with a camera like the Olympus OM-1, one has to rotate his or head slightly to the left, press his or her nose against the camera back and look into the finder with a slightly canted eye. Some camera designers, wisely, move the eyepiece out away from the body a bit so that it can meet the eye more easily. The modern Nikon D700, for example, is designed in this way.

Center Eyepiece, SLR, Nikon D700

But what about cameras that don’t use reflex mirrors? As far back as 1954 (and long before that, of course) rangefinder cameras were designed with window finders/eyepieces mounted on the far left side of the camera. The Leica M3, for example, was designed so that it could be held to one’s right eye with one’s nose sitting along the left side of the camera. That camera really could be “lifted to the eye” as opposed to pressed against the face (under the compression of one’s nose). Such a camera actually fits a human face – a basic ergonomic goal that some camera designers seem to have forgotten. And the M3, of course, was one of many such cameras designed in this way.

As a rule, hand-held cameras are designed for people who are right-handed. The grip, shutter release, film advance lever (if there is one), shutter speed dial, top wheel, rear wheel, four-way controller, etc. are all normally placed where they can be operated by the right hand. Left-handed photographers, therefore, need to be somewhat ambidextrous to work with a typical hand-held camera.

There’s a second benefit to having an eyepiece on the left side of the camera. With a central eyepiece, the photographer’s face is largely hidden behind the camera. The camera physically intercedes between the photographer and his or her subject. Some feel that this can be somewhat disturbing to human subjects who, when photographed, are looking more at a machine than at a human face. But when the camera sits alongside the nose and against the right eye, much of one’s face is visible to the subject. I know of many photographers who believe that such a visual connection between the subject and the photographer’s face can put people on both sides of the camera more at ease.


Left-Side Eyepiece, Window Finder: Leica M8

Allowing the nose to rest along the left side of a digital camera also keeps it away from the rear LCD screen. I find it ironic, and a little funny to be honest, that manufacturers go to great lengths to provide us with high resolution LCD screens and then place those screens where they will regularly be rubbed with nose grease, nose sunscreen, etc.

Some writers may be tempted to dismiss certain aspects of camera design (such as eyepiece location) as simply being “retro”. That is, they recognize that these design elements were present in older cameras but they may not fully appreciate the functional reasons why those components were designed as they were. The first litmus test of camera design, I would argue, should not be how “old” or “new” a given design element seems but – rather – how well it functions. Well-designed cameras include various elements that exist for functional – not fashionable – reasons. Recent camera design, as many have noticed, is not always moving forward with respect to ergonomics. In some cases, it seems to be driven much more by trendy-ness than by a clear sense of how cameras are typically used. Camera design that is truly driven by ergonomics and functionality should have the freedom to draw upon both new and old ideas.

If a camera has an eye-level electronic finder, there’s no real reason its eyepiece needs to be at the center of the camera’s length. It certainly can be mounted on the left so that it naturally sits in that small space defined by the bottom of the eye socket and the right side of the nose. The Panasonic DMC-LC1 (and the similar Leica Digilux 2), for example, were designed with a finder eyepiece on the left side of the camera. Various Minolta Dimage models, including the A1 for example, placed the finder on the left side of the camera as well (though not quite in the same position as the L1).

Why do EVF models – with eye level finders – tend to have their eyepieces located at the center of the camera body? I suspect a lot of this may be based on convention. Manufacturers often design these cameras to look like small scale DSLRs. But that design priority, per se, is based more on fashion than on function.

In the Panasonic L1 (and similar Leica Digilux 3) we see SLR cameras with eyepieces on the left side of the body. So this sort of design is possible even with an SLR (depending on its format, mirror size, etc).

Left-Side Eyepiece, SLR: Panasonic DMC-L1

For the past ten years, at least, we’ve seen camera grip design that seems to have evolved from a study of the human hand gripping clay (or some similar material). Informed in this way, designers have created grips that really do fit the contours of a human hand. I think that same sort of attention should also go to the design and positioning of camera eyepieces – and for some cameras it clearly has.

The same principle can apply to the hotshoe location on a camera that might be used with external window finders. The Ricoh GXR I reviewed recently, for example, is an excellent camera in many respects. But the designers placed the hotshoe at the center of the camera and the pop-up flash on the left side. So when one mounts either an accessory window finder or Ricoh’s eye-level EVF in that shoe, his or her nose ends up being mashed against the camera’s LCD screen. If the positions of those two components were reversed then the finder could sit on the left side of the camera. In fact, that camera is small enough that its hot shoe could very nearly be centered over the lens and still allow enough room for the nose to rest along the left side of the camera. And, indeed, the hotshoe of Ricoh’s own GR III is located in just such a position.

Of course, some cameras aren’t designed to be used up at the eye at all. But that will be a topic for another article.

And no, thank you kindly, I don’t have a giant nose. <G>

Added January 18, 2011: A photographer who read this essay recently raised the question of finder placement for left-eye dominant photographers. My wife is such a photographer and, frankly, it can be a challenge for her with any digital camera. With one’s left eye up against a centrally-located eyepiece, one’s nose often ends up on various controls. If the left eye is up against a left-side eyepiece, the nose can end up on the LCD screen. What’s the solution? At this point, I’m not sure. But I believe that eyepieces that project from the camera, as on the Nikon D700 shown above, may be helpful to left-eye dominant photographers as well as those who are right-eye dominant.

This article was first published circa January 2011 on Luminous Landscape. Many of Sean Reid's reviews, essays and other articles can be found in the subscriber section of Reid Reviews.

Reid Reviews accepts no advertising and is paid for entirely by subscribers. Written primarily for professional and serious amateur photographers the site has become known for its in-depth analysis based on both field and studio testing.