Sunday, March 21, 2021

Analog v. Digital

No, I'm not talking about analog versus digital the way you think.

In the Eighties, digital dashboards were all the rage in cars. In a Cadillac Allanté or Aston Martin Lagonda, the digital dash let you know it was sophisticated and modern. In a Chevy Corvette or Dodge Daytona Turbo Z, the digital dash let you know it was on the technological cutting edge and performance-oriented. In a Toyota Cressida or Subaru XT, the digital dash let you know it was Japanese.

It was about this time that Minolta launched the Maxxum 7000, the first interchangeable lens SLR with built-in autofocus and automatic film transport. While the lens aperture and focus were controlled via a mechanical linkage to motors in the camera body, adjustments were performed via electronic buttons. 

Shortly after, Canon's new Electro Optical System cameras severed all mechanical connection between the lens and the body. Focus and aperture adjustments on EOS cameras were (and still are) controlled by motors and electromagnets in the lens itself, with commands relayed via electrical contacts to the camera body. 

The current setting for shutter speed and aperture is displayed on an LCD screen on the camera and adjusted by twiddling a dial or dials. Cheaper cameras make do with a lone dial. In Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority, the dial adjusts the user-selected variable. In manual mode, one would need to rely on a button to serve as a sort of shift key to allow the single dial to switch between shutter speed and aperture.

LCD display and single control wheel of a Canon EOS Rebel S, which was Canon's entry level 35mm camera in 1991

This will be familiar to modern DSLR shooters since it's basically the same control layout used on most interchangeable lens cameras to this day. Even Canon and Nikon's pro bodies were dual-dial setups by the Nineties and, with good ergonomics, these can be super-efficient. Values for aperture or shutter speed can be manipulated with finger or thumb without taking one's eye away from the viewfinder, with the values indicated in the finder itself.

Thing is, if you pick up a powered-down camera, there's usually no way to tell, at a glance, what the settings are. 

Which brings me to Fujifilm's digital offerings, like this X-T2. They buck the trend with manual, analog, click detent knobs. They've got locking buttons to keep you from inadvertently jostling settings, and the knurled texturing and positive detents make them a joy to use.

Fujifilm X-T2 with Zeiss Touit 32mm f/1.8

When I was using the Sony NEX-5T, a7, and a7 II for work, my biggest complaint about them...well, other than the dismal battery life...was that their physical controls and internal menus systems felt like they'd been designed and laid out by some guy who was transferred to Sony's camera arm from the stereo controls or medical imaging printer division the week before; there was no... no... no camera-ness to them. 

They're slowly getting better with each iteration, but it's an uphill slog for them; Sony basically bought their way into the serious camera biz by acquiring the remains of Minolta's camera operations from Konica Minolta. Their photographic lineage is about as deep as the roots of Birnam Wood; their heritage is video and consumer point & shoots, and it shows.

Fuji's offerings are the opposite of that. The hardware and software feels like it was done by camera nerds who've lived photography all their lives. They know their target market.