To be Subjective or Objective – Sony a7r, a7rII, a7rIII Menu & User Interface

I recently wrote a post on the Sony forum at dpreview.com regarding the Sony menu system. I have lurked dpreview for years now; it’s been a useful source of information to know what people struggle with. You can skip until the next heading (“an objectively superior…”), if you would like to avoid my prelude:

Unfortunately, many forum users struggle to separate their feelings and the subjective vs the objective. Discussions can be about something super clinical and quantifiable e.g. sensor vs sensor performance, but someone will invoke the “you don’t know how to use the camera well!” ad hominem. I think it’s the nature of photography because you have the very artistic side and you also have the technical side i.e. a computer with an imaging sensor.

One of the first posts mentions “superior canikon menus.” If you “Ctrl-F” and search “canon” or “nikon” or “canikon” you will see I have not mentioned “canikon” i.e. he fabricated a quote and was up-voted for it; moreover, my post simply did not concern brand loyalty. Sony have had lots of my money and Canon have had lots of my money; they are not owed anything from me. The responses were disappointing: many said the Sony menu is complicated, I wasn’t used to it, I was new to the forum so I must be new to Sony, etc. I wrote my original post at dpreview with my back against the wall in fear of these responses and in fear people would not follow my logic at all, but it came across a bit rude… my mistake.

I used to play computer games and one of those was a game called Guild Wars. It had over 1,300+ skills. Each skill costed a certain amount of energy to cast, it would take a certain amount of time to charge, it would recharge within a certain amount of time and it would act differently with other skills (there were more variables to consider but you get the point). One day, I sat at the NPC responsible for “selling” these skills. After a short period, I had memorised every skill and all its attributes. Memorising a camera menu with a few variables is not “complicated” to me; being a good photographer is a harder task entirely, but the technical side is trivial. When I complain about the Sony menu system, it is not because I hate Sony and it has nothing to do with another brand. It is quite simply because I think the Sony menu system is terrible (much like the menu system at this site; I understand the irony in that). This is not a brand war.

An objectively superior menu system

User interfaces and menus are such a strange thing to debate. Perhaps I am going about it the wrong way and I should show my ideas first and then discuss them?

A part of me thinks menus are really quite a subjective thing to discuss, but then the other part of me thinks there is an objective element to it. It’s kind of like how the rule of thirds works. I suspect there is something in our brain which likes the rule of thirds and this is objective, but you would struggle to prove this in an argument or at least without studying the psychology and whatnot behind it. I believe in a theoretical menu system, one which pleases users in the same way the rule of thirds composition pleases people, and a menu system that can be customised and does not require a lot of button pushes to achieve a certain task. I do not feel the Sony menu system is close to being acceptable.

The infinitely knowledgeable robot

I have thought about the Sony a7rII menu system with a robot in mind. I pretended the robot knows everything and it can only press “one” button per minute but it never presses the wrong button to enter a particular menu e.g. if it takes 100 button presses to set the white balance to 4000k and I can design a menu that takes 50 button presses, that is twice as fast and is therefore a more efficient system. This might seem silly because a robot would never use a camera obviously but I still find this a useful approach to consider at times.

The ignorant robot

Another thing to consider is an ignorant robot. Pretend you suddenly have absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the menu system. Let’s say you want to find all of the video options in the camera; is that easy? Would you know how to do it? No, you wouldn’t, because the video options are spread across various tabs for seemingly no reason at all.

Windows Comparisons

I then began to think about the custom menus. On one hand they help set up the camera quickly but on the other, I wonder if they are rather like the folders/desktop icons on a windows desktop. They don’t really address the default menu system and its layout. Consider the fact windows 10 has 2 control panels; is that logical, really?  No, it’s not logical. In saying it isn’t logical, is that criticising Windows and saying you hate Microsoft and you love Apple? No, of course not. It just is what it is, so to speak.

So far, I have various thoughts in mind for a superior menu system:

  • Video options including focusing speeds, picture profiles, APS-C settings, etc. should be completely separate to still photography so that when you have set up your video profile, it doesn’t impact still photography.
  • Video options should be in a separate tab to the stills settings, that way someone can quickly find “video settings” without much knowledge of the menu system — consider the ignorant robot.
  • Viewfinder options e.g. setting the pixel density of the viewfinder, its colour, contrast, tint, brightness, etc. should be in a separate viewfinder tab.
  • EFCS can create banding beyond 1/1000sec / 1/2000sec; therefore, an auto-disable option beyond a certain speed seems prudent.
  • The default menu order should allow customisation so that I can re-order items by priority.
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