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Some camera UI thoughts

One of the nice things I like about my a700 is that the camera is designed to be speedy and easily used in a lot of situations. The designers got a lot right (with a few things wrong) when they put it together.

The first thing that you see when you look at an a700 is that it has a ton of buttons. A veritable assload, even. There’s dedicated buttons for many common functions and a few general use buttons too. The top panel buttons include Drive mode, White Balance, ISO, and exposure compensation. The backside buttons are the Autoexposure lock, AF/MF toggle, the metering mode switch, the Fn (function) button, the C (custom) button, and the standard array of Menu, Display, Delete, and Playback on the left side. The first thing about these buttons is that they’re all dedicated. They do not duplicate functions in shooting mode or in playback. Some shooting buttons do have functions in playback mode, but they don’t do TWO playback or TWO shooting functions, for instance. The playback functions are clearly marked in blue color as well. This means that when you press the WB button, you always get White Balance, no matter what. Same for Drive and ISO too. You’ll never have a button that does one thing in A mode versus P mode, for instance. They’re very consistent in their usage.

All of the shooting buttons are also located within the reach of your right hand. You can reach your thumb up and touch the WB or ISO buttons (drive is a bit of a stretch for me) without removing your eye from the viewfinder, and your changes show up in the viewfinder screen. You don’t need to remove the camera from your eye to make changes. The buttons are also large and set into the body differently for each one. This way you can tell them apart by touch. The WB and ISO buttons are countersunk into the body shell, while the Drive button is not. The exposure comp button is a dish shaped top instead of a dome shaped top. The AF/MF toggle is not countersunk but it is recessed within the body to prevent accidental activation, and the AEL button is set within the metering mode switch. This is also important for another shooting scenario – gloves. The buttons are large enough and spaced far enough apart that it’s very easy to operate the camera on a cold winter’s day wearing a set of heavy Thinsulate gloves. In my climate this is quite useful as I like to go spotting in the wintertime and having gloves is a requirement.

The other great thing about the buttons is that most are duplicated on the vertical grip. The exposure comp, AEL, AF/MF, joystick, C, and Fn buttons are duplicated for portrait shooting so you can minimize turning the camera over again. Given the auto-rotation of the a700’s screen, it makes it almost painless to shoot vertically. This is in addition to the true grip of the vertical grip with the shutter aligned with the viewfinder, just like it is when you shoot horizontally. You can operate QuickNavi in portrait just as easily as you can in landscape, too.

This all comes together to form a consistent user interface that obeys its own rules. It’ll frustrate you in other ways – namely the fact that there are no button locks save for turning the camera off (there is a command dial software lock) and that there’s no AF point lock/selector switch. Changing AF point mode via quicknavi is OK to me, but there should be a switch on the camera around the joystick that enables locking the selected AF point when in multi-AF point select mode. Some have complained about the lack of no lock on the  mode dial, but I’ve never had it move accidentally.

The newer entry level Sonys have ditched the physical SteadyShot switch, which I am actually OK with if they do this on the a700 replacement – so long as its changeable via QuickNavi. The problem with physical switches is that their settings can’t be saved with user memories. They’re always fixed to their settings on the actual switch itself. Your custom memories can’t have AF-S or AF-C, for instance, nor can they have SteadyShot on or off. The risk is that setting custom memories with settings different than the switches can lead to a conflict issue – the physical switch says one thing while the memory does another. Sony’s tack with not saving the custom memories for the switches today works with that metaphor, so you don’t wind up in that situation.

Could the a700 use more buttons or dials (not just lock switches)? Maybe. The C (custom) button solves my want for a flash exposure compensation button. It does the job very well. I would like to see the actual exposure comp button have a custom function to do flash exposure comp, though. Pressing it and using the rear dial could adjust flash comp, while the front button adjusts normal compensation, for instance. Today, both dials do the same thing when you press the button. I would also like the Trash button to be able to format the memory card without having to go into a menu. For instance, you could hold the Trash button and the Fn button together for a second to get a formatting prompt. Most other needs are fulfilled by the C button – your pet function, be it Creative Styles, quality, DRO, etc, can all be set using that button. Perhaps Sony could add an additional C2 (custom 2) button, but I’m not sure where they’d put it.

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