Manual camera controls – useful?

One of Fujifilm’s cameras standout features is the amount of manual control dials. Same is now true with the new Nikon Z FC camera. Are those control knobs and levers nostalgy or a useful thing in a camera that apparently only some understand to benefit by choosing a camera brand/model with such controls?

I once thought that this is what I also need to really be in control of the photo taking and especially the exposure process. But in reality with digital cameras the control is always divided between manual dials and the camera’s programming. Camera program can override some settings of yours and programmed AF/exposure indications can lead your thoughts to results, that aren’t really so thought out – by yourself.

My experience with Fujifilm’s dials and settings were mostly confused. I get the idea, but in real life I felt I couldn’t think all the aspects at the same time. I mean: shutter speed, aperture, ISO (especially if I resorted to AUTO ISO), focus point, focus mode, metering area etc.

I owned during the film era a Contax 167MT camera. It had spot metering, and when I determined the right exposure, I turned the same collar-switch from spot metering to AEL. THAT was logical and simple and using it became second nature. It had also exposure compensation dial. Manual focusing and aperture ring in the lens combined a camera that was very simply and straightforward to use.

Somehow I could not get similar experience with modern technology Fujifilm X-H1. What was the difference? I believe the difference is the amount of variables and the confusion of which variables you control yourself and which ones you leave for the camera. I know I did take a lot of better images with the Fujifilm than I did with Contax, but still I found myself confused during the picture taking process.

What was on the other hand better control scheme was a burden for simple shooting. There was no “nullify” button to reset all the settings to some “middle-ground” setting. You had to check every time Aperture of lens, ISO setting, Exposure compensation, Focus mode, focus area, metering area – and if you happened to choose adventurous film simulation – the film simulation that worked best for the situation (in case you wanted to share the JPEGs straigh without post processing). And with quite loose aperture ring in all my Fujinon lenses the aperture ring was very sensitive to turn from it’s position between shots if you put the camera in bag. This kind of camera is a nightmare to share to someone else for a quick snapshot. You just cannot do that with Fujifilm, better buy some other camera brand. So, Fujifilm’s camera became a personal tool that worked for me, if I had good memory of what settings I used last time and remembered to check everything before pressing the shutter.

And this all considering the Fujifilm X-H1 is one of the best mirrorless digital cameras you can (probably still) buy. It’s image quality is top, even with high ISOs. It’s ergonomics belongs to the top also. It has very durable body, and unbelievably silent mechanical shutter. And the shutter button was really unique. A camera with not battery consuming ink-top-display, checked. And still, by even today’s standards, high resolution electronic viewfinder.

All things considered I value the experience. My experience with Fujifilm was not good. I always wanted a bigger viewfinder and bigger sensor as I do a lot of indoor sports photography (horse sports). I also wanted some lenses that weren’t covered by Fuji now or in foreseeable future (especially a 85mm equivalent fast focusing and wide aperture lens). And I wanted a “green mode” where all the settings are “normalized” for quick snapshots.

So in the end I gave up with Fuji and changed brands, though I am personally against making big switches and losing money in the process. For my defense I must say that at the time I bought into Fuji there was not a mirrorless FF option I could consider. Sony’s at that time sounded like machine guns and horses don’t like such sounds.

Now Nikon, that took my money for a Z6 II, has published the Z fc APS-C -model with all those dials (except aperture ring on lens). Guess what I think. Okay, I am polite and don’t say anything. At least Nikon is not offering ONLY such cameras.

I do like the look of the Z fc. It really looks as beautiful as one of the most beautiful film cameras ever, Nikon FM2, looked like. I always wanted one, but had my Canons and Pentaxes and Contaxes and never stepped into Nikon territory.

If we talk about beauty of cameras in the film era I cannot but say that Contax cameras were for me the most beautiful ones, especially the newer ones. But they weren’t very manual anymore (like Contax 167MT, Aria or G). But from Nikon realm the simple looking FM2 always made me jeallous. But even if such cameras are otherwise “replicated” I certainly expect digital version of such to be full frame. Though Nikon marketing probably now knows what customers, or at least enough customers, are ready to buy (now means the era after the “1”). And I must say, happy shooting to anyone owning a Z fc. Beautiful camera that is.

Well. My main point here was to say that manual controls are difficult to implement on a camera so that they really enhance the experience of photo taking. Psychologically any amount of automatisation combined with those manual controls makes, at least me, unable to be in control but rely too much on the automatisation, and fail.

And my experiences with Fuji aren’t probably such that many people feel the same way as I do. I though recognized a bit of “religious cult” attitude in me when switching from the brand. I really had similar experience than what cultists do, that there is no “proper life” outside. And how wrong I was when I was concentrating to some details instead of the “big picture”.

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