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Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy'

John Duder is back, sharing his wisdom on buying cameras and why you should, if possible, actually get hold of the camera you wish to own before spending any cash.

| General Photography
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Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': Amber Belle and the camera that started the whole thing off for me.

 Amber Belle and the camera that started the whole thing off for me.

 

Amber and the camera and the ergonomics

A little while ago, I lent my entry-level Olympus mirrorless camera to Amber Belle because she was looking to buy a camera and it seemed sensible to try a few different types. The Olympus is a tiny and beautiful camera, and I’m even rather fond of the standard zoom lens which folds itself away and allows me to fit the camera in a jacket pocket. I thought it might be the ideal camera for a stylish lady, and I couldn’t have been more wrong.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': How fingernails relate to the buttons on a compact MFT camera

How fingernails relate to the buttons on a compact MFT camera

 

The problem is that Amber wears her nails long, and that means that she can’t operate the very small push buttons with which the camera is well equipped. A Nikon D7000 proved much more to her taste; so much so, that within two days, she'd bought one of her own! For many years, I’ve been telling people they should 'try before they buy', but this was far and away the clearest demonstration of the truth of this advice.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': Amber took to the much larger body of a Nikon at once, and bough one of her own within two days.

Amber took to the much larger body of a Nikon at once and bought one of her own within two days.

 

I know I’ve got it wrong in this area more than once: vie bought a camera (or an accessory) on the basis of a review or a paper specification and it’s proved in practice to be difficult to use and very poor value for money. This has led me into interesting territory thinking about ergonomics and our cameras and lenses, and the various forces driving things.

First off, let’s look at the least ergonomic camera you own: your smartphone. No handgrips here, and a certain lack of dedicated buttons for altering settings that we tend to expect with higher-bracket cameras. Everything is done on and through the screen. Any add-ons that may help (like the once-ubiquitous selfie stick, or a gimbal) make it much less mobile.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': There’s no handgrip on a flat plate of a device…

There’s no handgrip on a flat plate of a device…

 

You can help yourself, even if the designers haven’t done that much to make it easy: notably, very many camera phones allow you to use the volume controls as the shutter release, so that you can squeeze instead of tapping, and can keep a better grip on the device as you take the picture. Given the regularity with which I put my finger around exactly the wrong edge of my own mobile, a camera in the corner isn’t a great idea. Who knew?

This leads me to the least ergonomic part of many modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras - the touch screen. I believe there’s something rather perverse going on here, and it grates on my psyche as much as the people with a big petal lens hood on back to front as they shoot. As novice camera users, converting from smartphones for the first time, are used to a touch screen for doing everything, the manufacturers give them one, and it’s a natural upgrade path, so to speak.

Much less natural for anyone who is used to shooting with a real camera: the old idea that you should be able to adjust everything important with your eye at the viewfinder goes right out of the window if you have to look at the back of the camera and dab at it to change things! Especially odd, I find, when camera manufacturers usually work hard at keeping the same control layout from one model to the next.

My car has a touch screen, and it’s really useful for putting the destination in before I set off. But it’s a poor second to the controls on the steering wheel for adjusting the radio. With a car, there are real risks to life, limb and license if you look away to use a touchscreen, and the fact that it’s only convenience you’re throwing away with a camera touchscreen merely means the latter is less important. But convenience seems to be important to most of us: does anyone reading this get up to go and change the channel on the TV?

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy':

Touch screens are wonderful for complex data input, or for swiping - but why bother when you don’t need to take your hands off the wheel, or the camera from your eye?

 

I use Sony Alpha 7 bodies, and I find them just about ideally suited to my hands, which aren’t particularly large. I tend not to take pictures in extreme circumstances, but I know that I find it less convenient to operate the controls wearing gloves! It’s a common complaint from wildlife and sports photographers that Sony bodies are too small to hold and operate, and they prefer the Panzer tank-like Canon and Nikon professional bodies. These have premium price tags and offer high ISO performance, particularly rapid autofocus, and a degree of weatherproofing and robustness that nothing else matches. Maybe Panasonic’s first full-frame mirrorless cameras were aimed at the same market.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': I find the Alpha 7 bodies easy to carry one-handed, without using the strap.

I find the Alpha 7 bodies easy to carry one-handed, without using the strap

 

A feature of ‘professional’ bodies is that they carry two batteries and have an inbuilt vertical grip. Some people I’ve met seem to like this, but I find the unwieldiness of that much bulk and mass (usually with a 70-200 f/2.8 lens on the front) absolutely intimidating. If you want to travel rapidly, would you buy a Range Rover or an Audi TT? Photographically, I want to move fast…

I own two vertical grips: one was free with my old Olympus in around 2014, and I used it sometimes. No particular increase in convenience, though the extra battery capacity could be welcome: the other was a motor drive for my Minolta 9000, bought because I found a secondhand one going cheap. Its raison d'être was to give rapid firing to the only manual wind autofocus camera ever made… And so it carried six AA batteries and a quite powerful motor. The vertical grip was more or less incidental!


Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': A vertical grip can be an asset, but is not always so. I’d think hard about using one for pictures where I have to carry the equipment far. Most are bigger and heavier than the one on an OM-D EM-1.

A vertical grip can be an asset but is not always so. I’d think hard about using one for pictures where I have to carry the equipment far. Most are bigger and heavier than the one on an OM-D EM-1.

 

I don’t pretend to understand the science and art of ergonomics, but I do know that sometimes it all goes slightly wrong. For instance, Subaru had the brilliant idea of putting the on/off/volume control on car radios where the driver can reach it with minimal movement, on the right side of the radio: I loved it, and my wife occasionally ‘turned up the volume’ to hear better, and retuned the radio… A more telling example of perversity in action is the way that British cars, with the steering wheels on the right, have indicators on the left, the same side as the gear lever. Trafficators on the left make sense for a left-hand drive car… Interestingly, Subarus imported from Japan tend to have controls that are perfectly adjusted to right-hand drive, as they don’t need to conform to a European standard.

Over the years, most things improve, and the handgrips and finger holds of cameras are a case in point – those on the Olympus OM-D cameras don’t protrude very far, but allow a good grip for both using and carrying the camera: the once-innovative grip of an early EOS film camera are far less finger-friendly.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': Minimal grips in size, but perfectly positioned for many hands on the OM-D EM-10

Minimal grips in size, but perfectly positioned for many hands-on the OM-D EM-10

 

There’s been a similar development in focus control, where early autofocus cameras had narrow rings that were hard to grip, and which suffered from sloppiness and backlash. I suspect that there’s a simple reason for the poor feel – in engineering terms, the designers were minimising the power needed to focus, and the time it took, requiring a very free-moving mechanism, rather than the beautifully-damped arrangements in manual focus lenses. Newer lenses, where the focus ring is merely an electronic input control sending signals to the AF motor, usually offer a wide grip and delightful weighting.

There’s currently a lot of debate about the benefits of having aperture controls on the lens, and some manufacturers, notably Fuji, are providing a very retro feel and experience. I’m not sure that it’s necessarily a better way to arrange things than the little wheel next to the shutter release, but it does allow a different division of functions between two hands, and if you have never used a camera with input wheels it will definitely be more instinctive. But I honestly feel that part of the brilliance of Canon’s early AF cameras was in the completely ‘other’ nature of the controls, and the way that the design pushed people towards operating everything at eye level, with readouts in the viewfinder, rather than rings and cursor marks on the lens. Minolta’s push/pull controls were decidedly second best. Those wheels made everything slicker and quicker: generally, touchscreens have the opposite effect!

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': Minolta push-pull adjustment controls compared with Canon wheel. The Minolta control is the grey button in front of the letter A, and moving more than one step required repeated pulls or pushes. The only advantage of the 9000 over the equally-ancient EOS 620 is that it has a second control, positioned on the left side of the mirror box. Thoughtful – but not ergonomically right in practice!

Minolta push-pull adjustment controls compared with Canon wheel. The Minolta control is the grey button in front of the letter A, and moving more than one step required repeated pulls or pushes. The only advantage of the 9000 over the equally-ancient EOS 620 is that it has a second control, positioned on the left side of the mirror box. Thoughtful - but not ergonomically right in practice!

 

I threw a wild card into the mix when I put a Leica in the box of cameras that I took to Aimee’s house so we could shoot the majority of illustrations for this article. It’s not a camera that encourages a vastly high frame rate, although once you are used to shooting with one, you can whip through 36 exposures in a minute – and that’s enough for anyone who is working under normal conditions. The Leica made an important point when I handed it to Aimee: you can choose to work with the camera’s ergonomics or defy them. With the viewfinder at one end of the body and the film advance lever at the opposite one, it’s absolutely definitively a right-eyed camera. That way, you can wind the film at eye level – put it to your left eye, and it simply doesn’t work.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': Left-eyed use of a Leica M-6

Left-eyed use of a Leica M-6

 

It’s like the classic camera grip that Aimee demonstrates with the Nikon: it’s used a lot because it works well, and provides stability as well as easy access to all the controls. Right index finger on the shutter release, easily sliding to the front control wheel, left hand gripping the zoom ring (or, with a manual focus camera, the focus ring). It works.

But there’s one last question that it’s worth asking yourself after you’ve made sure a camera fits your hands and suits your needs, unless you see it purely as a tool for earning money, and that is something that’s all about emotions – does it feel lovely? And that takes me right back to the subject of my previous article here, the most decidedly unergonomic Exakta cameras. We practice photography, I think, because it’s fun, and I’ll freely admit that part of the fun for me is in playing with the machinery. Including Exaktas: although you can’t advance the film with the camera at eye level. Despite the bodies that (far from having a finger grip) taper away, and the arcane controls, the Exakta is a camera that I enjoy using every single frame of the way.

 

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy': It’s not ergonomic, but it’s beautiful – Exakta VX

It’s not ergonomic, but it’s beautiful - Exakta VX

 

And that is something that you may want to consider when you’re eyeing up that new model that you really fancy after reading the reviews, and it’s the bottom line on ergonomics: a balance between operability and giving the feel of a high-quality product. That’s where the brilliance of Fuji’s designers shows through, from the start of their EVF cameras - everyone has the heft and operational delight of a good mechanical film camera. That’s no small achievement. It may be the right one for you...

Camera handling is something that will never be a ‘one size fits all’ proposition. There are photographers whose right eye isn’t up to the demands of focussing, or who have other disabilities that require that they do it differently. And bodies (as well as fingernails) are inconveniently different. So it’s worth remembering that what suits you may not be so good for others, and they will have good reasons to choose differently.

And I am incredibly grateful to both Amber Belle and Aimee (aka Aimee is Weirdd) for their help in producing this article, and illustrating it. Should you want to put either (or both) of them in front of your camera, you can find their portfolios by searching Purpleport.com, and joining as a free member if you want to book them.

Why You Should Always 'Try Before You Buy':  Happy camera use: Amber with a Nikon, and fingernails.

 Happy camera use: Amber with a Nikon, and fingernails.

 

About Author: John Duder 

John Duder has been an amateur photographer for fifty years, which surprises him, as he still reckons he’s 17. He’s welcomed the easing of restrictions and the chance it’s provided to go back to model photography, and he’s also been running occasional lighting workshops with Misuzu. He remains addicted to cameras, lenses, and film.

 

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Comments


dudler Plus
19 2.1k 2018 England
23 Feb 2022 2:24PM
It was almost as if this didn't want to be written - I had to keep at the writing (and illustrating!)

Amber and Aimee were both absolute stars along the way: and you can see pictures of both of them in my portfolio here - some of the pictures are nudes, though, so be warned.
23 Feb 2022 6:31PM
Great article John.
When fellow photographers at my camera club tell me they are going to buy a drone I tell them to have a go with mine first to see if they get on with it. One lady friend of mine had a drone for Christmas and asked me to help her fly it. She had tried on her own and ended running across the local common to retrieve it. I helped her pair up the drone to her mobile phone, did all the necessary checks and lifted the machine in the air with the 'expert' me in control we both watched as it got to about ten feet high and suddenly headed away from us never to be seen again. The lesson was learned that you get what you pay for and I advised her to let me come with her when she wanted to buy another....

SteveSmile
dudler Plus
19 2.1k 2018 England
23 Feb 2022 9:37PM
Oops!

But they are addictive, just as you told me last year...
pablophotographer 11 2.2k 444
23 Feb 2022 11:52PM
"A camera is a tool that can both stop time and record the moment stopped.

Please extend your arm and look at your hand as it makes a gesture to halt/stop.

Notice that your thumb is located far below than the tip of your index finger.

The tip of your index fires the shutter, your thumb turns the film advance lever, which is naturally located at the bottom of this ergonomic camera body. Arigato."

Extract from a discussion with the designer of the Fujica SE 35mm rangefinder I had with in the year 1956.
I have some peculiar dreams, lol.

(That was the first "proper" camera I took pictures with. It was my uncle's).

pablophotographer


pablophotographer 11 2.2k 444
24 Feb 2022 12:33AM
My own Kodak Ektra 100, the 110 film pocket camera with the plastic cover which doubled as grip had exactly the same shutter/winder configuration too!
pablophotographer
kaybee 19 8.6k 28 Scotland
24 Feb 2022 9:25AM
I used to get asked by new camera club member "Which is the best camera to buy" - I always told them there is no 'best' camera (competition means they are all good) and they needed to go to a camera shop and play with them to find out which one felt right in their hands .... if it doesn't feel right, it wont get used.
24 Feb 2022 2:05PM
Great article John and I am pleased someone else shares my lack of enthusiasm for touchscreens. I switch them off; I also switch off the 'instant review' feature if that's what you call it when the image is displayed immediately after shooting.
dudler Plus
19 2.1k 2018 England
25 Feb 2022 9:39AM
Andrew - I do that as well, with my Alpha 7: with mirrorless, the instant review image tends to interrupt shooting, as it comes up in the viewfinder as well as on the screen. Owners of other brands - please correct me if your camera allows shooting to proceed unhindered with the review image flashing up on the rear screen but not in the viewfinder.
1948custom 15 6 United Kingdom
27 Feb 2022 9:33AM
I agree with you, try before you buy but not many manufacturers and retailers will actually allow you to 'test & try ' a camera for a reasonable time before you buy one. In my limited experience you actually have to purchase the model you're interested in first and then if you don't get on with it , return it for a credit or refund against something else, and not at the price you paid for it as it has now become 'a prior owned or used' example.
However Panasonic used to have a free loan scheme that allowed me to try an S1R and 2 lenses for a week last year, which decided me on NOT buying it for many reasons.

Ian-Jones 19 134 2 United Kingdom
27 Feb 2022 1:18PM
Hi Andrew. I agree the kit egrogomics make a massive difference, and I'm no lover of touchscreens either, but like with the Leica you could fight it or go with it. When I (re)started photography in 2001 I read the EXIF/kit list of photos I liked and reasoned if that's what was needed to take the shot, that's what you got (if you could afford it). That philosophy informed my choices when I went digital in 2007. It had to be full-frame to continue taking landscape and architecture pictures, but boy was the Canon 5D much heavier and bulkier than my Pentax 35mm FSLR's. I haven't got big hands either, but had to learn to live with grips etc on the 5D (1-4) and the even bigger 1DS3 and 1DX tanks Wink.

The move to even bigger cameras was forced by giving airhow photography a go. This is where try before you buy, or more accurately hire when you can't afford it, made it possible Wink. I hired my first big prime (500mm) in 2010, and a pro body plus lens the next year. Since then, the number of companies hiring out camera bodies and lenses has grown, as has the range of kit on offer, and in some cases the hire prices have dropped in real terms. Unfortunately, that kit is semi-pro or pro, so not helpful if people want to try out prosumer models.

However, the camera shops will still allow you to leave the shop to get a few test shots. Not so long ago, I was PXing a 5DIV for a 1DX at Camera World and swanned off with the 1DX for 30 mins. The guy didn't bat an eyelid, but then I had left the 5D and the rest of my gear in the shop so he didn't need a deposit Wink All you've got to do is ask...
dudler Plus
19 2.1k 2018 England
27 Feb 2022 9:20PM
I agree that for really testing work, you need more than a few minutes: but you can narrow the choice down in a camera shop, and hire to really check things.

And, in terms of using kit, there's real benefit in building a strong relationship with one dealer: that way, they can grow to trust you. My own favourite, where I have shopped a lot over the last dozen years, is LCE in Derby. Their secondhand shelf always attracts my attention, and I find the staff knowledgeable and helpful. It's also interesting that repeat buyers often get a little bit of discount along with the service. That doesn't happen when you're buying from a website.
thewilliam2 6 1.6k United Kingdom
28 Feb 2022 10:42AM
Thanks to Dudler for a very sensible article.

When I chose my long-term brand, something over 50 years ago, there were plenty of camera shops and most had a good selection of different makes that punters could handle. It was then and is now also possible to try out cameras at a Camera Club practical evening, which is cheaper than hiring!

The great advantage of choosing a camera that we positively like using is that we're far more able to resist the urge to "upgrade" after we've "made friends with our camera" as the late great Albert Ridgely of Leica used to put it.

It took the most appalling unreliability of the later models of my chosen marque, like 4 meter repairs in quick succession to make me change to what had been my second choice. Changing lens-mount proved very expensive and I've been able to do it just once. Luckily Nikon has kept the same mount and I still have some of those original lenses more than 40 years later..
thewilliam2 6 1.6k United Kingdom
28 Feb 2022 10:51AM
I should have added that I'm very glad that so many punters don't choose sensibly and make friends with their cameras.

Frequent and needless upgrading puts a lot of excellent and almost unused cameras on the market so that impecunious image-makers can buy them at an affordable price.
dudler Plus
19 2.1k 2018 England
28 Feb 2022 4:47PM
A very good point, William!

I agree - secondhand cameras are a boon to all of us who aren't keen to pay as much as possible, as soon as possible. And the idea of asking a friend if you can have a go with their long-term friends is also sensible!

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