Camera tech to the rescue…. or not?

I had a chance to use Canon’s new EOS R mirrorless this week and was reminded of something…..the latest technology doesn’t always make for better gear.

Mirrorless cameras have been around for years already, Olympus, Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fujifilm & others all have well established mirrorless systems which can make great DSLR alternatives, so there’s no shortage of options.  The big step now is in full frame, with Nikon and Canon willing to risk their own DSLR sales with the release of full-frame mirrorless camera’s like the EOS R offering reduced size and weight and the possibility of new ‘mirrorless only’ features.  Some exciting prospects are coming through but are they really a meaningful leap forward?

So back to my experience with the EOS R.  Smaller…. Check.  Lighter…. Check.  Electronic viewfinder…. Check (though I’d still prefer an optical one).  Flippy touch screen…. Check.  Image quality….. Check.  Different controls…… oh oh.   Canon have made a few…. should I say…. ‘tech driven’ changes to the controls with the EOS R which seem a little problematic to me.   Without writing a full camera review, lets just say that some of the controls are easily bumped, knocked, changed, and can be a little awkward, at least for the way I’m used to shooting.  The new touch screen for example can be used as a thumb pad to move the focus points, a brilliant idea but where’s the LCD?  Right under the eyepiece of course, so changing the focus point manually means squeezing a thumb under your face which can be a little awkward, and that’s before your nose gets in the way, not really the new nose control feature I was hoping for.  And don’t even get me started on the rear ‘touch bar’ which sends your settings all over the place, or the lens button which is so easily operated by accident.

Taken with Canon EOS R
Should I blame the technology on this one?
Taken with Canon EOR R
That’s a bit better

You may have a different experience with the EOS R, but this isn’t the first time I’ve seen technology move forwards and backwards at the same time, how about our smart phones?  Is it only me who ends calls early by tappping the screen with my ear?  Would a couple more real buttons be too much to ask?  Have you driven a new car lately?  Have you noticed how often your eyes are off the road to operate controls which are now buried in the touch screen menu’s?  No more finding radio or AC controls by feel if they’re buried in there, now that’s backwards. There are good reasons why the indicator stalk, headlights and pedals are large tactile controls.  I used to work in vehicle design, and can tell you that the migration of features into touch screens is often pushed to make a show of technology or to reduce cost, with ergonomic implications given little thought.  What are we loosing in the pursuit of sleek designs in the i-screen era?

I’m not saying the EOS R has lost all the tangible controls, that’s not quite true, it’s just that the new tech doesn’t seem to have made the controls any better, they’re actually a step backwards while most of camera is a step forwards.  Notable mentions on the EOS R though, are improvements in size, weight and image quality, the 24-105mm lens seems at least as good as existing DSLR options in the same zoom range as far as I can tell from the time I’ve had with it.

But my complaint isn’t all about the EOS R, the take away point is this, good design is more important than new technology used poorly.  If new technology doesn’t improve my photography, or help me keep my eyes on the road, then it’s probably not used well.  Would more practice with the EOS R help?  Probably, practice always makes us better, but that doesn’t change the fundamentals.

Fortunately so far it seems the other manufacturers haven’t gone down quite the same path, and given the emphasis on mirrorless these days, I’d put my bets on Canon having an alternative model available within the next year or so which addresses most of the control issues.

So what do I make of the wave of mirrorless camera’s about to enter the market?  Bring it on!  We’re in for some exciting options as the makers fight for volume, with new technology bringing new thinking, ideas, features and quality.  Lets just hope that when it comes to usability, the tech doesn’t get in the way.

John Hardiman