Film diaries: The importance of hapatics and tactility, part one

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Spot the odd one out of this bunch. (Hint, it’s not the M9-P because the image isn’t low-key, or because it’s the only Leica in a bunch of Nikons.) It’s also not the F2 Titan because it requires no electrons to operate. Let’s try another set:

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It’s not the Nikon because it’s autofocus; well, in a way, it partially is. What most of the lenses and cameras in the two sets have in common is a rather nebulous concept generally known as ‘feel’; it’s the impression you get through your hands when you handle and use an object. The odd men out are the D600 and 28/1.8 G respectively – for the simple reason that if you’ve handled any of the others in the group, you’ll feel like there’s something missing: in short, they’ll be the pieces of equipment you’re least likely to want to pick up and use if given free rein. I’ve got three Carl Zeiss lenses for my Hasselblad 501C: the 4/120 Makro-Planar is my least favorite because the focusing ring is a bit stiff and not as pleasant to use as the other two; it’s exacerbated by the long throw making it more of a chore. This is a shame, because optically, it’s the best of the three by some margin – and that’s saying something seeing as all of the lenses are excellent.

The D600, too, falls into this category: it simply feels like a cheap, plasticky consumer appliance when you pick it up. It might have been engineered to take a certain specified amount of punishment before giving up or breaking, but there is something in the way it’s put together, the choice of materials, the feel in the hand…that simply makes you know deep down that you’ll be replacing it in a year or two. This is of course a shame, because there’s nothing wrong with the camera at all: it has an excellent sensor, a comprehensive feature set, solid and accurate autofocus, and a low-vibration shutter that makes for easy handholding at lower speeds. Yet…given the choice of the D600, D700 and D800E in my camera cabinet, I always pick up the D700 or D800E – even if the former might not have sufficient resolution for some tasks, and the latter might be overkill and require extra stable support.

It does seem that in the digital age, manufacturers have largely forgotten how to make cameras that inspired confidence and simply felt right in the hands, making you want to pick them up, feel them, and use them. Even the flagship cameras somehow just don’t feel the same; there’s a solidity to the F2 Titan that’s somewhat diminished in the F6, and completely gone in the D800/D4. I don’t think it’s a weight thing; F2 Titan, F6 and D800 are all in the same ballpark. Heavier doesn’t always feel better; I don’t like the Pentax 6×7 at all, for instance. Maybe it’s down to the thickness of the metal used, or the amount of give, or the choice of leatherette/ rubber. Who knows.

What I do know for certain is that you are far more likely to pick up and want to use a camera that feels good; this in turn means you’ll actually want to go out and take pictures with it, which indirectly could possibly improve the quality of your images through practice*. (This is of course not to say that you can’t make a great image with a lens that feels horrible and plasticky – any of the cheap 50/1.8s are a testament to that.) Interestingly, the lack of choice seems to boil down to cost cutting, as usual. Leica M cameras – both film and digital – have a solidity and heft about them that inspires confidence, even if the film ones are tricky to load, and the digital ones have a habit of eating SD cards. They’re not particularly heavy, either, but they clearly aren’t built to a cost – just look at retail prices these days.

*Oh dear, I seem to have made an (admittedly somewhat circuitous) argument that your camera actually does matter…to be continued in part two!

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Comments

  1. johncarvill says:

    Yes indeed. I guess they had to compromise something (or maybe, just leave something out to encourage more D800 purchases) on the D600, but yes the camera does feel a bit plasticky and ‘neither here nor there’ when you handle it. To be honest, I feel the same way, to an extent, about the D800. I recently upgraded from a D300s to a D700 – partly on the strength of your excellent ‘long term review’ article, partly because the D700 was always the model I fancied, always seemed like the ‘sweet spot’ in the Nikon lineup. Anyway, the D700 feels very similar to the D300s, but with two important differences: one is the weight, the D700 being a good bit heavier; the other is the subtly different grip (the built in one, not the battery grip), which to my hands feels slightly yet noticeably less comfortable tan that of the D300s. The D700 is, I think, the best camera I have ever owned, but it is not *quite* as ergonomic as the D300s, which is a much maligned and overlooked model, or at least it was – used prices are holding well, far better than the more popular D7000. The D800, meanwhile, while not as bad as the D600, does feel markedly less comfortable in the hand than either the D700 or the D300s. And teh new Nikon Df, when I finally got to see one ‘in the metal’, turned out to be even worse. It’s a shame that such ‘big’ cameras as NIkon DSLRs have moved away from comfort and a recognition of the importance of ‘feel’. I wonder what the forthcoming D800s (or D800x) will be like? Identical, body wise, to the D800 presumably. I wish they’d put the D800e sensor in a D700 body.

    • The D300s holds value well because there is still no perceived replacement – even though I think that niche was filled by the D7000/7100. And I’m sure Nikon would like the advanced amateurs/ prosumers to migrate up to full frame in the form of a D600 or Df. The D800E is frankly too much camera for most people to handle; ergonomically I agree: it isn’t great, though adding the battery grip helps. I still think the F6 wins the ergonomic small body trophy…

      • johncarvill says:

        I’ve never fancied any of the ‘integral grip’ models. Of course they make sense for (some) pros, but for my tastes they’re too bulky and ugly. I actually ordered a D7000 a couple of years ago, sight unseen, based on reviews, etc. I was upgrading my old D70. After ordering a D7000, I had a play with one in a shop and quickly changed my order to a D300s: even using the D7000 for a few minutes in the shop made my hand ache, the grip was far too small, causing my fingers to cramp up against the body. The D300s, the minute I took it out of that magic golden Nikon box, was the first digital camera I ever felt affection for, it was a joy to hold and use. Seems to me the D300s is the ‘forgotten man’ of Nikon DSLRs. To my mind, the D300s comprehensively trashes the D7000. In fact, the D300s even has some advantages over the D700: 100% viewfinder, dual memory card slots, etc. That said, the D700 has now replaced the Nikon F3 in my affections, no mean feat!

        • They’re functionally ugly :) But I do find the ergonomics better, especially the extra mass damping for use with heavy lenses.

          • John Carvill says:

            I can’t afford heavy lenses! Only joking. I mainly do street photography, so a simple prime is enough for me.

  2. I enjoyed reading this – I believe that the way a camera feels in your hand when you operate it makes a big difference. Its something that if not often commented on and its arguably very subjective. But for those who are receptive to this it can make all the difference. In that respect I always loved to use my old Nikon FE.

  3. Fred Mueller says:

    Ming,

    Add the battery grip (by Nikon) to the D600 and, for me, it becomes a much better camera altogether – prefer it gripped now to my D700 in nearly every way, especially the quieter shutter. I never thought that would happen when I got it (the sensor in my 700 failed). When I pick up the 700 now it feels a little clunky. Just goes to show how we adjust. Could not see mucking about with 36 mpx for the property shooting I do (paid work). The gripped 600 is nearly perfect for handling my 14-24, which I use most, much better than the un-gripped 700 was, and the 700 with its grip was just getting too big. That lens with the 24 mpx Sony sensor is just stone cold amazing.

    But for purity of purpose and simple classic functionality, my old FE with my 28mm 2.8 AI-s close focus is hard to beat – small, beautifully tactile (camera and lens), and will no doubt easily outlive any DSLR I have right now or will ever have. That and the joy of shooting slides, which I still love for the physical thing that they are (reality is NOT virtual).

    For my pocket (almost) its been my LX5 – which I like for the aspect ratio switch it has, which I find marvelous. You talk eloquently about seeing composition, but very rarely mention aspect ratio. ?? Or rather, the tyranny of 3:2. There is something quite liberating about a camera that so easily switches ratio as the LX series does, or rather, allows you to see a variety of ratios with such ease. I also like that you can set the zoom function to discreet steps – 24, 35, 50, 75 and 90 (eq. 35mm). Long ago I developed a feel for seeing in these classic lengths, so I like being able to assess a shot as being “35ish” (for instance), and being able to set the camera to that length and then work the shot to my satisfaction … coupled with the ratio switch and you’ve got a terrific familiar little zoo of lengths and crops to work with – love it.

    cheers

    Fred

    • Not a huge fan of the bulk of battery grips – I used to be, but now I’m finding I even take it off my OM-D. There’s no question I prefer the output to the D700, but not the operation (aside from live view and shutter vibration) – the D700’s AF is still superior, as are the controls.

  4. The offer that Olympus did including the free battery grip is why I switched from Fuji to Olympus (as well as the dubious Fuji AF!) – it was expensive to justify on its own, but without it, I find it ergonomically frustrating

    • Damn, I must have missed that. The battery grip was (and still is) 1/3rd the price of the damn camera. Agree on the ergonomic frustration; I can live without the vertical (and have been doing so for the USA trip, though I brought it along) but not the extension piece. Almost reminds me of how the E-5xx series was much more comfortable than the E-4xx series, even though the E-4xx was much smaller and lighter – I had an E-410 for a while for wildlife work due to the 2x crop.

  5. In My Opinion, its not just camera…its just how manufacturers/companies to make you to replace it a year or two for their products…come on its very rare any digital equipment nowadays has it life span more than three years….cheers~

    • In the Film Days, somebody made money with every click – now they don’t. So after telling us digital cameras give ‘free’ exposures, they now try to recover profits by limiting lifespan…

  6. Cameras, like paint brushes, do make a difference. I shoot editorial work with Nikon D4’s, wedding work with M9’s but when I have time to wander around with a camera, I take out the old Leica R8. It just feels great in my hands and makes wonderful files er, negs, …probably the last camera anyone would ever pick to shoot in the streets, but it’s zen for me.

  7. I oh so agree. After hankering for one for so long, I eventually bought myself a Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8. The latest and greatest. Well nearly so. But to tell the truth I am a little disappointed with it.

    You see when I shot DX I owned a Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 and loved it. It was sturdy, metallic and just felt right as well as making great images. It felt like a good pro Nikon lens. (Although I have to say the epitome of these were the AIS lenses in terms of “feel”).

    I moved to FX and so sold this and bought instead, the Nikkor 16 – 35mm f4. My immediate impression was a little disappointment as it felt much more “plasticy” than the DX lens I had just sold. I kind of got used to it over time though, and eventually became comfortable with it as although it still feels plasticy in the hand, the zoom rings etc move nicely enough. It is well dampened and smooth. And oh my God those VR images.

    But the 24-70 is something altogether to use. Although its more metallic than the 16-35mm (Nikon got it right on that point) I find its zoom ring to be a bit too loose – put plainly its not sufficiently dampened. That makes it feel “sloppy” somehow. And even though its tack sharp and makes great images I still do not feel as comfortable using it as I think I should be, especially considering the not inconsiderable price I had to pay to get it.

    How things feel are important. A two grand lens should feel like a two grand lens.

    This is one reason why so many people were not happy when the Leica M8 first came out. The camera’s shutter button did not “feel” like an M camera feels and the shutter when fired did not “sound” like an M shutter is supposed to sound. I full well realise this sounds so very petty to those who are not familiar with such things but of course Leica should have realized that when you are paying THIS much for a camera you expect these things to be just right.

    After all, one thing that people who buy expensive European cars (especially the German ones) expect of them is that when you close the door it closes with a polite and quiet ” click” not a clatter or clunk that you might get with cheaper vehicles. None of this really matters to the performance, but it is a major part of the reason people make the emotional investment in the product and part with the cash.

    • I think your 24-70 might be loose. The copies I had were both smooth and well-damped.

      The new M shutter is much more like you’d expect from an M camera…except other cameras like the original E-1, the current OM-D – and even the D7000 – get this even more right…

  8. mike stephens says:

    hapatics is not a word, near as i can tell. try haptics.

  9. Great article.
    Every day I hope camera manufacturers will start making products that don’t just look retro but feel solid and well constructed like so many items did in the past.

    I sold my entire Pentax kit, this included a Zeiss ZK 35mm F/2 Distagon lens which became the only lens I ever wanted to use on my Pentax K7. It felt great using that heavy metal lens, with it’s silky smooth focusing, it really inspired me to shoot more. (The images were spectacular and full of character too) I used this combo so often it became a natural and effortless experience.

    Now I have a D3x, the body is definitely well built, the sensor IQ beats my K7 in every way, I’m spoiled by the awesome AF. The RRS L-bracket adds to the heft and sturdy feel of the camera.

    If only my Nikon lenses felt the same (50mm 1.8G, 85mm 1.8G, Rokinon 35mm). They are great optics; lightweight, built well, accurate, yet they lack the Zeiss magic both in user experience and in the final images. I feel less connected to the shooting experience, while I also miss the color, contrast, and ergonomics of my old Zeiss lens. It is strange to compare instances where an image (D3x with 50mm 1.8), definitely is sharper, has visibly more fine detail and resolution, yet looks flat and dull viewed at <100% compared with files from a lesser sensor (my old 14 megapixel Pentax K7) and the Zeiss ZK 35mm F/2.

    I guess it is time to start saving for the ZF.2 50mm Makro-Planar. It is just very hard to justify when I already own an excellent, cheap AF lens of the same focal that should be every bit as good according to an MTF chart. Maybe I just need a little convincing, would anyone like to help?

    • I don’t have any preference for the retro look per se – in fact I’d rather have rounded corners that don’t brass/ scratch/ dent easily – but it’s the solidity and tactile feel that’s important. The 1.8 G lenses are great optically, but utterly nasty when it comes to feel – all plastic. The Zeiss ZFs are better, but they’re also quite easily dented/ scratched.

      As for the 50 Makro Planar – I own one, and use that when I need 50mm for commercial work. I’ll be replacing it with the 55/1.4 Distagon :)

      • I agree on the retro styling, it means very little to me, I prefer my camera not draw attention. I think some of today’s manufacturers are confused into thinking that we miss the old-fashioned look when it was always much more to do with the tactile enjoyment of using a resilient mechanical device.

        I’ve been drooling ever since the announcement of the 55/1.4, looking forward to your review!!

    • Oskar O. says:

      The zeiss 50/2 is superior to the nikkors in image quality. I don’t go out without mine. I don’t think anything more needs to be said :-)

  10. Oskar O. says:

    I tend to agree. Sometimes one needs to think business and get the shot, but sometimes there’s a possibility to go a bit further and enable getting the shots ebtter with a right tool. I keep telling how I was unimpressed with the build quality of the Nikkor 28/1.8 (and performance at max. aperture) and went Zeiss 25/2 instead, a whole world of difference in feel and haptics. Similarly, I keep enjoying a Zeiss Biogon 35/2 on my Nex so much that I’ll probably end up selling my very lightly used Sigma 30/2.8, which is a fine lens in itself, but just doesn’t have the same overall feel.

    On my OM-D, the vertical grip tends to be always on the camera. Sure it takes space, but it’s very convenient when taking the shot. For me, the rearside buttons of the OM-D are too small and hard to press, the thumbweel is a bit far (both are better on the vertical grip) and some controls don’t react the way I want. But still it’s way better than average.

    I’m seriously thinking of buying an old Leica just to get to the feel of it.

  11. Good Article Ming, two camera’s come to mind when I think of good ergonomics.. the Leica S and the nikon D4.. I also like the 5Dmk3 over the D800..

  12. Good article.
    I shoot with digital Nikons for many years now, but from time to time I take out my 30+ years old FE and play with it. The mechanical quality and the haptic of the camera and those 30 years old lenses is unbelievable and far beyond of the current high end lenses.
    Also I dont understand why we have to set aperture with a dial at the camera body and not at the lens, as we’ve learned it for decades. Setting the aperture at the lens is so deeply burned into my muscle memory, I miss that with every shot I take. I think it’s just the better way to do this. Fuji showed with the X-series lenses, that it is possible today.

  13. Brilliant & Meaningful – We seems to have forgotten that we are Analogue & Not Digital

    The connoisseur Bernard Berenson coined the phrase “tactile values” to express the way great works of art, whether painted, sculptured or merely manufactured, caress the senses with an almost physical tangibility. To look at one of Fra Angelico’s madonnas is to feel with the eye, and to feel is to know.

  14. Excellent article. Feel and ergonomics are everything. Grew up with a Nikon FE. Still have it and use it. Totally spoiled by metal construction, full frame optical viewfinder, split image focusing screen, match needle exposure, small size, light weight, a battery that lasts years, all metal manual focus AI lenses, etc etc. etc. Bought a used F6 recently. Feels better than Nikon’s DSLRs and has a real nice viewfinder. Cheers.

  15. I went to the local pro store to fondle the D600 and D800. The D800 felt good in the hand, the weight just right and the body texture caught me in good way. The D600 felt like off-the-rack suit. Sure it can produce nice results at the bar with proper social lubricant but at the end of the day (or next morning) a cheap piece of … Same for the latest affordable lens offerings Nikon rendered by slumming in China. My Apple i-devices look and feel premium despite manufacture from the same country at relatvely the same labor cost. This obvious difference speaks volume of Nikon’s vunerability in commitment to quality compared to Canon (who to the best of my knowledge manufactures its upper-middle class consumer and pro products in Japan).

    I say this as a former D3, M8, M9, and Contax 645 owner (sad story on needing to part ways with such lovely company). My Nikon D7000 feels not cheap compared to the D600. My Oly OM 1n & 2sp feel superior to the D800. Something ontological lost in the translation to digital for some, but not all, cameras. The D600 seems especially compromised in a way that make neither D700 or D300 owners happy. While Leica retains its Teutonic gestalt, it too is operating on relatively short product cycles compared to the pace of iteration of the not too distant past. Who but a few can afford this shortened value proposition? If and when I am able to afford the company of such lovely friends again, I fear my cost-benefit analysis will now follow a 1-3 year horizon and no longer the satisfaction of lifetime investment, the object that supersedes my being, when searching for material quality intiuited by haptic sensibility.

    • Haha, that’s a very interesting way of putting it – I do agree. As for the i-devices…I thought the 4/4S were superb; the 5 feels cheap (and is very easily dented/ scratched, which the 4/4S were not).

      As for chasing feel…I’ve given up on that with digital for the time being, and have gone back to film. They really don’t build them like they used to; I suspect it’s simply not cost-effective.

  16. Carlo Santin says:

    Nikon F100. I swear the camera was made for me and me alone. I pick it up and stare through the viewfinder just because it makes me feel good. Just holding the camera pleases me. My hands were made for it. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Nikon D7000. Never have I held such a lifeless camera in all my life. It takes great pics and performs well…I actually shudder every time I try to use one, it’s a llfeless brick to me and it makes me want to sell all my Nikon gear.

    • For me, the ergonomic pinnacle is actually the F6. I keep meaning to buy one, but never do…the problem is that operationally, it has the working method of digital, but the restrictions of film – I don’t get the ‘thinking experience’ I do with the F2T or Hasselblad.

  17. I concur with your impression of the D600 and 28 1.8g. Owning them both, they are superb, but do not feel that good to operate. I think it is a money issue , low production costs to maximize profit of course and the technology that accelerates leaving cameras completely outdated in a year or two of usage. Being an industrial designer I can not understand what the designers at Nikon did with the new grip s of the D600 and D800, of course this is individual, but the shape of the grips seems less ergonomical correct than the old D700 for example. Also the design language seems flimsy with poor semantics and troublesome meetings in the form. Each time i fire a shot with my D600, I feel a vibration under my fingertips. The plastic feels really thin under the index finger and underneath around the tripod mount.

    • Agree completely on the grips – why don’t they put a bit more padding on at least so they have some give to mould to the hands of the individual?

      I think it’s the hollow feeling rather than the fact that it’s plastic that makes the D600 feel cheap – I handled a student’s D7100 today and was surprised by how much better it felt in the hand; both for grip shape and solidity. But the build is supposedly similar to the D600…

  18. Andrew S says:

    The worst feeling “high-end” camera gear I’ve ever used is the 24/1.8 zeiss sony E-mount lens. $1000 of nice heft, but when you turn the fake focus ring it feels like you’re playing a video game, and there’s weird damping where it is unneeded and unhelpful. Surprisingly, the ~$150 Sigma E-mount lenses feel far better, and Leica lenses are nearly at home with the simple focus peaking system.

    The feel in hand is often an illusion, as we well know that the heavy steel/brass cameras of yesterday were prone to easy damage, scratching, and sometimes fatal denting that today’s plastics avoid. And of course extra weight becomes a durability liability when the camera is dropped.

    I don’t find any DSLRs to feel great in hand, but use them anyway. They’re simply too large and clumsy. Out of all cameras I’ve owned, I’d pick the Canon S90 point-and-shoot as the best. All the dials and buttons clicked just right for me, and it was just the right size for pocketable but hand-friendly use.

    • This is where the right choice of materials comes into play – not necessarily the heft of them. My F2T is noticeably lighter than the F2 (brass) was; but it doesn’t feel any less solid. I think a well-designed point and shoot is a thing of beauty; the GR-Digital series ranks at the top for me – even the buttons have sufficient resistance and travel. Needs a big sensor, though.

  19. Interesting article. I shoot with a d800e but also a Fuji XE-1 and a Nikon J1. Although the d800e is the heavier, more sealed, stronger body (and of course it takes superior pictures) the XE-1 is more satisfying. To me this suggests it’s not about build quality or weight as much as it is a combination of things and the directness or comprehensibility of the design. Unless absolutely required for function or performance, simpler is always better. I wonder how many parts a modern dslr has compared to a Leica, X-E1, or a classic film camera.

    • The Leicas probably have the most (at least the mechanical ones) because of a combination of the RF and clockwork mechanism for the shutter. Mirrorless cameras are mostly chips and boards and have very few moving parts at all – just the shutter. I was surprised how component-dense the NEX-5 was, but at the same time very few of those required precision fitting – unlike classic film cameras, SLR mirrors or RF finders.

  20. I couldn’t agree more! Not to nit-pick, but since it’s in the title, I believe the word you want is “haptics.” Keep up the great work Ming!

  21. Great post. Like a Snap On wrench, it just feels so good in your hand that you want to use it. It’s a difficult thing to measure but true nonetheless. My first camera was a Canon F-1 and it had that magic quality. So too does the Leica M9-P. After letting my photography go for years, I find myself renewed and full of passion again. Perhaps because it requires a measure of control and involvement and partly for the feel. I find myself with a camera all the time now. Surely, that’s part of the reason.

  22. I think the best camera I have ever owned for feel in the hand is the old Nikon F100 film SLR. Something about the material made it feel reassuringly solid and grippy in the hand.

    • The stickiness of the rubber – unfortunately it was so soft it didn’t stay on the camera well, either – and the thickness of the gauge of metal used…

  23. Firstly have a safe trip and good time in US. Updates us on your progress and don’t forget to post photos taken there. Looking forward to it. By the way, I took one of the last few remaining units of D700 a few months ago. Decided to go for it as I don’t need the large files of D800. I don’t print big anyway. Do agree with your comments on the D600. My F100 is still working well all these years. D90, well not that well built compared to D700 but I think it is still better than the D600.

  24. Although I’m a Nikon shooter, I’ve always had a soft spot for the way the Canon XD series feel on the hand. The Canon 40D, 5DM2, and all that family feels like a baseball glove, just perfect. I myself have some hands and don’t feel like they way all that much. This past weekend, I shot with the D800 and I don’t feel it that huge but for reason I still think the Canon 60D or 40D feels better on hand. What are you do ah? lol

    • The grips are definitely better-shaped – I feel that Nikon has it with some cameras, then loses it with others – the D7000/7100 feel better than the D600, the D3 felt better than the D4, the D800 is a bit slim in places…what we really need for the pro cameras is some sort of grip that’s either soft and well-cushioned, or perhaps mouldable.

      • Agreed, that would be amazing and something to consider. In these days of high tech electronics as you mentioned there is a lot of room for improvements tactile aspect of camera developments. Cheers

  25. laurent andré says:

    Bonjour Ming
    You complained recently to spend too much time writing articles on the subject that fascinates all of us (is to say photography) and it is always a pleasure to read interesting articles from you on the comparative performance of cameras, lenses and shooting techniques.
    For my part I think you could have made the economy of this article whose subject is not so interesting to spend more time enjoying your camera on the ground.
    Cheers

    • On the contrary…I think it’s a very important topic that most companies and photographers overlook. I’m still enjoying my camera on the ground, there are times when you can’t shoot…like during 15 hour flights.

  26. Have to say I agree 100% here. I simply cannot bring myself to use a standard P&S simply because most of them feel more POS than anything.

    Take the Fuji X100 for instance. A very fine camera. It delivers stunning images, has a superb viewfinder, looks great too. However it feels lacking in the solidity department. There’s something hollow about it. The buttons and switches feel a bit cheap. The memory card door and port flaps are – well, they’re plastic flaps!

    Similarly with the Nikon D800. It’s a fine camera and it does feel good in the hand, but it doesn’t have the bullet proof feel of the Nikon F series from yesteryear. When I pickup my dad’s old Nikon F3 and 50mm 1.4 AIS it feels like a different company built it. Even the newer Nikon 85mm 1.4G lens feels plasticky when compared with its predecessor – which had an RRP of nearly half the new one!

    Leica are one of the few companies to buck the trend. I liked what the Leica M Product Manager said when asked why they offered an awkward base plate rather than a door for accessing the battery and memory card. He said “Doing a door in Leica quality would be very very expensive.”

    I think digital cameras have made photographic devices almost disposable in consumer minds. As a result camera companies have little incentive to build these things to last since so many of us use them a few years at most.

  27. Have to say I agree 100% here. I simply cannot bring myself to use a standard P&S simply because most of them feel more POS than anything.

    Take the Fuji X100 for instance. A very fine camera. It delivers stunning images, has a superb viewfinder, looks great too. However it feels lacking in the solidity department. There’s something hollow about it. The buttons and switches feel a bit cheap. The memory card door and port flaps are – well, they’re plastic flaps!

    Similarly with the Nikon D800. It’s a fine camera and it does feel good in the hand, but it doesn’t have the bullet proof feel of the Nikon F series from yesteryear. When I pickup my dad’s old Nikon F3 and 50mm 1.4 AIS it feels like a different company built it. Even the newer Nikon 85mm 1.4G lens feels plasticky when compared with its predecessor – which had an RRP of nearly half the new one!

    Leica are one of the few companies to buck the trend. I liked what the Leica M Product Manager said when asked why they offered an awkward base plate rather than a door for accessing the battery and memory card. He said “Doing a door in Leica quality would be very very expensive.”

    I think digital cameras have made photographic devices almost disposable in consumer minds. As a result camera companies have little incentive to build these things to last since so many of us use them a few years at most.

    • They ARE disposable: new model every year, and continually falling prices. That said, some of the higher end compacts do feel pretty nice – the RX100, for instance; Pentax had an interesting idea going with brass plates on the MX…we shall see how the Coolpix A feels soon, too. The X20 is a great idea, but is too light and hollow-feeling. I think the gauge of the metal is too thin. Curiously, one of the nicer feeling ones is the Canon G15 – dense and solid, with thickish metal.

      • Every time I pick up a Canon G15 in a store I have the same reaction. I also bought an Olympus E-PM2 for it’s size and portability, hoping for E-PM1 compactness with E-M5 sensor performance and speed. But the overall construction of this camera honestly does not inspire confidence in the user. I have a sneaking suspicious I will be replacing it in a year. Perhaps with an E-M5 at discount? Honestly, a rangefinder style m4/3 camera is at the tope of plenty photographers wish lists. GX2 or EP5, perhaps?

        • The image quality and speed is there, but the build is not – the OM-D feels significantly better. Yet I was told that there would be something above that in build coming at some point later this year…

      • Rain Santiago says:

        I have to agree with you Ming also with the G15 as well despite it’s bulky size it feels comfortable to use.

      • Sascha Sorbo says:

        I did a few shots with the Coolpix A a couple of days ago, and it really feels nice and well built. While the jpegs didn’t impress me, the instant startup did. AF was okay too. I am pretty sure the next GRD will share the same sensor, and I hear Nikon shouting: “WE’RE FRST!”. But in terms of ergonomics nothing comes close to the GR and GRD line, the Leica M body being the closest. But both cameras share the same secret of “magic”: Dedication.
        In my opinion, to my taste, there are NO other “modern” cameras out there with such a feel of dedication and I used some of them. D200, K-7, NEX-5, 5D Mark II, ZEISS IKON ZM, Sigma DP2s, OM-D. I remember being shocked when I realized that there’s no half-press-shutter-AE-lock with the 5D Mark II. I didn’t even inform myself before buying it, because this implementation feels so natural. The NEX-5 felt like something you can win at a kid’s birthday party and had a shutter louder than my Minolta SRT. The worst ever power on switch with the OM-D. The Ikon was beautiful, but didn’t express sturdiness. The K-7, otherwise near perfection and with a great sensor up to ISO 800, was a little to small for my hands, the Sigma with quite good ergonomics and superb IQ had epic slowness and was unreliable. Too picky? Yes, maybe, but nowadays there’s only one option to stop the “Great camera now, but nothing but crap within 3 years” – cycle. To get the camera you WANT right from the beginning and, certainly, to change your mind.
        There are enough people who know this already and shake heads, watching people like me suffering from GAS. Well, I had to learn it the “hard” way.
        I always wanted a Leica M, and I always wanted a GR(D).
        “Too expensive”, “Too limited”, “7 grands? You must be crazy!” blah, blah. Now I take pictures with nothing but my trusty GRD III and I just don’t care about it being “outdated”. Soon, the Ricoh will be joined by a M9 or M-E. And then I will stick to them until they can’t be serviced anymore. They just feel so right.

        • Now I’m curious: did you find the operation of the camera fast enough, specifically AF? That seems to be the make or break to me as manual focusing on a fly-by-wire ring is largely useless in practice. Nice to know it starts instantly though – that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the Nikon DSLRs. Not so worried about the JPEGs, that sensor is a known entity – we’ve seen its predecessor in the D7000 and X2 – and it’s capable of some excellent results, likely now better that it’s coupled to a moderate-speed prime and has lost the AA filter.

          • Sascha Sorbo says:

            Well, the OM-D focusses faster with newest Olympus lenses. Let’s say it’s fast “enough”, but the start up was way more impressive. I don’t get why they bother the fly by wire nonsense instead of implementing a Ricoh-style snapshot function, which works so well.
            Also lens performance uncorrected has to be seen. I doubt you will dump a 28mm lens for that. But the next GRD maybe ..?

            • That’s good news – if it can match the GRDIII (does it?), I think this camera is going to be an impressive piece of equipment…hyperfocal shooting is something that can be implemented in firmware. Fortunately Nikon has a reasonably good track record of adding features later, though admittedly nowhere near as good as Ricoh, and not so much of late.

              I believe the raw files are supported by the latest version of ACR, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to answer the question about lens performance…

              • Sascha Sorbo says:

                Although the camera is well built and the feeling in hand not too bad, nothing ever jumped into my palm like the GRD body. And it is definitely not fully one-hand operational like the Ricoh. And, DAMN, could somebody PLEASE tell all of them to make sealed bodies?? Oh, and the switch-on lever on the Coolpix A is Nikon-like at the perfect place, but it feels kind of “wobbly” even new.
                It is always the same story: They never get beyond 96%, apart from Ricoh (99%) and Leica M (98,5%).

                • Sadly, I agree with you: the Ricohs are amongst the best thought out (and built) compacts. Now, let us hope GRD V has a large sensor…

                  • Sascha Sorbo says:

                    If so, do you think they will manage to obtain the actual GRD’s form factor? Or will they bring back the old analog bodies?

                    • I don’t really mind either way – the older bodies weren’t much larger, and also packed an optical finder with a shooting info display. I’m enjoying the GR1v I’ve got now :)

  28. Sorry Ming but we need a more in depth explanation as to why the d600 doesnt have the right “feel”. Yes I’m a d600 owner so I’m sticking up for my camera (All in jest of course)!

    Is it the lighter weight or the quality of the plastic (coming from a d40 the d600 plastic has this “give” sensation that the d40 did not)?
    Is it the fact that its more a two hand operated camera (mode dial on left rather than mode button on right of pro body style)?
    Is it the DX style viewfinder ring (rectangle not circle) that screams “consumer” when you put your eye to it?

    We d600 owners demand a thorough explanation!

    • It’s not the weight so much as the quality of the plastic; there’s a bit of give, and the camera feels ‘hollow’ in places – just tap it with your fingernail. I own one too as a backup body, so it’s not snobbery…

  29. John Lockwood says:

    Carried the Nikon D1/2/3 series for 12 years. They were perfect ergonomically and felt solid as a brick. Confidence inspiring. Perhaps it’s the pixels that are the problem for us Ming. We no longer carry cameras. We carry computers with a lens attached. Each time we click that shutter we commit to hours at the computer. When we were photographers, PP was someone else’s job. Your Nikon F2/T and Hassy 501 will always feel different. They are time-machines.

    • Good point – but then again, with film, PP is still my job – except it’s done with chemicals in tanks (or after scanning in PS).

      • I forget you came on the scene after pros used pro labs. For commercial work, we shot chromed and sent out for E-6 and were done. Clients had it seperated for CMYK reproduction. Wedding and portrait guys sent their MF film to a pro lab too. They density/color-corrected, made a print and overnighted it back to us. We photographed. They handled PP. Don’t mind me reminiscing back to a time when men were men…:-)

        • Not quite – I used a pro lab back in 2005, but their quality has gone downhill and prices uphill; sadly there aren’t any left in Kuala Lumpur that do a good job. Combine that with the cost of both the film and the processing, and E6 is just prohibitive.

  30. Dr. Paul B. Lewis says:

    Ming,
    How does the Leica S camera feel in your hands? Does the weight of the camera bother you?
    Thanks,
    Paul

  31. Sascha Sorbo says:

    Excellent post. It makes me dream of Ricoh buying Leica instead of Pentax. And Alpa as well, what the heck! Uuh, what kind of cameras would they give us?

  32. I always get a Little bit angry when I read that a Leica or a Fuji X Pro 1 are “Retro” – They just turn back to something that proved right over Generations. Still remember my Pentax MX vs. the ME super with ist lousy buttons to adjust shutter speed. It just was wrong ! and the MX felt right. It has nothing to do with retro. If someone decides in a car to replace the accelerator pedal with a menu on a touch Screen – it will we wrong and the pedal not retro….

  33. Steve Jones says:

    The good ‘feel’ of cameras went downhill about the time that menus started appearing on digital cameras. Then everything became centered on that info screen. And you know what? It isn’t needed on a camera to take pictures, and sometimes / quite often, makes picture taking worse. So dials have started appearing again but that dreaded screen is still there! There used to be three stages in picture making. Take the shot, print in the darkroom or lab and view the final result. Now, it’s take the shot, chimp, post process digitally and view the final result. Where did that monkey come from and does it REALLY make our picture taking experience better or do we just think it does? And how much time do we photographers now spend shuffling through menus while out shooting?
    Contax cameras ( The Japanese one’s I mean ) had a lovely feel and ergonomics. Leica M’s too, but the bodies are getting too fat
    now and I wonder if they can go much further and still retain that M feel.

    • David Babsky says:

      “..Now, it’s take the shot, chimp, post process digitally and view the final result. Where did that monkey come from and does it REALLY make our picture taking experience better or do we just think it does?..”

      Did you never use a Polaroid back, Steve, to check the picture before shooting the actual shot?
      Maybe amateurs didn’t, but professionals – for whom it had to be perfect – did. Chimping’s the same, but without having to wait those 60 seconds..

    • It makes us spend more time on it because we get do-overs; it makes people lazy, too. I don’t miss the screens on my film cameras, and if anything, I think the shooting experience is the purer for it. Personally, I try to set mine up so I dig into the menus as little as possible. Sadly, not every camera allows that, though.

      Amazing how much difference a few mm in thickness makes to the Leica M experience – the M9 is on the fat side, the M 240 is noticeably fatter, and the film ones are a dream by comparison.

  34. Sorry: lat point: I do not enjoy using the GH-2 in the same way as I enjoyed the Nikon or the X-100—but overall it produces the best results, so I use it. It is an efficient, though not elegant, tool. Over and out!

  35. One more comment: while for me the GH-2 is the best so far for me, I need to add that video is essential for my daily work, in addition to stills. This is why I sold the X-E1. In terms of feel and shape only, the X-100 is the loveliest so far (note the word—not scientific at all, but choses to suggest the one that *feels* the best to use and carry. The shooting experience, for me, is to be found in the moment of putting the camera to the eye, composing, watching, and tripping the shutter. Looking at the images later is a second order experience, if I can put it this way.

  36. As a recently ex. pro photographer for 30+ years, haptics plus IQ = a pleasurable shooting *experience*. Only pleasurable experiences are repeated and refined.

    Best haptics so far? Nikon F, Photomic head. Three controls: shutter, aperture, compensation; ISO selected by the film loaded.

    In the mirrorless world? Panny GH-2 (over the OM-D, for me, and button size, placement, and the reversible screen are the main reasons). I have had pretty much all of the mirrorless cameras, too, including NEX 5N and 7, all the GH and GF series, RX-100 presently, DP2 Merrill (the latter two with great IQ, but no EVF, so vastly degraded shooting experience), Fuji X-E1 (great haptics and IQ; too large for all-around daily carry), and too many others to mention.

    As I have written about elsewhere, I have a NEX 6 and Sigma 30/2.8 waiting at home, and if Fuji ever come out with a 50mm EFOV X-100s, I will be on it—I handled the first X-100s in Canberra before I left, and it is FAST, and very compact (the ƒ2 ‘only’ lens contribute hugely to this, and the main reason it’s better for me than the X-E1). I owned the X-100, but it was too slow (another aspect of haptics for me is speed and fluidity, and not getting in the way of making an image!).

    • I can’t argue with that, but my poison is the F2 series – the shutter release is better positioned and it’s easier to load film.

      I’m trying to get hold of an X100s + 28mm adaptor to try. The bare camera I tried in Japan was incredibly fast. I have a feeling that might just convince me to dump the dedicated 28mm lens, unless the Coolpix A’s pocketability wins out.

      • The Nikon I was referring to was the Nikon F2A, with the Photomic head (and a slew of interchangeable screens, too, and 100% image coverage).

        And to Andreas, above: exactly—no accelerator touch screens! (And think about how we *hold* a camera: one hand aroud the lens barrel (and aperture ring); the other gripping the RHS, where shutter speed/compensation and shutter button may be found… It’s simply fitting the human body as it’s designed (like the accelerator pedal).

  37. Coincidentally (really!), I was just re-reading an old article of mine where I interviewed Seiki Yamamoto, the GM for Imaging, Olympus Asia Pac and he talked about the same thing:

    “The build quality is becoming very important. Something that once you touch it and hold it, you feel like this is something very important or indispensable. It’s not something you just throw away. You have to have some kind of feeling for the thing that you purchase.

    “I think feeling is very important these days. To own this, it’s not something that you treat roughly, but you treat it very carefully because it’s nice. That’s not only a feature, or performance of the camera, but this detailed build quality is becoming more and more important. So as a camera manufacturer, we’d like to develop products to make the people feel this. That they’d like to own our camera, because it’s very well considered. It’s something we’ve been discussing with the R&D guys.

    “I want our R&D team to feel it, you know? To feel what is really needed, what people – especially the people who are really enthusiastic about cameras – really want. They don’t care how much they spend, in some extreme examples, because they appreciate the attention to detail.

    “From there, you think about how to make it with mass manufacturing. So those extreme examples are very important. Of course, we’d like to pursue good performance of the camera, but also this emotional connection to the product.

    “Like in the film camera days. If you go to those one of those old camera shops, sometimes you find very well-kept old cameras. Even if they don’t use these film cameras any more, because it doesn’t work or it’s not so practical, they even put them in a glass showcase. That’s the feeling that, for a long time, I feel like we’ve missed. It creates the kind of close attachment to the product.

    “It’s very difficult, when I talk to R&D like this; they say “what is this?” But some engineers do understand this emotional feeling towards those products.”

    http://gohwz.ws/RdYMiJ (plug, plug)

  38. Good read! And indeed, not only the look, but also the feel should be part of the design process. Unless the company is arrogant enough and/or (think they) can get away with it. But for most mass consumer products a lot of effort goes into such things. They go even as fas as to enhance the sound of a simple coffee machine to make it sound more professionally.

    Oh, and I don’t want to be a wise-ass, but shouldn’t it be ‘haptics’?

    • I haven’t heard of any camera company doing it though (well, other than Leica’s claims, and of course the Lunar).

      Both hapatics and haptics give me a spelling error, so perhaps it’s neither one :P

  39. Mr. Ichiro Sony says:

    That’s why the Fujifilm X100 was such a smash hit. It is an amazing camera to hold and use.

    • It reminded people just how much they were missing with all of those modern buttons – that said, the first iteration didn’t implement its digital side very well, either.

  40. I have no doubt that the camera/lens combo does matter somewhat. Anyone who thinks otherwise is being too ideological or just trying to defend their own gear choices. How much it matters, I’m not sure. But probably more than many people care to admit…
    The are so many different types and price points available and each one is optimised to be better at different things.

  41. Evil Ted says:

    SFO is San Francisco Airport. Hopefully you are actually venturing into our fine city :)

  42. My favorite camera was the original Canon F-1. An unpretentious, well made, mechanical camera designed soley to expose film and last. A simple machine with mechanical controls in the expected places. A tactile masterpiece.

    • Agree, Omer I have one too and whenever I open my bag to pick any other digital camera I wish them to “feel” in my hands like the old F-1.

  43. Well, as many have pointed out you articles are far ranging and always interesting but the role of active touch perception in camera choice rates only just below that article about the nature of time. I find using the OMD without a grip to be reasonably comfortable so I have not pursued the additional grip. My hands are a moderate size so it may simply be the way I hold it.

    • I haven’t written the one on the nature of time yet, but it’s on the editorial list – along with the parallels between photography and quantum mechanics. :P

      I used the OM-D without the grip for a while, but found that the vertical can be useful with larger lenses, and the regular grip extension just helps things period – especially if you decide not to use a neck strap. Still not happy with how much it costs though – and the regular grip extension should really be built into the camera.

      • I agree wholeheartedly but it unlikely to come from a company that makes you pay for a lens hood. I will be interesting to see what changes the ‘new’ OMD brings later this year.

  44. Good thoughts. Haptics is why I tend to enjoy shooting older, manual-focus gear: Hasselblads, Leica R8, Contax Gs, etc.

    Where are you in the States?

  45. Where would you have placed the OM-D lugs out of curiosity?

    Thanks for your reply, and great read btw

  46. How would you rate the OM-D as far as this post is concerned?

    • Good and bad: that they managed to make the camera this small without too many discomforts and retain a high degree of easy controllability is impressive, but the lug placement, button sizes and power switch leave a lot to be desired.

      • I agree, but consider this: OM-D buttons fit perfectly to anyone with small hands. My wife is the living proof of that :) As for the placement of power switch, I agree as well, but in such an odd position, you have to consciously access it. What if Olympus designers had women in mind when they designed the camera?

        • I’ve got small hands – it does work for me, but if I have to wear gloves, no-go. I think they probably had Asian designers and testers – we tend to have smaller hands. I’d much prefer a faster-draw power switch; the Nikon DSLR design is ideal, but probably not workable due to the control dial around the shutter. That’s far more important, so we live with the compromise, I guess…

          • I agree. The power switch placement is very poor on the OMD. For me, I have to move the camera from my right hand to my left hand, turn the power on (or off) using my right hand, then move the camera back to my right hand. It’s pretty cumbersome. Placing it almost anywhere else on the camera would be better than where it is now. Even the left side of the camera somewhere would be better. At least in that case I wouldn’t have to move the camera from one hand to the next and back again. Again, I agree… The Nikon style power switch is *ideal*. Thanks Ming.

  47. Great Read Ming! Enjoy your time In the States!

    Best Wishes – Eric

    • Thanks Eric!

      • Carol Lavoie says:

        Dear Mr Thein,I’m an aficianado of your reviews an articles.
        Well maybe with an exception. Effectively D600 with 28mm 1.8 is an oddity when sandwiched between Hasselblad 501C, Leica M or even D800. Being a D7000 with 24X36 sensor this camera is not expected to be professional grade.In your hand D600 will survive maximum of 2 years. In mine as a semi pro it will be outdated long before it breaks.
        Anyway how long is the technical life of a pro body. Who is using Nikon D2,D3, or Leica M8 for serious pro work these days.
        Longevity for a camera is no more a question of build quality but a matter of fashion
        Have a nice day-Carol

        • Actually, since I hardly use it, it will probably be sold before it breaks or is outdated…my D800E, on the other hand, is used single-shot for studio work and has north of 30k exposures already after not yet one year.

Trackbacks

  1. […] focusing screen is nowhere near as differentiating as the others between in and out of focus areas. Haptically, none of these cameras are bad choices: they’re all mature, evolved designs. Even the […]

  2. […] like what you imagined; that’s where education comes in. Though some manufacturers get the haptics and tactility part right (even if ergonomics often leaves something to be desired), none of them do education […]

  3. […] surprisingly, the E-1 isn’t really disappointing; in fact, on the camera-ness front – haptics, tactility, build-feel etc. – it gets a lot of things very right. I very much enjoyed the […]

  4. […] brings me neatly to the question of ergonomics, haptics and tactility. I recently conveyed my thoughts on the Nikon Df and received a lot of heavily polarized comments […]

  5. […] – that has never been in question. It’s not even a near miss; the simple fact is that haptics and tactility do matter, and matter a lot. Especially when the package and hype are trying to promise so much. […]

  6. […] there’s the simple tactile pleasure of handling some of the objects and paraphanelia associated with the hobby – I’m talking about […]

  7. […] of specs: we’re all aware that cameras passed the point of sufficiency some time ago. Haptics and handling are far more important criteria determining whether a camera stays with you and […]

  8. […] of cameras design that’s frequently overlooked today (for more on this, you might enjoy my article on haptics and tactility). The camera is no more than the distilled essence of a facilitator: light-tight box, shutter, and […]

  9. […] try filling ever-smaller niches. It becomes more about something you like/ want to use – read my article on haptics and tactility – more than something you need. Is there room for one in your arsenal? Only you can answer […]

  10. […] Olympus did get very right with this iteration is the build-feel. Frequent readers will know that haptics and tactility are a very important consideration in picking a cameras now; especially given that image quality […]

  11. [...] It does seem that in the digital age, manufacturers have largely forgotten how to make cameras that inspired confidence and simplyfelt right in the hands, making you want to pick them up, feel them, and use them. Even the flagship cameras somehow just don’t feel the same; there’s a solidity to the F2 Titan that’s somewhat diminished in the F6, and completely gone in the D800/D4. I don’t think it’s a weight thing; F2 Titan, F6 and D800 are all in the same ballpark. Heavier doesn’t always feel better; I don’t like the Pentax 6×7 at all, for instance. Maybe it’s down to the thickness of the metal used, or the amount of give, or the choice of leatherette/ rubber. Who knows.  [...]

  12. [...] an excellent blog on a similar subject; I am sure Guy and Jack will not mind if I add a link here: Film diaries: The importance of hapatics and tactility, part one Worth a look and some of the comments are remarkably similar to ours here. I think the day of the [...]

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