Thinkers Versus Non-Thinkers

Oh dear. I realize that I'm probably going to offend some of you by using the thinking versus non-thinking dyad. In fact, some of you have probably already fired up your email system and are starting to type... Let me explain. I don't mean non-thinking as a pejorative, so don't take it that way. It's simply an observation of how one group of folk are approaching their camera use: they wish to remove the process of having to consider any photographic decisions other than perhaps composition and timing. So stop typing that blistering missive to me and just read what I have to say, and, well, think about it.


bythom thinking

Another dilemma for the camera makers is one that doesn't get talked about enough. I see it really clearly with Nikon Z9 buyers. I call the problem the difference between the "thinking photographer" versus the "non-thinking photographer." 

The Z9—mostly because of its hyper marketing—is clearly attracting the non-thinker. These folk want a capable camera that does all the thinking for them. That means automating all exposure and focus tasks to the point where they can be ignored. In essence, an automatic camera that can take different lenses. They'd love it if the camera also automated HDR, focus stacking, and other decisions, too. Heck, why end there? Why not have the camera decide when to take the photo (peak moment) and how many to take? Information in the viewfinder? Not needed, it just clutters up the compositional view.

The Z9 (and other high-end cameras such as the Sony A1) can perform the basic exposure and focus automation quite well, and there's no reason—other than lack of imagination—that the camera makers couldn't automate those cameras far more. 

Amusingly, many of those who bought the Z9 (or A1) for all the automation are now constantly asking me questions that will turn them into thinking photographers if they're not careful. ;~)

The thinking photographer is the antithesis of automation. Sure, we'll use automation to take a function or two out of our direct control so that we can concentrate on something else, but we're very fast to recognize when the camera won't make the optimal decision, so we're also fast to shut down or override automation. We need the information in the viewfinder to be able to tell what the camera is actually doing and recognize when to override it (uh, camera designers, why can't I set warning parameters so something will flash red when it is out of my desired bounds?). 

And yes, the reason why the Z9 has two dozen buttons and a host of other controls is because of us thinking photographers. Unfortunately, what I keep finding happens with the non-thinking folk is that they keep accidentally pressing a button that resets/unsets/changes something and they then get confused as to what's happening and what to do about it. That Monitor Mode button has been tripping up everyone since the day it appeared on the original Z7, for instance. 

I suspect one of the reasons why the retro dial design cameras (Fujifilm, Nikon Df/Zfc, etc.) have some popularity has to do with a subset I'll call mostly non-thinking photographers. Their older cameras didn't have a lot of things that needed controlling, and those were all exposed externally as dials, so they feel comfortable with a current camera that seems to be the same. Four dials, four things to check. However, as I've pointed out many times, the Nikon retro dial design cameras lie to you; the dials don't always tell you what the camera is actually doing. So if you're comfortable with that design, you're also comfortable with being lied to. 

The people buying the Z9 mostly are doing so because it focuses and follows focus on subjects better than they can. They don't really don't want or need a flagship camera with every bell and whistle, though that helps them justify the cost. They would be satisfied with a Z7-sized camera with far fewer controls than even the Z7 has. The Nike slogan comes to mind in their demand for what should happen when they pick up the camera and point it: just do it. The buttons and dials they're not using on their Z9? About 16, maybe more. Those folk would also likely want a return of the AF-A focus mode, though a little more automatic than before (Nikon's old AF-A, and Sony's version for that matter, spend far too long in AF-S mode before switching to AF-C; if any motion is happening at shutter release, just go to AF-C). 

The problem, of course, is that the non-thinking group far outnumbers the thinking group in terms of actual sales. One reason why the Z9 is out of stock everywhere and even pros have to wait at least a few weeks before one shows up after they order it is the massive numbers of folk buying the camera pretty much solely for its "just focuses" capability. They would have bought a 24mp, 36mp, ...nnmp version of the same camera. They would have bought it without the vertical grip or with it. They would have bought it with the articulating LCD or not. The thing that fully attracted them was that the Z9 recognizes subjects and focuses on them, leaving them not to have to think about that. 

As I've shown and written about repeatedly, you can always do better by supervising and overriding automatic control. Which is why a camera such as the Z9 had to be introduced at the top of the line, with full and functional controls. 

Imagine, however, that if Nikon recognized what I wrote above and created the following camera: 

  • Small, discrete body (perhaps even without a viewfinder; the young are touch happy, after all)
  • Super simplified controls (strip it down to the AF-ON, i, and playback-necessary buttons, maybe one Fn button)
  • User-defined modes (U1, U2, etc.) that encompassed all settings, not just some, and were easy to configure, collect, and restore
  • Z9-level exposure, focus, basic frame rates
  • No cards; internal storage and...
  • ...full and capable wireless and wired communication

Price that at US$2999 and watch it sell like hotcakes while freeing up Z9 production for the thinking photographers. Notice that I didn't even specify pixel count (or FX versus DX, for that matter). I'm not sure that it matters beyond 24mp at the moment if all the other bullet points are perfectly executed. 

Traditionally, the camera makers cater to the no-decisions user with an Auto mode (as in a PASM+AUTO dial). I just reviewed the Sony A7 Mark IV, and I was surprised at some of the choices Sony made of what is enabled/disabled in this model, and how many auto modes they stuck in. Moreover, that the new menu system just grays out a lot of choices when you start going auto rather than removing them so you can see more easily what can be still set. On some cameras the AUTO function just disables everything (and gets the monicker Intelligent Auto, as if there is a Dumb Auto possibility). 

Lately, Leica's been catering to the photographer that doesn't want a lot of gizmos (perhaps because Leica doesn't have an arsenal of gizmos to deploy). The M10, CL2, and Q2 all tap into several of the things I have in that bullet list, above, and have a distinct lack of control clutter. The Q2, in particular, has only something like 9 controls, a no-nonsense UX, and despite its fixed-in-place lens and   Z9-level price, gets pretty positive reviews. Last time I looked, Leica is making a healthy profit, too. 

I'm not asking the camera makers to start ignoring us thinking photographers. Not at all. On every camera I've encountered since starting this Web thing full time, there's more that can be done for the thinkers (but isn't). Enough of the thinking consumer exists that it can still be a lucrative business in catering to them. 

Meanwhile, a lot of the non-thinking customers went to their smartphones as they got better and gave up buying dedicated cameras. Note my list, above: small, simplified, no cards, capable wireless and wired communication. Yep, the best smartphones all can check that off. Due to the small sensor and some really fast processors, they can usually check off the exposure, focus, and frame rate needs, too. 

Yet I bet a lot of those smartphone users would quickly pick up the expensive, large sensor, interchangeable lens camera I outlined above, particularly if it fit in a jacket pocket or so. 

I've written for almost 15 years now that the camera companies are just not really understanding what the customer wants and why. Japan is still making our fathers' Oldsmobile (I hope you're old enough to recognize the origin of that; if not, search for "This is not your father's Oldsmobile"). I don't mind them making legacy-type cameras that are more and more sophisticated, after all, it's my bread and butter making them do new things image wise and teaching what they can do to others. But it's as if the camera companies are modeling themselves after McLaren, not Toyota, and then wondering why they can't get more customers. 

Okay, if you still need to fire off that email, go ahead...

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