Following PetaPixel‘s Nikkor lens interview with Kouichi Ohshita, a member of Nikon’s optical engineering division, we are back with the promised part two centered around user experience and camera design.
To discuss user experience, PetaPixel interviewed Akiya Maekawa of the Design Center and Mitsutero Hino from Nikon’s UX Planning Department, Imaging Business Unit.
Bringing the DSLR ‘Feel’ Into the Mirrorless Age
When Nikon launched the original Z cameras, the Z6 and Z7, longtime Nikon shooters found the new mirrorless cameras immediately familiar despite the smaller form factors. While some buttons and controls were lost in the transition, much of the overall experience felt reminiscent of Nikon’s illustrious DSLR era, which itself was not such a dramatic departure from its film cameras in terms of overall look and feel.
“Nikon’s cameras have built a solid tradition through the F series and D series, but what remains consistent is the commitment to pursuing user-friendliness as a tool to capture the intended moments,” explains Maekawa. “In the design of Nikon cameras, we believe it important to pursue usability that adapts to the times, allowing the camera to fit comfortably in each user’s hands and feel like an extension of their body.”
“While inheriting the ergonomic principles developed over the years, it is crucial to incorporate usability that aligns with the demands of the era. With the Z mount system, Nikon has continued to uphold this philosophy of ergonomics, ensuring that the feel and comfort during operation and the meticulous attention to detail contribute to the distinct Nikon experience and familiarity that customers appreciate,” Maekawa continues.
That is not to say that every new camera is designed with maintaining the status quo in mind. As Nikon Z users can attest, there has been continued evolution in Nikon Z camera design and ergonomics.
Determining the Right Changes at the Right Time
“In the context of Nikon’s camera design, it is crucial to identify what aspects should be changed and what aspects should be preserved in response to the evolution of the times, especially given our longstanding heritage with camera design,” says Maekawa.
“The ability of Nikon cameras to capture intended moments in various environments is made possible by the integration of numerous features. When it comes to incorporating new elements into the established UI system, careful evaluation is always conducted throughout the design process.”
Among the most significant challenges in mirrorless camera design is striking the perfect balance between hardware controls and the increasingly compact mirrorless camera bodies. While some cameras, like the pro-oriented Z9, have plenty of space to work with, others are significantly smaller than Nikon’s DSLRs of the past.
Nikon’s engineers are working on implementing improved touchscreen functionality to help compensate for fewer physical controls and tap into how modern customers expect to interact with their devices. The company has also increased the customizability of controls, something seen to have a significant effect on the Nikon Z9.
More Features Means Additional Complexity
Another challenge for UX engineers and designers to overcome is that with great mirrorless cameras and new features come more menu options, which can quickly feel overwhelming, especially to novice users.
“Nikon’s cameras are designed with consistency in their fundamental operations. However, as the desired usability can vary depending on the user’s skills and experience, we provide appropriate operability for each entry-level and high-end model, allowing new users to gradually step up their photography skills,” Maekawa says.
“Additionally, through the utilization of hardware controls and features like the i-menu, our cameras are designed to become more user-friendly as users deepen their understanding of basic shooting techniques. Recently, we have also been considering initiatives to support overall system-level upgrades, not only for individual cameras.”
Ultimately, while accessibility matters considerably, the ultimate goal is always functionality. Maekawa adds, “Cameras and lenses are tools for their users to capture images, so it is crucial that they be user-friendly.”
“Within functionality, we prioritize with our cameras and lenses, the ability to capture images effectively with both stills and video shooting. To achieve this, we pursue designs that allow users to capture images reliably, primarily handheld, while also using stabilizing equipment such as tripods when necessary. We do not indiscriminately add buttons or position lamps in pursuit of functionality; everything is given careful consideration.”
The First Step is Considering a Photographer’s Hands
The first step in the camera design process is considering how users will hold the camera. Everything follows from this, including where users will place their left hand during shooting while gripping the camera with their right hand and which operations will be performed when the camera is on a tripod.
“Of course, hand sizes vary among individuals, and there are various ways of holding the camera, as well as with viewing the EVF (with either the right or left eye),” Maekawa says. “Taking these factors into account, we aim to provide the best possible solution for each model, so that the product can be used by a wide range of people.”
Nikon rightly believes that there is such a thing as too many controls and features, which can make a camera or lens cumbersome to carry and difficult to support during handheld shooting. Where this balance between features and usability falls is informed by the target user and the product segment.
Preferences and Behavior has Changed in Response to Mirrorless Camera Technology
Nikon’s Mitsutero Hino adds that user behavior changes as photographers transition from DSLR to mirrorless cameras. While some Nikon shooters got in on the ground floor, and others bought a Nikon camera for the first time in recent years, its overall demands and preferences change as the Z user base grows.
“We evolve the operating system to align with their usage. While cameras like the Z9 with many buttons and controls are important, we also consider smaller cameras like the Z6 II and Zf to be equally significant,” Hino says. “However, our approach differs depending on the model.”
“As an example, let me explain the sequence of events from shooting to image playback. In digital SLR cameras, after capturing an image, users needed to move their left hand from the lens to the back of the camera to check the image on the rear-mounted LCD monitor. This involved a physical movement of the hand. On the other hand, with mirrorless cameras, it is now possible to view the playback image through an electronic viewfinder. Users can transition to the playback screen either through automatic playback after shooting or by pressing a button with their right hand. This allows them to confirm the playback image without the need for significant hand movement or shifting their gaze,” says Hino.
This is an important consideration. Simply porting, for lack of a better word, the operating system from a Nikon DSLR to a Nikon mirrorless camera, while much easier and cheaper, would fail to adequately account for the different features offered by mirrorless cameras and how these features change how a user interacts with the camera.
On the other hand, as has been touched on already, making a sweeping change to every aspect of the user experience would alienate existing Nikon shooters. Changes cannot occur in one fell swoop but must be carefully considered and implemented over time. While mirrorless cameras are a revolution for photography, the experience of using cameras and taking pictures must be more of an evolution.
“With the transition to mirrorless cameras, there have been changes in pre-and post-shooting actions, and these changes vary from person to person. In response to this, we have evolved the camera’s functions to allow Nikon enthusiasts to customize various actions to their preferences,” Hino explains. “Regardless of the camera’s size or the number of buttons and controls, we aim to provide the ability to tailor the camera to one’s own shooting style. This ensures that users can adapt the camera’s functionality to suit their individual preferences.”
The Desire for More Personalization Across the Board
Changing gears, the Nikon Zf has been a big hit with photographers for its performance and vintage style. When asked if there are any plans to carry the Zf’s retro-inspired external design into the camera’s menu system, such as with an FM2-inspired menu skin or retro font/colors, Nikon says that while it cannot comment on specific plans for future development, the feedback, like all feedback it receives from customers is carefully considered.
However, Hino admits he would love increased customization options like different menu colors and personalized shutter sounds. The latter of which has been seen in some Nikon cameras, but has never been a completely open or accessible feature.
“In the past, we have offered choices in Picture Control and Creative Picture Control, as well as suggested fine-tuning options. We have also allowed for button customization, added special edition lenses, introduced camera options like the Zfc, provided Zfc and Zf artificial leather color options and allowed for customization of live view display settings and shutter sound,” Hino explains.
“Our aim is to create a camera experience that can be personalized to individual preferences, so that the time spent with Nikkor lenses and Nikon cameras is exciting and enjoyable. This is something that I personally also look forward to considering.”
Customizable shutter sounds, menu colors, and even stylized font choices would be a hit with some Nikon users. Photography is an extremely personal endeavor, so the experience of using a camera should be personal, too.
Nikon Celebrates Nikkor’s 90th Anniversary
As Nikon looks toward its next cameras and lenses, the company also respects its past. The legendary company is currently celebrating the 90th anniversary of Nikkor lenses, and across all its photography products, Nikon’s future will be informed by its legacy.
Image credits: Nikon