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Christmas Day User Interface Fail Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

27 December 2016

On Christmas Day the light was fading fast as the last of our guests arrived. We'd been taking iPhone photos because the iPhone was upstairs but, realizing we could do better, we ran down to the bunker to get the gear we used to take Baby Pictures.

Setting the Aperture. Just use the Adjusting Aperture Button, of course.

Being in the season's spirit, we offered to share the remote trigger to our portable studio strobe with our nephew and his wife, who were using the pop-up flash on their Nikon D3300.

All we had to do was slip the trigger for the strobe into the hot shoe, set the cute little dSLR in Manual mode at 1/125 second and f8 with the ISO at 400 and take some photos around the tree.

It was easy enough to slip the trigger in, of course. And Manual mode was just the big M on the Mode dial.

But that's when the trouble started.


That brought up a Settings screen on the LCD that showed the Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO settings in big round discs. Underneath them were eight buttons in two rows to save you a trip to some other menu but all we had to set was the shutter speed and aperture.

We set the shutter speed by rotating the command dial on the back of the camera. That option had been selected when the settings screen was first displayed.

But none of us could figure out how to move to the Aperture control. We just couldn't move off the Shutter Speed control to highlight the Aperture control.

The D3300 has just one command dial, unlike our Nikon dSLRs which have one in the front and one in the back. In Manual mode on our dSLRs, one dial controls aperture and the other controls shutter speed. You use one dial with the ISO button held down to change ISO.

We tried everything button we could find but nothing let us move from the Shutter Speed control to the Aperture control.


So we resorted to the Web where Nikon does have an online manual for its dSLRs. They call them Digitutors.

The D3300 Digitutor had just what we were looking for on the Exposure Mode: Mode M (Manual) page.

Turns out all we had to do was hold down the Adjusting Aperture Button by the Shutter button while we turned the command dial and we could set the aperture.

The Adjusting Aperture Button?


Yeah, the Adjusting Aperture Button. And don't pretend you've never seen an Adjusting Aperture Button before.

Setting ISO. Completely different approach required.

Oh, we'd seen that icon before on the hundreds of cameras we've reviewed. It's the icon for Exposure Compensation. And naturally you don't use Exposure Compensation in Manual mode because, well, you are manually setting everything so there's no automatic setting to cheat one way or another.

Nikon figured it could dispense with a second command dial to save a few pennies and reuse the Exposure Compensation dial as a shift key for the one command dial instead.

But being an entry-level dSLR, they thought they'd better use the Exposure Compensation icon on the Adjusting Aperture Button. Which means if you wanted to change the aperture in Manual mode, you'd have no clue how to do it.

And once you learn the trick do you think it applies to ISO?

Nope. There's no ISO Button.

To set ISO you have to press the "i" button in the corner of the camera and use the navigator to go to the ISO button (fourth one on the top row of the Settings screen), press OK and select one of the available options from yet another screen. Then press OK to set it.

That's user interface design on the modern dSLR.


In the mechanical era, you set the ISO when you loaded your film. Each roll had its own ISO. You'd just have tell the camera what ISO your film was so the meter readings would make sense. There was a little dial for that.

You set your shutter speed with another dial on the top plate of the camera. And you set your aperture with the ring on the lens.

Even a beginning to figure that out on a new camera.

But on a dSLR, there's not aperture ring on the lens and there's no dial for shutter speeds or ISO. It's all on a menu that requires you to know which buttons to press to do anything.

Unfortunately, the modern dSLR interface is never well done. We don't mind picking on Nikon for their menu system (which is miserable for an entry-level camera, although much more usable on their high-end systems), but nobody else does it right either.

Hence the allure of retro camera designs (like Fujifilm, Olympus and Leica) where dials are considerable fashionable.


You can set that new camera in Green mode (Auto) and never worry about any of this, of course. And most people do, promising to read the manual one day.

Probably a better idea is to find a PDF of the manual (or an ebook if you can't find a free PDF) and keep it on your smartphone so you can get answers immediately.

Because with the design of modern menu systems, you're going to have questions.

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