Sunday, May 14, 2023

Lumix S ergonomics and menu, oh dear

I need to rant about the Lumix S5 interface. As a hybrid photography/video camera, this inherits all the worst features from photo cameras, which are stuck in the1993 era of nested menus and cryptic labels. This system is confusing to use and lacks essential features.

Before commenting on the menus, I will briefly examine the physical interface, since both are entwined.

I will end with a list of recommendations that I trust Panasonic will read.

The ideal copy

No doubt I am spoiled by Blackmagic and their elegant touchscreen approach. All cinematography settings you need to access while shooting are immediately accessible with one touch. A swipe takes you to a slate screen, a feature not even available with Lumix. Another swipe takes you into the configuration settings. It's all so easy.

Certainly the BMPCC4K has an advantage in that it doesn't need to deal with a plethora of photography-oriented features. But the design paradigm could readily be extended to these needs. I do hope that Panasonic will consider completely revamping their archaic menu interface. In the meantime, I will make suggestions that can be accommodated within the current paradigm.

Note: I do realise that other camera manufacturers have equally poor menu systems. That's no excuse for not improving!

Physical interface

The main problem with the physical ergonomics is that there are too many controls for the surface area. I counted 24, including the four directions of the rosette. Twenty-four controls! That results in cognitive overload. 

The proximity of buttons makes accidental changes likely, especially in dim light. Tiny position differences make it difficult to train muscle memory. The larger S1 bodies might be OK with 24 controls, but not the S5 models.

One example: the White Balance, ISO, and Exposure Compensation buttons are rather too close together. Though the middle button has a small bump that your finger can feel, this doesn't help when gloved. The front dial is placed around the shutter button rather than being set forward on the housing, where it would be easier to use definitively and without error. The rear dial has a very different feeling the front dial, with distinct texture and movement resistance. I believe they should feel the same. But at least it's placed conveniently for the thumb.

I am not sure why we need the left dial, which is dedicated to timer and multiple exposure features. Why not add these to the menu?

The back of the camera again has a plethora of dials and buttons. The biggest problem is that the AF ON, unlabelled joystick, and Q buttons are too close together. If we really need a joystick in addition to the large control dial, it should be more prominent and easier to find when one's eye is to the viewfinder.

I won't show the front of the camera, but amazingly it has two more buttons!

Q menu limitations

The Q Menu is potentially a nice feature, since it elevates 12 settings of your choice from the depths of the menu system to a physical button on the back of the camera. But several settings I most wanted to use are not available. You cannot assign aperture and shutter speed/angle to the Q menu. But you can access ISO and exposure compensation... two setting that already have dedicated buttons! You cannot assign screen brightness, something that would be very helpful when stepping from a dark interior to a sunny exterior.

The confusing menu system

The menu itself is a hierarchical maze of different features, some being operational settings you might wish to change regularly, others being configuration settings you'd rarely need to see. Some have icons; some have confusing text labels. There are obvious ways to improve this poor design.

First, hardware and configuration settings that are rarely needed should be partitioned from settings that control commonly needed operational functions. Divide these features into two different menu systems. Next, split the settings clearly into operational categories (photo or video) by making the context sensitive to the position of the mode dial. Immediately this would reduce complexity.

Customising dials is limited and confusing

In photo modes, you can customise the front and rear dials to control different exposure factors. You can also change the dial directions, so that reducing exposure (for example) can correspond to a turn to the left. But the system for doing this is inexplicably cumbersome.

In the menu "GEAR > Operation > Dial Set" are several submenus. "Assign Dial" (see below) lets you choose between five presets that allocate the dials across the PASM modes. But what if you wish to set one of the dials to control exposure compensation? That is determined in a different submenu, "Exposure Comp".

I mostly use aperture-priority. So what I do is choose SET 2 from "Assign Dial". Now the front dial is aperture and the back dial does nothing. Then I choose the back dial in "Exposure Comp". Bingo, I have what I want, after navigating a menu system designed by some evil elf.

But wait. There is no way to assign either dial to control ISO. Sure, there's a dedicated ISO button, but what if I prefer different ergonomics? Isn't that what dial customisation is all about?

Then there's the mysterious setting "Dial Operation Switch Setup". Let me explain, since the manual doesn't. This submenu allows you to assign the front and rear dials to ISO, Exposure Compensation, or many other items. Yippee! A solution to the previous problem.

But no, wait, this setting seems to have no effect. There's a trick: this function is only active while you hold down some other button that you've previously defined for this task. To do this, go to "GEAR > Operation > Fn Button Set", choose the button you wish to assign, and select "2 > DIAL > Dial Operation Switch".

In practice this functionality is almost useless, since there is no button anywhere on the camera that you can hold down while also manipulating both the front and rear dials.

This entire dial system should be scrapped. All we need is a submenu for selecting the front dial function. And a submenu for the back dial. With all possible operations provided. That's a more flexible and simpler arrangement.

No dial settings in video

The title says it all. You can configure dials for photography, but not when shooting video. The front dial will always control aperture and the back dial will always control the shutter. This introduces cognitive dissonance if you are moving from a photo mode where you have different dial assignments.

Poor shutter angle implementation

Thankfully the Lumix S cameras allow you to set shutter angle instead of shutter speed. This is ideal for video, because shutter angle is independent of frame rate. For most purposes you can set a shutter angle to 180 degrees and then forget about it.

To ensure you are using shutter angle, go to the menu "CAMERA > Image Quality 1 > SS/Gain Operation" and choose "ANGLE/ISO".

This feature was added to the S5 in firmware 2.0 and is still rough around the edges. The big problem is how this ability combines with the previous complaint, the lack of dial customisation. No matter what you do, the back dial will always change the shutter angle. Even though while shooting you never need to change the shutter angle! It's a "set and forget" setting.

Panasonic provides a feature that might help us here, the ability to lock out certain physical controls. If we can lock the rear dial we can prevent accidental changes of the shutter angle in the middle of our production. The menu "GEAR > Operation > Operation Lock Setup" contains five categories of controls that can be locked: cursor, joystick, touch screen, dial, and Disp. Button. 

But wait... there is no way to lock just one dial while allowing the other to operate! OK, let's think this through. If the dials are locked, why not access aperture somewhere else on the interface? Say, the Q Menu. Oh wait, I've already described how this is impossible. Neither can you assign any of the function buttons to aperture. Now I am really missing that simple Blackmagic Iris button!

The only solution I've found is to use the touch screen to change Aperture. Press "Disp" until the current settings are displayed. Tap the screen to change aperture. This is far from immediate but does function with the dials locked.

A better solution is to use a lens with an aperture dial, but that's a feature Panasonic left off their Lumix S line of lenses. A pity.

C settings and lack of customisation

The Custom settings on the mode dial provide three slots (C1, C2, C3) where entire configuration sets can be stored for recall. You can even name these, which is handy.

The first setting I wished to save was a configuration dedicated to the use of adapted manual lenses. I started in M mode on the dial and set manual focus, function buttons, Q menu, configuration settings, shooting settings, dials, etc. Then I saved all of this to C1. This custom can now be easily recalled, independent of the M dial setting.

Now I wanted to have an identical setting saved to C2 that would be different only in being aperture-priority. So I saved the current set to that slot and went looking for how to change the mode to aperture. Well, you can't!

To add salt to the wound, you can easily do this in a video mode. For video, the very first menu setting is "Exposure Mode", allowing you to choose one of PASM. But this setting is missing in the photo modes.

Update: Thanh Pham has kindly provided a solution. Go to the A (or other) mode using the top dial. Load in a custom setting here: "SPANNER > GEAR > Load Custom Mode". This will overwrite all the current settings with those in the custom slot, as previously defined. But the mode will still be A. Then save this as a new custom setting.

Helpful hint

Deep in the menu there's an obscure setting that couples your photo to your video settings. Go to "GEAR > Image Quality > CreativeVideo Combined Set" and change each of the submenus to the video icon. This allows photo and video settings to be set differently. Since it doesn't prevent you from setting these modes to the same choices, there's no downside. Why this exists in the first place is a mystery to me. And apparently to many others, judging by the number of confused Lumix users online. 

Please Panasonic

In summary, these are my recommendations. 

1. Customisation

1a. Improve dial function customisation. We should simply select a dial, then choose the function to assign (shutter, aperture, ISO, exposure comp, etc.). Remove the confusing interactions between different settings.

1b. Allow customisation of dials in video as well as still modes.

1c. Allow us to assign locks individually for front and back dials.

2. Q menu

2a. Allow us to add aperture, shutter speed/angle, and screen brightness to the Q Menu.

2b. Allow us to add shooting modes to the Q Menu: Multiple Exposure, Live View Composite, High Resolution, Live View Composite, Self-Timer, and Time Lapse. 

3. Menu

3a. Simplify the menu by moving hardware and configuration settings that are rarely needed to a different menu entirely. (This can default to a long press of the menu button.)

3b. Simplify the remaining menu items by making the items context sensitive (photo vs. video, record vs. playback). 

3c. Improve cryptic labels and document each function properly in the manual.

4. Other

4a. Remove the "CreativeVideo Combined Set" feature and simply decouple photo and video settings.

4b. Add Exposure Mode to the stills menu. This should be greyed out if the PASM dial has a mode selected. But it would be useful in the Custom modes.


13 March 2024 rewrite for clarity with recommendations reordered. 

15 May 2023 solution added, plus clarifications. 


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