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 some 1993 land of nested menus and cryptic labels. This system is not just confusing to use, it lacks features that I simply assumed would be available.

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

Since the interface is similar across the Lumix models, I'll assume that what I write about the S5 menu applies to the entire line.

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. One swipe takes you into a slate screen, a feature not even available on the Lumix. One 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 more complex needs. I do hope that Panasonic will consider completely revamping their archaic menu interface soon. In the meantime, I will make suggestions that can be accommodated within the current paradigm.

Note: Other camera manufacturers have equally poor menu systems. This is not meant as a swipe at Panasonic in particular. After all, I decided on this camera above others. 

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 is complete cognitive overload. 

The proximity of buttons makes accidental changes too common. Tiny position differences make it difficult to train muscle memory. This might be different on the larger S1 bodies, but I wish the S5 was more streamlined.

For 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. 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. With so many other features in the menu, why not add these as well? Or at least make these configurable settings.

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!

For a degree of sanity, I've turned off two buttons completely: AF ON and the lower front button. This is preferable to accidentally activations in the middle of a shoot.

Q menu limitations

The Q Menu is potentially a nice feature, since it allows elevating 12 settings from the depths of the menu system to a button on the back. But several of the settings I most wanted to access are not available. For example, you cannot assign aperture and shutter speed/angle, even though you can access ISO and exposure compensation... two setting that already have dedicated buttons! You also cannot assign screen brightness. But when I step from inside a building to outside, I need this control immediately.

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. Though it would be ideal to replace this entirely with a design based on the touch screen, it's nonetheless easy to improve even this tired paradigm.

First, use a control to access hardware and configuration settings that are rarely needed. This partitions these settings from commonly needed operational functions. Next, make the operational settings dependent on whether we are in a photo or video mode, in record or playback. Immediately this would reduce complexity, since we would have five separate menu systems where now there is one monolithic entity.

Given all the possible settings and the complexity of operations, I was more than surprised to realise that many tasks I wished to accomplish were unachievable. 

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 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 this is about customising the interface to suit the photographer. Losing one button press is a benefit when multiplied 100,000 times.

I wonder if the mysterious setting "Dial Operation Switch Setup" is useful? Let me explain, since the manual doesn't bother. If you go into this submenu, you will see that you can assign the front and rear dials to ISO, Exposure Compensation, or many other items. Yippee!

But no, wait, this setting seems to have no effect. The dials remain the same. The trick is that 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 ned is a submenu for the front dial that lets us choose a function. And likewise a submenu for the back dial. Job done.

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! This is a situation ripe for errors.

Panasonic provides a feature that might be of use, 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. I have set all of these to "unlock" except the dial, which is set to "lock".

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 written the section "Q menu limitations" that determined we cannot do this. Neither can you assign any of the function buttons to aperture. Now I am really missing that nice simple Blackmagic Iris button!

The only solution I've found is to use the touch screen to change Aperture. As you tap Disp you cycle through several different displays, one of which shows all the current settings. This doesn't only display, it's touch sensitive, so with a tap you can change aperture. This is far from immediate but it works even 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 great.

The first setting I wished to save was dedicated to adapted lenses. I started in M mode on the dial and set manual focus, my function buttons, Q menu, configuration settings, shooting settings, dials, etc. Then I saved all of this to C1. I can now recall this custom set easily, independently of the actual 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 unintuitively allows photo and video settings to be set differently. It doesn't prevent you from setting them the same, so there's nothing to loose but your freedom.

Please Panasonic

In summary, these are the changes I'd like to see  (rewritten 25 May). 

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.

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. Remove the "CreativeVideo Combined Set" feature and simply decouple still and video settings. having these linked by default is confusing.

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

5a. 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.)

5b. Simplify the remaining menu items by making the items context sensitive (photo vs. video, record vs. playback). 

5c. Change cryptic names and document each function properly in the manual.

Give us these changes in a firmware update before you release another camera!

Final note

I am new to this system and might have overlooked some workarounds. Please let me know in the comments. Also, if you know a hybrid camera that gets this right, do let me know!

Updated: 15 May with one solution and some clarifications. 


No comments:

Post a Comment