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The Olympus E-P3

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Also new to me this year is my delving into the world of photography.  Up ’til now I’ve just been one of those guys taking happy snaps with my iPhone and periodically being told “that’s a great photo” and leaving it at that.  However, the iPhone – as good as it is – has it’s limitations, so I decided to delve into the world of ISO’s and f-stops and see If I could use some of this design cultivated eye for composition in photography.

After many months of research and a very limited budget, I ended up with an Olympus E-P3.  The Olympus PEN range and it’s big brother the OM-D, are a new-ish family of cameras called “Mirrorless’ or ‘Compact System Cameras’ or CSC’s.  They have interchangeable lenses like a DSLR, but a smaller form-factor and smaller sensors, making them more compact but with very close to the same image capturing capabilities.

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The Olympus E-P3 with kit 14-42mm lens

The E-Px models are designed to be ‘enthusiast’ models, in that they can act as a ‘point-and-shoot’ or Compact camera for those upgrading from Compacts and iPhones, but primarily they’re for people with more than a passing knowledge in how to use a traditional camera.

I have pretty much no knowledge of what ISO means or what an f2.8 is, so in buying the E-P3 it was patently obvious that I like a challenge.  Or in other words, I bit off more than I can chew but it was worth it because I look like I surely must know what I’m doing.

The really fascinating thing from a design perspective, is that camera design is at quite an interesting juncture in it’s evolution.  With more people now than ever having a camera in their pocket, how do you get people into photography and on the journey to becoming an ‘enthusiast’ rather than a ‘happy snapper’?  Conversely, how do you get diehard traditionalists away from the status quo, and into the realm where the speedy social delivery of captured moments is gathering more sway than laboured process?

The E-P3 uses a few tricks in it’s design arsenal to get a foot in that middle-ground.  As you can see from the photo it has very retro aesthetics.  Cameras are one of those items that can benefit fairly simply and instantaneously from retro-ism.  Retro design mimics a time when cameras were solid and made from metal and leather, which both tugs at the heart-strings of the veteran but also adds credo for the beginner.  Nothing screams ‘newbie’ like a modern camera.

It also has traditional manual controls and the familiar PASM dial, allowing for tactile manual selection of modes, but also a familiar array of reasonably standardised controls for a digital camera.

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The rear of the Olympus E-P3

Now, I won’t go too much into the entire design and layout of the camera, but instead focus on one aspect of the GUI.  As a general rule and as a design professional but camera neophyte, I’d have to say the GUI has room for improvement.  Essentially it’s a mishmash of aspects of pro-level as well as consumer-level functionality, without really catering for either particularly well.  One of the things I find fascinating about UX is the way in which functionality or the lack thereof can be used as a badge of honour or secret handshake amongst users, and the E-P3’s GUI is a classic example of that.

Hidden deep within the settings and not factory activated is perhaps the best and most useful part of the GUI – a comprehensive interface called the SCP, or Super Control Panel.  Whilst this control panel is mentioned in the lengthy instructions, the reason as to why it’s not activated from the factory is a complete mystery.  Thankfully I knew about it quite early on from my research and as I was pretty keen on jumping right in and shooting manually from day one, it was an absolutely vital tool the lack thereof would’ve made life pretty miserable.

 

The Super Control Panel (SCP)

The Super Control Panel (SCP)

 

Now, from where I’m sitting now wearing my comfortable ‘UX Neophyte’ jacket, I don’t see this as strictly a bad thing.  However in numerous conversations I’ve had and reading other UX blogs (mainly from an IT/Web point-of-view) this user frustration and complexity where it’s not needed is viewed as a negative.  In this case however, having the ‘inside line’ on some functionality adds to separate the enthusiast from the hack.

 

It’s not just a cameras’ interface that has this either, since the advent of the computer itself there has been tips, tricks and shortcuts, aimed to not only act as a ‘badge of honor’ but also force the user to invest more emotional energy into a product or service and therefore tie them more tightly to it.  Even recently I learned of  a tip for the iPad which I had no idea about and I’m sure isn’t published anywhere official.  Of course there’s an initial sense of embarrassment but this is soon supplanted by an air of superiority as the student becomes the teacher, as it were.  A negative user experience becomes a positive one.

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