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mpv-logo.gif Matti Vuori


Usability of high performance pocket camera snapping photography

objektiivipaa.jpgThis article analyses the usability requirements of digital pocket cameras for "high performance" snapping (later abbreviated hi-perf snapping). It is a form of photography that combines the ease of use of pocket cameras with a level of excellence of high quality expert photography.

This article approaches the issue from the viewpoint of hi-perf snapping, because usability is really about how well a task is executed. Tools should be in a non-central role in all usability analyses, allowing abstraction of their design elements, features and functions.

Finally, I shortly analyse one digital camera and its shortcomings. Ok, let's begin...

The style and task of hi-perf snapping Being ready, being prepared Being fast Low social interference Adaptability to different requirements Low fuzz Environmental robustness An example: The usability of one smalle digital snapper

The style and task of hi-perf snapping

Lets first take a look at what the task and process of hi-perf snapping is like.

  • The goal: Great photographs
  • Attitude: Taking photographs while doing what one is normally doing, often while walking the city streets, without a time-allocated project
  • Tools: A pocket camera plus some necessary accessories and spare parts (extra batteries, memory card, perhaps a wide angle adapter)
  • The process: The process is a circular process. The photographer is always ready for shooting when a photo formulates in his/her eyes. The photographs are anticipated while walking down the streets watching scenes develop, people move, lights and shadows come and go... When the opportunity comes, the camera is taken out, a photo is snapped very rapidly and the camera returned to the pocket (or left in the hand).
  • Most determining success factors: Being ready and fast in every circumstance. Focusing on the rapidly developing situations. Capturing the moment in the personal time-walking-space.

What separates the hi-perf snapping from normal snapping are proactive attitude, the effectiveness of the process and the quality of the results.

Being ready, being prepared

A hi-performance snapper is first and foremost always ready. Images are always met suddenly, and the photographer must be always ready to immediately spring into action.

This causes the following requirements

  • The camera must always be with the photographer. It must fit in the pocket of whatever clothes the photographer is wearing. It must be so light and comfortable that one must never think of leaving it home
  • The camera must always be ready for use.
  • It must need no setting up to be usable; ability to remember settings from last use is very important. Many models revert to factory settings, except for image quality settings (resolution, compression).
  • Battery and memory status must always be clear to the user

Being fast

"Drawing the camera" (like drawing a pistol) from the pocket must be fast. The position of camera and its status must be immediately recognisable. There should be no need to check visually which way the camera is in the hand, whether it is turned on, has is booted yet, etc...

autofocus.jpgCamera should be a natural extension of both hand and eye. This calls for good ergonomics, a good "fit". The viewfinder must be large enough. The camera must be immediately ready for shooting. The boot-up time and recovery time from power conserving mode (sleep) should be very fast (less than a second). But often adjustments are needed. Therefore, the adjustments that are most often made must be easy to carry out. These include:

  • Switching flash on and off. A mechanical pop up flash is very nice in this respect
  • Zoom (which is often unnecessarily slow)
  • Switching to spot metering

The requirement for fast action means that often the situation is not optimal for best exposures. One may need to hold the camera with one hand, for example, and the camera must be able to shoot good exposures even then. This means high, adjustable ISO rating and a fast lens.

The photographer needs to be able to shoot many shots in short succession. In an unexpected situation, one can never know what is the best shot, or whether a shot really succeeds or not. Therefore the camera must have short delays between shots. The Achilles' heel of many cameras is flash recharge time, which can be many seconds.

Low social interference

Shooting must be able to be carried out discreetly, without unnecessarily disturbing other people or drawing attention. This calls for, for example, the following camera features:

  • Possibility of shooting without flash even in suboptimal lighting conditions (requires high ISO and fast lens)
  • Small, not too flashy equipment that doesn't draw attention. Something like a black cell phone is ideal

Adaptability to different requirements

Different situations:

  • No need to use "foot zoom" - a wide lens is a requirement
  • Adaptability to different lighting situations. Easy and fast (one button) switching from and to spot metering; easy to use exposure compensation
  • Manual exposure controls

Different quality requirements:

  • Possibility to take high quality images. This requires a high pixel count, consistent exposure system, possibility to use external flash

Low fuzz

Like any serious activity, hi-perf snapping should be as trouble free as possible. Especially technical problems with equipment tend to happen when they cause the most harm! These are the most usual problems:

Problems caused by ergonomic "traps"

  • UI that is prone to error: positioning of controls, control logic, bad terminology
  • Possibility to turn camera off by mistake
  • Low feedback on user operations
  • No warnings in critical situations
  • Some operations in practice not possible without a manual (for example functions that require special button presses)
  • Difficult terminology


Loss of battery power

  • Battery life should be long enough for a long session
  • The remaining battery life should be clearly indicated. Unfortunately, most cameras only provide a simple "low battery" warning, which in some cases comes after just a few shots - even though only 10 % of the battery charge has been consumed. This kind of warning light is totally useless.
  • The camera should be able to utilise off the shelf AA alkaline batteries

Dropping parts

  • Everything that is removable or is removed is prone to get lost. A removable lens cap is one example of this

Fear of breaking

  • Durability of small cameras can sometimes be worse than desired. If one needs to be careful when handling the equipment, attention is focused to a wrong place - not the task, but the tools

Environmental robustness

Snapping is an all-weather activity. Therefore, the camera needs to be rain proof. In most countries another weather related problem is cold weather. Most cameras are guaranteed to work only at plus zero temperatures. That is simply not good enough especially in northern countries. Actually, many cameras can tolerate low temperatures (but with the owner taking the risk of breakage), the only problem area being batteries. NiMH batteries simply do not deliver their charge well in the cold - and some cameras simply don't work with any other commonly available battery type.

In any country, darkness is a problem. A camera needs to be usable in the dark. This requires:

  • Controls that can be operated without seeing the button labels etc.
  • A viewfinder that can be adjusted for darkness, or an optical viewfinder
  • Image capturing technology suitable for low light: high ISO, fast lens

An example: The usability of one smalle digital snapper

oly-c21.jpgTwo years ago, I bought Olympus C-21 (shown right in its well used state). All magazine tests wrote about how good it is: small size (smallest on the market at that time), fast operation, low energy consumption and good image quality. As often, the reality turned out to be just a little different. Was this camera targeted for hi-perf snapping? When it was introduced, it had quite high specification, but the lack of a zoom reveals that this was not aimed for the very serious shooter. But the small size made this camera one of the very few pocket cameras that really would fit in a pocket practically no matter what you might be wearing. I'll present just a few main points of interest, using the previous headings as an outline.


Being ready, being prepared


  • Small size and small weight
  • Still, a film based Olympus Mju II weights some 30 % less and is much smaller, and has a wedge shaped body that allows it to fit in the pocket of your pants


  • This camera forgets many settings when turned off, or when going to "sleep": flash. spot metering, exposure compensation. This makes its use very uncomfortable, because all these must be selected again, using a menu and very small controls


Being fast

When it was introduced, this camera had one of the very fastest boot-up speeds in its class. Still it is quite fast, except for the two common flaws:

  • In the dark, the autofocus makes shutter lags unacceptably long
  • Flash recovery time is many seconds

Also, changing all settings is done in the screen menu, making for example switching the flash off too slow an operation.

Low social interference

Due to its small size and very simple design, this camera looks almost like a disposable camera, not turning attention. When held in hand while walking, nobody notices and cares that you have a camera.


Low fuzz

This camera has a selection of the worst problem inducing features of any model I have ever used.

The camera's power system seem to be designed for a special lithium battery, which a) is not available except in some Olympus stores and b) is very expensive. Therefore, most people naturally use NiMH batteries. This causes the following problems:

  • Due to their different voltage characteristics, the camera gives a low battery warning almost immediately when filled with fully recharged batteries - which in reality have power left for tens of images. When the batteries really go empty, there is no further warning. The camera just stops working
  • The camera uses only two AA batteries, due to which it has limited power capacity and spare batteries need to be carried always
  • Due to the low power capacity, the batteries have a very limited range during winter
  • Furthermore, should the camera run out of power, it will not work on standard Alkalines

The lens cover is exceptionally badly designed. It needs to be moved just a few millimeters, to turn the power off, and the cover slides very easily with almost no resistance. Therefore, the camera turns itself too easily off when held normally in one's palm. (I managed to improve matters just a bit with some drops of glue under the lens cover. See the photo, on the right bottom corner. They keep the cover better in place, pulled down into the power on-position).

The body seems to be very fragile. The first time I dropped the camera, a part of the battery compartment locking system broke. All small devices should take a dropping from waist level to a floor.


Adaptability to different requirements

This camera is best suited to low quality snapping. It has adjustable ISO setting up to 400, but the photos shot using this sensitivity setting are too noisy for any serious publication. It also doesn't have manual exposure controls. It does not provide for screw-on lenses, making the non-zoomable standard lens the only choice.

Environmental robustness

As it has been noted already a couple of times, this camera doesn't work very well in the dark. It is not weather resistant and according to the manufacturer, works only in plus zero temperature. In any case, the battery power restrictions make its cold weather use cumbersome.


Like too many pocket cameras, this on shows serious lack of attention to the user needs. The camera can perform well, but only in ideal conditions when the sun shines and the situation is such that the factory settings work okay. It has been claimed (at around 1999) that Olympus' designers do not listen to users. This may have changed, but this camera clearly shows a designer-, not user oriented attitude. What could have been one of the greatest snappers of all time turns in actual use to be just mediocre.