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Sony A7R: the Kitchen Sink Menu System Design Paradigm is Alive and Well

The Sony A7R has terrific hardware features, but as with its siblings, Sony cannot figure out total system usability: no-nonsense non-confusing usability. Instead, complexity and no thought given to the overall experience unless the user deeply engages to essentially reprogram all the buttons to bypass the issues.

So let’s get the camera software commentary out of the way, as this issue has simmered since the Sony RX1, with the A7R now inching along with more clutter and not fixing some glaring faults for field use (e.g., long exposure timing).

A NYC professional photographer writes:

When you get your A7R please tell me how to format an SD card. I can't find the format function.

[editor: followup] It would be nice of them to put that in the camera manual because it is one of the first things you need to do. No mention of formatting that I could find.

Interesting camera. I need more time to be sure but I think my camera is not sharp side to side. The left side of the frame is noticeably less sharp than the right side when focusing near infinity. I also experienced a pulsing image in the eye level finder.

DIGLLOYD: Toolbox menu(last top level icon), then first item in submenu #5. Sharpness can be lens or camera (plane parallelism of sensor and mount), or both.

This reader understands cameras—but not computers. It is an indictment of Sony design that sophisticated users have to ask such questions (ditto for most all camera companies).

The fact that this question and others like it have to be asked reveals a design flaw in the camera menu system, which is obvious in entering that maze. It bleeds into other areas in subtle ways, and adds a consumer feel to the A7R design. I’ll get around to screen shots for key A7R functions because this NYC pro is not the only one stymied by what ought to be obvious functions: important stuff up front and obvious, other stuff secondary or eliminated entirely (hidden by default). Which is the operative principle for any well-designed product.

Context: a kitchen-sink mess for a menu system is taken to its highest (most pathetic design ever) expression with the Olympus OM-D E-M1. I’m not sure that anything short of randomized order could do worse than the menu disaster in the E-M1.

The Sony A7R succeeds in part by being less bad than the E-M1, which is the most positive thing to be said about its menu system. Less bad in two ways: fewer menu items that are cluttered yet more easily accessed, and also better configurability; with the E-M1 I could never reprogram certain key buttons that are hard-coded to features that are of no use for raw shooting. The A7R shares that hard-coded design limit with the recalcitrant video button, which cannot be reprogrammed, only disabled for non-video modes. But that button only.

Still, the saving grace with the A7R is that most control functions can be mapped to buttons or dials, so that once configured the camera is efficiently usable. In button programmability it might be called best of breed. Which might be restated as “best approach to letting the user bypass the horrific menu design”.

Unfortunately one cannot eliminate unwanted menus. The A7R contains crapware menus: network functions, computer connectivity, app management, etc; in the field all of these are 100% useless, yet there they are. Noting that one person’s crapware might vary from another’s, the point is that a camera is not a computer. At least on a computer, one can generally delete unwanted functions and crapware. The unwanted extras pollute the menu system needlessly, and forever. The “anti Apple”, though Apple fails in the other direction (no control at all).

If a kitchen sink design is all a company can invent, then there ought to be a way to hide all the unwanted cruft that one has no use for—a “Hide Stuff that I consider Garbage” master menu. It’s a logical extension to the idea of reprogramming buttons and dials: let me show and hide what I wish to use: Sony, if you cannot design it well, let me at least sweep the dead rats under the couch. For that matter, a “hide all JPEG related functions” setting (I shoot raw exclusively).

In this regard I’ll take the Sigma DP Merrill menu system hands down over the efforts of all these hapless software engineers: well organized limited menus, and with an intelligent quick access system (the Goldilocks approach). I know of no better menu system on any digital camera—the only flaw being the inclusion of video functions which ought to be banished entirely.

Now consider that with all the superfluous menus, Sony still does not allow choosing an explicit shutter speed longer than 30 seconds—the user must manually time a bulb exposure. This on an advanced digital camera. It’s crazy (not that it affects Sony only). But worse, Sony does not offer a programmable remote to time a long (night) exposure as do Nikon and Canon (Ricoh GR builds this in, with up to 5 minute exposures, truly useful in the field). It is one example, but makes the point of “useless menu junk” versus “valuable features ignored”. I reported this to Sony with the RX1/RX1R; nothing happens. Good hardware, but a failure to think about what might actually be wanted and needed in the field, and what might impede usage. Bad form before useful function.

Finally, it’s a $2300 camera with scene modes (an infectious disease these days). A “Leica killer”? Well, at least Leica doesn’t resort to the incongruous scene modes on a camera priced for pros. Designs that attempt to please everyone are not designs; they’re actually an admission of failure to design.

Sony Alpha A7R with Sony/Zeiss FE 35mm f/2.8 Sonnar ZA

Reader comments

I’m going to insert one important comment here up-front from reader Klaus H:

This camera certainly causes a lot of stir. As far as I’m concerned, I have been waiting a long time for such a camera and I have learned to live with the quirks.

I like it more than any other camera I have owned since the digital era began.

DIGLLOYD: Just as I put up with no EVF and slow write speeds with the Sigma DP Merrill cameras for their outstanding image sharpness, the Sony A7R has a great deal to offer also, especially in its breakthrough feature set. Though neither deserves to get a “free pass” on things that ought to be improved.

Howard C writes:

As usual, your comments/diatribe on the totally bloated menu system of the Sony A7R are right on the money. Why do the camera manufacturers fail to see that there are many, many photographers who do not want a camera’s menu system cluttered with useless garbage that gets in the way of photography? I think its cultural. The Japanese camera manufacturers are just not all that focused on listening to customers. If they do, they probably speak to Japanese consumers, and I think Japanese consumers actually enjoy the mastery of these complex menu systems with the myriad features that Westerners would never even think of using. If only Apple had designed the A7R menu system for Sony!

Funny, I had the exact same experience as the NYC photographer you mentioned in trying to figure out how to format the memory card. It took me thirty minutes of going through the menu system to figure it out. I also looked in the manual and there was nothing there! WTF!

Notwithstanding, the A7R appears to be a technological tour de force. I was just amazed when I put it in my hands with the Sony/Zeiss 35mm FE lens and realized what that diminutive package was at least potentially capable of producing. The big question is whether lenses that fit the form factor of the body are up to the task. There has been a lot of anecdote, conjecture and poorly formed opinions floating around on the internet. I am looking forward to you providing us with some reliable answers.

DIGLLOYD: if Apple had designed the A7R menu system, they’d really have messed it up: no raw, no nothing, no dials, no programmable buttons! :;

Lens performance is first on my list with the 35/2.8.

Bill H writes:

I think you are being far too measured and kind in your comments about the A7R menu. As long as you are ferreting out the myriad mysteries lurking in the multiple menus (none of which are even hinted at in their “instruction” manual), would you please tell me (us?) how to make the histogram appear in the viewfinder

I finally found it, totally by accident this afternoon, after I was finished shooting a bunch of M lenses. My focus was off on the longer lenses, because I could could not find the secret button that magnifies the view. As with the histogram, I finally discovered (by accident) its location, but the dwell time was about 2 seconds, hardly enough time to focus the camera. I suppose I should have used peaking, but my experience is it makes precise focusing a challenge.

DIGLLOYD: Well the Fufjifilm X fanboys (who the heck wants a mangled 16MP image?!) have me so worried about making their acne worse that I’m holding back on Sony!

I see now that I need to start with the A7R by documenting screen shots of all the things that Sony made hard to find. Why don’t cameras have a screen shot feature? What fun to have to photograph the rear LCD twenty different ways. Even an iPhone can take a screenshot of its own screen, so why can’t a camera of all things.

With the A7R, what I still can’t find is the Send this camera back or WTF Is this Sh*t or Where is That Wine When I Really Need It commands. Or the Don’t reset my AF/MF focus choice on Power Off G.D.I menu setting. Those first two ought to be in the third menu icon dump (a suitable term) along with Send to Smartphone and Send to Computer and View on TV. Anyway, I hope that helps with respect to my kindness to Sony.

I get to have all the fun twice (A7R and A7), since I cannot find a “save settings” and “load settings” command. This is almost as brilliant as Nikon, which won’t load D800E settings on a D800, and vice versa.

Secret button that magnifies the view = program a button to do so. It’s under the 2nd menu (the gear thing), submenu #6, Custom Key Settings => Custom Button 1 (or 2 or 3); set any of those to Focus Magnifier. Simple. Be Happy it’s not an iPhone. Smoke something suitable first, which I hear tell helps a lot. Don’t forget to reserve one of those buttons for really useful stuff like Soft Skin Effect (be sure to shoot JPEG so it works since a lot of these are just Fake Stuff To Make The Camera Look Advance, since the vast majority do not apply to raw shooting). There ya' go.

Histogram in viewfinder = Gear menu (2nd menu) => submenu #2 => DISP button => Finder => Histogram. Every bit as obvious as the secret magnifying button.

Bill H follows up:

Now you managed to make me laugh - quite a lot actually. Thank you!

The comparison you made to Sigma is right on the money. It is so easy, simple, intuitive (it occurs to me I never read a manual - I’m not sure there is one...).

Of course the other question, manual comparisons aside, is image comparisons between the A7R and DP cameras... From a quick comparison this afternoon, they seem very close - enough so that I could not tell anyone with any degree of certainty which, is either records more detail. I’ll look some more tomorrow, and have every faith you will share that answer with all of your subscribers!

DIGLLOYD: Plain body, slow write times and no EVF for the Sigma DP Merrill cameras, but the simplicity and usability of the user interface is among the very best, and they hugely outperform their pay grade and megapixel grade. As for comparisons, there is no prime lens match; in full-frame terms the DP Merrills offer 28mm, 45mm, 75mm. Thus comparisons are a bit tricky on both alignment and focus matching. And format-equivalent apertures should be used also (ƒ/4 on DP Merrill APS-C = ƒ/5.6 on full frame).

Steven K writes:

I am really looking forward to your review on the A7R What most concerning to me is what one of your readers noticed: “Interesting camera. I need more time to be sure but I think my camera is not sharp side to side. The left side of the frame is noticeably less sharp than the right side when focusing near infinity. I also experienced a pulsing image in the eye level finder.”

Sure maybe a decentering issue on the lens, or mount issue or both.

This to me is the #1 issue why I will not purchase this camera. Tolerance specs are just to high. Then to think to add an adaptor to this can only exacerbate the problem.

I guess for the studio photographer or photojournalist this is not as important yet for a landscape photographer living near or at infinity this is a deal breaker for me.

DIGLLOYD: It’s a stretch for me to agree with that sentiment—at least to single out Sony— all camera systems including Leica M and Leica S and Nikon and Canon have at one time or another shown tolerances issues in my issue. I have not updated Brand-new Blur with another dozen or so examples, but they happen all the time.

Richard J writes:

I was able to get my hands on the A7 and the A7r last night for about a couple of hours and I would also say how poor the menu system is, even baffling some of the Sony people that were there. For me though I suspect once I got it set up the way I wanted then I would be happy.

I have spoken to you before about my distaste for EVFs however I can say that the EVF on the A7s are truly exceptional, fooling me in to thinking it wasn't there at all. But the operation of it is where it fell apart for me a bit.

Perhaps you can see if the camera is able to this or not as none of the Sony people could figure it out.

When looking through the EVF I want to take a photo and immediately see Live View again so I can recompose and take another pic in fast succession. Easy turn of auto preview and you now have an EVF that essentially works like an OVF, however after taking 4 or 5 quick shots you may want to quickly look at a preview on the LCD, but preview is off so you need to push play and... oh sorry "writing to the card" wait 5 seconds and everything slows down or you miss a shot. Surely the benefit to having two digital screens is setting them up to work independently to one another rather then have them do or not do, the same thing. Like having two card slots that write the same files to each card.

DIGLLOYD: well, what’s driving me crazy already is the badly placed front dial, well below the on/off switch. I have turned the A7R off numerous times unintentionally.

A faster card keeps cycle time low, BUT the EVF blackout time is totally unacceptable for some kinds of shooting. Definitely not a camera for photojournalism.

Dominik W writes:

I could not agree more with the comments you have made about the horrible menu system of the A7R. I would also like to add that there is no way (that I can tell) to turn off the EVF eye sensor on the camera. Waling around with the camera around my neck keeps turning on the EVF needlessly. There is no EVF / Monitor switch like there is on the GX7 for example.

While shooting in cold weather this past weekend I have noticed that the camera is also very difficult to operate with gloves. The power button position right above the aperture dial is also silly, I have managed to turn off the camera a couple of times while trying to use it with my gloves on.

DIGLLOYD: there is also no AF/MF switch as on the Sony RX1R, a feature I sorely miss. But I can work with a programmed button. As for cold weather operation this matters also and the A7R falls down in that regard also. But no camera can do everything well.

EVF thing has no real solution, but:

  • Try Gear menu, #3 submenu, FINDER-MONITOR = Monitor.
    (will disable the EVF, maybe a non-starter).
  • Power Save Start Time: Toolbox => #2 menu

Real solutions are better than these kludges: a switch is a much better solution. Perhaps one can program a button to access the EVF FINDER-MONITOR feature, though this is hardly as nice as a button or switch.

Alex R writes:

You absolutely hit the nail on the head, the Merrills are a fine example of how to design menus and controls on a camera that is obviously aimed at those of us who just want to take pictures and not screw around with menus. I have no doubt that the A7R/A7 are fine tools and they absolutely feel fantastic in hand and the viewfinders are a thing of beauty but I’d much rather endure Sigma’s slow focus and abysmal software than wade through endless pages of menus to access seemingly fundamental things.

After buying a DP1M on a whim I’ve fallen in love with using a camera that isn’t riddled with crapware and seriously would love to see the big brands return to this level of straightforwardness—particularly in the mirrorless market which has become notorious for loading every conceivable thing the firmware developers and marketing gurus could dream up into every model. Maybe it’s Sony and Olympus’ plan to win over everyone in the market by offering every conceivable thing in their mirrorless cameras but it certainly alienates all of us who just want to take photos on manual with a minimum of fuss. After using both the A7 and EM-1 I have a sneaking suspicion that one or two more Sigmas might find their way to my camera bag soon…

DIGLLOYD: the Sony cameras succeed for two reasons: the latest and greatest technology and the bumbling efforts of Nikon and Canon, but this can carry them only so far. The Sigma cameras succeed admirably in some ways, but badly need that Sony technology infusion (e.g., EVF and fast CPU).

Roy P writes:

Three men, an American, a German and a Japanese, traveling through Africa, are captured by some guerillas fighting for control of some banana republic country. They are all declared as spies by a ragtag military court, and despite their denials of any wrongdoing and desperate pleas for mercy, sentenced to immediate death by an execution squad. The top honcho asks the three men if they had any last wishes before they were shot.

The German, who identifies himself as a Leica engineer, requests to be allowed to deliver one last speech expounding the virtues of the rangefinder camera, including a demo of his new M240. The Japanese, who identifies himself as a Sony engineer, requests permission to show off the software features and demonstrate the menu system in the new Sony A7/A7R cameras. The American, a noted independent photography blogger and nature enthusiast, asks to be shot first!


Matthew L writes:

I recall buying a multi-function remote control perhaps 20 years ago. It came with software for the PC with which you 'designed' your own menus (DVD player, TV functions etc) and uploaded the result to the remote control.

Why the camera manufacturers can't produce something similar – 20 years later – is beyond me. What I want (and I can't be the only person) is a mirrorless full-frame entirely without JPEG capacity (or with the ability to remove all references to it), manual controls, a good EVF and raw histogram. Must add that the Olympus trick of 'watch an exposure develop on-screen' is IMHO the best new function for years and will be a major change for long-exposure work.

DIGLLOYD: Complexity begets complexity. The configuration really comes down to menus and their contents, and pairings of menu items to buttons/clickers, easily handled with a plain text file, to make a point.

But at the least, the ability to save settings and read settings helps. The A7R has a Setting Reset but no Save Settings and Load Settings. So users (or Sony) cannot share their settings to ease the path for others. In context of the meny system, it should not come as a suprise: design thought ends with the menu organization.

John writes:

I am amazed at the people who insist on complaining about the detailed menus of the Sony A7R as if they want to just pick up their Kodak Brownie and take photos. It is a TECHNOLOGICAL achievement unheard of just a few short years ago yet some people think that it needs to be simple…well the camera isn’t simple. It is a complex device that when you actually learn about it, take the time to learn about it, then set it up the way you want it after learning about it, then you are good to go without “diving in” to sub levels of menus. For a reader to say he couldn’t find how to format the SD card….well, I can just say I am embarrassed for him that he would admit that if he is a “professional photographer” Gee, maybe you should actually review all of the menu items and learn about the beautiful device you have in your hands. Did you buy a computer and couldn’t figure out how to use the word program or excel because you figured it should just work and not take time to learn all of its benefits.

DIGLLOYD: A complex device can implement a less than useful software interface, an awful one (Olympus E-M1), and one that is approachable and minimizes the difficulties and makes features accessible (Sigma DP Merrill). History is replete with industry-changing examples. Think GUI vs DOS and iPhone vs dumb phone and iPad vs computer. These all succeeded for the “technological achievement” failures of their predecessors (BTW, a command line still is superior to a GUI for some things!).

Any tool demands some investment of time and effort. But it should not capriciously force the user to expend effort that is about adapting to ill-considered design.

If it wasn’t obvious in my post, Sony is hardly the only offender, and as one reader notes, if one first understands the menu structure, this helps. But it doesn't fix having too many menus with features I consider closely related being separated by menus and submenus several apart. It becomes a game of find the pea under the shell.

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