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Why do User Manuals for High-End Cameras Tell Nothing Useful?

Nikon needs to rethink the approach to what actually helps buyers of high-end cameras:

  • What is the point of a user manual? That’s a serious question that deserves a fresh look based on what is being sold, and to whom.
  • To what audience is it addressed? In particular, an about $3300 camera (without lens) has a very different customer base than a $599 camera which includes a kit zoom.
  • Even for the $599 kit zoom camera, user manuals are at an abysmal low of stupidity.
  • User manuals could actually be a sales tool; very well done, they would add value to a product.

As user manuals stand today, at best I only skim them, in the faint (very faint) hope that something better than what I’ve seen for the past decade might emerge. Hasselblad for example, shows signs of understanding this, in a nascent sort of way—still lacking but a cut above.

Nikon and Canon stick to tried and true worthlessness in user manuals. Sometimes I read the manual for a particular feature in the faint hope that random menu combined with ill-considered terminology might be clarified. Invariably I am disappointed, finding circular repetition stemming from the same genetic flaws: circular definitions, non-definitions, context-dropping, no explanation of why to use or not use a feature, the implications (good or bad) in using or not using a feature, etc. Basic omissions like “this applies only to JPEG and never to RAW”. In short, nothing useful for anyone with a modicum of experience or even a mind with a rudimentary conceptual faculty. Dog help the beginners.

Most of the user manuals today consist of “to do X, enable the X option”, a circular explanation almost hilarious in its offensively lazy stupidity. It reminds me of programming days, with this common example of worthless and meaningless clutter, as in this line in C/C++/Java:

                ++x; // increment x

From my programming days, I found that programmers told to “comment everything” did—with this sort of dreck, never adding any useful comments. User manual writers seem to suffer the same chronic disease ingrained into mental pathways: having absolutely no conceptual faculty, no sense of context (JPEG or RAW?) and lacking any desire whatsoever to make the manual useful—to step into the reader’s shoes and ask “what could be said here to answer any question that might arise and to dispel any uncertainties?” As prima facie evidence I point to the large variety of “Using the _Brand X_ Camera” books, from which not a few writers make a good living.

From page 212 of the Nikon D850 user manual. Emphasis added.

Focus Shift Photography

Use an AF-S or AF-P lens.

After mounting the appropriate lens, choose an exposure mode of A or M so that aperture does not change during shooting (recommended), then take a test shot at current settings and view the results in the monitor.

Once settings have been adjusted to your satisfaction, close the viewfinder eyepiece shutter to prevent light entering via the viewfinder interfering with photographs and exposure.

Use of a tripod is recommended. Mount the camera on a tripod before shooting begins. To ensure that shooting is not interrupted, be sure the camera battery is fully charged. If in doubt, charge the battery before use or use an AC adapter and power connector (available separately).

Think about all the unanswered questions, self evident stupidities in the above!

  • If you are reading this manual, we assume you are a soccer Mom or Dad with no clue (or even what an aperture is), who just bought our $3300 uber camera (lens extra), and therefore we assume you are incompetent, so we will not mention manual focus or magnified Live View for focusing, or just how inaccurate our legendary excremental autofocus can be, especially in Live View stopped down. We are laughing our asses off at getting away with this stuff! As for lens mount misalignment, don't worry about it because we will think about it for months and let you know that it is not a problem. Be Happy that you have the Best Inscrutable Product We Designed For You According to What We Wanted to Do.
  • Written for a novice, what exactly is an “AF-S or AF-P” lens? This fantastic Nikkor lens has ED IF SWM and so on which you know are the Right Stuff for your best ever shot. That’s why you are reading this manual.
  • How to determine what is an “appropriate lens”?
  • The “monitor” means I need to use my computer?
  • “so that aperture”: we outsource our translations to the cheapest guy in a mud hut with cell phone internet that we can find , please so forgive errors any.
  • Our general approach in writing this boilerplate manual is to check off a box so our bosses write our paychecks. And it helps this stuff fit on one page, which keeps things simple.
  • We love using 6-point type on tiny pages so that diglloyd cannot read the manual without close-up glasses.
  • Close the eyepiece shutter because our flagship camera sucks at auto metering if you don’t fix the problem we forgot to solve during the design phase. And because we love Dinosaur designs we like very much to keep this lovely design.
  • If you are brilliant enough not to use a tripod for Focus shift shooting, then you you will get Focus shit shooting, but why should we explain it in a user manual? If you feel like mounting the camera to a tripod while shooting is in progress, we applaud your diligence.
  • We just fill in the blanks for the next model of our most excellent Dinosaur Design camera. It has worked for decades just like the DSLR has worked, so why think about it?
  • Do your own damn research on WTF actually works and why.

It gets more helpful:

Start shooting. Highlight Start and press J. Shooting starts after about 3 s. The camera takes photographs at the selected interval, starting at the focus distance selected at the start of shooting and progressing out toward infinity by the selected focus step distance with each shot. Shooting ends when the selected number of shots has been taken or focus reaches infinity. To end shooting before all shots have been taken, select Off for Focus shift shooting in the photo shooting menu or press the shutter-release button halfway or press the J button between shots.

Such as:

  • Design kudos for the 3 second delay so users don’t have to worry about camera shake from pressing the button.
  • ZERO explanation of how the camera calculates (or does not calculate) the step width based on the selected value + the aperture + the focal length. How does one choose a step value and why? This is the single most critical piece of information in the entire process, and it is omitted.
  • Shots often go 4 to 10 frames past infinity, with everything so out of focus that it is ridiculous.
  • What is/was wrong with allowing the user to choose the starting and ending focus point so that I don’t have to delete the last 4 to 10 blurred useless past-infinity frames?
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