By Nathan L. Walls

Dials, haptics, anachronisms, and user experiences

Nikon recently announced the Zf, a full-frame, 24 megapixel camera that follows the style cues from the Nikon FM and FE. It has brass dials for adjusting mode, exposure, and metering compensation. But, it is also a fully-modern, high resolution video-capable camera.

Thom Hogan has notable critiques about the form-factor, critiques he also had for the earlier Zfc and the decade ago Digital SLR Df. I agree with several of his criticisms. But, I also see the opening of a video from Nikon Europe’s Ricci Chera and he’s adjusting the dials and they have an ASMR-like quality of thunk. An apparent tactileness that, as nice as the other Z bodies and lenses are, apart from the on off switch and the exposure and aperture dials, buttons push and dials spin freely.

Hogan notes that physical dials that can be overridden in software end-up lying to the user. The same is true in vehicles that have physical volume controls or climate controls that can be overridden by touch panels or other secondary interfaces. But, something that some cars provide for knobs are detents, which give a tacile note of getting to the next setting. On smartphones, the equivalent are feedback haptics.

While I see the Zf as somewhat anachronistic, there’s an audience for this camera. My best guess is this is accessible with smaller primes for street photography. It can drive anything else available on the Z-mount, but I suspect it’s not going to be used much for, say, the f/2.8 400mm, setting aside Morten Hilmar’s Zf video where he considers using the Zf as a video and backup body to his Z9. Seeing and hearing that dial turning from Ricci, it comes across as an solid, expensive fidget toy. Fidget toy sounds dismissive, yet, I also would appreciate that tactile feedback, if maybe not the aural feedback. If the configurable rings on Z-mount lenses could give haptic feedback when changing aperture settings, or when manual focus was reached, an ISO setting was changed. Heck, I’d also like it at the common prime points on zoom lenses. Instead of framing at 48mm or 52mm, I’d know I was at 50mm. It isn’t important at all for the lens performance, but I’m just that particular about wanting to use my zoom lens at one of the typical prime focal lengths.

Another thing I think about is that here missed having a sense of the tactile with modern computers and cameras and cars.

There’s a sense of adding convenience and flexibility by moving things to flat screens and bad keyboards. Thinner phones. Removing buttons, switches, and dials that would all provide immediate physical feedback. Things are sleeker and can demo well. But, what looks good staring at it for thirty seconds and liking it isn’t the same as living with it and using it for months or years. While I see and understand the motivation for the short-term benefit, I also feel where things get worse if there aren’t some tactile affordances. For instance, I typed this paragraph’s first draft on an iPad using the software keyboard. I can do OK with it and it is quieter than typing on most physical keyboards. But, I am far more efficient if I use even the smallest, shallowest Magic Keyboard paired with Bluetooth. My fingers have a better sense of where they need to be, I get the tactile feedback.

The existence of a software keyboard is still super useful, I can work with it, just as I can work with touchscreen interfaces in cars. But, I’m a far sight better with a physical keyboard, a dial or knob to navigate with. Haptics or tactile feedback are super helpful.

Bringing this back around to cameras, I’m not the target market for the Zf, the older Zfc, or cameras from Fujifilm that evoke a similar aesthetic in the APS-C format. But, I want to see the concept of the brass dials that you know you’ve moved to inform the software-configured dials and control rings on camera bodies and lenses that I would more likely use. An option for detents, configurable haptics, or both please.