Camera Ergonomics: What Does It Mean?

Ergonomics is a word that gets thrown around a lot. We hear it when someone is describing a camera, and may even use it ourselves. It’s used to describe the design of a camera (or product), and how it feels in the hand. It seemed like kind of a fancy word for a simple description, so I figured I’d dig into and see what the word actually meant. I was pretty surprised at what I found.

Before getting into cameras, I had never heard the term ergonomics before. Through context, I was pretty sure of what it meant and understood what people were talking about when using the term. Though, having been new to this concept of description, I needed to know more.

Introduction to Ergonomics

Ergonomics isn’t a term that you hear often. The most common use for the word is in relation to the workplace at a desk; concerning posture and efficiency. However, ergonomics in the design of almost everything we use and interact with in our day to day. Or atleast it should be.

To rip a page right out of Wikipedia’s definition of ergonomics, it is: the application of psychological and physiological principles to the engineering and design of products, processes, and systems. The goal of human factors is to reduce human error, increase productivity, and enhance safety and comfort with a specific focus on the interaction between the human and the thing of interest

From our furniture to the kitchen knife, ergonomics was considered to ensure safety and productivity. This, of course, is essential in the workplace, to make sure that the person doing a job can do so safely and efficiently.

For instance, it’s easy to disregard the importance of proper ergonomics when sitting at a desk. The term “safety” isn’t exactly front and center of your mind when you’re sitting in a chair. However, without the proper ergonomics, it will cause long lasting physical damage and productivity tanks.

Human Factors

One of the terms in the description that got my head spinning with intrigue was Human Factors. Ergonomics and Human Factors are two synonymous terms, and can be used interchangeably. When you’re analyzing the ergonomics of a product, you’re essentially evaluating it in relation to the human factor. Or in other words, how a human interacts with the object.

If you allow your mind to go down the rabbit hole of Human Factors, you begin realizing how many factors are wrapped up into those 2 words. For instance, further down in the Wikipedia description, it lists many disciplines that are involved in the study such as physiology, psychology, anthropometry and biomechanics.

Essentially, ergonomics, or human factors, is the study of designing equipment, devices and processes that fit the human body and its cognitive abilities. It is concerned with the “fit” between product and the user. Now we’re really starting to see how this greatly applies to the design of a camera.

How Ergonomics Applies To Camera Design

It’s obvious that good, functional design is important for any product. Things must be easy to use in order for it to be productive, or even for people to want to use them.

A camera is, for all intents and purposes, a tool. It is a tool that we expect to work properly and do what it is designed to do with as much ease as possible (albiet, there are some exceptions to this, but we’ll get to that later). Sometimes we greatly rely on this, but without proper ergonomics, this is much harder to achieve.

We already discussed that ergonomics is concerned with the “fit” between the human and the product of interest. What better example is there than a camera and a photographer?

A camera has to “fit” you and your process. If a camera is compatible with you, your level of success, productivity, and efficiency will be far greater than one that isn’t. But just because a camera may fit you doesn’t mean it will fit the next guy.

Back To Human Factors

Humans are funny things. They are all so different from one another with different tastes, sizes and shapes. As the old saying goes – you can’t please everybody. To me, that saying sums up my concept of Human Factors.

When designing a product, you design it with the intent of pleasing as many people as possible. However there will always be someone who disapproves, or it simply doesn’t work for them no matter how hard they try.

Earlier I listed some of the disciplines that are involved in the study of ergonomics and one of them was Psychology. This is an odd one to consider when designing a physical object. The subjects of physiology and biomechanics makes sense, but psychology? However it does begin to make sense when you consider the Human Factor.

The Psychological Fit

The “fit” of a camera to the photographer has a profound effect on how they feel towards it. As I have said, the proper ergonomics can increase success. This matter of fit doesn’t exclusively mean physically, but also mentally.

It’s not just how a camera feels in your hand, but how it makes you feel when it’s in your hand. Nor is it only about it’s sharpness, special effects, or amazing images it can produce, but rather the kind of images you can produce while using it. A camera shouldn’t be judged strictly on the physiological level: the psychology of the user must also come into play.

A camera can be made perfectly to fit the human hand, having everything positioned at just the right angle and putting functions at the tip of your fingers. In theory, it could have perfect ergonomics, with every measurement of biomechanics in consideration. However, while a camera may fit beautifully in a photographers hand, it still needs to fit his or her psychological process.

The X-Factor

The last thing I will get into on this matter is something I call the X-factor. The X-Factor of a camera can be hard to pin down. It can disregard everything I’ve said thus far, yet still cause the photographer to love it.

A camera may be a complete pain to use, with knobs and levers in awkward spots. It may be slow and inefficient, causing you to capture an image 5 seconds after the “decisive moment”. The image quality from said camera may be no better than from other much nicer cameras that are easier to use. Nor may the camera produce any special effects that could justify it’s unwieldiness. However, it possesses an X-factor that just makes you want to use it, regardless of any pay off.

In my opinion, a camera that could possess such a quality could be something like a TLR. Now before you go getting upset, I’m aware of the existence of the Rolleiflex and other great TLRs, as well as quirky one that can give the aforementioned “special effects”. However, there are plenty of TLRs (like my Yashica A for instance) that just produces a normal image.

My Yashica A doesn’t give me anything special. As side from some nice swirly bokeh, and being an upgrade from 35mm, it doesn’t have much as far as a “look”. It can just simply take a nice picture. My TLR is actually a pain to use. It has no light meter, causing me to use an app on my phone, it can be difficult to focus and compose, and you have to look at the front of the camera the change any settings; not to mention you’re looking down, rather than at your subject while doing all this. But boy does it have an X-factor.

There’s just something about these strange annoyances with my Yashica A that I’ve really been enjoying. It’s an absolutely beautiful camera, making me proud to wear it around my neck and all of it’s inconveniences gives me a different perspective when taking a photo with it. The X-factor, I suppose, begins to play on the psychological aspect of the human factor.

Are Camera Ergonomics Important?

When choosing a camera, whether you’re a beginner or experienced, camera ergonomics are very important. You want to find a camera that is right for you and fits your process. As I hope I have made clear, this doesn’t have to mean “easy to use”. I wouldn’t consider any 8×10 camera “easy to use”, but if it fits your process, then the ergonomics of that camera are compatible with your human factor.

As humans, we are capable of multiple different processes. Don’t just write off a camera because it didn’t fit your process that day. Sure, if you’re wanting to do some run-and-gun street photography, then a large field camera isn’t going to have the right ergonomics for that process. However, as a photographer, it can be healthy to explore different forms and genres of photography. So while you may choose a point and shoot camera for blasting the sidewalk scenes, your process can change when going for a leisurely walk through some gnarly oaks.

I’m sure most photographers reading this will find this a given. But I thought it’d be fun to drag you down the same rabbit hole I fell into when simply looking up a definition to a word I repetitively heard used. Perhaps you’ll stop and think a little the next time you hear a review talk about how much they enjoy the “ergonomics of a camera”.

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