In 1979, I went to The Audible Difference, a hi-fi store then located on Lytton Avenue in Palo Alto. I walked in barehanded, and walked out with a Threshold SL-10 preamp. My wallet was $950 lighter, but my spirits were soaring. I thought it was a breakthrough design, and I loved the way it sounded. But what sealed the deal for me were the haptics of the switches. They had it all. Big metal knobs, machined to a fine luster. Weighty mechanisms that allowed you to feel the momentum. Crisp, positive, but not overly strong detents. You could feel the ball bearings drop into position like the tumblers in a bank safe, accompanied by a nice little audible click. I’d been a fan of good switch detents for most of my life as an engineer and a consumer, and these were the best I’d ever encountered.
I used that preamp for years, even sending it in when it was 8 or 9 years old to have the guts upgraded to current specs. But they didn’t touch the switches, and I was grateful.
It appears to me that camera haptics, particularly the detents, have gotten worse over the years. I picked up my old Nikon S2, manufactured in 1955, and played with it to try and figure out what’s different now. I don’t remember the S2 having particularly good haptics, like the M3 and the Rolleiflex, but it’s a camera I have.
There are really only five detented switches on the S2: the synchro dial, the advance/rewind switch, the two shutter speed dials, and the f-stop ring (I have the 5 cm f/2 Nikkor-H). The synchro dial, used to adjust FP bulb flash synch for different shutter speeds, I not something you expect to use often; I’ve hardly ever used it, because I when I needed flash I almost always used the camera with strobes. It is a bit stiff, but the detents are narrow and crisp. There is an audible click to let you know that you’re in the right place. The slow shutter speed dial rotates more easily, and has nice, well-defined, and audible detents. The fast shutter speed dial drops down into position at the various possibilities, and therefore doesn’t have detents in the conventional sense. The A/R switch is a bit stiff, with crisp audible detents. The aperture ring has narrow, crisp detents with almost-nonexistent audible feedback. Oh, there is one I forgot about: the ASA/DIN reminder dial on the bottom of the camera. You turn that with you thumb, and the detents are silent and nothing to write home about.
The GFX 100S has six detented switches. Seven if you count the joystick. From a haptics perspective, the best one is the mode dial.The detents are moderately narrow, strong enough to pull the wheel in if it’s close, and have a dull click. I’d like them better if they were narrower, and the click were better defined. It doesn’t feel like a ball bearing dropping into a recess; it feels like a spring-loaded lever falling into a depression on a cam. The f-stop detants on the lenses (I used the 80/1.7 for this test) are weak, and totally silent unless you rotate the ring rapidly. I think the on/off switch detents are OK; they are strong and there is a dull thud as you activate the switch. A distinct click would be nice, but this isn’t bad. The focus mode switch (S/C/M) is a hair too stiff — which is much better than too wimpy — and the audible feedback sounds a bit like a traffic accident three blocks away, which is a long wan from the clean click that you’d like. The two dials you’ll probably use the most are the rear thumbwheel, and the front fingerwheel at the same height. And they are terrible. No, that’s not right. By Fuji/Nikon/Sony standards, they’re average. They’re even a bit less spongy than most. But there’s no audible feedback at all. If you don’t have a feel for how they work and you’re moving then through several steps in one go, you are likely to undershoot or overshoot your destination.
The GFX 100S is far from the worst current camera in this regard. It’s even above average. But Lord, Lord, Lord, the bar for modern-day camera haptics is limbo-low.
ACH Digital Photography says
Hey love your blog, I’m old school too, no more metal bearings against metal anymore, just plastic and electronics, still they could be made even better. I haven’t tried the Leica or Phase One but they are probably better in this sense. Ever since digital, most cameras that I had, Canon 5D, Nikon 800D, Sony A7R’s all have their weaknesses. I would consider Canon and Fuji to be better, my Nikon fell apart and the Sony switches stop responding, they don’t take the beating old cameras used to take. I had my Bronica SQ with 4 lenses for 25 years and sold them in perfect conditions!
The first time I tried a Fuji camera I was severely disappointed in the haptics—but I’m used to my Contax gear, which has superb detents on the aperture rings. Some better than others, but all uniformly better than even the GFX ones.
Canon’s top and rear dials are pretty good as far as tactile feedback goes, for what it’s worth.
one of the reasons why I only have hammer fired full metal framed handguns vs plastic-fastastic striker fired “glocks” 🙂 … haptics !
good mechanical controls cost some money and bean counters reign …. consider that it took $6K GFX 100s for Fuji to finally, finally replace their tiny shameful joystick with a normal sized one…