What is the ideal camera for the person who... well, you know....

The person who never seems to be able to operate, or be happy with, these modern digital cameras. The person who more often says "Oh, I'm so upset, I couldn't get a picture of that because this damn camera never works right" or the person who goes to take a shot but then quietly puts the camera away realizing it's full and remembering that one does not quite know what one does when the camera is full. And so on.

I know a number of people who are utterly incapable of using a digital camera, even though those same people are highly intelligent, flexible, and able to easily do things that require significantly more detailed and complex technical knowledge. There are two reasons for this, I think: 1) they don't use any camera often enough to remember what they learned last time they used it and b) the digital camera is paradimatically different enough from other things in life to make it ... well, different. A Kuhnian Fail, as it were.

Digital cameras present some or all of the following difficulties for folks who have a hard time with them (and I speak here of PHS1 cameras, not SLR cameras):

1) That view screen on the back has become a must have, even though it is the reason that the cameras use up their batteries so quickly, but to old schoolers, it is intimidating and very unlike a view finder.

2) To ease the use of the average PHS camera, indecipherable icons have been arranged on a wheel or menu offering more than the optimal number of choices, and thus causing confusion. The optimal number of choices of "mode" is, of course, one. Two may as well be a zillion. Sometimes the wheel or menu either gets set at some unlikely setting, so from then on, forever, the user is in Macro mode, or in the case of some wheels, gets easily stuck in between settings so the camera simply will not work with no obvious explanation until somebody knocks it accidentally and it starts working again.

3) Most PHS cameras have a menu that allows the user to alter dozens and dozens of settings. If a user does not understand that a camera can even have a menu, this means that most PHS cameras have a button that causes the camera to break forever. Or at least until the batteries die of non-use and, on replacement, the camera resets itself.

4) Playback mode. Film cameras didn't have it. It is unnatural and confusing (but see below).

5) There is no way to get the pictures out of the camera because there is no film to remove and have developed. There is, of course, playback mode so you can see tiny little versions of the pictures. And yes, folks, I've known people to pretend that they suddenly hate their PHS camera and need a new one because it got full and they were confused about what to do next.

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that most people who can't handle a modern digital PHS camera end up owning one that was selected by someone (a relative, or whatever) who can handle it. Thus, the person selecting the camera uses criteria such as "number of pixels" or "memory capacity" or "does it have a zoom" or whatever. These are all irrelevant. The digital PHS camera replacing an old film camera in the hands of a snapshot taker has to produce images that are as good as inappropriately chosen film shot with crappy optics and developed by a stoned teenager using a poorly calibrated automatic printing machine at Walmarts. Anything beyond that is a bonus. Yes, folks, even the zoom is an unnecessary confusing battery-killing feature. (Unfortunately, all known digital PHS cameras have a zoom, which is a shame.)

Our objective, therefore, is to find a digital camera that has one feature: The smallest number of buttons possible. Ideally, there would be one (shoot) but there may have to be two (off/on and shoot). As far as I know there are no such cameras. But, perhaps we can get close. Your suggestions, in the comments, will be appreciated.

I did an Internet search for a simple camera and I found many discussion lists or blog comments that were supposed to explicitly suggest simple cameras. But, as expected, almost every single suggestion is for a camera that is not simple. The person making the suggestion, as a camera geek, was in almost every instance mentally and emotionally incapable of suggesting a simple camera because their brains would not let them. A camera with more pixels or more features or more whatever always caught their attention ("ooh, shiny!") and ruined any possibility of them answering the simple question: What is the simplest camera, the camera with the fewest buttons and settings????

Even the camera industry is clueless. You would think Kodak would have a simple camera that they sell as THE simple camera (they often have done so in the past). But if we look at the Kodak EasyShare C180 10.2MP Digital Camera with 3x Optical Zoom and 2.4 inch LCD - Red, we find that its specks include:

- Many "scene" settings pre-programmed for different types of shots
- M1033 has a couple extra features (i.e., panoramic stitching)
- No viewfinder

... and one reviewer quips: "I was amazed to find it has so many settings (it has ISO as well as many other settings for the most fun and practicality.) It also takes videos. "

Nonetheless, this may be one of the simplest cameras out there, and it costs bout 70 bucks.

Maybe if we went even cheaper we'd lose some features. The Go Photo Easy Pix 30 - Digital camera costs 30 bucks and has almost no features. It is essentially a web cam with no easy way to hook it to your monitor. However, it does shoot video (however crappy) and has a maximum resolution less than an old CRT. What we're really looking for is a camera with a passable lens and reasonable resolution, not this.

It has been claimed that the Cannon Powershot (e.g. Canon PowerShot SD1200IS 10 MP Digital Camera with 3x Optical Image Stabilized Zoom and 2.5-inch LCD (Silver)) has fewer settings than other similar cameras. If that turns out to be true, it may be at the only available sweet spot, as it would have good optics and image size, etc.

The simplest Coolpix (Nikon) is my current best choice. The Nikon Coolpix L21. It is a good quality PHS camera with an explicit "Easy Auto Mode."

There are two other ways besides finding the ideal camera to make this work. Get hold of any reasonable PHS camera that is on sale or that you happen to already own, and do the following.

Find the turn-able dial, pick a setting ("auto" for example) and use some Duco cement to glue the dial in place. Just do it. I know it sounds like a bad idea, but you weren't using this camera anyway.

Cut tiny pieces out of a plastic bottle (like a bleach bottle) and glue/tape them over any other buttons that are not necessary.

If there remain any additional buttons, use brightly colored nail polish to mark them, and then using the same nail polish, put a key somewhere on the camera (on the bottom?) and write on there what that button means.

The exact way you do this will of course vary with each camera, and with the user you are modding the camera for. Think of it as a DIYPHS.

After all that is taken care of, here is the most important single suggestion I can make to you, and this applies more broadly than your efforts to get grandpa fitted out with the right gear.

Convince the person you are helping that the little Memory Card that goes in the camera is film. When it full, tell them, you take it out and bring it to the film processing place and give it to them and say "I need prints." That person at the ProEx can certainly make all the pics on that card into prints, or they may even guide the person you are helping over to the self service machine and walk them through picking out what images to print. If the service person does that for your grandma or grandpa, yell at him or her and say "Just print the damn pictures, will you? And don't let this happen again!" That should work for a while.

Now here's the important part: When the memory card comes out, one needs to put a clean, new card in. After the old, full card has been "printed" it goes with the negatives that have been stored from the old days. It's film. It's used up. Put in a new card and move on.

I know, I know, the images can be deleted, or put on a hard drive, or transferred to CD's or to Dropbox, or whatever. And if you were thinking that, you're still not getting it. You're still judging cameras by the qualities that matter to you, the modern geek, and not to grandpa, who in his own day may have been able to disassemble a Model A with his eyes closed, or grandma who worked for the OSS decoding German messages, but these days just wants the old Brownie to take a few snapshots.

The manufacturer that comes out with the quality one-button camera will sell a lot of them.

1Push Here, Stupid!


More like this

I sold an old digital camera that still had the 3.5 in floppy disk storage for far above my expected market value on e-bay a few years back. I find it surprising that a ridiculously simple and intuitive camera with minimal features isn't being produced and sold. I think you're dead on about it having a niche market out there.

Wow, nailed it Greg! This is a problem I didn't realize existed until you mentioned it, then I realized it had been all round me this whole time! My mom used to love pictures, but now is intimidated by even the simple camera she and the hubby have. I've very techno-savvy and have found myself wishing for a simpler camera (although some of this is due to what I consider redundant features as well as "I'm never gonna use this" features). Another thing that should be included on an entry-level PHS (I'm stealing that acronym) is a WIDE field. I bought my current PHS almost solely for the fact that it starts at 28 mm instead of the usual 35. The result? I can hold the camera at arms length and get 4-5 of us together in one shot, with no cropped heads. This eliminates 50% of the bad pictures I have from my youth, when someone gets in too close and cuts someone off. The other 50% of my bad pics are when someone thought that I wanted the surrounding 4 sq. miles of countryside instead of just me and the prom date, but that was thankfully fixed with the advent of digital cameras in the first place.

Oh, and as long as there's a little rant in this article, can I say the guy who invented digital zoom needs to be beaten with a stick? Thanks ass, but I already knew I could zoom a digital picture when I printed it. As it is, you made a way for someone to push a button and promptly get shittier pictures.

OTOH, I will say that you and I may disagree on viewfinders. The first few digitals that I owned had viewfinders, and it was like finding a buggy whip holder in your car. Thanks, but the one thing I loved about using an SLR was the fact that what you saw was what you got (WYSIWYG), and the advent of the LCD was the day that I got what I wanted in a portable case :)

By Rob Monkey (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

I have a Nikon D70. I also want the one-button camera. If I wanted any other features, I'd be using the D70, duh.

I got my friend's camera into a mode where it replaced some of the dark greens in any given picture with purple. Who the hell wants that anyway? It took a long time to figure out how to change it back, because it happened when I accidentally hit a button with my thumb. THIS SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN. Who designs these things? Maybe some kind of panel over the not-essential-to-taking-a-picture-right-now buttons would help?

By theshortearedowl (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

"If it ain't broke, it doesn't have enough features yet."


By theshortearedowl (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

Rob, I'm willing to agree with you on view finders.

I agree on the wide view. The camera I have in mind is the "Kodak Instamatic" which was not instant, but had one button and a wide veiw (with zero to infinity focusing). With modern techniques, one can do a step better, and even have a flash that will always fire if there is a) low light and b) something in view close enough to hit.

I have a Nikon D70. I also want the one-button camera. If I wanted any other features, I'd be using the D70, duh.

Exactly. All other cameras are wannabe D70s (or equivalent)

Keith, yeah, like that, but one that exists!

I mention a similar Canon above, and I looked at and rejected the Canon S95 because for over 400 bucks they still give you most of the buttons. For that matter, the S90 has a manual control ring!

You've got to get your head outta that place, Keith! Maybe you better check ... either your wife knows what she's doing or she's less happy with it than she pretends to be! (Hoping to not cause a marital dispute here, of course.)

No dispute. My wife ignores controls she does not understand. But I completely agree with the memory card thing.

You can ignore the control dial. I set it up to the fixed lens positions so it acts like a series of fixed focal length lenses.

While I understand your desires, zooms come in handy.

PHS love it - almost missed your footnote - head scratching time for a few minutes :)

In any case my take is don't give them a camera - they'll take really horrendously awful pictures then torture you with them. :)

I definitely fall under "reason 1) they don't use any camera often enough to remember what they learned last time they used it."

I have gone from seldom taking pictures to never taking pictures because I do not want to haul out the instruction and sort through 120 pages to learn how to take a simple snapshot again. It's a lot easier to remember what to do if the adjustments are all manual, setting things through a menu and by switching dials to different hieroglyphics gives no intuitive sense of what you are actually doing.

By CherryBomb (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

Greg, I think the SONY DSC 650 HandyCam that I use is good enough but very expensive in Dhaka standard for its battery usages and as well the Photo Print in Dhaka at a color lab,Such as Konica Digital color Lab at Jashimuddin Avenue at Uttara,Dhaka-1230 ,Bangladesh is expensive compared to USA and the scanner that you need to scan is rather very low tech so when posted on the Net from my E-mail address by internet you might just think of it as "Rush Print" only even if you edit that with graphics.I avoid graphics all together for my photos when put that on FaceBook or send to someone but keep the photo prints with my photo album.My Camera did come up with Accessories that is rather more challenging than the Camera itself.By the way i could not open the Facebook Zackerman Message that you posted on FaceBook.thanks.Muhammad Zamiluddin Khan'92,HSPH[Muhammad Khan'92HSPH], a. k. a. Zamil Khan

The problem with obtaining a small PHS simple camera is that some people just can't use something that small. My dad for example. His hands are large, calloused from mechanics and carpentry, and his fine motor skills are not highly developed. He can't push those small barely above the surface shutter buttons on those dinky cameras without causing it to dip. All his pictures come out with motion blur from jerking fingers (might also explain why, in 40 years of moose-hunting, he's never shot a moose).

So it seems a larger camera with image stabilizer technology is what might help, and so I picked up a Canon SX30IS. The dial is fairly stiff so it should stay put at the Auto setting (I checked for a stiff dial, btw, for that very reason). And I also put in a 16 GB card for him which should last a while, charged the battery, and set the date and time (at my mom's request I also turned off the beep sounds so he doesn't drive us all up the wall Christmas day when he gets lost in the menus).

Christmas morning all he has to do is take it out of the box, push the On button, use the viewfinder and push the shutter button.

With any luck the larger camera body, increased weight, and the image stabilization technology should let him get non-blurry pictures. In this case, he *should* benefit from a more complex camera over a PHS camera--unless there is a PHS camera that also comes in large sizes and has image stabilization technology.

By Daniel J. Andrews (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

Daniel, it seems like you made a good choice. That, and some Duco should do the trick! The newest Canon SX30IS is a little pricy, but if you go back one generation I think you can still get the image stabilizing feature with a few fewer pixels for about half that price.

Mr Kahn, good suggestion on the camera. The Zuckerman video is provided by Hulu which, notoriously, does not open outside of the US. Not even in Canada! Bummer. I looked for it on YouTube but it is not there yet.

Viewfinder: I cannot use the LCD in bright light, cannot see it, cannot focus on it and the scene at the same time, it is way too close to my eyes when otherwise large enough, and way too small when far enough away to see it, and is of far too low resolution to use as an aid to evaluating the focus achieved by the system (even when using manual focus if you have that rarity of controls). For me the LCD is useful only for review. For this my Pentax DSLR does it right - viewfinder for shooting, LCD for settings and review. But that is not a simple camera.

Simple: the old digitals were simple, but crappy. todays are still crappy because the manufacturers are chasing meaningless buzzword compliance such as Megapixels. 14 MP in a 1/2" sensor is just plain ridiculous. 6MP is equivalent to 35mm film, any more is just increasing the visual noise floor. But you cannot buy 6 any more. Again, my Pentax is the older K100D 6MP version, and I have to say it has the nicest pixels I have ever met, and they are good to 13" x 17" prints wthout visible pixelation.

Perhaps the simplest camera you can get them them would be the one in your standard cell-phone, except for the travails of button pressing needed to get to the camera control screen. One characteristic of the simpler cameras is that they tend to be fixed-focus, and googling that term might lead you somewhere useful.

Many, many years ago, in the early days of PC's, I coined a variant on Parkinson's Law that went: "That which can be configured must be configured", with corollorary "Defaults Aren't". I belive it was WordStar that inspired me at the time. Things have only gotten worse.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

This spring I saw that there are memory cards with built-in wifi. These can be set up to transfer the contents of the memory card when ever the camera is brought in close proximity to a wifi node. Then there is no need to remove the memory card.

daedalus2u@17: like I said, that which can be configured must be. Always presuming grandma* has a computer and knows how to use it (in which case she probably can handle the not so simple camera too).

I must also retract the cell phone example. That needs a computer too, especially if its an iThing it needs iTunes. My pa-in-law had a fit when I added iTunes to his computer after we bought him an iPhone for Xmas last year. Did not - and AFAIK still does not - understand it is the only way to keep the phone's OS and other stuff up to date and backed up. And he was a computer rep for his career.

* I'm coming to hate this stereotype. Last month I passed 63 so am well into grandpa territory. Yet I am still designing these computer systems and operating software for a very competitive living. I think the stereotype passed its use by date a couple of decades ago. I am my own counter-example. We need something new.

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

Most digital cameras have lots of things you can do, but you don't have to do them. Just point it and click the shutter. I've been taking pictures for over a half century now and with my Canon digital I usually just point it and click -- that's probably all I do 95% of the time (the only others I do regularly are to hit the button for closeup macro mode and sometimes the button for no flash -- both are easy to learn and fairly obvious. Framing the shot is really where it's at for good pictures.

I just suggested a Kodak EasyShare M580 for my mom when she asked me for a recommendation for her first digital camera.

By anthrosciguy (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

A friend pointed out one good thing about viewfinders - they provide a third point of contact. This makes the camera more stable and the image less likely to be blurry.

Sometimes I wish film were still easy to get (and cheap). I can set up my ancient 35mm film camera so much quicker than I can set up a digital camera. Maybe it's a matter of practice as well; I'm no longer a rabid photographer.

I could recommend any number of cameras used in the movie industry - or even the ones used by TV crews. Just point, press a button, and zoom in/out. Leave everything else on the automatic setting. The only hitches are (a) price (b) they're still bulky and heavy (c) if someone changes a setting somewhere, good luck figuring out how to set it back.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

I love all the buttons, dials, etc., but I have friends & relatives who are terrified of them. So I took shots of the quick-start pages of their instruction manuals and protected them on the card. Now the most important instructions are always on the card and in their cameras so they can refer to it easily.

In these days the simplest cameras are called phones...

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

I don't know if they do them in America, but Kodak do actually make single-use digital cameras. To all intents and purposes, they're exactly the same as a single-use film camera; they just happen to use digital 'film'. Can't comment on the optics though, as I've never used one, and until I read this, couldn't for the life of me understand why they existed.

For a simple digital camera, I can recommend the coolpix. I have the L22, but I think the L20 is even simpler. I don't know if they still make that one.

Even so, they have A LOT of features. But the auto setting is pretty good and handles common situations easily. Redeye removal is non-existant (despite what is claimed).

I freely admit, I'm an alpha-geek and use most of the features of my camera, but my mom often borrows it. I just set it to portrait and everything else on auto and let her go. She takes the thing to Walgreens for printing. They are good about helping her out.

Hope that helps

Lassi @ 23 hit it on the head. My PHS camera, meeting almost all of your criteria, is my smartphone, and I always have it with me.

However complex a camera is it usually has a simple setting for auto which is what a simpleton wants. Glue it to that setting and the problem is over, except for the full card. Give them an 8gig card and they can find someone to empty it one day far in the future.

If someone cares that little about how to take a picture, why bother?

Tom, grandpa does not have a smart phone, or even a regular cell phone. Again, stop thinking from inside your box!

But yes, it's a proof of concept: It is possible to produce a one button camera.

If someone cares that little about how to take a picture, why bother?

Well, actually grandma cares a LOT about the pictures. But they are snapshots. Since faux geekiness drives the market, we have a) piles of shit with lots of impressive specs but lousy optics and questionable durability and b) nothing for the snapshot taker.

Graygaffer, if grandma doesn't have a computer, what is she going to do with electronic pictures?

I think there would be a market for someone to pre-configure things like this. For someone who knows how to do it, it wouldn't take very long. There are cameras that can be programmed via software and so don't require the pushing of all of the buttons in the right order.

The closest I found to my satisfaction was the "Kodak EASYSHARE Z812 IS". It has a viewfinder in addition to the screen, the menu system is somewhat minimal compared to many, it has a good zoom, decent battery life, and if you just leave it on the default setting and depress the shutter button half-way, it automagically does all the figurin' for you.

"Well, actually grandma cares a LOT about the pictures. But they are snapshots. Since faux geekiness drives the market, we have a) piles of shit with lots of impressive specs but lousy optics and questionable durability and b) nothing for the snapshot taker."

My personal choice (probably overkill for grandpa) is the lumix DMC-ZS1. It is a small camera, take it anywhere. Has a great range from very wide angle to telephoto and a good Leica lens. 90 percent of the time I leave it on intelligent auto, which is absolutely snapshot. The one I have seems pretty tough. It has lasted longer than the Canon I used to like in its day, but fell apart within two years. By the way NEVER buy an extended warranty unless it comes from the manufacturer. All the other guys do is look at the camera find some tiny bump or some such and claim "you damaged it" and refuse to pay out. A complete rip off.

What about a normally complicated camera with a default settings button?
Get the camera-impaired users to ignore all the other crap that they dont need....when that fails just press teh Default button and everything goes normal.

By Drivebyposter (not verified) on 21 Dec 2010 #permalink

The biggest gripe I have with my Nikon DSLR is the delay between button press and shutter movement. My old film based SLR was intantaneous, my DSLR has at least a 1/2 second thinking time before it responds to the button press.

My second gripe is that the shutter button won't take the old fashioned cable for remote operation, I assume they left it out so I would have to shell out several hundered bucks for their proprietary electronic version. It didn't work, I made my own mechanical cable mount from some bits of scrap metal.

Gerg, It's a Nikon coolpix 5700, an early model DSLR (circa 2000) that cost me an arm and a leg. Optics are great and it takes a really nice photo but the shutter delay makes it useless for dynamic subjects such as sports photography, fireworks, etc.

Perhaps modern DSLR's have overcome the shutter delay problem?

If someone really wants a true, no-brainer camera just to take snapshots, they can still buy a disposable camera (with regular old film) at any pharmacy or convenience store for a few bucks, bring it back and pick up the prints. The needs of that demographic are now fully met by the marketplace, at a very affordable cost. There's no need to go digital if you just want fuzzy snapshots on photo paper.

The digital camera market assumes you want something more than a disposable. If the person doesn't understand a memory card is analogous to film then they are beyond all hope ... how do they even know what a camera is?

All PHS (and higher) cameras default to an automatic mode with auto focus, auto light meter, auto everything, unless you start randomly messing with the manual settings. It's nearly impossible to take a bad photo with modern digitals, unless you're a real crappy photographer, and no camera can help with that.

Alan, the coolpics in that series have an amazing delay. I once took two hundred pictures of some black bears up north and not one of them is usable, even though I was mostly within 20 or 30 feet of the bears, but they were moving around in the brush.

The detachable lense SLR's have no delay. A bit more expensive though.

There's no such thing as an idiot proof DSLR, but I've been enamored of the Nikon DSLR line for some time. Their CCDs seem to capture a lot of the same warmth and tonal feel of Kodachrome, which I still miss terribly. The higher-end cameras allow total override of all exposure settings, and the really sexy ones offer (in addition to a lot of MPs) such bonuses as image stabilization in the lens, and self-cleaning sensors.

I suppose Canon et. al. offer similar features, but I like the warmth and saturation in the Nikon chipset.

For quick point and shoot, the iPhone 4 camera is actually rather good, and has an HDR option. Of course, you have to own an iPhone 4 for thatâ¦

Good, unbiased reviews of digital cameras can be found at DP Review, http://www.dpreview.com/ - they offer a deep rundown of features, usability, and even side-by-side image comparisons.

glue a knob in one spot and the first time cousin Jimmy, the 16 year old geek, grabs it and wants to take some pictures of his sweet new electric guitar, he's going to break that knob clean off, trying to turn it Macro.

Greg, Time for me to upgrade I suppose, I would choose Nikon again for all the reasons Warren mentions plus their near indestrutiblity. The only problem I had was the CCD died on me, Nikon kindly replaced it without charge even though the warranty was several years past it's expiry date.

The Olympus Pen looks & acts a lot like a traditional 35mm rangefinder. You can get a viewfinder, and it has some auto modes. Shutter lag is comparable to the entry-level DSLRs. Plug in an Eye-Fi card, so she doesn't have to connect the camera to the computer (wireless upload).

daedalus2u@32: Greg already covered that one. When were you last in a Safeway?

By GrayGaffer (not verified) on 31 Dec 2010 #permalink