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The invisible factor to success

by Peter Rowlands

Reproduced from in focus 50 (January 1994)

The Collins English Dictionary defines ergonomics as "the study of the relationship between workers and their environment" and at first glance you would be right in wondering what on earth that's got to do with underwater camera equipment.

Well, taken through logical steps, it also means the relationship between camera housing controls (the environment) and the fingers which operate them (the workers).

Ergonomics is not something which is discussed too much by underwater photographers, but it is an invisible important factor in the quality of results you produce (hence the dictionary definition of workers and environment). Taking time to appreciate the finer points of ergonomics will give you a fuller understanding of the relationship between form and function and could save you from buying a system which is not ergonomically ideal. 

From an underwater photographers point of view, ergonomics starts with the hands and in particular where the main controls fall in relation to your fingers when holding the camera in its natural position. The most important is the shutter release lever. 

When you pick up almost any land SLR camera, your left hand cups the bottom of the camera, your left index finger and thumb line up around the focus barrel of the lens ready to focus the lens while your right hand holds the camera and leaves your right index finger free to operate the shutter release lever. It was not a mistake that, on manual wind-on cameras, the wind-on lever was just behind the shutter release lever where your thumb was ideally placed to operate it. That's ergonomics. 

The next relationship is how you can control the camera without having to move your hands away from the natural holding position and without having to take your eye away from the viewfinder. The two important controls are the focus and aperture, the former of which is probably the most used. You should be able to operate the focus control without having to reposition your hand away from its natural position. Since you will need to focus before nearly every shot, the position of the focus control is crucial to the smooth working of the camera. 

In addition to the actual positioning of the focus control there is also the function of the control which is important. With most macro lenses, the barrel of the lens must be turned around 360ø to go from infinity to closest focus and, if the internal gearing of the focus control is too small, you will need to make several turns of the focus control knob to go from infinity to minimum focus. Whilst this is not a major problem, given a little extra time, it is possible to design control gearing to emulate the focus barrel of the lens i.e. a 360ø turn to go from infinity to minimum. This is the best form of control and will definitely aid better focusing. This action becomes less important when using wide-angle lenses because the focus barrel of these lenses does not turn as much as a macro lens. 

The Aperture position is more important than the shutter speed control in most cases as the latter tends to be pre-set, especially when using electronic flash. The Aperture is something you usually want to adjust as the camera to subject distance varies and you should be able to do this without having to take your eye from the viewfinder and without having to move your finger away from the shutter release lever. 

Zoom is another control on a reflex housing which should be able to be controlled without taking your eye away from the viewfinder. This control should be similar to the focus control i.e. geared to emulate the lens movement and also be placed in such a way as to be easy to operate. 

Another ergonomic design should be how the camera is mounted in the housing. The correct position is so that you can change film without having to remove the camera from its mounting and most modern designs do achieve this. 

It is rarely possible to produce an ergonomic design if the housing can accommodate more than one manufacturer's camera i.e. Nikon and Canon. Whilst most manufacturers make similar-shaped cameras (the Nikon F601 and F801 are virtually physically identical), another manufacturer's camera design will almost certainly be different and controls will have to be repositioned to cater for the differences in design. This repositioning will almost certainly affect the ergonomics detrimentally. 

A final consideration is the ergonomics of balance and buoyancy, for a housing should ideally be neutral and easy to hold level for long periods of time. It is surprising how even the slightest imbalance can become an irritation during an extended dive and a good design should avoid this. 

So there we have ergonomics - you often can't see it, but it definitely makes the difference between an easy to use design and one with irritating short comings. Next time you pick up a land camera or an underwater housing, think ergonomics.

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