I'm researching DSLRs for an upcoming purchase, and my budget will be around $1k for a camera body and kit lens. One area where it's difficult to find information: How do I learn more about the OS's user interface? The person I'm buying for is an experienced photographer who's found herself without a camera for several years, and will definitely appreciate a camera with a good OS.

There are, of course, many other calls I have to make, such as lens availability, but what brands of SLR come with a reliable, well-designed OS with a good software UI? I'm talking about the built-in camera software, not the bundled software for your computer.

Edit: A "good" UI, to my way of thinking, is one that's consistent, and one that, once you learn a few basic concepts, is easy to learn. Eye candy is also nice (as in OSX), but not necessary. Perhaps what I need to do at this stage is eliminate camera brands that use very bad UIs.

  • Do you mean the software interface on the camera, or the bundled PC software? – mattdm Mar 26 '11 at 14:17
  • @mattdm - by "OS" I mean the camera's operating system, or the software that's on the camera; I've clarified the question. If there's a term I could use that would make this clearer, please feel free to edit the question. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Mar 26 '11 at 14:24
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    Also consider that a camera with a better physical UI will make the on-screen UI design way less important. If you have to poke at menus every time you anything, it's crucial — but it's even better when you don't need to. See photo.stackexchange.com/questions/5883/… – mattdm Mar 26 '11 at 14:53
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    @neilfein - This is the right time to consult DPReview and find out which model has a button to access color-settings directly. I'll leave the full discussion of the utility of these settings to another question but you should at least know that the camera's LCD cannot accurately show differences between such settings. I would instead look for cameras with custom/user modes which would be prefilled with combinations tested using a color-calibrated display. – Itai Mar 26 '11 at 17:28
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    Not to downplay the value of looking at dpreview (and letting a little of my own bias show): the Pentax K-7/K-5 have 1-button (or 2-button, depending on your settings) access to color settings, and allow you to color-calibrate (to some degree) the camera's LCD screen. – mattdm Mar 27 '11 at 1:55

You've already gotten some good advice such as going to a store and checkout DP Review. They do enumerate all the menus and all, so it is the closest to knowing how the UI looks without going to actually see the camera.

However I will point out that there are more aspects to consider:

  • Great cameras are designed to let you do as much as possible without dealing with the screen-based UI. Buttons are faster and more efficient than delving into the menu system.
  • A corollary of the previous point is that ergonomics of the camera (its shape, buttons and dials) has more impact on using the camera than its UI.
  • A UI must be efficient to use first, looks are secondary.
  • An intuitive UI is great for learning the a new camera but no matter how twisted the interface seems at first you end up learning it. Some UIs seem bizarre at first until figure out that they are designed for efficiency (some are simply twisted for no reason).


Despite all you can learn from by reading first. There are things that you will learn to appreciate later.

After almost 6 years of reviewing cameras (with major emphasis on usability) and trying nearly every camera (I teach photography in a camera store), I firmly believe Pentax to offer the most thought-out usability experience. This does not mean it does everything in the best possible way, no one does.

Just one example of something well designed on Pentax DSLRs: the 2s self-timer which is used to reduce vibrations for tripod photography automatically performs mirror-lockup and turns off image stabilization. This saves the time to do it and to undo it later.

Lastly, great usability is sometimes not enough if you have special photographic needs. I use several brands DSLRs for my professional photography and even different ones for family pictures. Sorry I probably made you more consused ;)

  • +1 - Exactly right about the UI fading in importance as the user gets more advanced. The reason I like the Nikon's UI is that I think it could be something of a "bridge" to help users learn the camera. – D. Lambert Mar 26 '11 at 15:38
  • FTR the color-based settings mentioned in the comments to the question above are super-quick to get to, well-organzined, and very flexible. On the other hand, these settings just affect JPG (and maybe the defaults in some RAW converters), so may be less important to your friend. – mattdm Mar 26 '11 at 16:11
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    +1 I didn't want to get specific, but my preference is for Pentax design here as well, but I still consider it much less of an issue than other factors. – John Cavan Mar 26 '11 at 23:56

Given the form factors and displays are pretty consistent between the brands, I would hesitate to really compare them as one better than the other. In a lot of ways, it's what you're used to as the form and layout is often a personal preference. So, for me, personally, I find the Pentax UI to be really good and easy to navigate, others may have a different opinion on the subject. Nonetheless, they're all somewhat similar and so should probably amongst the last of the things to consider when buying a camera. I might add, if your friend is an experienced photographer, it is entirely possible that she already has a brand preference. You may want to know what that is as a starting point.

As a side note, the point and shoot realm has UIs that are all over the map and some offer touch screen and more. These are much harder to pin down and are a lot less consistent in their look and feel and so that may carry much more weight. I know you're looking dSLR, but I figured I'd mention this for others.

By the way, a site to get a good look at the menus ahead of time is DP Review.

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    Pentax's "Info button" menu is really handy for quick (and fairly attractively-done) access to common settings. – mattdm Mar 26 '11 at 14:34
  • you say the UI should be one of the last things to consider. While I respect your preferences, in my own case it was the first and most important. I suspect that is true for the OP since he has gone to the trouble of soliciting guidance on the matter. Prior exposure does tend to shape one's UI preferences so you are right in suggesting her previous experience as a starting point. – labnut Mar 26 '11 at 20:08
  • @labnut - To each their own. Me, I want to know about handling, performance, sensor quality, IQ, and the like before I even consider what the menu looks like. In the end, the camera is for photographs, not menu browsing. :) – John Cavan Mar 26 '11 at 23:51

DPReview always does a really good job of documenting UI's on its full reviews (not so much with previews), so that might be a good place to start. If you can go lay your hands on a couple of examples, though, there's no substitute for seeing the UI in action.

As far as specific brands, Nikon's UI's seem to do a good job of being approachable for new users without getting in the way of more experienced users. I use a Canon, which is very good, but comes with a little bit of a learning curve.


You should be going to stores and trying the cameras out in any case. I saved up, researched everything online, made up my mind on a Canon, then when I went to the store and tried a couple out I switched to Nikon: it just felt more solid.

You have to go in and physically try each camera out. That includes the UI.

  • Good advice; will be hitting a store soon, then. I'll be in NYC next week, so I can go to B&H, and I'm near a bunch of Best Buy stores. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Mar 26 '11 at 14:19

To quote some photography teachers (granted, on a Pentax forum):

I teach photography for several years now, both in free university as in my own company. I see all brands and user combination, and therefore have a good experience how people learn and got to know there camera.

  • Canon has by far the steepest learning curve.
  • Nikon is a mixed bag: with those nested menu's (but again more pretty).
  • Olympus is also not that easy because they don't use colors for different menu tabs, etc... The info screen is also more complex.
  • Pentax and Sony are almost exclusively the ones which don't need extra help from me as teacher.


  • Pentax are by far the easiest in concept.
  • The Canon system is OK once you've come across it a few times
  • some of the Olympus and Nikon cameras are a nightmare.

As for Pentax, I think user interface and menu system got even better after the K-m/K2000. They are built around one handed operation, with no buttons to the left of the LCD. Other than that, between brands, I find button placement and ergonomics being mostly personal preference. Just try them am all out.

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