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Wednesday, March 08, 2006

What's a 'Camera Review'?

Dave at Imaging-Resource, Phil at DPReview, and Jeff at Digital Camera Resource have gotten together to define what a "review" of a camera means for them:

(Begin quote)
▪ Requires a production quality camera
▪ Camera ‘used in real life’ before testing commences
▪ Product photography taken in our studio
▪ Some supplementary photos may be provided by manufacturer
▪ All work carried out by our staff
▪ Includes:
---▪ Photographs and description of camera
---▪ Detailed specifications
---▪ Description of function and operation (may include screen captures)
---▪ Timings and performance measures
---▪ Image quality measures
---▪ Competitive camera comparisons
---▪ Conclusion based on test results and experience with the camera
---▪ Samples gallery containing unmodified original images from the camera
(End quote)

The first five ticks are givens. The remainder is interesting, but collectively describes what I'd call a "technical review." Having written over 55 camera review in my day for five different magazines, and commissioned and edited many more, there are even more important components of a review that I'm personally more interested in reading. These would be the subjective components, and would include the following:

▪ Impressions of construction quality and speculations about reliability and durability, at least to the point of reporting the manufacturer's design objectives in these areas;
▪ The reviewer's judgement of ergonomics and some subjective descriptions of what the camera is like to handle and use—obviously, the more cameras a reviewer has handled and used, the better;
▪ Based on the reviewer's knowledge of various types of photography and photographers, some evaluation of who the camera might and might not especially appeal to, and what kinds of use it is more and less suited for—this would generally include frankness from the reviewer about his or her own priorities;
▪ Value—the ways in which it is and/or isn't worth what it costs (which might also include speculations as to how its value will hold up, i.e., resale);
▪ At least a few subjective comments about image quality (not everything is measurable);
▪ Any problems the reviewer encountered;
▪ Any drawbacks the reviewer can think of;
▪ Frank admissions from the reviewer as to his or her biases or prejudices;
And finally,
▪ What the reviewer thinks of it, personally.

This last bit may be the most contentious. It's a puzzle, but I've noticed over the years that people who scoff at subjective reviews and want "just the facts" of technical properties are also the ones who place way, way too much emphasis on ratings and rankings...i.e., did it get an "8" or a "9," did it rank above or below a competitor's model on some list or other, did it achieve a "recommended" or a "highly recommended"? Personally, I find it really easy to dismiss those things. If I like a camera, I could care less who thinks it's a 7 or a 9. Just as clearly, however, others don't—the internet age has shown us that these "prestige and status" issues are extremely important to many people. (Or perhaps just the more vocal people.)

Many subjective issues are just as important, if not more so, than the technical properties of a device. The question I always used to ask myself when reviewing a camera is, "What would I want to know about it if I weren't able to see it and use it myself?" Granted, this is becoming less important these days, because now everybody can go to and read individual impressions until they're cross-eyed. Still, I like reading Michael Reichmann's "Field Trial" reports more than I like reading technical reviews. He's got strong biases, but he wears them on his sleeve, so I don't worry about them. And I often recommend Steve Sanders' reviews at Steve's-Digicams, because just the "Steve's Conclusion" page of every review is often a complete subjective review in and of itself. It gives me 90% of what I need to know about cameras I haven't tried.

I'm not denigrating the technical areas of reviewing. They're important, and very valuable. Many people have technical areas that are especially important to them for one reason or another. For example, I am personally preoccupied with portability, noise and obtrusiveness, responsiveness (i.e., shutter lag, etc.) and the quality of the viewfinder. Others have other preoccupations. Such things are usually best understood and compared using technical specifications and technical measurements. Also, having online samples available is a huge advantage over, say, Popular Photography & Imaging's otherwise excellent technical reviews.

But subjective assessments are important too, simply because many parameters that are plusses for one user will be minuses for another. Just to name a few: Diane Arbus liked the TLR because it got the camera down lower and let her look away from her subjects, which tended to put them off their guard; Richard Avedon disliked these same effects, and switched from a TLR to an 8x10 view camera so he could look at his subject eye-to-eye at the instant of exposure. Cartier-Bresson had many tricks for being stealthy with his quiet little Leicas, but many fashion photographers liked big motor-driven SLRs precisely because the loud noise of each exposure was a cue to the model to take another pose: photographer and model didn't find it as easy to fall into a rhythm if the camera was too quiet. I remember seeing a combat photographer's three Nikon F4's on a table at a repair shop in Washington D.C. during the Gulf War: they were painted sand color, and were absolutely beat to crap—and the proprietor told me they were all six months old! Whereas an amateur who uses his or her camera lightly in benign conditions simply doesn't need to pay for that kind of robust construction unless he or she wants to. And so on—this list of examples could continue.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks mike for the great write up, I think it's inspired me to try and write a review for my trusty Olympus OM1

6:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder to what extent the reviews we get today influence the horsepower race amongst the vendors of digital cameras.

Back in the day when film was film we had the 1/8000 shutter and faster flash sync speeds. And the reviewers got all dreamy-eyed over the first camera to hit the next shutter/sync/film loading method. Meanwhile, apertures were left at the alter.

Those issues, along with AF performance, seem to have been settled so now it's megapixels.

Perhaps we'll see your digital decisive moment camera and a digital Nikon FM3. Could happen when finally there are no more pixels to mega and the camera manufacturers decide there's market share in them thar retro cameras; just like the New Beetle, the New Dodge Challenger and so on.


10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These definitions are more in response to sites that call previews a review, when they haven't even tested the product; many of them never will, but will continue to represent their words as an authoritative, experiential review of a product. You miss this purpose because we weren't really interested in starting a war of words with other sites, we just wanted to clarify what readers can expect from our various styles of reporting.

If you look at most of our reviews at Imaging Resource, you'll find what we call a User Report in among all the test results and discussion of product function. This is a subjective review written after use of the camera in various photographic situations. Not all cameras have this feature at this point, but certainly the important ones, where commentary about feel and performance are deemed important. Our Nikon D200 Hands-on Preview and the Olympus E-500 Review both have this subjective component.

In addition, there's our usual exhaustive feature listing, analysis, and between 100 and 250 actual test photos that readers can download and peruse to make their own decisions about how a camera performs from the very data it produces.

Shawn Barnett
Senior Editor

9:17 AM  

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