The Online Photographer

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

For All the World to See

I've been online since 1992, when I was asked to represent the old Camera & Darkroom magazine (the Beverly Hills version, not the later English magazine of the same name) on CompuServe. I tend to be fairly analytical, and over the years I've received so many comments, letters, and e-mails from readers—photographers of every stripe and skill level—that, naturally, I've divided some of the most common queries into categories.

The one that I dislike the most has got to be the "What do you think of my equipment?" category. A review in a magazine or anywhere else is not supposed to be a holy annointment or a rigid hierarchical ranking. Rather, it's an intermediate step to help people with their shopping—somewhere between seeing a brochure or handling an item at a store counter and owning it yourself. The idea is that the reviewer tries out the camera, and then writes down what it was like to use. Hopefully, along the way he answers the questions you might want answered.

An added bonus is that experienced reviewers accrue experience with a large number of cameras, so they can usefully compare one camera with a large "database" of alternatives. (I'm going to guess that I'm one of the few people you know who have shot for several months each with an Exakta 66, a Wista 4x5, a Leica M6, a Contax T2, a Kodak DC260, a Mamiya 6 and a Mamiya RZ67, an Olympus C-3040z, a Fuji F30, and a Pentax *ist DS, among too many others.)

But reviews are only a stepping-stone to real knowledge of the product, which of course comes when you own it and use it yourself. This may be apocryphal, but suppposedly a Leica lens designer once said something like “the only real test of a lens is to use it for a year.”

I used to like to write detailed, involved lens reviews, both because I like lenses and because I seem to be able to relate optical aberrations to actual pictorial qualities better than most people. But then I noticed a strange thing. People would write to me and ask me what I thought of a particular lens, and then it would turn out that they already owned the very lens they were asking about.

I'm aware that the information they seek might be comparative. That might be valid, to a point. Perhaps they'd only ever used that one lens, and they want to know how I think it compares to whatever else is out there. Fair enough, I suppose. But in fact, most people who asked me this type of question were looking for something else. I don't know what you'd call it—post-purchase justification? Simple reassurance? Ego-affirmation? Somebody's got to have put a term to it by now. But it drove me crazy. If you already own a lens, what in the world does it matter what anybody else thinks of it? Get out and use it, look at your results, and believe your own eyes. If you like it, keep using it. If you don’t like it, well, that’s what eBay is for.

Second only to the "What should I think of my lens" question is the "What do you really think" question. These usually follow on full written articles of one sort or another. I'll write a column about a camera, for instance, and then people will email me asking me what I really think of it.

Again, I know there is one possible justification for this: they’re aware that some reviewers write primarily for manufacturers, not for potential purchasers, and thus are not being honest. (In fact, a recent camera review I read had only one sentence in the entire review concerning the reviewer’s opinion; he said—I’m paraphrasing—“I’ve reviewed a lot of cameras over the years, and I can honestly say I liked this one.” Note from Reviewer's Rhetoric 101—“honestly” is not a adverb honest people need.) Well, okay, but if they’re not being honest to begin with, why would they suddenly start being honest when a stranger writes them an e-mail? Because, presumably, the manufacturer whose pocket they’re in isn’t looking? I suppose.

If you ever read reviews in which you think the reviewer isn't putting it on the line, I have a suggestion: stop reading that writer's work. What a reviewer really thinks ought to be right there in the published or posted review, for all the world to see. Nobody should ever have to write to a reviewer privately and ask him what he really thought. The only acceptable answer is, of course, "read the review."



Blogger Paul Butzi said...

Ha! Good ones.

My favorite so far was writing a review of the EOS-5d and putting it on my website. In the review, I said that using the EOS-5d vertically is a bit of a hassle but the hassle is reduced by using a very nice Really Right Stuff L-bracket.

And then I get a dozen emails from friendly, helpful people saying "You know, you can reduce the hassle of using the 5d vertically if you buy one of those really nice L-brackets from Really Right Stuff!"

And of course, when it's email, you can't tell if they're serious or just pulling your leg. But when a dozen people do it, you start to wonder...

7:03 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I think there's another kind of people who ask about the equipment they already own. I post in some abstract topic forums (philosophy and stuff like that). And it's very common to see somebody posting an open question about any subject. When you answer with your own free thoughts, they come up with a very strong answer to their own question, ussually different form yours (yes, on such matters there are always varied opinions, happily). It's kind of a trap, ego pushing as you said. They hope to get somebody, better if he's informed, to say anything so they can say "I don't think so!".

8:24 PM  
Blogger bokeh said...

These people come in to the pharmacy asking about a certain drug. If I suggest an alternative they will sometimes accept it but many people will continue to persue my approval for the original product. They want my blessing. Since I am not the Pope of Pharmacy I cannot give it to them. You MIke, on the other hand, are the Pope of Photography and should not be stingy with your blessings.

11:27 PM  
Blogger John said...

I think there are also people who want affirmation on equipment they already own. I know that's how I feel when I spend a thousand dollars or more on a lens :)

12:24 AM  
Blogger John said...

Ack...I apologize for that last post. My brain did not engage until after I used the keyboard...I think I repeated what Mike speculated about in the original post...or maybe I just confirmed it...

12:31 AM  
Blogger Bas Scheffers said...

The reviewer "being in the manufacturer's pocket" seems to be the common theme. I always like how Practical Photography gives as high a percentage rating to, say, a Canon 28-105/3.5-4.5 as it does to the 24-70/2.8. One could argue that each scores the 90% rating "in their class", but it doesn't teach anyone how much better the latter really is. It makes Canon feel good for having another 90% rating, making them buy more advertising, and - also very important - makes readers who already own the lens feel better about their purchase.

A similar thing is happening on a well known review site; the most boring review site of them all. Have you ever seen a camera that got anything lower than a "Recommended" rating? Not many, making sure manufacturers keep sending them in so the site's owner can have even more revenue, ehrm, more reviews, I mean. To be honest, there was one recently, the GR-D, which got "above average". Now by my calculations, the average rating of any camera tested there is "recommended", thus I can only assume that "above average" means somewhere between "recommended" and "highly recommended".

I credit the site's founder for having a succesful business; I wouldn't mind being in his shoes. But seriously, taking camera advice from someone who has been photographing the same rather photogenic strech of his home city for the better part of a decade and still hasn't managed to take even one interesting image? I don't think so...

2:46 AM  
Blogger John Roberts said...

Your point about some people's need for "post-purchase justification" is well taken. Two other things that I see frequently on the web, and don't understand are:

1.Why some feel the need to justify or defend their equipment choices online. Why do you even care what "Bill from Toledo" thinks about your Olympus?

2. Why some feel the need to rip other's equipment choices when it differs from their own. So you prefer Canon. Why does it bother you so much that "Bob from Sacramento" is thrilled with his Pentax? Nobody said you have to buy one. Live and let live.

I've seen some ridculous arguments break out online over what someone wrote about a particular camera, lens, or program. Who cares? Enjoy what you have, and quit stressing over what some faceless name on the internet thinks about it.

4:32 AM  
Blogger Hiding Pup said...

Great post: immensely insightful but freakishly, freakishly sensible...

By the way, I'm a big fan of those lengthy reviews which where the reviewed item is photographed from every angle, and then the reviewer explains what each dial and button do and which fingers operate them. They're a bit like downloading the instruction manual.

I always look up from such reviews and think, 'Why on earth did I read that?' Then I giggle hysterically.

5:40 AM  
Blogger techne said...

We are lost in the world of things and looking for an authority who tells things apart. I know you don’t consider yourself to be an authority, but you have got something called ‘charisma’, and you have been writing about your telling apart. No wonder we want you to bless our stuff.

6:11 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"You MIke, on the other hand, are the Pope of Photography and should not be stingy with your blessings."

Come now. At best I am a shabby-genteel parish priest, in a declining parish with a threadbare collection plate, ironing my own collars.

--(the Rev.) Mike

6:41 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

At their best, product reviews reveal the criteria by which someone knowledgeable judges the merit of equipment. Reading those reviews is educational. People can take pictures for pictures, then one day become more serious about what they do and suddenly they are unhappy with their lenses, but they don't know why. If they read the reviews from professionals, they may begin to understand what's wrong and what to look for. In that context, reviews can be very useful.

Sometimes, reading product reviews is voyeurism. I will never be able to afford the Canon 1Ds2, but I read about it anyway for the same reason I read reviews of $150,000 Porsches. This is much the same reason that Playboy magazine exists, I think.

Some reviews and web forum questions puzzle me, however. Asking an expert technical questions about lens behaviour is understandable as that subject requires some background. But why do people ask which camera bag is best for them? It's a bag. Can't they decide for themselves? Maybe it's perhaps our society is trying very hard to make us all helpless, so that we are afraid to do anything without authoritative permission. This helplessness suits someone's purpose, I have to believe. Systems always evolve in ways that suit someone.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Well, no, bags I can understand. There is no such thing as a good camera bag (or a good tripod). Even as an expert, I am at a loss as to which bag to choose for myself. Bag-angst I find totally understandable.


6:57 AM  
Blogger Kevin said...

It's a Magic Bullet Variation.

I bought the new f2.8 20-200mm Asymmetrical Necrominicon, and my pictures still stink. So, the lens cant be as good as everyone says, right?

8:04 AM  
Blogger oren said...

To be honest, there was one recently, the GR-D, which got "above average". Now by my calculations, the average rating of any camera tested there is "recommended", thus I can only assume that "above average" means somewhere between "recommended" and "highly recommended".

For regular readers of DPReview, it will be apparent that "above average" means "not good enough to warrant a rating of 'recommended'".

The "Overall conclusion" section of each review is quite candid about what they perceive to be the strengths and weaknesses of each camera, even those which they assign a favorable overall rating.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Dave New said...

I'm reminded of the aphorism:

"Managers don't want feedback, they want validation".

More generalised, I would think that becomes most everyone's goal, when asking for someone else's opinion.

So, what were you *really* looking for, when posting this? 8-)

9:43 AM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

"So, what were you *really* looking for, when posting this? 8-)"

VEry funny, New!


9:46 AM  
Blogger JoeySeager said...

Three cheers for unbiased authoritative reviewing!

But even the best review tells only part of the story - we each have our own perception of equipment. I read reviews, for instance, before buying my EF-S 17-55mm f/2.8 IS lens that described it as compact and easy to handle. So I bought it and fitted it to my EOS 350D which it dwarfed and I found it ungainly and awkward. I've upgraded to a 30D and can use it but it's still a big and ugly beast to my eyes. Others will disagree....

12:50 PM  
Blogger Ahn und Pfirsich said...

Hi Mike,

"Somebody's got to have put a term to it by now."
When I read this, I remembered my marketing classes at university and thus I have to be a smart-aleck now. There is actually a pretty evolved theory around this phenomenon: I remember that the last phase of the buying process had to do with "cognitive dissonance" (Link: Wikipedia: Cognitive dissonance). After the buy, the buyer wants to minimize this cognitive dissonance to justify his own decision (a nice little summary can be found here). In marketing literature, you can find recommendations to companies on how to cope with this problem. I could give you examples, if I still knew any... ;-) (Of course, one way would be to provide good lens reviews to people that already bought the lens)

Thought you might want to know. But maybe not... :-)



12:36 PM  
Blogger Ernest Theisen said...

That link from Christian about Cognitive Dissonance was very interesting. Maybe anouther term for that would be Buyers Remorse. My wife gets it as we leave the supermarket. E

9:43 AM  

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