The Science Fiction of Writing Camera Reviews. Or....Most People Don't Know Squat.

There are two groups of people (generalization) who write camera reviews: 1. People who are mercenary and writing in hopes you'll click through the ads sprinkled through and around their camera reviews and indirectly reward the writers with money. 2. Happy amateurs who are writing because writing is fun and owning cameras is fun and it's nice way to feel connected to other camera owners on the internet.

But to camera makers there's only one group that counts in the business world. That would be the group of writers that has accrued a large and loyal an audience who frequently act on the presentation of a review and proceed to click through and buy the gear that gets reviewed.

Which group am I in? I like to think I straddle the two groups a bit. But the bottom line is that I started writing the blog many years ago to help sell my technical photo books and have continued mostly out of habit. It's also a nice way to connect with astute readers from around the world. But I do have to admit that I like being able to push my books, and the novel, from time to time and I appreciate the small income stream I make from the affiliate income I earn through links in reviews.

When it comes to cameras and lenses the dirty little secret is that no one, other than professional photographers, really needs this stuff and that makes all of it both a luxury purchase and a highly discretionary expense. The real competitors for dollars that might go to a new camera (that usually features a very small improvement over the last generation of basically the same camera) are not just the other camera brands but the new gas grill for the back porch, a new hunting rifle, a recreational (as opposed to commuter) motorcycle, a lavish dinner at a one, two or (god forbid) three Michelin star restaurant, classic bordeaux wines from good vineyards---harvested in noteworthy years; a cool, long weekend vacation, a new pair of cowboy boots, a new laptop computer, a custom-made bicycle, a new, 4K television set for the media room, new speakers for the surround sound, a personal trainer, a hot girlfriend, or even this semester's dues for your masters swim program.

Nobody really needs one of these little, black or chrome gems and once they have a good one there's never much reason to immediately replace it with something marginally better. So, why do we break down and buy the new cameras over and over again? It's those damn reviewers.

I imagine that many readers (at least based on the comments I read on various forums) assume many things about reviewers. They assume that the reviewers are far more gifted photographers than mainstream practitioners. I've come to understand this because both Ming Thein and I released our Olympus EM5.2 reviews on exactly the same day. A commenter on DP Review immediately called the reviews into question and gave, as one reason, that Ming's images (while perfectly crafted, color correct and sharp!!!) were "cold and soulless." They dismissed my images (sprinkled through the review as visual rest stops for the eyes) as "underwhelming." I assume "underwhelming" means that I didn't go to the trouble of hiring a national level swim suit model to pose nude and a lighting crew and smoke machines and lasers to do my usual walking around shots. I find it strange that while we are both testing whether or not we like a camera and whether or not it works for the things that we like to do, the quality of our casual images, written out at 1200 pixels and statistically viewed mostly on iPhone screens, seem to be vital proofs of concept to the reviews. These people who believe this are, of course, insane.

They assume that reviewers should pick a brand to be loyal to and never wander from their chosen brand. Trying out new gear (something you'd think would be helpful in developing context) is also heavily frowned upon unless it is new gear from the ecosystem of the one true brand that you need to swear undying allegiance to. Nikon users can only review Nikons and so on. I learned this by reading a commenter who dismissed my input about the Olympus EM5.2 because I had previously "liked" the Nikon D810, the Samsung NX1, the Panasonic GH4,  the Sony a99 and others. Everyone reading (he stated) must not take my reviews seriously because I might, in the near future, also like something else.

I have a newsflash for the moron who wrote that. There are a lot of good cameras out on the market right now. In the hands of even a middle-of-the-road photographic talent any one of those cameras is fully capable of taking professional caliber shots or shooting usable video. Of course I liked the Samsung NX1 camera. The files were sharp, detailed and had very acceptable color. The video was damn good (once transcoded...). Of course I liked the Nikon D810. The files were sharp, detailed and had very acceptable color. And the 2K video was very good. What a terrible quandary for a reviewer; that any review must be his only review, or, at the very least, he will be constrained forever to writing only about his ONE brand.  That he or she is only allowed to "like" and use one camera at a time.... Of course this is nonsense. Like having to choose between your children.

The cliché definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. I would modify this definition for photographers and say, "the definition of churlish insanity is to use one camera over and over again and expect a different point of view, or to learn something new about new cameras and new technology while doing so."

Then there is the presumption that camera tests and reviews have to done in technically advanced labs with white coat technicians and reviewers who have multiple, advanced degrees. One degree in electrical engineering (so we can understand the underlying technology of imaging sensors). One in optical theory (so we can understand the ins and outs of lenses =  Yes, Yes, Bokeh is everything!!!! I read that on the web!!!!). One in mechanical engineering so we can understand the resonance profiles and torsional anamolies of the shutter mechanisms based on their composition and velocities. Sadly, they never expect a background in aesthetics, art history, or criticism. On those points they practice the idea that everyone's taste is equal and everyone gets a trophy. Except for reviewers whose own work must have both soul and pizzazz. It's not enough just to pick up a camera, use it for the kind of subject matter you normally use it for and then give a wholly subjective appraisal of how that particularly juicy bit of kit ended up working out for you...

For the white coat junkies we have two (actually) valuable resources to depend upon on the web. One is DPReview (which is strange because it is ground central for rampant misinformation on its forums) and also DXO. But DXO is tricky because you have to be smart enough to read about and understand their testing procedures and the parameters that they use to measure performance.

But that's okay because it seems that many out in reader-land already understands all the concepts of alloys and carbon fiber composites and their role in camera design. They even understand all the advanced math and physics---which leads me to ask what the hell they are bothering to read these reviews for anyway?

That's one part of the reviewing conundrum---but it gets better. It's now common knowledge that all well known and well followed reviewers are on the take. This means that the camera companies are coming to the reviewers with gift baskets full not only of shiny (and performance tweaked) new cameras and all of the juiciest lenses but also chubby envelopes filled to bursting with hard cash. Every good review is the direct result of an unambiguous quid pro quo. Cash for gushing rhetoric.

The obverse is also common knowledge. That any negative review (or, for fans of the brand, neutral review) is the direct result of the reviewer not having been paid for the review and not getting to keep the whole catalog of gear the company makes. No payola = no kind words. This, of course, is unmitigated bullshit. While we unrepentant and slimy reviewers would be all over this gold mine like ants on a dropped lollipop the FTC or FCC or whomever makes this a bit, well, illegal. Any gift or payment sent to reviewers would have to be fully disclosed in any discussion of the products being reviewed from any company.  And even if we as reviewers were unscrupulous enough to accept $$$ or product without disclosing it the manufacturer would be taking a risk that far outweighed any advantage.

Notwithstanding fines and sanctioning from the federal government one can only imagine the uproar of outrage from prospective buyers if these arrangement became known. It would be a credibility nightmare of wonderful proportions. The press would have a field day with it. But people from the photo forums think all photo commerce is rife with larceny and nothing reviewers or camera makers say will dissuade them.

I can only presume that many of the people who think this way reside outside of the U.S. and Canada and don't enjoy quite the freedom we do from graft and payoffs. Rule of law does have value when it comes to honest commerce.

I am happy to write reviews about the cameras we buy and play with because I think my regular readers like it and it gives me a chance to think out loud about gear. I am sad to write reviews about cameras because it brings all the crazy people out of the woodwork with their paranoia, insecurities and conspiracy theories. I'll keep doing it just to keep them riled up and frothing. It's kinda fun to watch.

But in case you are wondering about our review process it goes something like this:

One day intrepid photographer woke up and, still bleary and sleepy, poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down in front of his computer to see what might be new in the world of photography. He visited all the usual sites only to find that something interesting happened while he tried to sleep. A major camera maker has just announced a brand new camera. This makes Kirk sit up and take notice. He rushes to DPReview to read the press release. Goodness, the P.R. agency for the camera maker sure makes this new camera model sound great. Some of the new features might solve some of Kirk's little peevish problems he experiences when using his current cameras! Sometimes there's even a genuine advancement that might make his business a bit more profitable and a bit more interesting to his clients. 

He remembers fondly when he first learned about Panasonic launching the GH4 with fully operational and high quality 4K video. All the information sounded great although he suspected there might be some hyperbole involved. Regardless, he gave it a shot and bought one of the bodies. At first he got used to it by using it on paid photographic shoots where the file sizes and features were appropriate. As he got more and more used to the camera he started shooting it more and more frequently because it was new and fun and, so far, all the images he got from the camera looked great. 

After a great deal of studying and practice in the studio he introduced the camera to his clients for video and, over the course of the year, was able to do six or seven video projects which returned profits equal to twenty times the original investment in that piece of gear. He thought this was a good return and liked the look of both the video and image files and so he wrote a review which talked about these things he learned from hands-on experience.  A 20X return on investment in one year is pretty cool so he was happy and wrote as much. In fact, he still reveres this camera as one of the best on the market. 

But he is not a purely linear, process driven, robotic, cube worker and thrives on change and experimentation; and has like minded friends. He hears great things about the video and the still images of the Nikon D810 and decides that this camera might also provide a fun shooting experience and a good financial return. It also offers a new style of image with more control over depth of field. He buys one and goes through the same process of experimentation and professional use. And then he writes a review that is his subjective narrative about having used the camera over time, in different types of projects, for different types of clients. 

According to Kirk he wants his reviews to work the same way things would work if you were a personal friend of his and you sat down with him at a local Starbucks over coffee and the two of you decided to discuss a camera that he had been using, and in which you were curious. He might give you some background, fill in with a few stories about using the camera in real situations and then proceed to tell you (truthfully---because you are friends) exactly what he liked about the camera and the various things he didn't like about the camera. Just friends over coffee. 

Kirk and his friend enjoyed the give and take and could talk about operational features in general terms. They did not need to grab cocktail napkins and sketch out flow charts or spreadsheets of technical details. At the end of the conversation, after the coffee got cold, the friend would know enough to decide whether or not it was worth his time to try out the camera under discussion. Maybe head to the store and handle it for a while. Or to just walk away and be happy with the miracle camera he already held in his hands. 

In many ways I am a privileged photographer. I live in a lively and very affluent market. I have carefully selected well funded and generous clients who seem to understand the value of photographs to move their businesses forward. I have made some smart investments over the years. I can make money with the cameras I buy. I can quickly resell the cameras I am no longer interested in. Since my business offers a range of styles and services it's easier to justify owning several different kinds of cameras and that allows me to have multiple favorite cameras just as you can favorite more than one tweet at a time. Some cameras I buy for their video capabilities and some for their still image quality. Some I buy for both. Others I buy when my brain tells me that I can engage in photography as a hobby.

I like to think that writing reviews is a way of sharing what I learn as I play with and experience, over time, brilliant and not so brilliant cameras. If you don't like these kinds of reviews you needn't read them. But instead of being petulant and derisive why not grow a pair and write your own reviews?
it might put the various reviewing processes into perspective for you.

Thank God for my daily VSL readers. Writing a popular review and getting the backsplash makes me appreciate you more and more.

Once again Ken Rockwell calls it just so.....http://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/7.htm


GNapp Studios said...

I see the same thing in golf. People buy $600 drivers that will give them 10 extra yards, then play with balls they pul out of the lake that sit there for years and give them 10 less yards. All that matters in the end is the final result.

Anonymous said...

Truth is I already owned an Olympus EM-5 and then a EM-5 II before you started writing about either. But, I I have found it interesting to read about your experiences. I have learned a few things- so thanks!

And personally, I don't have a problem with anyone liking a piece of gear until they don't. Makes sense to me.

Peter Knott said...

The most refreshing and down earth site related to photography...period!
P.S Kirk, You didn't mention the Human factors and Ergonomics specialists who intimately understand human machine interfaces and menus.....

Anonymous said...

For giggles sometime when you do not feel like writing a insightful information packed column
you put cut and past some of the more interesting, uninformed, comments.

Victor Bloomfield said...

Great post! Even more fun to read than the review that produced the responses that occasioned it, but that was good, too. (Especially since I'm an Olympus user.) Good sense expressed in straight talk - with a modicum of edginess - is rare and valuable on the web. Keep it up!

Craig Lee said...

Ooooooo! I might be able to play this little review game too. Today I shot the local Scottish games as one of their official photographers using the D800 and EM-5.1. Maybe I should make a blog post about my impressions of both cameras.

Who am I kidding. No one would read my blog, so no one would get riled up by it. Being anonymous has some perks.

Back to reality, I appreciate your reviews Kirk. Seeing how a professional approaches some of this gear the way you present it is quite refreshing. I think having an open mind about these gizmos is quite a laudable trait.

ianroqc said...

An island of sanity in the deluge of tripe to be found on the net.

Thanks Kirk !

Craig Yuill said...

The negative and derisive comments stated in fora like those at DPReview are exactly one of the reasons I visit those fora less and less. I have trouble identifying with many (most?) posters. If posts aren't devoted to bragging about having acquired some new gear, or fretting about which gear to purchase, they seem to be devoted to trashing or ridiculing others' views.

I appreciate you taking time to write such a long blog post. You could have given us a brief review made up of a few points, but you didn't. I like your practice of praising characteristics that you like, and critiquing those you don't.

I rarely buy new gear, but I like keeping abreast of advances in cameras and lenses. I am intrigued by this EM-5 II because of the IS. I have been using a mirror-free camera from another company, and have generally liked the video quality. As time has gone on, however, I have become less enchanted with that company's IS. I almost always take video footage handheld, often while moving; and a lot of that footage has way too much shake in it, in spite of efforts to hold the camera steadily. The EM-5 II could be a godsend for me.

Thank you for putting in the effort to make this review, and your other interesting posts.

Kirk Tuck said...

Craig, you are always welcome! Thanks for being here with me almost every step of the way.

Joseph Kashi said...

I have never found the DPReview forums of any value technically and the rants turn me off. I'll visit this site nearly every day for your excellent writing, good sense, and general fun.

I have those sorts of degrees by the way.

JereK said...

It is sad and hilarious at the same time as I thought both you and Ming Thein did the best reviews so far of the Em5 mk2.Then again This does always seem to happen with the more popular brands..
Thank you once agaim for reviewing interesting stuff on your blog. I come here more for the photos and the philosophy but the reviews are useful in many ways.

Ash said...

Kirk, I just wanted to tell you that I have appreciated many of your articles on a wide range of photography related topics. I really enjoy your clear and vivid writing and the way you explain your opinions on technical and other topics. Like Craig Youill, I find myself spending less time on DPReview because their detailed technical reviews do not tell me whether the latest upgraded model will make the slightest difference in the real world. I much prefer the honest opinions of yourself and other like-minded pros than the measurebators. Well done Kirk

Nick Davis said...

You know what your problem is, Kirk, you are a human being, not a robot! You are capable of modifying your views or (horror of horrors) changing your mind. This must be very disturbing to the fan boys. I value your opinions and views even if I don't always agree with them. The internet would be a worse place without you. Like many here, I stay away from fora that are not moderated because the people who shout loudest nearly always know the least. Keep up the good work.

Cpt Kent said...

Well between your review, Mings review and the associated commentary, it's been a most entertaining week. But the most enjoyable part for me was putting down the iPad and going out with the camera to make some photos.
Loved reading your review, always good to get someone else's opinion, but always good to go out and learn what works for yourself by doing stuff yourself.

eric erickson said...

Kirk, for what it is worth, I found your blog dead on and extremely insightful. I shoot both Olympus and Nikon as do you, but I am not an pro shooter just a hack Amateur. I do travel a lot and most of my work is not done with a car so my Olympus camera allows me to get on and off trains, buses, and planes much easier than my large Nikon gear does. I can further place myself in front of a lot more interesting subjects with my small Olympus gear. Just a small Domke bag and two or three lenses, that is all that is necessary to bring back some terrific images. Keep up the good work. Eric

amolitor said...

This is what I assume to be true:

Reviews are high traffic posts, and hence desirable for those who make substantial money off their online writing.

Some reviewers get access to review copies of gear.

Negative reviews can lead to less access to review copies of gear.

I am essentially certain that money never changes hands, but in some cases the currency of access is relevant.

Me? I don't buy gear, so it doesn't matter to me.

And for reference, Kirk, I think you're a fully honest reviewer. Nobody has to give you a review copy! Just make it shiny and with buttons, Tuck will be along with his lovely lovely money soon enough!

Dog Photographer said...

I love your work. Your Blog. I read everyday, with morning coffee and am disappointed when you do not post. I love the way you review stuff. Your review of building up a set of Olympus lenses sealed it for me and I, that very day, bought an Olympus camera, OM-D M10. I had not bought a camera since the Nikon D300 came out. So far I am happy with the Olympus, if I can figure out the focusing I will be happier. Keep it up Kirk.

Bill Pierce said...

Hooray! Today's column definitely gets the award for something that needs to be said that isn't being said.

TMJ said...

I am not a professional photographer but I "need this stuff" because I take close up clinical photograhs with my Olympus E1/ringflash/macro lens. Brilliant combo, but if it broke I would probably go down the Canon/Nikonroute as Olympus don't appear to do so. (Originally I was OM as Olympus had the best ever macro system, maybe since their endoscopy business was/is so good).
Personally I use A Nex 7 or Ricoh GR, the Ricoh more often than not.

Mike Rosiak said...

Kirk, you can be as "underwhelming" as you wish, and I'll come back day after day to read your views, reviews, and insights. With both you and Mike Johnston, I find islands of sanity in this tech-crazy spec-crazy world. Keep on keeping it real, and thank you.

Anonymous said...

The DP Review forums are populated by people who don't know anything. Thank God for DP Review, otherwise they'd all be posting here.

I continue to be amazed are your ability to crank out blog posts, Kirk. Keep up the good work!


Rod Thompson said...

Once again thanks for keeping it real.

Dave said...

Online gear forums are today's story of Sisyphus. The same rock gets pushed up the hill only to roll back down with each camera release. Oddly there's a seemingly never ending supply of new volunteers to push it up the hill for the cheap price of a couple "thumbs up" affirmations of their online prowess and wit. In fact as a sign of our times this has evolved into it's own market, equipped with meta analysis of the hoards of big data to extract the wisdom of the masses.

But as the saying goes there are some things you just can't turn into chicken salad.

One of the values of VSL is the self awareness you have Kirk, and for that reason I read reviews even for gear I'm not likely to buy. I enjoy the sometimes painfully extracted thoughts you share, knowing they're grounded in experience, intent and that awareness.

My advice, perhaps more online drivel, is ignore all the rock pushers on the forums. In the Old Testament I think there's a perfect assessment of things like this. If you argue with a fool, whether the fool laughs or rages, there will be no peace.

Antonio Ramirez said...

Searching for some information on the Leica M7, I ran into your Photo.net review on the Leica M6TTL from 2001. Wonderfully written review. Then I saw the 80+ pages of comments. Holy crap! I guess some things never change...

All I can say is I enjoy your articles, including your reviews, immensely. It is refreshing to read reviews from the standpoint of a professional who is actually using the gear in the trenches. Plus, I always enjoy your photography.

Keep up the excellent work!

atmtx said...

Well said, Kirk.