Took down the em5.2 video post. Flawed setting discovered!

we'll have a revised test up shortly.

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