Sunday, 13 July 2008

What camera reviews are good for...

I was participating in an internet photo forum and reflected on how camera reviews are now heavily referenced and / or bashed by camera fans. They also completely confuse newbie camera buyers with the level of technicalities compounded with often subjective off the cuff remarks by the reviewers.

Here's my angle on camera reviews.

  1. Camera testing labs are generally well equipped and professionally staffed. Objective Lab test results allow us to compare the technical merits of two or more camera models.
  2. Lab Test Results objectively report the truth of the testing. However, as we are not optical specialists or physicists or photo metric specialists, the significance or superiority of one value vs another has to be interpreted using subjective and judgmental words by the reviewer. Therein lies one major issue.
    1. The reviewer must firstly explain the relative difference in the reading comparing the model under review with another model.
    2. Secondly, the reviewer often neglects to inform that "under field shooting conditions", the superiority of one model over another in that value is completely nullified by the variations in skill, environmental conditions - of course, he would neglect to inform of this, he is informing you of the test result - talking about shooting in the field is off topic, in a sense.
  3. Making small talk and spinning a story is how a journalist or a reviewer makes a review interesting. Remember journalists are taught to tell a story so that the reader is entertained - tables and charts already clearly report numbers - so the reviewer thinks his job is to make the review interesting. There will be affectations in language reflecting the writing background, the age and experience of the reviewer - all the subjective human features. Sometimes good writing makes us read a review from start to end and makes us come back for more reviews. In fact, we often look to a reviewer to provide some wisdom and subjectivity in the context of his shooting experience.

    This can lead to issues again. We may respond to the perceived tone and language of the reviewer - and either praise his experience and credibility or deprecate his skill in the (English) language and his phrasing.
  4. There are few absolutes when we shop. A particular camera model in a different country or a different time may be price and discount variances (hence affecting value), be more suited to certain tastes based on demographic, overall economic status of the area, availability, warranty service. So the "bang for buck" of one camera vs another varies - which affects the shopper.
  5. Handling in YOUR HANDS, your subjective perception when you use the camera to shoot, your reaction to the menus and buttons and ultimately your mind set when you shoot with that camera - that's something that cannot be reviewed by proxy - you have to experience it.
  6. There are sample to sample variations in gear. As well as wear and tear on gear loaned out to reviewers. Despite the best quality assurance in the world, if the reviewer received a dud, he will report dud results.
  7. A camera may be optimised for different things. Like improved shooting in the field. Shooting a certain type of subject or scene. These optimisations may unfairly affect the straight results in the lab.
  8. The reviewer may come from a traditionalist background or the exact opposite - never having used film cameras. The reviewer may be a keen enthusiast or may have been a full time professional photographer in his previous life. This affects his inclination for certain features - for example, the preference to have gear that blows up to full wall size posters vs the optimisation to display on 1080 16:9 flat panel screens.

With this in mind, how should one take reviews?

  1. Do pick a professional camera gear website for technical lab reviews. Take reviews of cameras from computer websites and electronics websites with some detachment - you may have a reviewer who is a photographer at heart, but likely, that is not his main strength or his job.
  2. Don't get upset that a reviewer does not share your passion with the camera that you have just bought. You have chosen your camera based on a number of factors and in context of your perception and experience. The reviewer is probably not at all like you - doesn't think like you, doesn't have the same criteria and most importantly doesn't need to buy this camera - he may already have his own gear - and as the owner of his gear, he may be as passionate about his gear as you are about yours.
  3. Don't use a review to justify your decision about your camera purchase. You have already bought the camera, there is no reason why everyone in the world has to agree about the merits of your camera.
  4. Don't use the review or the reviewer as the basis for optimum operation of the camera. The reviewer did not intend to use that camera to take photos for his own enjoyment - he carried out the review because that is his job - he may or may not want to use that camera socially or personally. Once you have bought the camera and used it extensively for a while, you are now a bigger expert on that camera than the reviewer who spent a few hours, a few days, a few intermittent weeks with that camera.
  5. Do be aware of what the reviewer said, but don't let it inhibit you in your use of the camera. Whilst the reviewer, in the context of so many cameras he has seen, may suggest that such and such is not worth doing or this camera is less capable than another, he did not buy the camera himself - YOU DID. Therefore, you, because of your commitment may perform miracles or simply work hard enough with the camera that you CAN get the camera to do things that the reviewer was not motivated to do.
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