What are camera reviews worth?

from Steve’s Digicams

The world appears to be full of expert camera reviewers. They are very free with their opinions. They will tell you how quickly some latest model focuses, how good (or not) the images are, how long the battery runs on a full tank. And they’ll usually round off with some thoughts about whether it’s a good buy (or not).

Some will actually have used the camera for more than a few hours and shot more than a few pictures away from their office; some not. 

I’ve been struck by how much I learn about a camera I don’t need to know. And how little I learn from reviews that I really need to know. It tells me that the majority of reviews are technocratic hogwash with little relevance to the real world of photography.

Camera reviews swing a lot of clout.  A poor review from an influential site will almost certainly reduce sales directly by a margin in proportion to its influence and trustworthiness. But, worse, a poor review can influence other reviewers and so lead to greater losses. A poor camera review hurts the camera. In contrast, good reviews can encourage sales. But good reviews seem to hold less sway than poor reviews. I’m not sure why, and I’m not sure I could adduce any relevant data. 

Positive reviews can also encourage advertising to the website too. Reviewers take on a number of responsibilities – to be fair, impartial, accurate and thorough – but not all are aware of this aspect of their operations. And that may go towards explaining why there’s a poor symmetry between good and bad reviews.For instance: you can trust someone who pans an item if you know they stand to lose advertising and industry goodwill. But a favourable review could be put on to meet advertising targets or keep sweet some other back-door cosy-up. 

What’s most interesting is how few camera reviewers are photographers who are sufficiently expert and experienced for the job. If I published a review of a tennis racket, you would reasonably expect me to be a pretty hot tennis player, preferably a coach who can boast an analytic command of the game. Well, I can find the right end to hold. So I don’t review rackets. 

I mention this because I knew once a so-called Technical Editor for a respected photography magazine who cheerily admitted to me she had trouble finding the right end of a lens. 

The sound of your partner’s voice

I don’t want to make a big deal of this. People can fall in love or loathing of something as complicated as another person merely at a glance, so who am I to criticise? But there are a few things which I like to know about a camera before I take it to bed with me.

One is the sound of its voice – in particular SLRs. I have to like it or feel I can live with it. Surely it’s obvious, certainly for a professional: you hear that thing go off right next to your ear several hundred times during a working day, perhaps even thousands of times. I’ve rejected perfectly fine cameras because of the noise it makes. OK; it’s my loss. My loss that I don’t have to listen to a screechy, rattly sound five hundred times a day. 

Perhaps because I have some musical sensitivity, a noise I don’t like spoils my concentration, and after a few hundred of the tiny, admittedly very very tiny, irritations, it builds up. And it’s very personal. I love the sound of the Leica M3 through to M6, but I don’t like the sound of the M9 (it gave up using rubberised cloth). I loved the sound of the Canon EOS-1Ds MkII but not that of the MkIII – such a pity as the MkIII was otherwise a very superb camera.

The feel of the body

Here we go, another subjective issue. But, you know what, I’m holding this thing all day. Like a superb jacket or nicely fitting pair of trousers, I want to forget it’s there. I want it to do its job without constant diffling and justadment. I want a  camera to be an extension of my hand, mind and eye. A camera that is awkward to use, whose buttons are placed confusingly, whose dials click too easily onto an unwanted setting … all are irritations that, well, make you fall out of love. 

I don’t think it’s too much to ask, that you love holding something you’ve spend a few hundred dollars on. Certainly if it cost a couple of thousands of dollars.

I love holding my Leica M6 but find that M9 and M10 just a little fat. It’s just years of using the M6 which is slim and a perfect size for my hands. I love using the Sony RX-100 but have to spend too much effort holding on to its slim, slippery body. The iPhone 5 is a superior camera to the iPhone 3 or 4, for me, just because it’s easier to hold. By the same token I enjoy holding my Sony A900 – it feels good in the hand and when I use it, I forget I have a camera. I simply look at the world through it. 

The beauty of the look

Ah, yes. That’s the other thing most reviewers give scant attention to, apart from quoting a few figures about viewfinder magnification. The viewfinder is like your monitor. It saddens me how people can spend thousands on their cameras and other gear but fly cattle class on the monitor. How many hours do you look at the monitor? I bet it’s more than the time you spend looking through the viewfinder. 

And as for the viewfinder, it’s your interface with your subject. It’s the portal that takes you into the world of photography. And I love my Sony A900 because for a few years it had the best viewfinder on the planet (now, I think the Canon EOS-1Ds MkIV is better). It is bright, sharp, clear and neutral in colour. You’d be surprised to learn that the majority of viewfinders – and I’m talking SLRs here – are somewhat tinted. Mostly slightly warm because of the use of high-refractive index glass (to keep the pentaprism bulk down) which often hold back a bit of shorter wavelengths. 

The other issue is the size of the image: on the A900 it’s comfortably large (on the big Cannon, it’s a tad bigger). It’s why I cannot use SLRs with smaller sensors: I feel it’s like looking down a tunnel, as in the bad old days of Galilean viewfinders. And if you’re not comfortable looking at the world through the viewfinder, I think it’ll be tough work trying to photograph.

In the hand

Now, have you noticed the high marks that cameras obtain in reviews? Blowed if I can find – at a quick search – any camera scoring less than 67% on the well-respected site dpreview (and if you want to know which site I turn to for solid accounts written by photographers and technically well-grounded geeks, it’s dpreview.) Or other sites give stars: these appear routinely to give cameras four out of five, never fewer than three. This tells you one of two things. Either scoring is very generous; we’re reluctant to ‘fail’ any of the candidates. Or that it’s hard to find fault with these cameras.

from  DP Review

Answer: it’s the latter. Today’s cameras perform so well across the board that you have to dig deep to find the differences. It used to be relatively easy to distinguish between entry-level and professional. Not now. (An observation not limited to cameras, either; but that’s another story.)

A related point is that the spread of scores is very narrow: say, between about 68% to 84%. So will you choose one camera over another because one scores 75% and the other scores ‘only’ 72%? Or, put more forcibly, would you smash up the piggy bank for another thousand dollars because one model scores 3% better than another?

So what does it mean?

It means that reviews provide grounds rich in sticks and stones for photographic pundits to stamp their feet, growl at each other and send projectiles into opposing camps. That’s clear enough in the comments posted in response to reviews. Alternatively, you could understand reviews as ritualised battles between camera manufacturers in the blue corner and reviewers in the red corner, keen to tear their opponent from limb to limb. The struggles are fun to watch but I don’t know how much they have to do with the act of making photographs.

In short, reviews are amusing distractions for the vast majority of users. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I shot much of my best-selling book (nearly a million copies) with a 8.2 megapixel camera and any old point-and-shoot cameras I happened to be testing at the time. I’m using more and more pictures from my iPhone in my books; and (until yesterday) it was only the 3S. In short,  I’ve used throughout my books shots made on cameras that cause enthusiasts to make sour faces and want to wash their ears out. 

I’ll stick my neck out and say that 99% of all images used – printed, published in any way – don’t need to be bigger than 6 megapixel or 18 MB of 8-bit RGB uncompressed. Put another way, differences between photographers are far, far larger than differences between cameras. To that extent, it’s true that results depend not on the camera, but on the photographer.

By all means enjoy reviews as entertainment (even I read them when alone) but don’t be put off a camera just because some busybody doesn’t like the menu structure or thinks a button is in the wrong place. (And this diatribe won’t stop me sharing experiences of cameras that I’ve used. After all, there’s a ‘Reviewing’ category on the site. But what you’ll be getting will be more like user reports.)

My advice?

It boils down to this: if you want to decide on a camera, you need to hold the baby in your own hands, cuddle and play with it, listen to it, get close enough to smell it. And for goodness’ sake, do make at least a few pretend shots in the shop it – all before you slap down your wad of greenbacks. 

So many ask  – on Quora, fauna and fora, workshops everywhere – which model camera is best for them. And they will purchase on the strength only of the advice. I guess this is OK if you’re relaxed about online marriages; but I don’t even like the idea of online dating.

And I bet that people who buy a camera on word of mouth wouldn’t dream of buying a suit or dress without first checking size and fit. Not unless it comes with a money-back guarantee. So why do they spend anything between seven hundred to four thousand dollars without checking that the thing fits in their hand, feels good to have, to hold and to love?

So if you ever want my buying advice, it’s this: touch flesh. By all means read reviews from trusted sites such as dpreview to get an idea of what the camera can or cannot do, but don’t read so many that you get confused.

Then touch flesh. You can’t hold a camera online. Yet.


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