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NEW: Why Mass Media Stinks 22 April 2013
Note: This article below was written in 2003, or possibly as early as 1999.
Always look at someone's portfolio before you ask their opinion. If the person spewing out advice hasn't made any great photos you ought to ignore him. If her photos are superb but of totally different sorts of work than you do, realize that her suggestions are based on what she does and may not apply to you.
It's amazing how many people believe what they read in camera magazines written by authors, not photographers, or by salesmen at camera stores or camera collectors who don't even try to make pictures. Just look at the images accompanying a review. Are these the sort of images of which you'd be proud? Probably not, so don't think a guy writing in a magazine knows anything more than you do.
Beware what you read on the Internet, at websites and user groups. Much of what you see comes not from photographers, but from computer hobbyists with interests that go no deeper than camera technology itself.
When you see a review in a photography magazine, hear comments from the guy at your camera store, read a friendly seeming little email note from a Nikon or Canon factory-sponsored photographer's huge emailing list or website, you have to realize that these people make their money from you buying the equipment they are casually reviewing or by selling advertising space to the camera maker. They are in this for their own personal profit, not to help you out.
FORUMS, WEB LOGS, BLOGS and CHAT ROOMS
See also The Two Kinds of Photographers
Unless you personally know the poster it's best to ignore what you read. These are the trailer parks of the internet and are best ignored if you want to learn about general photography. It's much better to get a book out of the library. The only good reason to poke around these is to look for a fix to some immediate and specific problem that wouldn't be in a book.
Not to sound too hoity-toity, but honestly the reason these are the best source of bad information is because you can't know the quality of the source of information. The worlds biggest idiot may have the clearest and most pervasive writing style, and likewise people who really know about photography are probably spending their creative time actually doing photography instead of chatting about it.
Almost all of the people who spend time contributing to these things are men, not women, who are measurebators. They find pleasure in piddling with equipment for its own sake, not in making photos. They prefer talking shop to actually doing it. It's their hobby to spend time reading and talking about it, and their little culture funnels them all into thinking alike. Sometimes their common thoughts are correct, but since they operate in a vacuum they are often completely off base.
These men often just have mud-slinging contests to show how much smarter they are by calling the other guys idiots. You should ignore them unless you really need to find an answer to some very narrow equipment issue.
Salespeople are paid on commission. Even worse, the craftier ones could have a vested financial interest in hoping that you are NOT satisfied with your photographs a year later and come back a year later and buy more. Just like the tobacco, coffee and caffeinated soft drink companies trying to get you addicted for their personal gains, foreign camera companies may not really want you to learn photography and get fantastic results with the camera you already have. They tend to prefer that you are never quite stoked about your results, so that you think that a new feature, like a few more alphabet letters on your lens, will somehow help you create more insightful photographs.
To be fair, your local camera store doesn't make much selling cameras. What keeps their lights on are sales of accessories, batteries, film and especially processing. Therefore the main reason to ignore what they try to sell you is simply that the guys behind the counter probably shoot less than your other photographer friends, so you could get better information from your friends who don't have any financial involvement in your purchase.
What you should ask the guy behind the glass counter is what his commission structure is and what spiffs ("incentives" or kickbacks) he's getting on different products. Also ask what's selling well and what people who have bought it say. Also ask what comes back as returns. Hey, he'll ask you personal questions, so you have a right to know what his financial interests are in selling you brand A over brand B.
Ignore anyone who tells you that they dropped some brand because they got too many returns. That's what every store says when they lose the right to sell a certain brand. The manufacturers determine which stores are good enough to carry their products. For instance, there are some camera stores that may sell Canon or Nikon, but not both. Of course they'll say bad things about the one they don't sell, or at least don't sell profitably.
In the photo industry one maker often will offer a special "incentive" or spiff or direct kickback for selling that product over another. Not only is it legal, it's the way salespeople make their livings. We just don't usually use the word "kickback." Just ask, because the salesman may push whatever has a spiff on it that month over what doesn't. That's the whole point of the spiff.
These incentive structures get complex and change from month to month. You have a right to know, so be wary if the guy tells you it's confidential if you ask. IT IS YOUR BUSINESS to know, it's your money. You'll certainly catch them off guard if you ask because people who have never been salespeople have no idea what goes on behind the glass counter, much less have the guts to ask. Find out if you're making a major purchase from people you don't know.
Most salespeople get paid on gross profit dollars, not the selling price. Discount non-camera maker brands of lenses may give the dealer a higher markup (margin or "points") than the camera makers' brands. Therefore the store and the salesman could make more money selling you a $500 off-brand lens instead of selling you a $500 lens from the people who made your camera. The camera maker may give the dealer 18% discount ("points') for the superior camera maker's lenses, while the non-camera brand may give 24% discount as an extra incentive to sell the non-camera maker brands lenses that you probably don't want as much.
The store might be paying $380 for the off brand lens and $420 for the camera brand lens. If you buy the $500 off-brand lens you're getting less lens. You're also helping line the pockets of the dealer and his salespeople who had a financial interest in recommending you buy the other "just as good" non-camera brand lens that probably offered wider zoom range or silly features you won't use in exchange for poorer overall optical performance. Hey, if you're shooting print film don't worry, you will never see the difference, but if you shoot slides or make huge enlargements you should pay attention.
Note also that the cost of a lens is what you pay for it minus what you sell it for when you're done with it. You can always sell a camera brand lens, but it's tougher and you get far less money for the off brands. Let's face it: when you buy a used lens do you ever set out to buy a Tamron, Spooginar, Amway, Albinar, Tokina or Sigma instead of Canon, Leitz, Minolta, Nikkor or Pentax? I find that camera brand lenses cost less to own overall than the discount brands.
Not that off-brands are always bad choices, but just make sure you know how the odds are stacked against you when you look to your dealer for "advice."
Of course if you know your dealer and he has given you good advice you have found valuable, by all means pay attention to it. I provide this info for people whose opinions are not yet set.
Here's a short guide to some other sources of review:
These guys are the best and only source of objective info I have ever found in my decades of experience. They borrow lenses from their local camera store and walk them in to the Hasselblad factory in Sweden and run tests on Hasselblad's MTF (sharpness) testing machine. They test all lenses the same way, even with different formats, so you finally can see if a Rollei lens is better or worse that the Mamiya lens (they are similar), or if Leica really is sharper than Canon (a little), or if 35mm lenses are sharper than medium format (actually not).
The only two caveats are that they do not test for subtle but important effects like color rendition or ghosting, but too bad, you can see that here at KenRockwell.com. The other is that they have camera ads on the site, so they are probably a site for profit. I don't know, but I do know that my results agree quite closely with theirs, so I tend to believe them for tests on things I haven't tested.
Independent Experienced Photographers
These are other people like myself who have a lot of unbiased experience from which we all can gain.
I find that my results often match theirs, which means that I tend to trust their results for other things, too. These are people using the Internet as it was intended: to share information for the benefit of others. They go to the expense and effort of putting up this information just to be helpful and in the hope that others can benefit from the efforts they've put into their art.
You'll want to scope out the usual sources to find these people. One very good example is Bjørn Rørslett.
Beware of the many sites put up by computer hobbyists and other gear heads. They are not photographers, but merely men who get off on technology for its own sake. They lack the perspective to know what's important for making impressive images of anything other than test charts.
Peterson's Photographic Magazine
Just like many other so-so magazines, these reviews are very shallow and just repeat the manufacturers' banner specifications. I consider my reviews to be basic and quick, however Peterson's, as many other magazines, provides reviews which are similar to just the Intro and Specs sections of my reviews, with no hard performance data.
I subscribe to this mag because it only costs about $10 a year. I breeze through it and give it away each month. I could very easily do without it.
Get this mag for its great photography and great articles on making art by some of the best photographers around today.
The reviews are awful. Just like many other magazines, these reviews are very shallow and just parrot (repeat) the manufacturers' banner specifications along with some so-so snapshots made by the author. Even worse, they usually push the off brands because they advertise heavily in the magazine.
Also note that most of the great images printed are made on 4x5" cameras or at least medium format cameras or camera-brand lenses used with 35mm cameras, and oddly the only articles and reviews are for discount off-brands like Tamron, Sigma and Tokina. Why is that? Simple: the magazine is funded by advertising, and look at the ads!
Worse than worse, many of what seem to be articles are actually marked "advertisement" in little letters at the top and indeed are just advertisements.
The best part of this mag are its articles that address the artistic side of photography and probably the best photos published in any US photography magazine. I dislike the shallow, fuzzy clueless images in art magazines like "Aperture."
This is probably the best, and maybe only, technical magazine for the accomplished photographer. The reviews are light, however they do often cover some very serious and relevant topics, like Bokeh, and explain them thoroughly. You should subscribe to this. I do, but what do I know, because I also subscribe to:
" 'The Sound of Music' is to music as 'Popular Photography' is to photography." - Ted Orland.
Pop Photo, like most magazines, makes its money from its advertisers, NOT subscribers. Ever try to mail something the size of that magazine? They send it to you for less than it costs them to mail it, much less print it. You had better believe that Pop Photo is never going to come right out and say something stinks.
How to Read a Review in Popular Photography
Pop Photo does give some good data in their tests, but you must know how to interpret what they are saying.
They are very intelligent in what they do. The reviews are written so that tyros will think even a dog lens is OK, which for tyros it probably is. For people experienced enough to know how to read these reviews we also can pick out the hidden details that we would find to be serious flaws in the lens. Pop Photo is fairly useful if you know how to read between the lines. Here's how:
Everything, including the nastiest pieces of plastic made-in-Red-China toy-store-trash, are described as being "nicely finished in..." Ignore most of this section if you are advanced enough to be reading my site. The comments here are mostly for folks who are buying their first lens.
"In the lab"
Pop Photo is just like Lake Wobegone. All the lenses are above average in sharpness. I have found the following relationships between my testing and the same lenses tested in Pop Photo:
below average: A total dog
Field curvature is one of the things that make your corners go fuzzy at large apertures. Pop Photo is just about right on in rating the severity here.
The distortion measurements are very helpful. I find that you can see the distortion when Pop Photo rates it at 1% or higher, and it's invisible at 1% or lower. Note that there are many ways to measure distortion, and that the same lens will give different readings at different distances and at different places in the viewfinder. Therefore you cannot directly compare a lens' distortion figures as tested by Pop Photo with any other numbers tested elsewhere, for instance those at the superior www.photodo.com. Distortion needs to be plotted as a curve against image height for each focal length and every distance. There is no one number that describes it, even more reason never to try to compare individual distortion numbers from different sources.
Exposure accuracy tells us how well the mechanics of the diaphragm are adjusted. This is good data.
"In the field"
If you see any exceptions at any apertures or focal lengths that are not "sharp and contrasty," then that lens is a dog in those conditions.
Light falloff and flare observations are valid and important.
When Pop tests a real dog in some performance aspect they will, in the same sentence, negate the comment by mentioning that that part of performance "has little effect on most picture taking." If you see any hesitation here then don't bother with the lens.
Ignore the SQF charts. SQF is a made-up measurement that has no meaning to anyone. Pop Photo has never told us what we would need to know to make them of any objective use for comparing lenses. Even the name, "Subjective Quality Factor," makes clear that they are merely subjective opinions and cannot be used for objective comparisons.
we would need to know about their SQF numbers would be:
Factory Sponsored Photographers
These spokesmodels seem chummy, but remember that they don't even have real jobs. They have to depend on their sponsorship money as a big part of their income. The spreading of good will for their sponsor IS their job. Again, you had better believe that they are going to err on the positive side when speaking about the equipment made by the hand that feeds them. Of course they try to seem lovable and make themselves more believable by deliberately throwing in the occasional good point for a competing camera maker's product or a jab at their sponsor, but that's all part of their job. I read their comments and pay for their newsletters, too, but I have seen little correlation between my results and theirs. I find far better correlation between my results and the results I see posted at some of the better sites run by other competent independent photographers like myself with real jobs who really just get a kick out of helping others.
One hint to ferreting out who is a factory puppet and who is a real, working independent professional photographer is that real pros usually use all sorts of different cameras for all sorts of different assignments. If someone only talks about Canon or Leica or Nikon you should be suspicious about why they never pick up a Mamiya or a Calumet for some work. The makers of one format of camera usually don't want you to go explore other formats for obvious reasons.
Ignore this magazine's reviews. They also just repeat back to you the manufacturer's published specifications. The reviews are often written by casual camera collectors and not photographic artists. Look at the quality of the photos published by the reviewers. You don't really want to make photos that boring yourself, do you? Read Shutterbug for the ads, but ignore the reviews.
The Contax Salesman and His "High Resolution" Zeiss Photos
Ignore this guy's bleatings about Zeiss lenses. As I understand it he doesn't work for Carl Zeiss; he works for a Japanese industrial conglomerate called Kyocera that specializes in ceramics. One of Kyocera's divisions is the Contax brand, and the Japanese Contax brand cameras use some Zeiss designed lenses made in Japan and occasionally Germany.
You may have seen him come to your local fancy camera store and bring along some really boring foam-core mounted prints of construction sites. He chooses to make two serious oversights in his favor when he has you marvel at how his not-really German-crafted Uber-Objektive can resolve a single pencil in a doorway five miles away:
1.) It's easy to see a single bright line or other single bright object far away. Ever see a flashing light in the sky at night from an airplane 10 miles away? You or any camera easily can see one small bright object object far away. That's called recognition, not resolution.
Resolution is an entirely different concept. Resolution is the ability to distinguish between two or more objects close together. No way in heck could any of us see or "resolve" the difference between two lights two inches apart 10 miles away. Likewise, a photo's ability to see a pencil five miles away means nothing. If you or these boring photos could allow you to count exactly ("resolve") how many pencils were in a pencil cup five miles away that would be an entirely different issue.
2.) Note how the Contax salesman raves on and on and on about the supreme German craftsmanship, but only shows you Zeiss lenses for Contax, clearly marked "Made in Japan." His scripted objection is "well, yeah, they are made by Japanese, but honest, the Germans set the tolerances for final inspection."
That's not craftsmanship, that's engineering tolerancing.
I'd love to sell for any of Contax, Kyocera or Zeiss because they all make fantastic and advanced products. I'd love to educate potential customers to the real reasons why these products are superior without having to reduce myself to deception. My real job is the Hollywood sales manager for the world's largest and most respected American maker of TV and movie studio equipment. I represent the best and my clients know it.
To be fair, there are no better lenses than Zeiss, and the Japanese do a great job manufacturing the superior Zeiss lenses. I'd certainly buy them; heck, one of the best lenses I own is a Mamiya 43mm f/4.5 which merely a Japanese copy of the 1953 Zeiss Biogon design. It's just too bad that Kyocera/Contax has to resort to these circus antics to try to show people who aren't lens designers how good their lenses really are.
Hope I've helped debunk some of the snake oil out there. Doing this for no commercial purpose gives me the freedom to say what I mean. I hope you find these reviews helpful.
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