Camera Reviewers Don’t See What I See

A few years ago, I became interested in purchasing a rangefinder camera. When I checked for reviews of the product I was considering online, I found that many of the opinions were critical.

The viewfinder/autofocus system didn’t work consistently, worked slowly, or operated poorly in low light, the reviewers said. I noticed that one of the postings was by a friend of mine, so I wrote him for more detail on his experiences. He strongly advised me to avoid the camera altogether.

Despite all the criticism, I bought the rangefinder anyway. As it turned out, it was one of the best cameras I’ve ever purchased.

Works for Me

Yes, the autofocus system could be problematic in poor contrast situations, such as early evenings. On rare occasion — maybe one out of every 250 shots I took — I had difficulty focusing.

The rest of the time, I was absolutely delighted. I was so glad I hadn’t bought into the negative reviews — even from my friend.

There’s nothing wrong with reading reviews before buying a camera or other photographic equipment. It’s certainty something to factor into your purchasing decisions.

But too many photographers give reviews too much weight.

It’s important to remember that professional reviewers offer broad opinions for a general audience. And that amateur reviewers — online commenters, forum posters and the like — typically base their reviews on their own limited, often idiosyncratic experiences and preferences.

This is the way I look at it: these reviewers don’t know me. They’ve never met me or seen my photographs. They don’t know how I work.

As a result, some — or even most — of their concerns are irrelevant to me.

My Three Requirements

When I’m considering a new camera, I have three requirements:

  1. It has to be a quality, major brand.
  2. It has to fit my hands the way I like it to fit.
  3. It has to have simple controls — everything where it belongs, nothing fancy.

That’s about it. And of course, the only way I know if I like the ergonomics and controls is to hold the camera in my hands and try it out. Reviews don’t really help with that.

The reviews in the photo magazines go on and on about corner sharpness, lens aberrations, resolution and the like. They will describe how a lens performs at f2.0 or f5.6, and blow up sections to show imperfections in the corners vs. the center of the image.

I am sure there are some people who are really interested in this stuff, but not me.

The Bigger Picture

I’ve always found that people look at photographs as a whole image — they do not look in corners or up close a foot way, scouring the image for imperfections that can be attributed to lens quality.

Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams took their greatest photographs more than half a century ago with lenses that are considered primitive by today’s standards. You will never see anybody in a museum looking at these photographs with a magnifying glass in their hand.

Most lenses sold by the major manufacturers today are far better than the ones used to take those iconic images.

Last year, I bought a DSLR with a zoom lens from a major manufacturer. A few weeks later, I was online reading a post by a popular blogger, and I saw that he had published a list of the “top 10 worst lenses” ever produced by this manufacturer.

And what do you know: my zoom lens was at the top. The worst ever, apparently.

That’s funny, it worked fine for me.

8 Responses to “Camera Reviewers Don’t See What I See”

  1. Great post David. It is so easy to focus on the wrong priorities when you follow the advice of too technical reviewers. My assumption is that big brand manufacturers have enough expertise to create and sell lenses that are not only good, but of such quality that you wouldn't be able to see any faults when photographing. When I say photographing, I am not talking about test charts.
    Build quality and ease of use are far more important for me. You can use reviews as first guidance, but a final decision of the camera you choose, is a personal one. What works for you, is the right choice. I couldn't agree more.
    I hope your still using your "worst lens" of all times and create great images with it.

  2. Preach on man!

    Funny, I've wanted to write a post about this very thing for some time now. I'm no pro, don't ever want to be called that. But I think people put to much stock into sharpness etc.

    People like what people like. I could care less "what" made the image. "How" I might want to know. End the end if it looks good to me, if it's visually pleasing, that's all that matters.

  3. A lot of reviews are designed to encourage you to buy, or not buy this instead of the competition -- as a result, it barely matters whether the camera is used or not: you just have it around your neck, going, "oooh, it's a glaniwiki e5700." And it comes as part of a package that, in the end, would finance a small country's national debt.
    Cartier-Bresson did 1 camera/1 lens, McCullin a 28. 35, and 135, and the list is pretty long of great photographers working with what today would be considered pretty minimalist stuff.
    The reality is that with all the gizmos we got today, the pix themselves ain't that much to dance in the street about...

  4. What a great and wise way of thinking Mr. Saxe, actually I noticed that the more they push the negative sides of a camera the greater the nice side of it.

    I´m a Pentax user and usually people review hard on them, I just love it. The best camera is the best in your hands as you said.


  5. Here's what I tell people that start into any kind of gear related rant:

    The gear doesn't take the photo, you do.

    You can use the crappiest camera in the world and shoot amazing photographs if you've got a good eye and know how to operate whatever gear you have. Or you can spend thousands on "the right gear" and still shoot nothing but garbage.

    And you're right. People don't care about technical imperfections. Just look at the popularity of such things as Hipstamatic and Instagram!

  6. "And you're right. People don't care about technical imperfections."

    This is simply not true to my experience. For example, most people who see the images taken in a low light with my Sony NEX-3 are fascinated of how they look. Their own cameras may sit comfortably in their hands etc., and they were quite satisfied with them before they saw the results of the low light capabilities of my camera. Now they often wish they bought a camera like mine. They weren't aware of this matter, because they didn't read the reviews. They just went to a camera store and looked at the cameras and tried them in their hands. They bought a camera that looked great, felt wonderful, but still they ended up being disappointed.. Lacking high ISO quality is a technical imperfection, which affects the image quality in a way that's important to large part of the camera users – even if they aren't aware of it at the moment of buying the camera.

    There are many other things that a good review tells you the best, like quality of autofocus, reliability of exposure in different conditions, battery life etc.

    All in all, I think this shouldn't be an either-or question. For most people who don't want to go wrong with buying a camera the best approach is to both read the reviews and try the camera in their hands in a camera store.

  7. As someone who is in a position to review a few cameras (growing number on my website) I tend to agree that the view of any review is purely personal which is probably why many reviewers concentrate on technical aspects, as these are irrefutable.

    Unfortunately there will ALWAYS be people who are for something and (often equal numbers) against something, which is the nature of such a vast world I guess! I would doubt there is anything that has ever existed that has universal love or hatred.

    Personally when I write a review it is based on my opinions, and I will give negative and positive comments on how I found something, I will also give my opinion on how I found things to use, and what I feel about image quality etc. Some people may find the things I like or dislike match their own ideas of what they are or are not looking for, and that is often why it is useful to read reviews.

    It is also possible that a reviewer may have found flaws in the product that you would not have noticed straight away, in a simple in shop test, but that would affect your enjoyment of the item. For example a camera might overheat after an hour of use, you would not know that by simply testing a few shots in a camera store environment (I’m pretty sure this would never be the case but serves as an example of what you cannot test easily by trying in store).

    Having said that in articles I have written about choosing any photographic equipment I would always recommend you try them out first otherwise you will never know if you get along with the actual controls and ergonomics of the.

  8. There are people that like to take photos and then there are people that like to rate/review equipment... They are worlds apart.

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