A review is not just a review, part two

Continued from part one.

Are you paid by the camera companies to write good things?
No. I wish, because it would reduce the amount of hostile email and messages I get. If anything, my relationships with most camera companies are quite strained because it seems that they expect you to write good things about their cameras if you’re given the ‘privilege’ of a loaner. This is one of the reasons I prefer to buy my own equipment as I can remain as objective as possible; regardless, I’ll do so anyway, even though it means that there are probably marketing/ sales people at every camera company here who don’t like me. What they don’t seem realize is that in the long run, a lack of objectivity means that nobody will believe what you say anyway. Since writing the last article on this subject, it seems general degradation in the business side of things has meant increased sales aggression, and frankly, a degree of hostility towards objective reviews at a time when perhaps the companies need it most; this is incredibly shortsighted on their part (and perhaps indicative of a fear that your product is really crap), but then again, if you can’t see past your next year end bonus anyway, who cares?

I read your review of XYZ, but would like to get some more thoughts. What do you think of XYZ?
This is perhaps the most stupid and annoying question that I get asked on a regular basis. I’m not going to have anything more to say than I’ve already written in the review, which was a carefully written, considered and very time consuming exercise. Perhaps attending some English language classes might help: re-read the question you just asked me…

And of course the usual…”Should I buy X or Y?”
First, read my article on sufficiency. Then play with the choices in person, and buy whichever one you like the best. It isn’t the camera that’s going to make any difference to your images. This isn’t to say that you might produce better images with a given camera because you like it better and thus shoot with it more, get more practice and subsequently improve, it’s that there’s not so much difference in ultimate best-case image quality that most people will be able to tell the difference, let alone consistently extract it.

What’s the difference between my reviews and others?
Firstly, experience. Between my current career as a working professional commercial photographer, and my previous career as a editor of a photography magazine, I’ve used a lot of gear. That means I’ve got a large basis for comparison. My primary objective is to produce great images, keep clients coming back and attract new ones,  which means that output quality and consistency are paramount; everything else is secondary. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: look at the quality of the sample images as a litmus test to the validity of the statements of the reviewer. I’m not inclined to trust somebody who shows crap samples, clearly has no pride in their own work then makes pronouncements one way or another. It speaks of a lack of quality control and discipline. Secondly, objectivity: I’m not paid by the camera companies (and some actually don’t like me), so I’ll say the truth: if it’s great, I’ll say it’s great. If it’s crap, I’ll say it’s crap. If it’s really crap, I probably won’t even review it in the first place.*

*Case in point: I recently had a Panasonic GH3 on loan. There were enough operational/ usability issues with it that I actively disliked using it to the point that I didn’t want to review it. Image quality is great – it has the same sensor as the OM-D – but if you care about the viewfinder, UI, or the way your camera feels in the hand, then I really don’t have anything good to say about it – especially not at the price they’re asking.

Next, I’m a physicist by training: this means I’m schooled in the scientific method and do testing in a repeatable, objective way. If there are results that are unexpected, I’ll repeat the tests to make sure it’s not an error I caused. If there’s really a problem, I’ll try to get hold of other samples to test for the same behaviour. I don’t make conclusions based on a single observation, unlike other reviewers**. Sample variation happens, and quality control in these days of consumer disposables seems to be optional, and it’s quite possible that what was observed was not typical behaviour of the group as a whole.

**Thom Hogan implied I was jumping to conclusions with the D800’s AF issues and that everything was fine – even though I documented testing half a dozen bodies and about twenty lenses, and finding problems in almost all combinations therof, before subsequently coming to the same conclusion himself. This is a good example of both lack of objectivity and eating one’s own shoe.

Finally, I do this – the site, the articles, the reviews – because I want to, not because I’m paid to. If anything, quite the opposite: I have no interest in doing any of this work other than personal satisfaction; time spent writing and testing cameras is time I can’t bill clients for. Please keep that in mind before writing me a demanding email; I doubt very much you’d entertain similar requests of your own time.

Why do I only review certain cameras?
See my answer to the very first question.

In the unlikely event I’m given or loaned a piece of equipment to review, then what?
This has happened a few times in the past. The same conditions apply: I will only write the review if I can be objective about it and have full editorial control over the content; I will disclose that I’ve been given or loaned the equipment, and finally, I’ve also declined many of these requests simply because whatever was offered wasn’t interesting – either to me, and probably not to you, either.

Ultimately, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of review sites out there. Most are are a regurgitation of the spec sheet in the press kit. Some are template copy-paste with a few formulaic lines inserted here and there (this is how some people manage to have a ‘review’ of everything even before it’s commercially available). Yet others are test charts and step wedges and studio scenes and high-ISO series and A-B comparisons. Few claim to be ‘real world’ reviews, but lack objectivity and the quality of output. Fewer are reviews written by people whose cameras are critical for making a living, and small differences matter. Finally, the number that are practical, comprehensive and objective tests by working pros with a good variety of images of sufficient quality to support the conclusions can be counted on the fingers of one hand… MT

____________

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Comments

  1. I don’t agree with the “What do you think of XYZ? is stupid” part. Actually, I find the way you formulated it quite nosy.
    It may well be that you haven’t thought about a certain aspect of an equipment at the time of the writing – however careful you gave it a thought, or that you deemed it wouldn’t matter to your audience. You know, things like that just happen, even to the best reviewers.
    I agree that receiving hundreds of mails/comments asking for clarifications must be tiring, but still.

    That aside, I totally support your stringent reviews and agree that companies expecting you to do blind PR for them just because they lend you some gear are indeed short-sighted (aka “plain retarded”).

    Please keep it up. You fully deserve the respect you have gathered, and the number of readers your articles attract prove that resisting to marketing pressures and compromises is a concept that works.

    • I mean specifically emails that go “What do you think of the D800E?” and not ask a specific question. I literally get dozens of these a day, from people who are clearly too lazy to google. If I don’t explicitly state it somewhere, they’ll never stop…and even if I do, it seems they don’t either.

      Resisting marketing pressure works for readership, but not for commercial success :)

  2. ” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: look at the quality of the sample images as a litmus test to the validity of the statements of the reviewer. I’m not inclined to trust somebody who shows crap samples, clearly has no pride in their own work then makes pronouncements one way or another. It speaks of a lack of quality control and discipline. Secondly, objectivity: I’m not paid by the camera companies (and some actually don’t like me), so I’ll say the truth: if it’s great, I’ll say it’s great. If it’s crap, I’ll say it’s crap. If it’s really crap, I probably won’t even review it in the first place.”

    Nice! :) Just that for me, If it’s really crap I will still say it’s really crap. People still want to know about the product.

    I’m not inclined to do ISO tests and IQ comparisons as such either, one thing is because I can’t keep having a consistent setup to compare. Second thing is that it’s time consuming.

    I always focus on user experience.

    In my Pentax K-30 review http://www.goldfries.com/photography/pentax-k-30-digital-slr-review/ – I did an actual photoshoot of some food (courtesy of a friend who runs a restaurant) and subjected those photos to stock photo grade. I think that speaks a lot more about the camera’s capability than say value-less noise tests.

    To me, what’s most important is that a camera that works and does the purpose.

  3. Actually all the restrictions and limitations you mention in both your posts are what makes me like your reviews, it feels more like a hands-on, real world review and not a typical collection of numbers, charts and iso image comparison.

  4. Hewlbane says:

    … good on you Ming. At times objectivity doesn’t even belong in other quarters, and the resulting review, well, put it this way: a packet of sugared almonds would have more integrity and it would last longer … You can’t beat honsety, objectivity and integrity because there’s nothing to hide nor forget later on …

  5. I’m just arriving here and don’t know if you already wrote a list of your gear.
    That would be a huge propaganda for the brands and a great help to readers.
    Besides, if you own it you approve it, no matter what you say about it, isn’t it?
    I like your articles because you have a scientific methodology with a very
    fine photographer eye.

    • It’s the first link in the top sidebar…enough people asked that it was faster for me to post than reply every email. I don’t do propaganda for manufacturers, that kills your integrity and they don’t pay you anyway. You can find the recommended gear list here.

  6. El Inglés says:

    Ming, many thanks for your comprehensive, careful and considered insights. I for one would be happy to see you move to a subscription-based model both to weed out the trolls and to offer some financial compensation for your troubles. Stephen

  7. Thanks for writing this post. I agree 100 % percent with you views on the current state of affairs of review sites in general. Especially those comparing one camera on one extreme to another in a whole different category just for fun. I trust your judgement and that’s why I keep coming back almost everyday. Ming, perhaps paid responses. If you someone wants to ask you ask a question, then let them pay you $10 or something in that range. I guarantee the number of stupid questions, well maybe not, but the number of questions will dramatically be reduced by the paywall, anyway, just an idea.

    • That’s not a bad idea…

      • I mean, if they’re going to ask you, let us say, frivolous questions, then let them pay. I for one would love to pay for a detailed response on something I know you’ll just kick out in a few minutes but I know it would interfere with the flow of asking it during a post or just a regular email.

        Think it through Ming, perhaps this model of Q&A is something that could be worked into your busy schedule.

        Something could be setup with the built in WP form builder. For example, setup another gmail account just for that and tie to that form and that takes care of that. Have a box where the person asking the question can write the paypal receipt number (which is something you can quickly see who paid) and voila. Better yet, make that a required field and c’est tout. This way you can just make everything work within the WP ecosystems and not be burdened with another system. Nice and simple and I’m sure it could bring in a few hundred dollar a months.

        Best,
        Jorge Ledesma

  8. Hi Ming, I think it’s worth remembering that you are not in the corporate world nor the halls academia here … a blog on the ‘net means dealing with the general public. You can try to educate people up to your expectations but that would be a thankless and futile job, IMHO. I think Mike Johnston has a good approach: he moderates comments into 3 categories. First, delete the crap before it gets published. Second, publish the stuff that adds to the discussion (generally; some piffle filters thru). Third, for the really good comments make them a “Featured Comment”. Moderation gives commenters something to aspire to. Another blogger (Kick Tuck) nearly had a mental meltdown over the comments to his blog — don’t let this happen to you!

    • Actually, it’s no different. Corporate is full of enormous egos and very little intelligence in places. Academia can be petty. Blogs…well, at least you can delete/ ignore people, but I feel everybody deserves the fair warning of being educated first. Mike’s approach is good but requires work to sort (and wordpress doesn’t support featured comments) plus I do generally try to avoid deleting comments unless it’s absolutely necessary. Generally stupidity is its own embarrassment…

  9. Jorge Balarin says:

    Thank you Ming.

  10. James S says:

    Does Thom Hogan deserve criticism? I don’t remember him dismissing your opinion, but I do remember him putting me on to your site, and I can find his ‘hat-tip’ to you over the auto-focus issues. Both your sites are good; both your writing is marked by care and deliberation.

    • It was on one of the forums – a reader sent me the reference. In any case, too easy to take things out of context…nevertheless, I still try to be careful with what I say given the possibility for various interpretations. At the end of the day, the credit is irrelevant – what matter is that somebody listened and did something about it so we can have cameras that work properly!

  11. Hi Ming,
    I sense a bit of agro here and maybe a bit of frustration.
    Rome wasn’t built in a day they say and I think you should remember this old cliche.
    It’s the quality of your photography that draws me back to your site – as it did from the outset.
    As a scientist myself I measure one’s ability by the results one achieves and you’re amongst the best, if not the best online, IRO photography forum, that I’ve been privileged to come across.
    It’s why I trust your reviews more than others.
    I always surmise that ‘if Ming can do it with a certain bit of equipment then maybe I can’. If I can’t then I know it’s my own imperfections not the equipment.
    If Ming can’t with a particular piece of equipment then not worth my attempting to prove him wrong.
    It’s not just a matter of integrity but also respect.

    • Yes, there’s frustration when you open dozens of emails each day asking what you think of something when your thoughts are clear and detailed, and published already. More so when others don’t listen to you and continue to ask the same silly questions…

      I never claim to be right about anything – it’s just an opinion. We have choice so we can use what works for us; not everybody is the same. And that’s a very good thing :)

  12. Please keep up the good work you do. Both your pictures and writing are excellent and keep bringing me back. I enjoy your writing so much that I from time to time come to read your old articles just because they are so well written. I truly appreciate the effort you put into them, and enjoy the long articles in particular.
    I have seen your pictures in several guest articles around the internet and mostly recognized them as yours immediately – to me that shows the consistent style and quality of your work.

    Thanks for the time you spent on this site, I really wish there were a few more of these.

    (Now I’m of to look for the other 2-4 great “reviewers” you mentioned)

  13. One of my favorite pieces of photographic advice:

    What’s important.
    “Integrity: in the way one conducts oneself, in one’s image making, and being true to yourself…” Ming Thein, from the Prosophos interview.

    Great site. Thank you.

  14. MT’s review
    labour of love
    with utmost good faith
    from here causes the arising of another new light/perspective
    photography (skill/hardware/software from all parties) awaken to new horizon
    masterpiece such as wine aged
    enjoyed by many wise to ponder
    meanwhile happily bonded with camera at the present
    improving photographic eye/technical further
    and purchase the one most accommodate to temperament
    when ideal camera/lens reviewed here (so to reduce unhappiness/error/regret/lesser decision)
    future inclusion of vision by camera manufacturer from that of MT’s review ,a possibility
    isn’t it for the advancement of all in the visual industry?
    …create masterpiece (review) and detach
    …and a good laugh later
    …MT done his part (all readers’ decision correct, only different in the result- buyer beware & be informed)

  15. gustavo. says:

    Ming; I appreciate and enjoy your work, I really do it, like a lot of people over the world. Just my opinion: you don`t need answer any single person who doubt about your work.
    I think it s not the best way to spend your time.
    thanks for your generosity and please go on with this site.

  16. kemal erdogan says:

    could you please share with us which photogrqaphy sites you follow? i.e. the top 5 that you mentioned in your article

    thanks

  17. Lumix GH3 is the most comfortable camera I have ever held in my hand for size, weight and design. EVF is great also (recent batch bought 28th March) I’m sure Ming will agree with me when I say don’t let one persons opinion put you off a camera.

  18. hey ming,

    hopefully you can release a whole lot of negative energy & feel better by writing this article. stay healthy~

  19. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “…can be counted on the fingers of one hand… MT”

    Yes!
    And few photographers have such an understanding as you of optics.
    And few testers seem to really understand the photographic qualities of lenses.

    • indeed.

      and so many “self-claimed-reviewers” just so fond of kissing big companies’ axx~

    • Well, there are some people who write for other very popular websites that seem to think I’m full of s*** and know nothing about optics or photography – the kind of emails I’ve received are both extremely childish and very unprofessional. One debates the merits of publishing them sometimes…as much as I want to let rip, I have to not go down to their level.

  20. nice article on this… :) . I guess users/buyers have often been brainwashed with ads and paid pro photographers till they cannot see what they want themselves.

    • There are very few paid ‘evangelists’ in this industry, believe it or not. Plenty of people who align themselves one way or another for whatever reason, though.

  21. Ming, when are you going to post some of SF images from your recent workshop there?
    Although I can get some info out of online reviews, but most have highly subjective views which are often different to mine.
    If I listened to online reviewers comments on the RX1 I would never have gotten my RX1.
    Instead I sm rwally enjoying shooting with it. We all have different preferences and weighting system for all the different aspects of cameras and lenses.

    • I’ll post some SF images soon, but honestly, I’ve still not had a chance to look at most of them – teaching leaves you with little time for processing!

  22. Well Ming, some of us believe you. Keep up the good work.

  23. Ming keep on doing what you do, which is by the way “excellent professional work”
    Your blog is one of the best (if no THE BEST ONE) that represent the true and real meaning of “Photography”

    I would like to thank you one more time!

  24. Richard T says:

    Ming, you’re in no way obliged to reply to email (even blog comments for that matter!). I’m sure many people appreciate it, but I think many readers would like you to be active on your site in the long run, not get bogged down by impossible demands.

    My continued thanks for your excellent work!

  25. Must say I like objectivity,can’t find anything wrong with your position.

  26. Ming, I read your review of the D800E but I would like to get some more thoughts. What do you think of the D800E?
    Just kidding :). By the way, the very first question link is broken.

    I’m afraid the stupid questions will still come, might go down in numbers if they read this. Anyway, I just want to say thank you for spending the time for doing such great job in camera gear reviews. Btw, are you still going to do paid gear reviews (I think that was in the poll)?

    • It’s deliberate haha…seriously link fixed – thanks.

      I still get the stupid questions despite clearly posting that I won’t even answer ‘what should I buy’ type things.

      No, not doing paid gear reviews. Not enough interest to make it work, I think.

    • hey eugene,

      i think those stupid question will still come, with no “go down” in numbers, simply because for those who will read Ming’s articles ( including this one ) with their brains, they just won’t waste everyone’s time by sending out those mails.

      for those who send out this kind of question, i bet they will just copy-n-paste and send the same thing to every *reviewers* they can reach and see what sort of answer can be “fished back”.

  27. Ming

    You are correct. If you don’t write a good review the camera companies won’t like you, and they ultimately won’t loan you any more cameras to review. At one time I wrote for an online magazine and that is what happened to us. If the reviews were good another camera would come along. If the reviews were not so good, the cameras slowed down or stopped coming.

    It is better for all of us that the camera companies don’t like you and that you keep your integrity.

    PaulB

  28. In a way, what you do isn’t even a “review” — just write your thoughts about a particular piece of gear, and leave it at that. Dunno why people get agitated one way or the other.

  29. Excellent thoughts Ming, keep doing what you love and don’t change just to please the others you have plenty of supporters in this community.

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