A review is not just a review, part one

If it seems slightly odd that I have to write an article like this in the first place, that’s because I’ve been noticing several trends in my email inbox lately:

  1. Why don’t I review XYZ camera, or if I can review XYZ camera?
  2. Why didn’t I test for a particular feature?
  3. Why didn’t I test a particular combination of body and lens or some other accessory/ add-on?
  4. Why didn’t I post full size files, or raw files?
  5. Why do I postprocess the files/ test JPEG output?
  6. Are you paid by the camera companies to write good things?
  7. I read your review of XYZ, but would like to get some more thoughts. What do you think of XYZ?
  8. And of course the usual…”Should I buy X or Y?”

I’m going to add a few to this list myself:

  1. What’s the difference between my reviews and others?
  2. Why do I only review certain cameras?
  3. In the unlikely event I’m given or loaned a piece of equipment to review, then what?

I’m going to address these once and for all, and then return to the business of making images with the occasional detour into the equipment.

Why don’t I review XYZ camera, or if I can review XYZ camera?
For the most part, I have to buy, with my own money, the cameras I review. This means that these cameras must be either of some personal interest to me, or something that I’m going to use in my commercial work. On top of that, one of my camera reviews typically runs north of 3,000 words; those of you in academia or not so long out of university will remember how long it takes to write a researched essay of that length. (For those of you who’ve never tried or forgotten, the answer is that it typically takes me between two and four whole days of work to produce one of these reviews. There’s a lot of testing and re-testing that you don’t see; I need to do this to make sure that I can confidently support my findings.) Add to it the requirement of making pictures that are up to your normal standards with an unfamiliar camera, and you’re quickly into territory that’s going to eat up a lot of time. And time spent writing reviews is time I can’t spend earning money through commercial photography – this is a completely unprofitable activity. Bottom line: I’m simply not going to buy something that I’m not going to use to satisfy somebody else’s curiosity, nor waste time in learning to use it then relating my experiences. Fortunately, I find enough things interesting and use enough cameras that I’ll still produce a reasonable number of reviews.

Why didn’t I test for a particular feature?
Most likely it wasn’t relevant, or I didn’t know it existed. Modern cameras have so many features – a lot of them useless, like ‘pet smile detection mode’ – that it’s impossible to comprehensively test everything. It would also make for a very boring read. As for the key feature I normally overlook – video – this is because I both don’t shoot video, nor do I have sufficient experience to offer a useful opinion. Unlike a lot of other ‘reviewers’, I’d rather not say anything or admit that it’s out of my expertise rather than offer a half-baked and worthless opinion.

Why didn’t I test a particular combination of body and lens or some other accessory/ add-on?
Either I didn’t have access to it, or it didn’t make sense to buy because I’d probably only use it once. Same logic as the first question. If I haven’t said anything specifically about it, then I don’t have enough information to come to a conclusion on it.

Why didn’t I post full size files, or raw files?
Firstly, I won’t post any images unless I consider them up to my normal quality standards. And this means that they have commercial value, which subsequently becomes zero if there are high resolution files available for free in the public domain. Secondly, you’d need to see uncompressed, 16-bit TIFF files on a calibrated monitor to see the same things I’m seeing – which at 80MB+ for high resolution cameras, becomes impractical for bandwidth considerations. Same goes for the raw files – I never release raw files because of both copyright issues, size/ bandwidth and future commercial value. I wouldn’t want to have people posting badly processed versions of my images claiming that they were their own, or worse still, mine. Professional photography is a reputation game, and it’s as much about what you don’t show as what you do – perhaps more so, because it means you know how to throw away a bad image.

Why do I postprocess the files/ test JPEG output?
For similar reasons to why I don’t post full size or raw files. I’m not interested in the raw file output per se, but rather what I can do with the files – whether the potential is there to allow me to achieve what I visualized at the time of capture. This involves application of postprocessing to achieve certain things like local contrast enhancement etc. that are impossible in-camera; if a raw file can stand up to this and deliver the quality of output I’m looking for, then image quality passes. The camera JPEG settings are only of relevance if you have no intention to do postprocessing and are happy with the choices that the camera maker has made, for every situation, and are okay with being restricted to 8-bit compressed files. I’m not, so I don’t bother unless the camera can only shoot JPEG – and even then, chances are a camera like this isn’t of much interest to me anyway because of the typical feature set associated with these things. Bottom line: neither I nor any serious commercial photographer will deliver a raw file or SOOC JPEG to a client because it also communicates a certain carelessness about the whole creative process and quality of output, and I won’t assess a camera on this basis either. Again, finally, I don’t want mediocre or incomplete images with my name associated with them…

To be continued. MT

____________

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Comments

  1. So which one should I buy then? Canon or Nikon 🙂

  2. Any review of anything you give us is a bonus. Most of us are too lazy to bother with testing our cameras and lenses fully. You’re doing the job for us that we should be doing. I hope you can keep up the great work.

  3. Thanks for your reviews. There are always people that can’t tolerate a negative review of the gear they own even if the reasons are well-articulated. As for testing style, I find a review by a professional photographer that focuses on the aspects of the gear they use in his/her workflow to be just as helpful as lab test reviews. I read both and there’s no sense in one trying to do both.

  4. John Lockwood says:

    It’s sad that you have to defend your content Ming. More people should be thankful and less entitled. This is indicative of society as a whole. If you were a streetog/sociologist there could be some good data to gather here 🙂

    Do these questions seem to come mainly from the US (not to be egocentric) or is this condition wide-spread?

    • Oh, photography is as much about psychology (collective, societal, individual to the viewer, the photographer) – as the technical/ artistic aspects. There’s plenty to learn about the observer and the observed. I get emails like this mostly from Asia, less so from the US, almost never from Europe. In this case I’m not sure it’s so much entitlement as the expectation that everything is free and words/ information has no value.

  5. It would never occur to me to write a blogger an email. The way i see it, is that I am at his or her mercy for information. That’s why I read blogs. To get someone’s honest opinion, and not half-baked stuff he or she releases just to attract more viewers.
    Thank you for this entry, although like others I can’t believe you even had to write this piece.

  6. Steve Jones says:

    I have always been amazed at how much time you find to write the reviews when there are all the other important things to do in life, like earning a living. Everyone who visits this site is incredibly lucky that you care enough to share all these insights and experiences. Much appreciated and thank you for all of it. And..unlike those other reviews, we get 3,000 words plus and none of them wasted.

  7. Dr. Paul B. Lewis says:

    One of your best reports. Only answer to yourself and continue the excellent work that you do. I don’t know how you find the time to do all the things you do. See you this weekend in New York. Can I buy you dinner at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on Sunday night? If so, I will make reservations.

    • I would love to take you up on the generous offer…but if I don’t see the wife, I think there’s a good chance she’ll scream at me 😛

      Can I let you know in a couple of days once my other days resolve themselves?

      • Dr. Paul B. Lewis says:

        Ming,
        Your wife could also join us for dinner with the same offer. The restaurant is only about 3 to 4 blocks away from the hotel. The restaurant has the best steaks that I have ever eaten. The setting is very nice also.
        Paul

        • Oh well, now you’ve solved my problem for me! We’d be delighted to accept 🙂 What time should we see you there?

          • Paul Lewis says:

            I am staying at The Yotel Hotel. Arriving on Saturday. My wife will not be joining us as she is flying in to NY on Thursday after the workshop. I will make reservations for 7:30 PM if the time is available. I’ll let you know. Looking forward.

            • That works as I’ll be there too. Just confirming – you are doing the second (8-10th) workshop, right? I’ll be in one of the meeting rooms at the hotel doing the PS session on Sunday, so perhaps we could meet in the lobby slightly earlier?

  8. Hey Ming,
    Care to name any of those other “reviewers”!? 😉

  9. Amen, brother Ming! I feel the frustration and commend your authenticity as always. It’s the way of the world, we spend more time on equipment discussions than on improving our skills. Aspiring guitar players, for example, are the same way. There are tons of debates about gear and choices and reviews. But if an equivalent amount of time went into practice, the debates would fall to the side. Great sax players can make music soar out of a crappy, beat up old axe. If we were locked in prison with one fixed camera and lens, we would find a way to make the most of it.

    So much gratitude for the level of the discourse, as always.

  10. Just review what you want. You don’t owe the camera aficionado world at large anything. People should be happy with whatever you add to the mix – which in my opinion is a unique, intelligent, reflective perspective. If people want a review of xyz camera/lens there are plenty of places for that. Don’t change anything. Ignore the noise.

  11. The question I get most often from the new people is why I don’t shoot test charts when looking at a lens. They say “But Reviewer B shot these test charts.” To me, all that really proves is that other people have bothered to either print out or buy a test chart. And in some cases they’ve been printed up on a 10 yr old inkjet 😉 I’ll be writing up a post on that in the future. Thanks for your thoughts – here – my feelings as well.

  12. I think you can only be true to yourself and what you have set out to do with your site. After all you can’t please everyone so you might as well please yourself. I think you need a filter that sends those emails straight to the new editorial team.

  13. Just keep being you, Ming. Most of us value and appreciate this very much, but I’m sure it must get tiresome getting emails like that.

  14. “Unlike a lot of other ‘reviewers’, I’d rather not say anything or admit that it’s out of my expertise rather than offer a half-baked and worthless opinion.” Whoa. This is priceless, in this day and age. Gimme back that hammer, Ming, because you just nailed it.

    • The funny thing is…I reviewed the GH3 as a stills camera, admitting I’m not a videographer…and then got hammered for ignoring the video functions. Go figure. 😦

      • GeoDesigner says:

        Yeah, I saw that happen. It’s almost as if it’s an obligation… but rest assured, I feel like most of your readers “get” you, Ming.

      • GeoDesigner says:

        About that “rather-not-say-anything-rather-than-offer-worthless-opinion”, an anecdote: a famous photo blogger which we will not name is currently trying to hard-sell the Typ 240 as a video camera – without any videography (of photography, for that matter) knowledge or expertise. It’s pretty pathetic… wahjah ensues.

  15. Thank You Ming! Enjoyed the article!

  16. Aww shucks, you left all the BEST stuff to part2!!!

  17. Craig C. says:

    Ming,

    It’s a shame that you have to even address questions like this, given that the individuals asking the questions are also the least likely to read your reasonable and common sense answers. On the other hand, reading one particular phrase in your second answer provided me with a much needed laugh after a couple of difficult days. ‘pet smile detection mode’ absolutely made my day! I used to have a toy poodle that when scared would grin like crazy – you had to see it to believe it. I assure you he wasn’t snarling either. The vet confirmed that for me, and had a good laugh also. Thanks for the laugh – it was definitely therapeutic 🙂

    – Craig

  18. Robin Chok says:

    People should just visit real shops and try out the cameras and buy from the shop that helps them achieve the decision. Researching on and on results in Nothing!! I hate to hear the usual Nikon vs Canon, Jpeg vs Raw from someone who barely knows how to take a picture let alone handle the best of Canon or Nikon. Just do what you please Ming Thein, it’s your Experts viewpoint that we like to read not just a Review. Cheers!

Trackbacks

  1. […] or if none exists, check with other people I trust. One of the reasons it takes a long time to do a thorough review (and so few people online actually have the experience or pride in their own work to do so) is […]

  2. […] a 500-word regurgitation of the spec sheet in paragraph form is clearly far less useful than a proper, considered evaluation by an experienced professional with proof of merit or lack of; as fast as I am with these things, […]

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