What's wrong with today's camera reviews?
I couldn’t put my finger on what exactly I disliked about the current crop of camera reviews until I heard Scott Kelby say it.
In a recent episode of The Grid, "Why You Chose The Camera You Use?" Scott Kelby ranted about ‘what’s wrong with camera reviews.’
I’m really disappointed where camera reviews are. It’s the worst it’s been in the history of photography.
It’s not just that the reviewers are snarky. It’s that many times they are inaccurate or just unfairly biased. The result? If you rely on some reviews for your next camera purchase, you’ll end up wasting your time and money.
Here are some ideas to help us better sift through the noise and find helpful information.
Things you should know about your camera reviewer.
What’s the bias of the reviewer?
My college buddy Ron is a great photographer. If he wanted to photograph me with a pinhole camera, I wouldn’t second guess him — the same way I’d trust him shooting anything with his Nikon. I know he’s going to produce great images.
But I’d never ask him for advice on a Canon purchase. Why? He doesn’t shoot with them. It wouldn’t be fair to him, nor would the information be reliable for me.
So when I see a reviewer constantly compare every brand of camera he reviews to another brand, I have to wonder if there’s a bias. Luckily, most bloggers have a “My Gear” page on their sites. If all you see are Nikon's and Sony’s, I’d conclude there is a bias somewhere. It doesn’t mean they can’t render an objective opinion, but it does say they voted on their preference with their dollars. I’d consider that.
Did they use the product in a real-world condition?
I remember renting a new camera model I was excited to shoot. I knew I was going to buy it eventually, so I rented it for a Meetup excursion. This shoot was where I was going to fall in love with my new camera and have to buy it.
And then real life intervened. I learned that to change shooting modes, I had to dig two levels deep into the menu. Ugh. To go from shutter priority to aperture priority, you had to bring up the menu and dial down a level. Try and find the white balance? Dig four levels deeper. Who needs that?
Likewise, a reviewer can’t give you a good idea of the shooting experience if she only read the spec sheet or played with it in the camera store. There is no substitute for logging in time out in the real world. I wouldn’t trust a review where that wasn’t obvious.
What’s the background of the reviewer?
In SL 004 Can you really make money with fine art photography, Jenna Martin shared a story of one of her aha moments. She went to a conference to get critiques of her images, and each review shredded her work to pieces.
It wasn’t until later in the day that it dawned on her that she was getting reviews from photojournalists while her work was fine art.
What did she learn? You need to know the background of the reviewer.
The same is true for camera reviews. If your reviewer is primarily a YouTuber, then he will likely see video features of every camera as a game changer. If your work is stills mostly, that advice will probably not emphasize the features that will impact most of your shooting workflow. They still gave good advice. It just wasn’t for you.
What you should expect in a helpful review
Who is it for?
Isn’t this what we want to know anyway? Is this camera for me?
When a camera manufacturer releases a new model, they usually have a pretty good profile of their intended user. Even better, they will usually tell you in their marketing.
If the manufacturer aimed the camera at a beginner audience and you are a pro, you aren't the intended user. Sure you can use it, but don’t be upset when you have to work with beginner features.
A good review keeps that in mind and reviews it with the potential use case and shares what workarounds would be necessary if you don’t fit the intended audience.
What problem will it solve?
This is the way I like to look at potential solutions — and that’s what your new camera is on some level. It is — or should be — a solution to a problem you are now encountering with your present gear. You aren’t getting good quality in low light. You are finding that you need weather sealing for the conditions you are shooting in. The features you need aren’t on your current model.
What problems can this camera solve? That would be helpful information in a review.
What can you do with this that you couldn’t do before?
My philosophy has always been, you upgrade your camera when the new model can help you improve your pictures or your quality of life. If you can’t see a measurable improvement in any of those areas, you can probably continue with your current gear.
What can you do that you couldn’t before? Can you shoot portraits with eye detect? Can you shoot silently at weddings? Put the features into context. How do they improve your quality of life?
How can it help you improve your images?
Sometimes when I read elaborate posts about a photographer switching brands, I wonder if they hadn’t said anything would anyone notice? Would their images suddenly be so much better that viewers would demand to know what she was doing differently?
How would the new camera improve the image quality you could produce? That’s another good thing to know in a review.
Pros & Cons in context
A good review will provide the pros and cons of the new gear but not in a vacuum. You’ll have to discuss them in light of the other issues we discussed — who it’s for, what problem it solves, what does it upgrade, etc.
A small, light camera is in the Pro column for an older adult looking for something portable to take on vacation. Those same features could be in the Con column for a pro who needs durability.
Features & benefits
The least exciting things a reviewer can tell me are the specs of the camera. I can find that on a million websites, not to mention all the manufacturers promotional material. A review that only considers the spec sheet doesn’t provide much original information. Might as well get that from the source.
Overall experiences and reactions
Sometimes feedback doesn’t fit into any scientific column. It could be just that I had fun shooting with that gear. I'd want to know that as well.
Would my suggestions fix the current camera reviews?
I’m not sure if these were the kinds of issues Scott Kelby thought when he shared his frustrations with camera reviews. I do think some of these ideas could be more helpful if you are planning a potential purchase.
In any event, we’ll see. I’ll return to this list in upcoming reviews. We’ll see how it stacks up.
What information would you want to see in a helpful camera review?