Review Blindness

Before the rise of the Internet it was far more difficult to get hold of test and review information be it cameras, hi-fi or any other subject. This kind of information was the domain of specialist magazines which were limited to the amount of page space available. Often it could take weeks for a new piece of kit to get the review treatment and sometimes, depending on an items popularity, it would be skipped altogether. Dealers were also a good source of information, but their opinions were sometimes driven by whatever item had the largest profit margin.

I recall on many occasions having to put much effort into researching specific cameras and lenses, particularly after being bitten by poor quality third party offerings. Some items never got reviewed so it took a visit to a dealer and a giant leap of faith to make a purchase.

For many the internet has always existed so it is easy to take for granted the wealth of information available at our fingertips today. There are very few items that cannot be located on the web these days, and even fewer that someone has not shared an opinion of, either in the field or as a lab test; in fact I now find the information pendulum has swung the other way, from scant to overwhelming.

And here is the problem; some items are reviewed so many times the information can be conflicting and it is easy to come away from them more confused. There have been instances of my own research taking weeks, even months to complete due to 1) the sheer amount of information available and 2) conflicting opinions.

When I purchased my X1, I anguished for many months before parting with my cash. I had read about its shortcomings, so was more than prepared for slow autofocus, peeling skin, poor battery life, electrical problems (to name just a few). But I balanced this with comments about the sharp lens and fine image quality, which really is what photography’s about.  When reading about users personal experiences with the X1, they ranged from great to poor. Some of these reviewers did not go into too much detail about how their opinion was reached, or what type of photography they intended to use the camera for. Some did not even own one but had an opinion anyway.

This adds up to a great deal of confusion – how can an opinion be formed without actually picking up and item and trying it out? How can someone say a camera is poor due to it having a fixed focal length lens instead of a zoom, when this is clearly written in the specifications? Getting past some of this drivel can be wearying.

Similarly more scientific tests can be equally as perplexing, as bench tests reveal flaws that can be highlighted and measured easily, but are not really apparent in the real world. So, given that no camera or lens is perfect, how much do we rely on the information?

As far as I am concerned, a purchase usually stems from desire, and occasionally an absolute requirement. In the case of the X1 it was Leica’s announcement to the word that it had just been born. I was immediately sold on the specifications as I had long wanted a large sensor small camera, with a fixed 35mm equivalent lens. It was almost as if Leica had been listening to my thoughts. My only gripe was that the lens was not a brighter F2 equivalent. So I waited for reviews and tests to come forth, along with a series of imitation models from other manufacturers. Reviewers praised and slated it and even though I read much of what was being written, I don’t think they helped me much in my final decision. 

Months after purchasing my X1, it was sent back to Leica for the skin to be stuck down and address several electrical issues that affected the focus and menu’s. I knew about this because I had read about it on forums but chose to ignore the warnings.

A similar situation arose some years ago when I became interested in using a 35mm F2 Zuiko lens for my OM film cameras; I researched it on the web and found that it received many less than favourable opinions from users due to its softness wide open and general lack of ‘bite’ across the F-Stop range. I found this very interesting as it conflicted with the simple fact that Olympus had kept the lens in its line up throughout the OM Systems life, and it was never reformulated with the exception of coating changes. If the lens performed poorly, I am sure it would have been 1) re-engineered or 2) dropped from the line-up.

So I purchased my own copy to try out and have found it to be a superb performer. It remains one of my favourite lenses for my film cameras and sees regular use when I shoot film.

A final example of the limited use of reviews could be the time, back in the 1980’s, I decided to purchase a Pentax MX; I had read a couple of favourable reviews in magazines of the day and was smitten. A drive to the camera store and subsequent fiddling with it saw me handing it back to the dealer and leaving the shop. It simply did not feel right in my hands. Later that day I purchased an OM1n which I had never garnered information about and it continues to be used to this day.

So what good are reviews to me? I guess they are helpful when it comes to highlighting limitations or problems. And I can sometimes get an overall feel by tempering real world opinions with bench tests. But when it comes down to it, I like to try things out for myself so a visit to a dealer or show usually follows. After all, it is rare for a manufacturer, particularly of photographic equipment, to produce junk. Distilling useful facts from the sometimes overwhelming amount of information available can be confusing and time consuming, but I see it as a method of preparing me for any limitations that may be apparent.

Oh, and for those wondering; yes, the X1 remains my ‘go to’ camera.