Today, I’d like to review, well, reviews. Since gear and gear reviews are something all of us, including myself, spend a bit too much time obsessing over, it’s worth taking a step back to think about what they do and do not have to offer.
First, I should start off by saying that it’s not a crime to read gear reviews or to enjoy them. I rather enjoy them myself. I’ve even written one or two. So, it’s probably also good to point out up top that this essay is not meant to be a declarative explanation of how a gear review should be written. I’m hardly the best reviewer on the planet or even this site for that matter. Rather, this is more a rumination on the usefulness of gear reviews and how I, as a consumer, find them to be most of the use.
This is all brought up by the recent announcement of Nikon’s latest round of mirrorless cameras, the Z 6 II and Z 7 II. Regardless of the effectiveness of either tool, frequent viewers of gear reviews will have noticed certain trends whenever this brand or other brand releases a new product. I say “regardless of the effectiveness,” as I find that to often be the missing ingredient in most gear coverage these days. There’s a lot of talk of specs and what’s trending. Whatever new product announcements are trending on Twitter are sure to get more clicks, thus more coverage, thus even more clicks. That's just how the internet works. But there are usually only a handful of real-world unfiltered practical reviews of how the gear performs on the job. There seems to be a big push towards mirrorless away from DSLRs, considering any non-mirrorless release to be a catastrophe, despite the fact that the majority of pros are still shooting with DSLRs. And while we are discussing “pros,” there is a lot of the usual hyperbole about what features you absolutely have to have in your camera to call yourself a professional photographer. Of course, this is odd, since,according to the dictionary and the IRS, I always thought being a professional means that you derive the bulk of your living from a profession, not that you have two card slots or shoot with a certain brand of camera.
Not that those things can’t be important. And those types of things are of interest when viewing gear reviews and deciding on whether a piece of gear is right for you. Specs do matter. Maybe just not as much as we think they do.
It reminds me of a time back in college when I was walking through the mall's food court with my roommate. I won’t say how long ago this was as it might encourage the mathematically inclined among you to start counting my gray hairs. But, let’s just say I was quite a bit younger then. Young enough and hormonally prone enough that there was really only one thing I was realistically going to spend more than five consecutive minutes thinking about: girls. At the time, my roommate was just beginning to date the woman who would eventually become his wife. She’d previously been his older sister’s best friend, which had led to many a sleepless night in the dorm listening to him pine on and on for her and proclaim that one day he would marry her. That dream was finally coming true at the time of our walk through the mall as they had just gone on their first few dates.
I, on the other hand, was deeply in love with the first woman I had seen on my college campus, literally the first woman I had seen. I moved into the dorm early the summer before my freshman year. I was a football player then, and the early arrival was due to my desire to join the team for summer practices in advance of the new season. My godfather had driven down from Maryland to help me move into the dorm. So, while I was off at my first summer practice, he stayed behind in the dorm to take a nap and get into trouble. Part of that trouble was striking up conversations with whomever happened to be passing along the hallway at the time and reliving his own college experience for the afternoon as he waited for me to return. Eventually, he apparently snagged someone to talk to. I learned this when I returned to the dorm after practice, opened the door to my own room, and was surprised to come face to face with one of the absolutely most beautiful girls I had ever seen. I can’t really say whether I was speechless as a result of my not expecting a stranger to be in my room or because her eyes were a very specific shade of brown that, to this day, I still hold an image of in my mind. Needless to say, I spent the bulk of my freshman year and a good bit of my college career trying to win her heart. Sadly, for me at least, I was only ever able to gain the most tenuous hold on her affection. So, our relationship faded in and out. Think Ross and Rachel style but with a less romantic ending. Yet still, at that moment in the mall, she was front and center on my mind.
We will call my roommate's girlfriend Sharon, and we will call my crush Eve. These are neither of their real names, but we will use these names as stand-ins. Sharon and Eve couldn’t have been more different. Both were smart and beautiful. Both were honor students. Both were genuinely good people. Both were locals, whereas my roommate and I were both from big cities and far away from home. But that’s pretty much where the similarities ended. Sharon was much taller than Eve, although, to be fair, most women exceeded Eve's sub-five-foot stature. Sharon had a chocolate complexion, while Eve was more caramel. Sharon was more interested in politics. Eve was more interested in the marching band, which is why she was on the campus that summer afternoon in the first place.
As my roommate and I walked in the mall, discussing our romantic pursuits, he turned to me and said something that I admittedly thought to be a bit uncouth, but nonetheless honest. He said that he simply didn’t understand what I saw in Eve. He just didn’t get it. He looked at her and didn’t see why anyone would ever think she was beautiful. Passive-aggressive, right? What he was really trying to do was proclaim how much more beautiful his girlfriend was than mine. Naturally, I strongly disagreed. Not that his girlfriend, now wife, wasn’t beautiful. Sharon was and is stunning. But, I could also say with certainty that I genuinely had no interest in dating her myself. The thought never occurred to me. She was just another student to me, whereas Eve, in my eyes, was the most beautiful woman on the planet.
Now, of course, it is good that two roommates don’t pine after one another’s significant others. If we did, that might have made for some awkward nights. But, it was also an early lesson in understanding the power of a personal perspective. My roommate might have been a bit callous when he said those things about my dream girl, but from his vantage point, he wasn’t lying. From his perspective, he just didn’t see the attraction. Likewise, from my perspective, I simply couldn’t understand how anyone could not see her as the most beautiful woman on campus.
Aside from likely learning more than you ever wanted to about my collegiate heartbreak, you will probably also have understood the metaphor. Desirability is a matter of perspective. This applies both to the woman or man you find attractive as well as to the brands we choose to associate ourselves with as professionals. I found Eve to be the most attractive because she instantly fulfilled all the criteria, both conscious and unconscious, that I was looking for in a mate. When we are making a choice of camera system, the decision is equally personal.
So, knowing the subjectiveness of gear value, what is the best way to both review gear and/or consume gear reviews? Personally, I find some things far more useful than others. As I mentioned earlier, basic spec information can be helpful, although I find this to be less useful than it might seem. For starters, pretty much any camera produced in the last five years is capable of producing incredible results. Even the least expensive and least popular camera on the market is likely more than capable of handling 90% of professional jobs if in the hands of a photographer who is up on his or her craft. And if a particular spec really is important to you, then when you go to purchase a camera, every website is going to have a tab for specifications. So, we can learn things like megapixel count, sync speed, and available autofocus points fairly easily. Those things may or may not be dealbreakers for me. But what I’m far more likely to want to know about is the hands-on experience and how that applies to my specific shooting needs.
There’s an old adage in sports that you don’t win games on the stat sheet. Sure, the other team might be taller and have timed faster in the 40-yard dash. Or they have won this many games and this many championships in franchise history. But on game day, the only thing that matters is how they play at the moment. When it comes to gear, I’m less concerned with numbers and more concerned with feeling. How does the product perform in the field doing the job it was intended to do? If it’s a high-megapixel camera, for example, purpose-built for detailed portrait sessions in the studio, I don’t need to hear complaints about its low frame rate for documentary work. Likewise, if you are in the market for a low-light beast capable of shooting in the dark, but your job very rarely calls on you to make physical prints of your images, then deeming a camera bad because it has a low megapixel count is equally useless.
Don’t get me wrong. I do see value in comparing camera models. For example, comparing the Nikon Z 7 II to the Sony a7R IV and the Canon EOS R5, seems like a valid topic. All three hold a similar position in their own brand ecosystems. If someone were buying into a camera system in a vacuum and was trying to decide which to go with, this information would be helpful. But of course, consumers are rarely shopping in a vacuum, which makes the job of making camera recommendations all the more challenging.
Simply because it was the most recent to be released, let’s take the Nikon Z 7 II as an example. Were you to watch all the YouTube reviews, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Nikon had just given up on the camera business, produced the photographic equivalent of “Ishtar,” and might as well just go out of business and save us all a lot of trouble. Many of these reviews will also be accompanied by dire prognostications that Nikon’s lowly place within the mirrorless market is a sure sign that the company is going out of business and it would be foolish to buy any new products from them, especially since the new product being offered didn’t reinvent the very idea of a camera and instead, they had simply listened to customer concerns and addressed the issues present in the first generation. Honestly, I’m not 100% sure why addressing customer concerns is considered a bad thing. Sure, there’s nothing so new in the release that it will transform the camera industry. But, if the bar we are expecting is for a company to completely revolutionize the market with every release, I think we may be setting the bar just a little too high.
But, among the doom and gloom prognostications, the same reviews are also unlikely to point out Nikon’s strong position within the DSLR market. Yes, I know DSLRs aren’t sexy anymore, but when accounting for total camera sales, not just mirrorless, you won’t take long to see that Nikon is not nearly in as bad shape as one might think, at least not relatively speaking, as you would also see that the entire camera market is dropping in revenue. This is challenging news for all the camera companies, not just Nikon, and needs to be taken into account.
What also needs to be taken into account, far more than relative sales figures, is who the potential customer for a certain product really is. Again, let’s take the Z 7 II as our example. The original Z 6 and Z 7 were Nikon’s first foray into the mirrorless market. I know, I know, I’m ignoring the Nikon J1 and V1. Let’s just say the Z series was their first serious entry in the mirrorless market. While very decent performers, the original models had a few design issues that loomed large over their reputation, namely the single card slot, unavailability of a functional vertical grip, and lackluster autofocus performance (since then greatly improved through firmware). I may not have had an issue with any of those things personally, but they were legitimate concerns for many working photographers.
Due to these concerns, many existing Nikon shooters, already content with their world-class DSLRs, chose to sit out the first wave of the company’s mirrorless cameras and stick with their tried-and-true DSLR camera bodies. They didn’t flee the company in droves. They simply decided to wait until Nikon produced a product more in line with their business needs. Listening to the drumbeat of customer complaints, with the second generation of bodies, Nikon has decided to directly address these issues. They’ve added a dual card slot configuration similar to that present in the D850. They’ve announced an upcoming battery grip. And they’ve announced an improved focusing system, which includes the ability to use eye detects in conjunction with area autofocus modes. Whether this will be better in actual practice or not is still yet to be seen, but they are clearly aware of the issue and have taken strides to address it.
Does this bring Nikon's autofocus capabilities on par with Canon or Sony? Maybe, maybe not. I have yet to see a review with a full production version of the camera yet, so it’s too soon to tell either way. But truthfully, how much does that matter outside of the vacuum? Even if Nikon’s newest AF system still trails Canon and Sony by a small bit, it’s not like it’s going to be unusable. In 2020, there are very few products on the market that aren’t strides ahead of what was available even five years ago, and people have been able to keep images in focus for decades now even without the latest tech. Even if we assume that Nikon’s AF will still be just a hair slower than Canon, is this likely to be a reason to ditch a life’s worth of investment in Nikon bodies, glass, and accessories just so you can autofocus a millisecond faster? What happens in a couple of years when Nikon continues to improve and suddenly, they have the best autofocus on the market? Are you going to completely overhaul your system again? That could all get pretty expensive.
Again, I’m not saying that is useless information. And if you didn’t own a camera and were starting fresh, it might make a big difference. But the bulk of Nikon’s strength as a company comes from existing Nikon users, those shooters who have brought Nikons to work day in and day out for decades, those customers who didn’t upgrade to the mirrorless cameras because they didn’t yet meet the stringent standards established by their DSLRs. Those are the customers who the Z 6 II and Z 7 II are designed for. They ironed out all the complaints from the first generation and eliminated the main barriers their existing and still most potent potential buyers had in trying out their mirrorless system. Does that make the Z 7 II a better investment than the Canon R5? I don’t know. That’s a personal decision, which is kind of the entire point of this essay. If you are an existing Nikon shooter, either a DSLR user hesitant to switch or an early adopter looking to improve on the first generation, this release might just hit the nail right on the head. Does it instantly leapfrog the competition and become the best mirrorless camera on the market? Probably not. But the combination of price, feature set, and a user's existing workflow might just make it the best choice for certain photographers in terms of value, even if it might not be the current flavor of the month.
Obviously, it is impossible for a camera reviewer to share the exact perspective of everyone reading or viewing the review, just like my college roommate and I had incredibly differing opinions on the definition of beauty based on our own experiences and instincts. So, it’s silly to expect a reviewer to see the world or a piece of gear in exactly the same way I would. But what I personally appreciate most in a review is a deep dive into how the tool serves the purpose and the audience for which it is intended. It’s important when sharing our opinions, either in review form or in comment sections, that we acknowledge that not everyone is approaching the endpoint coming from the same direction. And until the day when a camera company finally releases that holy grail on one camera to rule them all, it's more useful to consider each gear release based on its own specific use case.
We can't allow ourselves to review cameras based on the spec sheets. Nor can we base our reviews on other people's reviews. At that point, it's not really a review, but rather an exercise in mob mentality. Just like no matter how good or bad a movie is, it’s unlikely the reviews will be unanimous. Same with cameras. So, the one red flag that does get raised for me is when I see one aspect of a camera release, usually a fairly insignificant feature to actual workflow, get blown out of proportion and suddenly become the lead item in all reviews going forward. Okay, so what if Camera A has the AF switch in an awkward position? Does that nullify everything else the camera does well? Is that button placement really going to have a real-world effect in the first place? Sure, it's good to mention. But if every review leads with the button placement, that starts to be less useful to me as a consumer. Nor do I want the review to be mostly about the company’s financial position. I don’t want to know whether or not someone declares it the best camera ever made or if someone personally deems it “professional” or not. I want to know, for the market and end-user for which it is intended, it this tool helps me to do my job. What job is this piece of gear best suited to serve? Is there a better alternative, either on the market or even sticking with an older model, than investing in this product to serve its intended purpose? The bottom line, does purchase it improve my business?
As I stated at the top of this essay, I don’t mean to suggest that camera reviews aren’t both fun and worthwhile. I watch and read them myself and will continue to do so. But, while doing so, I also remind myself that cameras are purpose-built for the specific jobs they are meant to perform. So, we need to take into account the circumstances it will be faced with in order to give a complete review. And even then, there is a limit to trusting someone else’s opinion. The only real way to know if a camera is right for you or not is to actually use it yourself. As much as I like to hear in-depth descriptions of other’s personal experiences with a camera, there is no substitute for holding it in my own hand and putting it into the field. At the end of the day, that’s the only way you are really going to know if a piece of gear gives you that slight flutter in your heart, just like that day back in college when I opened my door to find the girl with the brown eyes.