Reviews - Who do you trust?

I make comments sometimes about certain review sites and my questioning of their impartiality. I thought it useful to explain what I'm talking about.

First off there are sites like Dpreview who are so big and so influential, that any notion that they are out to keep manufacturers "sweet" is out of the question. They are owned by Amazon, one of the biggest retailers on the planet, so its probably a question of the manufacturers keeping them sweet. Sites like the excellent Camera Store and Digital Rev are also retailers who again are in the position to be able to give honest opinions about gear. I would also include Lens Rentals in this as they are unique in that they buy and look at lots of copies of gear.

Then there are the "Pro's" I respect like Kirk Tuck and Mike Kobal, who buy their own cameras and lenses. Others get stuff sent to them by particular manufacturers and seem to be in some way "sponsored" and those I trust much less, in fact not at all.

Finally there are these peculiar small sites, sometimes a group, sometimes an individual who despite an alarming lack of ability with a camera seem to get sent cameras to review and get invited on the manufacturer product announcement freebie trips and junkets to somewhere exotic. They get their hands on pre-production models, which always means I take little notice of them and they then proceed to praise everything to the skies and soft-pedal on any problems or faults. 

So how do these people get into these positions and maintain them? Well to me the answer is by simply reading what they write. I generally rate a review site in inverse proportion to the number of times they use the word awesome. I realise that dumbing-down is everywhere, but the number of adjectives in the English language is so large that it makes you wonder why they don't use any of them! Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and sunrise over the Grand Canyon might qualify for the A-word, but some feature on a camera? Hardly. However these kind of review sites seem to use it for the most trivial of reasons and all too frequently.

Camera manufacturers I guess will send stuff to whoever they think has an audience and the internet being what it is some people get a lot of hits by just being idiots. A few years ago there was some fat slug who between stuffing his face with hamburgers ran a film review site. He somehow got an audience and despite never leaving his bedroom (he probably couldn't!)  and knowing zero about real life got treated as an important opinion maker in the film world, and unfortunately got taken seriously by the movie makers. 

I'm sure the camera manufacturers like their cosy little arrangements with their "patsys" and the "reviewers" like being seen as something important. And I'm sure that this apple cart is so comfortable for all inside it, that nobody is going to rock it. But the majority of what comes out of this is often total tripe, and possibly dishonest. There was someone who wrote a blog who was universal in his praise of a certain camera. He got linked to all over the place. Until that is, someone found out that he actually worked for the company and had neglected to mention that on his blog. Upon discovery he tried to assert that this didn't influence his opinions. "Oh sure. Right. No problem there then. I totally believe you. Awesome!!"

Those of us that have brains are able to see through most of these scams and we all know who we trust to give us an honest opinion and we all know whose views and tastes coincide with our own. As I said, I take no notice whatsoever of jpg. only reviews from pre-production cameras. To me thats completely pointless. And of course I personally aren't able to do that. So if by some miracle a camera manufacturer rang me up (Having obviously never read a single word I've written!) and asked me to review cameras, would I say yes? Well maybe l would if I could have a guarentee that I could write absolutely what I wanted, but even then I would think twice about it. 

The only time this has ever happened to me was when I was reviewing cases and bags for a local company. My contact at the company assured me that he wanted me to be completely free to write what I wanted, but despite this I felt under a certain obligation to "look for the positives" and I would warn him if I was going to write something negative, though this wasn't a requirement. Plus I did get to keep what was sent to me. I can't deny that I did feel somewhat compromised and I actually found the whole thing somewhat difficult. That has now ended and in many ways I was glad that it did. I would like to make it clear that under no circumstances was any pressure put on me at any time, but to a certain extent I did feel some, just by the nature of the situation.

So what happens when companies FedEx their latest offering to someone and they are amongst the first in the world to get their hands on it? How does that work? Say it arrives and it becomes apparent that the product is actually rubbish? Do they write what they think? Do they contact the company to check that they didn't get a bad copy? There were a few Leica M samples circulating recently, of such poor quality both aesthetically and technically (plus covered in dust spots) that it made me wonder just why Leica would send one to this photographer. What did it achieve? And I guess more importantly why did someone so inept get hold of one? He did of course say how marvellous the camera was, so maybe I've just answered my own question.

Part of the problem of course is this ridiculous amount of time between rumour, teaser, announcement and product delivery to shelves. The Nikon D600 was a refreshing change to this having only a 10-day wait between announcement and it going on sale. And it doesn't seem to have suffered much from this speedy roll-out. 

Everybody uses the internet for their own purposes and why would camera manufacturers be any different? However I think I'd like to see them taking more notice of what real users and real buyers think rather than just sending stuff to their "stooges" and getting the expected response. (Awesome?) Now I may be being unfair, and I have deliberately mentioned no names, but if a review is to be trusted, then surely it has to be conducted in an honest and fair way, and reviewers have to be upfront about exactly what their relationship is with the companies concerned. I believe to take these "reviews" seriously, we should expect nothing less.

N.B. to see more on the cameras and lenses featured in this post click on the relevant labels (tags and keywords) below.

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