The gear reviewing minefield.

I've just stopped reading and publicising a blog by a photographer I've read for years. After years of buying his own cameras and writing about them a 'relationship' with a large electronics giant has begun and the posts are different. Suddenly people who use DSLR's are boring old farts and phones and facebook are the way of the future. Now there is maybe a real change of heart going on here, but all of a sudden I have no faith that what I'm reading isn't 'influenced' by factors other than the writers own personal opinion. Now I may be incorrect to question his integrity but I'm not sure any more, and if that's the case the value I get from his writing is diminished.

In fact, I have little faith in any site that gets sent cameras to review by the manufacturers. We've all seen the glossing over of faults and the talking up of virtues. And it is the case that there is a symbiotic relationship between manufacturers and these sites. Both need each other and get something out the relationship. So where does that leave us?

Well, in a world that sees the constant closing of photographic retail outlets, particularly here in the UK, we are left with little option than to somehow navigate our way through the various review sites, blogs and other sources of information that we can find on the internet to inform our purchasing decisons. And it's sometimes difficult to separate the genuine from the compromised. Dpreview are certainly one I trust, as the probability is that they are now so big that the manufacturers need them more than the other way round. The Camera Store and the deliberately controversial Digital Rev TV are also sites that would have little to gain from cosying up with the manufacturers. Likewise Roger Cicala at Lens rentals. 

But what about all those sites who get the invites to the various junkets that are organised all over the world? Does the promise of vol-au-vents and the chance to photograph some attractive models have any bearing on how they assess a camera? Certainly the dodgy jpgs. they post from pre-production cameras do little to give us much idea as to how a camera performs.

Now this doesn't have to be sinister and cloaked in conspiracy theory as my own experience shows. I've only ever had one 'tie-in' with a commercial company in all the time I've been writing this blog. That was with a local company who sell bags and cases. I was approached by them to review some of their products. Now I was flattered by this and agreed. My contact at the company was at great pains to point out that they wanted an honest appraisal and at no time was it suggested that I should talk up a product. However, I did get something out of it. I got to keep the bags and cases, including some rather nice Gariz and Toma mirrorless camera ones. And despite my genuine appraisals (and I can say with my hand on my heart that I never wrote anything about these products that was less than honest) I did feel 'obligated' in a way. I wanted to find virtue in the products because I liked the fact that I had been asked to do this and when I started I wanted to continue. 

Eventually however I became more and more uncomfortable with the situation. Even though I was not doing anything I should be ashamed of, I did feel restricted in what I wrote. As I have indicated this was entirely self administered but it was there all the same. I did submit my reviews to my contact to show what I was going to write before publication and not once did I ever get a reply that suggested I should change anything. But I often thought, what if that suggestion ever arrived? How would I respond? I genuinely thought the majority of the cases and bags were actually rather good and was happy with the relationship I had with the company which I thought acted with integrity. I did also feel a sense of loyalty to a local company who were trying to build themselves up in the middle of a recession and in an area that was struggling with unemployment and economic uncertainty. In the end the whole thing just petered out. No falling out on either side, it had just run it's course. And I was glad it ended and I felt that somehow I had been 'liberated' again.

And yes it must be really nice to get offered new gear to review. I remember the pleasure I got from a package containing a nice half leather case being handed to me by the postman. How much better would it be to get handed the internet's 'hot' new camera weeks or months before anyone else can get their hands on it? And the thought of all those legions of camera fans out there waiting for your first words about the new 'dream machine' that you have in your hands and they don't.

The way through all of this is, of course, to find who you trust, who is compatible with you and your photographic aspirations and take an average from all of those. Personally I like personal experience from those I respect. For example, I'm always trying to get the readers of this blog to share their experiences via the various Google+ groups I run. I much prefer that personal touch from people who have bought the gear rather than somebody who is hand in glove with some manufacturer and / or who has an inflated opinion of their own reputation and / or who arrogantly lectures us with what they imagine passes for expertise and insight. For example two regular readers posted some shots with the 35mm f/2.8 lens for the Sony A7 / A7r that showed some vignetting issues. Now you would be hard pressed to find anything written about that on many of the review sites. It's even odder when you see samples that they post clearly showing that vignetting. So what is going on here? Are they just inept or is there a selective blindness going on influenced by a desire not to bite the hand that feeds?

Now, of course, everybody has to make up their own mind on this, on what they read and who they read. I would hope that anyone who reads what I write would do the same. But then I would expect nothing else from the educated, literate, talented individuals who read this blog!! However, I believe that this is very important and with the changing face of retail and the replacement of shops by 'box shifters' it is only going to get more important as time passes. So I make no apology for writing about this again and I'm sure I'll come back to it in the future.

Finally I'm off to collect my A7 + zoom soon and I'm sure I'll be writing about it tomorrow. So when (and if!!) you read that, I hope that you will bear in mind that I'm one of many who have a point of view and I can only write about my own experiences. I won't pretend that I'm objective, I'm not, but I can promise that I will be honest in what I write and there is no underlying agenda or obligation in play. Soundimageplus - last of the Independents!!

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