The Future of Camera Reviews?

It used to be that some digital cameras were real dogs. Sensors were still growing up and it was important to see if a camera could produce images that you actually wanted to display in your home or share with others. Image quality was an important criterium for choosing one camera over another. Those days are gone, at least when we're talking about the kinds of cameras pros and photography enthusiasts buy. Digital cameras these days are like cars: they all work fine for their intended purpose.

Sure, one camera can turn out higher resolutions than others. But, practically speaking, unless you need to blow up an image really big or crop like a madman, any serious camera produces files large enough for the vast bulk of users.

Island in the Mist - Canon D30 @ 3mp

The same is true for capabilities to shoot in low-light. Sure, we can and will go further and I guess that someday we can shoot noise-free images in a pitch-dark room.

But unless you're a person going over an 24x36 print with a magnifying glass, the current crop of cameras offers plenty of usability and image quality for virtually all practical applications.

At the moment, we're still focused on image quality when we read reviews. But it's never bad, notice that? The differences are hardly worth mentioning, unless you do special work. And most of us don't.

We're also really good at coming up with new issues. First you had to shoot at f/16 to get a lot of depth of field. Now you can't shoot at f/16 anymore, because that's where diffraction rears its ugly head. It's f/8 and f/11 only, baby.*

Oh, and shutter shock. A new one to me, but some forums are full of it (pun intended). You have a problem with shutter shock on your new Olympus? Try a Pentax 67. That's shutter shock.

I'm sure we will find new problems as the old ones matter less. Gotta have something to complain about, right?

Anyway, to advance my point: now that sensors are all good we can treat them like we used to treat film. It's not the main criterium to choose a camera. Other things are, like how it feels in your hands, how fast it is, how large the buffer is, the available lenses, price, size and weight, the viewfinder. You know, things that matter when you shoot. We'll have to review cameras like film cameras were reviewed.

If I'm right, the manner of reviewing cameras will change. Oh, we will still pixelpeep and say 'wow' when the latest 1000mp camera is announced, just like the car enthusiast loves reading about the Ferrari that can uselessly get you to 60MPH in under three seconds and that he can never afford. But then we look at the stuff we can actually buy and focus on the differences that actually matter, just like that car enthusiast in the end buys the Subaru.

At the same time, the need for reviews will diminish. The point-and-shoot market is lost to mobile phones and most people will not buy their mobile phone based on the performance of its built-in camera, no matter how hard DP Review is focusing on that market.

Pros will test their own equipment. Rich people will buy it all. Leica-lovers will buy and love whatever new model appears and only admit when the next model comes out that the one before that really wasn't that great. No buyer's remorse for Leica owners. Oh, I jest.

So, for reviewers that leaves a small market of enthusiasts who buy affordable enthusiast cameras and lenses.

And increasingly the reviewers don't find the real problems with a camera, because a sample of one is too small. It's the combined audience of users who discover focusing issues or oil on the sensors.

I might be wrong, you know. Maybe a few years from now, we're still staring at little cutouts of books on a dark shelf, trying to see if the Nikon D9 does better than the Canon 5D Mark VIII. We'd be better off looking at real photographs.

*Update: while reading a couple of lens reviews on sites way more technical than this one, I noticed that several lenses already showed diffraction at f/8, rendering said lenses - expensive ones at that - only usable for the perfectionists among us at f/4 and f/5.6. Might as well cut out all the other apertures. Gone also are the days when 'f/8 and be there' ruled many photographic genres. Where's the progress?

By John van Rosendaal