I’m a researcher. Not by trade, mind you, just out of habit. If there’s something I like, I learn more. If there’s something about which I’m curious, I find out what I can about it. And if I’m going to spend my hard-earned money on it, you can bet your hard-earned money that I’m going to do my homework first. This is vital with camera gear for a number of reasons, and I’d like to give you a few pointers out of getting the most out of your research so you can get more out of your money while you’re at it.
The first step needs to start with you, before you even start doing your research. Namely, you need to figure out not only what you need, but also what you need it for. Having a ton of information’s not going to get you very far if it’s the wrong information, or all the right information on precisely the wrong piece of equipment. To simplify this a little, let’s assume you’re in the market for a new lens. The first issue is whether you own a lens of that type (let’s say it’s a long telephoto) currently. If so, you need to ask yourself why you need the new one, and be honest. In what ways would it represent a step up from what you’ve got? Reliability? Performance (i.e. more reach than what you currently own)? Or is it just the allure of owning the newest whatzit on the market? If not, what limitations are you noticing on your photography because of what you own now? Are those limitations the result of the gear, or is there something that you could/should be doing differently with the existing equipment that you’re not doing now? And so on… The point is, be clear not only on what you’re buying, but why you’re buying it. Sometimes this results in talking yourself out of a new piece of equipment for one or more reasons, but just as often it means knowing what to look out for while you’re doing your research.
Let’s say, then, that you’ve decided what you need and why you need it. You’re in the market for a long telephoto because the 18-55 that came with your camera has been fine within its limits, but it doesn’t reach quite far enough. After careful consideration, you start researching your options. One of the best ways to do this is not by visiting a single site, but several of them. Below, I’ve listed a few types of sites (with examples), and the reason why you need to visit at least one of each over the course of your research.
Start with the manufacturer’s website. The manufacturer isn’t going to give you an unbiased review of the piece (it’s the job of the Marketing folks to try to sell you more crap whether you need it or not, after all), but at the very least, you’ll find out your options (some of which you may not otherwise have considered, or even been aware of) and the specs for each. This can save you the trouble of having to redo the other steps that follow because you forgot, or missed, a viable option.
Next thing you’ll want to do is check up on one of the more established photography magazines or websites. Popular Photography, dpreview.com, the BJP (British Journal of Photography) and others of their ilk generally get their hands on the equipment first, and will usually subject it to rigorous testing.* These tests are based less on informal/anecdotal evidence than on standardized tests that will look for things like distortion, chromatic aberrations, and precise measurement of things like autofocus times. You can skip straight to the conclusion of the review, where the reviewer will usually lay out the pros and cons of a particular piece in short form, or go through the entire thing for a detailed explanation. Take notes. There’s a quiz later (I’m kidding. Probably.)
Having done that, I’d now suggest going where the consumers are, on sites like Amazon, B&H, and Adorama. Pay attention to what you find. If an issue is only mentioned once or twice in 100 reviews, you can probably chalk it up to sample variation. If, on the other hand, 48 of those same 100 say that a lens vignettes at its wide end, or has consistent color fringing, that’s something to pay attention to, because it’s much more likely to be something baked into that lens’s DNA. Also take into consideration the reviewer’s skill/experience level. Sometimes a less-experienced photographer may praise a piece of equipment because they don’t know what flaws to look for, or may give it a poor review because they don’t have the experience to put it to better use; a more experienced photographer is going to have a somewhat more discerning eye, and is also generally going to be able to use a piece as intended.
Another great resource is Flickr, since you can sort photos by camera body and lens used. Test charts have their uses, but there’s nothing like being able to see real-world results taken with the body/lens combination you’re researching. These aren’t reviews in the traditional sense, but they’re very useful information, and the discussion that takes place on some of the forums can be a lot more useful than the number of stars something’s gotten.
Perhaps most importantly, once you’ve done your research and your mind’s just about made up, get to a camera shop. Test the stuff. Take plenty of shots so you can get a feel for the piece before you buy.** I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to indie camera shops, but you’ve got someone right there who can answer your questions, you can try the gear before buying it, and if you come across a lousy sample or two, you can try others ’til you come across one that fits your needs, rather than mailing stuff back and forth to your online retailer of choice.
To sum things up: I don’t think there’s a single information source out there that’s a magic bullet. There’s no way you can safely visit just one site or store and then just decide you’re done. Your best bet is to check out multiple sources, aggregate your results, and follow what your sources, your gut, and your experience tell you.
*I say “usually” because I’ve seen occasions when they assigned a review to someone who had an obvious bias toward one brand over another, or not enough experience with something to be able to really provide useful information about it.
**I recently wandered into a camera shop to buy a strap, and was looking at a third party wide-angle lens. The person who tried to sell it to me assured me that it had “practically no distortion.” I asked if he minded me taking some shots to try it out. He didn’t. I tried a couple of shots of the shelves, and something looked a bit “off.” So, just for the hell of it, I aimed for the drop ceiling in the store and fired off a few shots at varying focal lengths. Without blowing them up, I saw some pretty serious barrel distortion. Needless to say, I didn’t buy the lens, and will avoid that salesman the next time I go to that shop.