Orquid "Phoenix"

Orquid "Phoenix"

by ceinmart

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I know that nothing helps more when buying a lens to actually test it out yourself, but in my case anyway I feel it's good to know many people's experiences. Kenrockwell is a website that I run into a lot when trying to get info on a lens. When I google a model it's usually one of the first results. The problem is, any time I or anyone else brings up KenRockwell at freenode's #photogeeks (among other places) they lambast it simply because it is from KenRockwell.

In other news, I'm thinking of getting a cheap mild telephoto prime (outside of my zoom lens budget (c;) so I've been researching the Nikkor 85mm 1.8 D fairly extensively. After having handled it myself, I am fairly certain it's the one I'm going to buy. Let's see what Ken Rockwell says about it:

He gives some remarks on OOF elements in the performance section. (I won't paste it here as I think he says he doesn't want his stuff copied anywhere)

Given, bokeh is not as good in the 85mm 1.8 as it is in the 1.4 but from what little I've used the lens (and seen from photos taken with it on like flickr and stuff), I wouldn't call it 'fairly poor'. He gives a pretty specific criticism on halos for not having used the lens much, but I think that is kind of a nitpick on my part.

One of the big things #photogeeks complains about is the little blurb in the About section that says that he adds satire and fiction to the site.

I notice many websites of this sort (Kenrockwell, ByThom [although Mr. Hogan doesn't review lenses that he doesn't claim to have used]) don't have too many sample pictures and the ones they do have are usually heavily scaled. Kenrockwell's gallery's pictures aren't even 640x480.

Are there good reasons to trust massive single-user for-profit photography websites like KenRockwell.com?

If you have not noticed yet, this rant is pretty biased. I apologize. This is what the people at #photogeeks have shown me. I'm more than open for someone to show me otherwise.

Edit: Perhaps I should not have dragged Mr. Hogan into this question as his writings do indicate that he has much more experience with the equipment than Mr. Rockwell. I am no photography expert but his reviews on the lenses I own fit the bill exactly. As many of you have mentioned, (and as is evident in reading their sites) Mr. Rockwell and Mr. Hogan have totally different review methods.

The reason I thought to include Mr. Hogan is because both he and Mr. Rockwell are big photography reviewers who make a lot of money from their websites. That doesn't make them bad reviewers. I just feel that even on something as petty as product reviews you can fall into a trap of getting biased towards a particular reviewer's opinions. I know it happened to me when I was first looking to buy. I though Mr. Rockwell was the bomb dot com because of the heaps of praise he threw on the really cheap lenses within my budget while I looked with disdain at more analytic reviewers' opinions (read: ByThom) on the same lenses. I guess that is because the more real reviews revealed the lens's real shortcomings. People will see what they want to see.

It is evident to me now that Mr. Hogans reviews carry more weight in the real world but I can see how bias can go both ways. I guess there really is nothing better than trying the lens out for yourself. As I have mentioned I have done above, just never with big $1000+ investment lenses.

That brings me back to my question: On an absolute scale how much can you trust these review sites?

P.S. Thank you for reading my rant! If you have gotten this far you are the winner (c:

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Just post the quote; Ken Rockwell doesn't understand copyright law. Short quotations for use in criticism are fair use‌​(pdf). As another example, at the bottom of most pages he has a copyright warning: "As this page is copyrighted and formally registered, it is unlawful to make copies, especially in the form of printouts for personal use.", despite the fact that personal copies are merely format shifting, and therefore are fair use. –  Evan Krall Apr 16 '11 at 3:51
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Also, to give you an idea of how much Ken Rockwell cares about being reliable, check out his about page. He's essentially playing the Fox News pundit card ("It's okay if I say things that may not be accurate, because everything I say may be my opinion, not fact.") –  Evan Krall Apr 16 '11 at 4:00
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Gosh, other than just pointing out that his own about page says his website is little more than a joke, I can't imagine how to answer this in a way that isn't very opinionated and more factual. I will say this, if you've handled it and like it alot - get it and forget some random dude on the internet's opinion. –  rfusca Apr 16 '11 at 4:06
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@enthdegree, just because he's good at googlejuice SEO games, doesn't mean he knows jack about anything else. ;) –  cabbey Apr 16 '11 at 5:05
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@enthdegree: It appears to me that he's simply a lot more interested in generating page views than in being accurate. To that end, he routinely posts stuff that borders on complete nonsense. Dozens of people get on his forums and rake him over the coals for it, and he laughs all the way to the bank. –  Jerry Coffin Apr 16 '11 at 5:06
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10 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I think these two sites should not be completely lumped together. Let's let each man talk for himself. From Ken Rockwell's "About" page:

Apparently the world finds my opinions very useful, but remember, they are the opinions of one man. I have a big sense of humor, and do this site to entertain you (and myself), as well as to inform and to educate. I occasionally weave fiction and satire into my stories to keep them interesting. I love a good hoax. Read The Museum of Hoaxes, or see their site. A hoax, like some of the things I do on this website, is done as a goof simply for the heck of it by overactive minds as a practical joke. Even Ansel Adams kidded around when he was just a pup in the 1920s by selling his photos as "Parmelian Prints." I have the energy and sense of humor of a three-year old, so remember, this is a personal website, and never presented as fact. I enjoy making things up for fun, as does The Onion, and I publish them here — even on this page.

Emphasis mine, links to other sites in the original, although I've removed the one that is a promo-code link to a book on Amazon — even found in the about page. (I've got no problem with product linking in general, but the fact that even this section contains one seems... indicative.)

Thom Hogan's site simply says:

Here you'll find extensive information about Nikon photographic equipment and support for all of Thom's Nikon-related books.

And the "about" section is devoted to biography and bibliography. I don't think there ever seems to be a push anywhere on the site for anything but the idea that it's the writings and opinions of one particular expert. Whether it's reliable or not mostly comes down to whether you trust that expertise (and how far you trust it).

It's probably valuable to also include sites like Mike Johnston's The Online Photographer (which has a more journalistic mission, and which is meticulous about distinguishing opinion statements from simple facts and even more so — with a sort of midwestern guilt — about highlighting commercial connections), and Michael Reichmann's Luminous Landscape, which says:

It's easy to be a critic. You just need to have an opinion and a soapbox to spout it from. But when I listen to or read someone's opinions I want to know what combination of knowledge and experience allows them to hold forth on a given topic. Since I pontificate on many subjects in various essay and reviews on this site I figure that you deserve to knew a bit about who I am and what experience I bring to the table in each of these areas.

...

None of this makes my opinions right. But it means that when I criticize something my opinion comes from some fairly extensive photographic and industry experience.

Am I biased? Yup! I like equipment that produces first-class image quality and that does so with well-designed ergonomics and user interface. A good product needs both. A product fails, in my book, if it only succeeds in one of these two areas.

Do I make mistakes in my reviews? Sure, lots of them. Who doesn't from time to time? I do my best to correct them though when I do.

That seems like the right way to do it — in my subjective opinion.

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+1 for your level headed evaluation. Mike Johnston's Online Photographer is one of my must read sites. –  labnut Apr 18 '11 at 14:03
    
I'd add Bryan Carnathan's the-digital-picture.com to the list of serious reviewers, even though he mostly sticks to Canon stuff. At the very least, he is far more thorough than Ken Rockwell, and seems to not make outrageous statements for the sake of making them. –  Chinmay Kanchi Mar 18 '13 at 21:01
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I find that when it comes to stuff like reviews (including, but not limited to photography equipment), you probably don't want to put all your eggs in one basket for anything important.

If you look at two or three (or more) reviews, however, you should start to see some common themes emerging -- ie, the lens is soft wide-open, or it focuses slowly, or it's got great bokeh -- whatever. To the extent you start to see these attributes come up time and again for a given piece of equipment, you can start to be pretty sure there's something real there. If you do this a few times, you'll also start to have a good frame of reference for how reliable any given source of information is; so in the future, you'll have a pretty good feel for whether you want to start with Ken Rockwell, or whether you'd be better off starting with someone like DPReview.

The idea here is that any given review on even the most trusted site could be off, so don't rely on a single source of information unless it's a purchase you're comfortable taking a gamble on.

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+1 Wise advice. –  whuber Apr 16 '11 at 17:54
    
Single source of information is always bad, even if it's a trusted newspaper or what. Thanks for pointing this out. –  Gregor Müllegger Jul 2 '11 at 20:38
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K-rock has some interesting opinions, but I often think of him as the Matt Drudge of the Photography world. I suspect most of his opinions are to generate views, and to that end, he has succeeded.

Here is how I judge the opinions of online photographers; how do their own personal galleries look?

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Agree with your assessment, but I usually describe Ken Rockwell as the 'Glenn Beck' of the photography world. ;-) –  Jay Lance Photography Apr 16 '11 at 5:23
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Ken Rockwell rewrites press releases and passes them off as reviews and shot a 5D at fake-ISO 50 for more dynamic range. That was enough. –  Jędrek Kostecki Apr 16 '11 at 6:22
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@Jay, @Alan, these subjective, tendentious statements seem out of place in a site like photo.stackexchange where we have more lofty goals than the run-of-the-mill gossip forum. See @mattdm's reply for a considered, responsible statement that would be a good template for us to follow. –  labnut Apr 19 '11 at 17:54
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Tough. If you don't like it and think it's out of line, flag it and see if an admin agrees. As I have earned the reputation within this community to do-so, I'll continue to post exactly as I see fit at photo-SE, regardless of what you think is 'appropriate.' –  Jay Lance Photography Apr 19 '11 at 18:07
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@labnut: I appreciate the spirit of your concern, but when it comes to this specific website, there is enough established criticism, that I feel that my opinion is warranted, and less "gossip." Ken Rockwell has opinions that the majority of photographers find absurd. He is a sensationalist just like Matt Drudge, except he chooses to write about photography, instead of political muck raking. –  Alan Apr 19 '11 at 18:18
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Websites like kenrockwell.com and bythom.com are entertaining and idiosyncratic. They are an expression of their owner's personality and deserve reading for that reason.

But when you are looking for good guidance when selecting a lens you should rather go to one of the several sites that approach the matter in a serious disciplined way.

There are a number of highly regarded lens review sites. By glancing through them you will see a consensus emerge about the lens that is a pretty good guide.

List of lens review sites

It is worth emphasizing the importance of looking at several reviews. In this way you form a rounded opinion of the strengths and weaknesses of the lens.

Some of these sites include customer reviews. You will also find a good selection of customer reviews under each lens on http://www.bhphotovideo.com/

For example there are 226 customer reviews for this lens.

It is in the customer reviews that one starts to see whether there are specific quality related problems with the lens. They can be invaluable for gauging the manufacturing quality and reliability. The normal consumer has no other way to collect this information.

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Someone once told me that it takes a minimum of 100 customer reviews to get any kind of semi-reliable idea. Honestly, as someone who knows cameras and lenses very well, I can say that roughly 90% of customer reviews in this area are wrong. Most people have used too little gear to know the difference between something good and something that is not. –  Itai Apr 16 '11 at 13:07
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@Itai. Honestly? Shouldn't we take that for granted? To get a balanced and informed view one first goes to the reputable lens review sites, which I listed. Then one can examine a representative selection of customer opinions to discover additional information, if any. The important thing is to have an inquiring mind that is willing to examine different information sources to extract the relevant and useful. The quality of information in customer reviews is varied but the inquiring and open mind will find much of value. –  labnut Apr 16 '11 at 18:33
    
Good that you know this already! As I happen to be one of the people on the other side of this, I see a lot of people who buy after reading one or two vague and unsubstantiated comments (Ex: Bought model XXX and it's the best!) and then come to me for help when it does not work out. I also happen to know that a great number of people right false statements as if it was completely true. It even happens in this forum! I help when I can. –  Itai Apr 16 '11 at 18:49
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@Itai. When we give advice it is implicitly aimed at people who make intelligent choices, for the simple reason they are the only ones likely to seek out and listen to good advice. –  labnut Apr 16 '11 at 19:00
    
@itai, everyone: also keep in mind that most random "consumer reviews" are either a) negative when placed on independent sites as people just rant about (perceived) flaws in items they don't understand or got unlucky enough with to receive a faulty specimen or b) highly positive when placed on sites run by retailers (many webshops allow customers to leave "reviews", most of them will filter the negative ones because they're bad for potential sales). –  jwenting Nov 11 '11 at 6:31
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Interesting that you put Ken Rockwell and Thom Hogan in the same question; my take is that these are very different types of people. As others have said, Ken is kind of a nut. On the other hand, I find Thom Hogan's reviews particularly compelling because they relate real experiences and read very sane - for example, Thom has a good attitude (IMO) about when imperfections matter and when they don't, and talks a lot about using the lens rather than just spewing numbers (measurebators) or making hysterical claims (Ken Rockwell).

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Thom Hogan is a very reputable guy and his site has a lot of insightful info especially when it comes to lenses. I read a lot of great lens reviews from Dpreview and such, but Thom goes a step further than all of them, he actually tells you why this particular lens behaves this way in this particular situation, or what makes it underrated or overrated lens. The guys is a genius when it comes to lenses. I also read his D700 book, and I found it more fascinating than the one I bought from BN, because he goes into more detail about how things work in your camera. And he actually explains how the different AF settings behave (unlike other books which tell you how the AF works), and why, so you get a more in depth picture about the inner workings of your camera and lenses.

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The short answer is that Bythom is one of the best places to get high-quality, honest, hands-on opinions on (mostly) Nikon equipment. Ken Rockwell is opinionated, fishes for page views but I personally like a good proportion of his own photographs so I don't dismiss him of out of hand.

Having said that, the fact that the OP lumps together the two makes me suspect that he hasn't actually spent much time on either site--they're really chalk and cheese. If you were to spend about 30 minutes comparing equivalent pages (say http://www.bythom.com/Nikkor-200-400mm-lensreview.htm with http://www.kenrockwell.com/nikon/200400.htm), then your question would answer itself.

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For me buying a gear is a completely objective process (well.. mostly). If I was buying a lens, I'll know what focal length i'd want and how much money I'm ready to put into it. Then I'd head over to sites like photozone.de which do indepth analysis of each lens..

Kenrockwell.com at the end of the day is just a blog that tries to communicate the author's opinion and facts in an over simplified verbiage so that a newbie can grasp it much easily.. I can see that pissing off some pundits.. and definitely techies/gear_heads you'll most likely find on an IRC channel (seriously.. do photographer's really hang out on IRC?!)

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I want to add just a cautionary note about one particular often-referenced Thom Hogan article, Meters Don't See 18% Gray. Take a look at Jerry Coffin's response to that in this question/answer: What is the 18% gray tone, and how do I make a 18% gray card in Photoshop?

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actually, Thom is correct about that even as he may overstate the importance of his observation (in most cases the difference is small enough so as not to matter, in most cases it does matter the photographer would use an external meter anyway to make sure)... –  jwenting Nov 11 '11 at 6:33
    
@jwenting — read the answer linked in the post above; you may be convinced otherwise. –  mattdm Nov 11 '11 at 12:58
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Some of the replies have expressed quite forthright opinions though mattdm contributed an informed and balanced analysis.

To continue in that vein I show below how many times they, and other respected authors, are cited in photo.SE. Like the citation index in academic literature, this can be an important indicator of the interest this community, as whole, has in the authors.

Number of references in photo.SE to the following authors (there may be some duplicates), Click on each link to see the actual references:

This is a surprising and interesting result.

Note that I am not expressing an opinion about the relevance of any of these authors. I am pointing out the degree of interest the community has in these authors, and provide the links, in the hope of contributing to a more informed debate.

To make a useful assessment one should follow the links and read the references.

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