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I know that nothing helps more when buying a lens to test it out yourself, but getting more than one perspective is also helpful. In particular, I run into Kenrockwell.com a lot when trying to get info on a lens. When I Google a lens, Ken Rockwell's site is usually one of the top results. A lot of people reference his reviews. However, the site also gets a lot of hate from many places (notably #photogeeks on freenode). Their reasons usually include:

  • An oft-cited phrase in his About section says that he 'adds satire and fiction to the site,' although virtually all of his review pages are extremely dry reads.
  • I cannot find a reference offhand but if I recall correctly, it is known that Ken Rockwell published 'reviews' for equipment which he has not used.
  • There are virtually no sample pictures, and the ones that exist are heavily scaled and at best only questionably demonstrate equipment's behavior.
  • His pictures are snapshot-quality.
  • He openly claims to make a living off of the site. Pages are polluted with affiliate links, donate buttons and 'grassroots mom & pop'-style solicitation (thinly veiled panhandling).

I figure that the same might be true of many other websites. (bythom.com comes to mind)

Despite all the hate, KenRockwell.com is still extremely popular. Are websites like KenRockwell.com reliable sources of info?

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31  
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
15  
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

10 Answers 10

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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2  
+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
    
I find the reviews of Matt Granger and also the reviews on DigitalRev (Check You Tube) to be pretty good. I also (to a lesser degree) value the customer reviews on sites such as Amazon etc. –  MarkP Jun 10 at 14:48

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.

That's not to say that Ken Rockwell is always wrong. In fact, he's an experienced photographer with a lot of great advice. For example, this article on ultra-wide angle composition is top-notch and extremely helpful. Just make sure to also think for yourself. I'm still not sure if his oft-repeated love of cranked-to-the-max saturation is one of his "hoaxes" — I suspect it is, but there's no accounting for taste. (And, um, even if he's serious, no need to form your own taste around his.)

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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
1  
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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But even the Ken Rockwell article on ultra-wide composition contains some garbage. For example, he declares that tripods are useless for digital and then, only seven sentences later, mentions that just breathing moves the camera enough to change the composition when using a 14mm lens on a full-frame camera. –  David Richerby yesterday

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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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

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

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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