The Case of the
Nit Picking Pixel Peepers
How Magical Thinking Informs Brand Loyalty
In early March of 2004 I published a review of the Olympus C-8080 8 Megapixel digital camera. This was the first review of this camera to appear either on the Net or in print. As a consequence there was quite a bit of on-line interest, especially — as one might expect — from fans of the Olympus brand.
If you haven't read the review let me spare you the chore for the moment. Briefly, I discussed at some length the design of the camera's controls and how I found them to be poorly placed and configured. As a consequence, and by comparison with the Sony F828 I found that I was frequently pressing the wrong buttons, turning the camera on or off in error, changing which card would receive images, and other finger fumbles, even though I have relatively small hands. I mentioned in my review in a couple of places that it was particularly difficult to use this camera in winter when wearing gloves.
This was just one aspect of my critique of the C-8080's design. I found numerous other things which were problematic, such as the lack of a top-panel LCD, noisy autofocus, high battery consumption due to the use of a slow electric zoom, dim and distant EVF, and more. Finally, I didn't comment on image quality or conduct a lab test because the camera was a pre-production sample, and Olympus had requested that I not do so.
So what happened? For days afterward there was a chorus of nasty and snide comments about the review on a couple of web forums. What did they focus on? Several thing. Firstly, the fact that I had commented about the problem of wearing gloves. Message after message mocked this observation. Then there was the fact that I had not discussed image quality, even though I went to some pains to explain Olympus' request.
Of the most interest when reading these discussion threads, for me at least, was that not a single person commented about the material problems that I had explored. Everything written was about shooting the messenger rather than addressing the content of the message.
Then there were those that said — Well, Reichmann's comments don't count because it was a pre-production camera. Huh? Do they imagine that Olympus will magically redesign the camera before it ships so that it has a manual zoom rather than a lethargic electric control? Do they think that the ill-conceived control design will somehow be altered in the few weeks until production cameras ship?
The point of this discussion isn't to defend my review against its critics. After some 15 years of writing equipment reviews for publications worldwide I've developed a thick enough skin. But this particular instance does help to illustrate a growing concern that I have regarding some photographer's perceptions of what's important when it comes to evaluating a new camera. That is the thrust of this essay.
Image Quality Vs. Controls and Features
Imagine a camera system that produces stunning image quality. Wall sized prints without grain or noise are possible, and both resolution and contrast are outstanding. Colour rendition is highly accurate and optical defects are virtually non-extent.
Now imagine another camera. This one is small enough to fit in ones coat pocket yet has easy to use, intuitive controls. Everything works beautifully. The manual hardly needs to be opened. Battery life is measured in days not hours, and all of the necessary technical functions, like autofocus, metering and shooting speed are exceptional in capability.
If you could choose just one of these cameras, which one would it be? The one that produces incredible image quality, or the one that almost works telepathically?
Of course this is a silly question. A camera that produces great images but that has the user interface of an ox cart is almost useless, and a superbly designed instrument that produces images that look like they came from a $15 Holga isn't what most people would settle for either.
Yet, time after time we see photographers fixated on one aspect or another — though usually biased toward the image-qualtity-above-all approach, often to the exclusion of rational discourse. Those whom I have called pixel peepers are satisfied with nothing less than an intimate dissection of a camera / lens' abilities (always at 100% pixel magnification), without regard for whether or not perceived optical defects are even actually visible in real world prints.
Which brings us back to the hypothetical question about which camera would you prefer. The answer is, of course, that the ideal camera is one that combines the best mix of traits from both Column A and Column B. It needs to be able to produce the highest quality images, yet also be a device that does it's best to stay out of the way while doing its job well. As with most things in life — a compromise.
Does the ideal camera exist? No, of course not. But some are better than others in bringing off the ideal mix, and the same one is not necessarily the best for everyone. For example, the photographer who is overwhelming interested is image quality, and who doesn't shoot either a great deal or in difficult circumstances, will likely be happier selecting a camera that displays the finest images even if it means putting up with some operational annoyances.
Others will value functionality, speed, reliability or convenience, even if it means possibly tolerating reduced image quality. That's why there are 8X10 view cameras as well as pocket digicams. It's a big world, and as photographers we have many choices to make.
Magical Thinking and Blind Brand Loyalty
It's quite remarkable how in contemporary society people develop brand loyalties. Of course today with the Internet and discussion forums we see everyone from sincere amateurs to obnoxious trolls publicly jumping to either the defense of their favourite brand or trashing another that they dislike.
For goodness sakes — these are just products. Yet the level of emotion displayed is sometimes alarming. Sure, sometimes companies and their products take on a certain character, and we make certain assumptions about them as a consequence of consensus observations and experience. Sometimes these becomes almost cultural assumptions — Sony takes high quality TVs — Mercedes cars are well built — Snap-On tools are rugged. Whether true or not, they become part of our society's cultural world-view.
But sometimes these assumptions are simply based on what some psychologists call "magical thinking". This is the all-to-human trait of suspending rationality even when the facts apparently contravene observation. Believing in things without a rational basis.
Case in point. The Olympus C-8080 (not to pick on them, but it's a current example), doesn't have a top panel LCD. This means much of the information that a photographer needs, such as frames shot, frames remaining, battery condition, metering mode, ISO setting, etc., are only available through the EVF or LCD. Not the end of the world to be sure, but such display panels are there on just about every competitive camera for a reason — because this is useful information that a photographer needs to know while working. I write that the emperor is naked. The magical thinkers complain that he's not — he's fully clothed — and definately not wearing gloves.
Back to the C-8080. It has no indicator light to tell you that it's turned on, and this together with the lack of a top panel informational LCD combines to prevent you from knowing at a glance whether the camera is on or off, let alone what mode it's in — image review, shooting, movie, etc. Again, this doesn't render the camera useless, but it's simply bad design, and gets in the way of working smoothly.
When enough of these design omissions and faults are combined one ends up with a camera, that for some users, can actually get in the way of producing photographs . And I need to be clear about this — the Olympus C8080 is just one camera that I've reviewed in recent years where there are enough of these flaws to be a serious issue. There are a great many others, and no manufacturer is immune for these missteps.
As this is being written I have not yet tested the C-8080's image quality. Production cameras are not yet available. But, as I wrote in my initial review, regardless of its ultimate image quality I found the camera not to be one that I can recommend. But the magical thinkers say — Olympus is a fine company (it is). Olympus makes some great cameras and lenses (it does). Therefore a review that criticizes this new camera can't be right, especially when it doesn't take into account image quality. The fact that the camera's design defects are real, can be seen and verified by anyone who handles one, and will likely to be found to be of concern to at least some photographers, doesn't enter the picture for these people though. That's why it's called magical thinking.
Good companies can make flawed products. (Anyone remember the Ford Pinto or the Chevy Corvair?) Cameras that can produce great images can have badly designed controls and user interfaces. Stuff happens.
But Can it be Measured?
While there is a quantifiability to testing and measuring image quality, the same does not apply to user interface and ergonomics. Without a broad range of experience many photographers, especially those new to the game, simply aren't able to recognize the difference between a badly designed control and a good one.
Not to hold myself up as some paragon of knowledgeability, but over the past 40 years I have used virtually every major camera on the market, and during the past 15 years have tested literally scores of them for print and online reviews. Just this past year I was the invited author of Photo Techniques magazine's annual World's 25 Best Cameras report. I do have some small experience in this area.
As a professional photographer I take somewhere between ten and twenty thousand photographs year. Higher than some, less than others. But every time that I make an exposure, like you I need to deal with the camera's controls and interface. When they're badly designed the flaws are obvious, and they simply prevent me from getting the job done. So, if I'm reviewing a product I tell you about what I've discovered.
This is one of the reasons that I always prefer to test cameras on real shoots and on location. I go out of my way to try and schedule shooting trips around the availability of new equipment provided for testing by manufacturers. Taking a walk in the park with a new camera, or making a few dozen test frames in a studio simply don't tell me enough about how a camera helps or hinders when performing its tasks.
In The End
In the end both image quality and a camera's operational quality are equally important. No camera is perfect, and few are perfectly bad. For some photographers who don't have a lot of experience with a wide range of equipment, and of working under difficult conditions, where seemingly small operational features can make the difference between getting the shot or not, my complaints may seem like so much unfair griping. And for the devout pixel peepers, anything that they can't be measured or seen on-screen at 100% magnification is beyond their ability to comprehend. For the magical thinkers, rational discourse is not needed because they know that their favourite camera can't possibly at fault. The fault therefore must lie with the reviewer.
Obviously I'm not going to change too many people's minds with these observations. But for those who are new to the world of photography and cameras, or who are entering the oft-times confusing new landscape of digital equipment, I thought that I'd try and throw a bit of light into one of the darker corner.
You may also enjoy reading a related essay titled:
Digital Bridge Cameras