Gear reviews are a fantastic resource, and you can be sure that for whatever new lens or camera you’re planning to buy, there will be tons of reviews from across the world. While it’s great to have such a selection of resources, it can also be misleading.
Every reviewer is basing their judgement upon different criteria – the landscape photographer evaluates a lens differently than the sports photographer, just as the amateur photographer’s values differ from the professional photographer’s. If your needs and experience are different from the reviewer’s, you may be swayed by an opinion that really doesn’t apply to you – causing you to either buy gear that doesn’t suit you or to pass up on buying something that really would be helpful for you.
So how can you tell if the information in a review can be taken at face value or not? Knowing this will allow you to make better decisions based on what you’ve read online, and is also important if you write any reviews yourself – you want them to help your readers as much as possible. Here are 8 signs that a review isn’t completely objective.
1. The Reviewer Doesn’t Quantify Their Observations
I’m not saying that every review needs a half dozen Imatest graphs and a scoring system. Reviewers who quantify everything precisely are few and far between. But if the review states that, for example, AF speed is “fast” you really have no clue what that means. Someone who’s upgraded to a 50mm prime from their 18-55 kit lens may say that the 50mm lens focuses like lightning – because to them, it does. On the other hand, a professional sports photographer who’s used to the 400mm f2.8 might say that the 50mm prime has a fairly slow or average AF speed.
Without knowing the reviewer’s experience, it’s impossible to say if YOU’D find the lens slow or fast. Ideally, the reviewer would include some quantified observations like “the lens focuses from zero to infinity in 1.5 seconds on my Nikon D7100” to give you a more concrete value. However, if not, you can still do a little research into the author and try to figure out what equipment they’re coming from. This isn’t ideal, but it will help to give a little context to the review.
2. The Sample Photos Don’t Match The Text
This is a dead giveaway. If the reviewer says that a lens is really great, but the photos don’t reflect this, it’s pretty clear that their values don’t match up with yours. Sometimes they may also say that a lens is good at a certain type of photography, but provide no photos taken in that genre. Did they even test it for themselves? Be careful of these kinds of reviews, as the reviewer may just be trying to make money off you by posting great reviews of products they never even used, or by inflating their opinions of otherwise mediocre equipment.
3. There Are No Comparisons With Other Items
This goes with number one, in that reviewers can somewhat quantify their observations by comparing them to other pieces of equipment. For example, one could say that the 50mm lens focuses quickly, almost twice as fast as the 18-55. Then, if you have the 18-55 lens, you have some measurable idea of how fast the 50mm lens will focus. Alternatively, if you don’t have any of the gear being compared, you can at least look up other reviews for those items and see if they have quantified observations that can then be brought back to the comparison. For example, if you didn’t have the 18-55, but found a review stating that it focused in 2.5 seconds, you’d then be able to use that information to make sense of the comparison between the two lenses.
4. Observations Are Excessively Simplified
There is such a thing as too much simplicity, especially when it hides important information. Usually, this is seen more with the big reviewing sites, where they do a bevy of tests and then condense the results into a single metric. Some sites still let you access the original results, which is fantastic, but others just leave you with the bare bones. Other times, a reviewer will write a review which is little more than a conclusion, saying something to the effect of, “The gear is great, if you want better photos you should click my affiliate link and buy this now.” Both of these are of very little use, and shouldn’t be given much consideration in important financial decisions.
5. The Reviewer Is Vague About Certain Details, But Not Others
This is an interesting case which could be attributed to simple forgetfulness, or it could be a lack of integrity. If the reviewer goes in-depth with certain metrics, but is vague on others, it’s possible that they’re trying to hide some flaws in the equipment. Alternatively, they may just lack the resources to test certain aspects fully. If all their reviews are vague about the same things, then that’s probably the case. However, if their reviews tend to vary in what they cover, I’d take their verdicts with a grain of salt.
6. Details Are Left Out
Just as bad as being vague about certain aspects is not talking about them at all. I could write a glowing review of the Nikon D7100 which would have every sports and wildlife photographer trying to buy one, I’d just have to leave out the little fact that the camera has a buffer of only 6 images. If you notice that a reviewer has left something out, there may be other things that they’ve forgotten.
7. The Review Was Written After Having Spent Very Little Time With The Equipment
Of course, this is fine if the reviewer states that the review is their first impressions. However, if they’re trying to say that they’ve had enough experience to write a full review after a three-day rental, chances are, they’re not going to be able to provide information that’s as accurate as someone who’s been using it for six months. There are important things like durability and workflow integration that you simply can’t judge without spending a lot of time with a new piece of kit, and hence, it’s impossible to create a full review from limited experience. This is why the best reviews always come out at least three months after a product goes on sale – the early reviews inevitably fail to mention certain crucial details.
8. The Reviewer Doesn’t Mention Similar Alternatives
This is one that always bugs me a little bit – a reviewer’s goal is to help readers in the decision-making process, and if they don’t at least make a brief mention of similar products that the reader could look into, then they’re half way to being an advertisement. Reviewing the Sigma 50mm Art? Mention the Zeiss Otus, Nikon 58mm f1.4, and Canon 50mm L. Or at least one of them. If you’re reading a review and it seems like the reviewer has no knowledge of alternative products, it quite likely that this is the first time they’ve ever used this kind of equipment and their review may be thrown off by this.
By keeping these eight principles in mind, you’ll be able to tell when a reviewer is making a subjective evaluation that may not be of value to you, and avoid making the wrong decisions when it comes time to pull the trigger on new gear. Of course, the best way to see if you’ll like something is to try it for yourself! Whether you rent it, try it at the camera store, or borrow a friend’s stash, it’s always worth getting some hands on time with something you’re considering buying.
Any other tips for getting the most out of online reviews? Be sure to share in the comments below!