These days, there’s really no excuse for being an uninformed consumer, especially when it comes to buying a new camera. With a million-and-one sites offering opinions, price comparisons and pictures of different photography products, you should always know exactly what you’re buying. And when you’re coughing up several hundred — or more — bucks it’s worth making the effort to read the reviews.
But too much information can be a bad thing too. With the most profitable ad-supported websites focused on products (such as cameras) how can you be sure that the reviewer you’re reading knows something about camera he’s testing… or that he’s even seen it?
1. Go For Print
The easiest way to be sure that a review is objective, professional and trustworthy is to skip past the Internet and head straight for print magazines. When a publication has invested in journalists, printing and distribution systems, it’s only going to survive on its reputation. If its reviews are duff, its sales will suffer and it won’t survive for long.
That doesn’t mean you have to actually leave your house and go to a bookstore though. Consumer magazines such as Which? and Consumer Reports offer both unbiased, scientific reviews and online subscriptions. Those with a UK address can even get their first month at Which? for free — long enough to read the reviews then cancel before the first payment is due. Just don’t tell them we told you…
2. Check Out The Source
Reviewing cameras properly is an expensive business. Camera companies aren’t known for passing out their best products to everyone who wants to try them. (One exception is Nikon, which has been offering some of its models to bloggers with the expectation of favorable reviews — beware of bloggers saying they have received gifts.)
Most camera review sites though tend to recycle reviews from other places. Darren Rowse’s Digital Photography Blog, for example, simply tells people where to find reviews of particular cameras. It can sometimes take a few clicks to discover exactly who wrote the review you’re reading.
But it’s worth it.
A review that looks good on a syndicate site could appear very differently on a site that contains more ads than content and which clearly makes money from affiliate sales. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the reviews are poor. But it might make you suspicious of the glowing compliments.
3. Look For Detail
One tell-tale sign that the reviewer has actually tested the product is a lot of first-person pronouns. When the writer reveals his or her personal impression, you can be sure you’re getting a real opinion, not just what a publisher thinks the reader wants to know. Details that you wouldn’t get from the sales blurb or the user manual are also good signs of reliability.
In this review of the Nikon Coolpix S200 at DigitalCameraReview.com, for example, Howard Creech actually counts the number of zoom steps the camera offers — and criticizes it. Agree or disagree, you’ve got his honest opinion.
4. Listen To The Specialists
Most review sites are generalists. A few, such as Nikonians.org, specialize in a particular manufacturer or type of camera. Although the reviewers can seem a little… well, nerdy (it’s something to do with the brand loyalty), few people will know more about that particular niche. Comparisons will often focus on small improvements and changes that might not be that important to you (such as weight or size), but you’ll pick up a wealth of detail that other reviewers overlook.
5. Read The Comments
The people who write the reviews at print magazines are all professionals — professional writers. That’s fine as far as it goes but in the spirit of Web 2.0, there’s something to be said for reviews written by the camera’s users. When you’re reading reviews, don’t just focus on the articles, look at the responses too. Check out the forums and read the feedback at shopping sites like Amazon. You won’t just get the opinion of someone who used the product once and wrote about it. You’ll get a long-term view of someone who’s used the camera for months or years.