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Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Rashomon Effect

Our perceptions of equipment strongly influence how we feel about it

I can honestly say today that equipment is very, very good. You can take superb-quality images from compact digital cameras that can be used on a publication cover (I’ve done it). You can pick up any camera or lens made today and know that you can get quality images from it. Are they different? Absolutely. But if you compare similar gear in terms of price and features, you won’t see much of a difference in quality. What you will see is very subjective—how a lens or camera is configured and how its features work.

That’s where the problem of comparisons, of good or bad, come in. Many people have the expectation that you can find a perfect camera or lens in one group of gear and crap in another, and they want to know the difference. Fortunately for photographers, that doesn’t exist. But since people want it to exist, they make judgments either that magazines, such as OP, are biased or do reviews for the advertisers. This gets so extreme that we’ve received letters saying we’re pandering to advertisers even when the product reviewed is from a company that has never advertised in OP!

And we all make judgments based on our subjective view of what works and what doesn’t. I had this spelled out for me in no uncertain terms about 10 years ago. I had a Minolta film camera for review, a new design that was quite different from the Maxxum SLRs before this. I shot with it, and I truly loved the camera. I loved the way the controls were set up and how it handled.

Well, I ran into a photographer on a trail and noticed he was shooting with the older-style Minolta. I casually mentioned that I had seen the new Minolta and wondered if he had, too. He lit into the new design with a vengeance that caught me off guard. The new Minolta—he couldn’t believe the company would sink so low as to produce something like that and he was seriously thinking of changing brands.

Whoa! How could I like something so much and he hate it so much? Were either of us just stupid? Was I pandering to Minolta? Hardly. The problem is that of subjective impression. Equipment doesn’t exist in an arbitrary, objective world (which makes it hard for me to take camera reviews from Consumer Reports seriously). Camera equipment represents our tools, and we need tools that we feel comfortable with.

This Minolta photographer was comfortable with the old style of Minoltas. I had no history with them, plus I was comfortable using a variety of cameras, so I had none of that bias. That doesn’t make my opinion about the camera right, though. The photographer was as right as I was. For him, Minolta had taken away features and handling that he knew and loved. In essence, the new camera "expected" him to behave differently, which wasn’t how he took pictures.

Back in 1950, the brilliant Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made the film Rashomon, which is considered one of the great classic films. In this film, a crime occurs, but its story is told in flashbacks as recounted by the main characters. Each person tells a different story to the judge. Which one is the truth? Plus, a couple of observers of the court recast the stories again.


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