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Saturday, September 1, 2007

The Rashomon Effect

Our perceptions of equipment strongly influence how we feel about it

The point is that everyone sees the same things differently, and we all recast events in ways that make sense to what we believe. "Rashomon" has even entered our vocabulary as a word meaning that the truth can be hard to determine because people will have varying accounts of the same event. There’s even a Rashomon effect in psychology that refers to the subjective nature of perception that causes observers of an event to have different, yet plausible explanations of what happened.

I was reminded that this is what makes reviews so hard by something I read by video expert Adam Wilt about his reviewing experience. The Rashomon effect is, in a way, why we try to do simple equipment reviews with basic facts about the gear. We’re not set up for lab testing, nor do we want to be—we like to photograph landscapes, flowers and other outdoor subjects, not test charts. A test chart can tell you only so much and can be very misleading as to how a lens, for example, acts in the field.

But we can never get away from the Rashomon effect. Every equipment reviewer is an individual with a bias and subjective perception. This actually points to an advantage for places that have one person do all the reviews of gear. After reading a few of their reports, you can get an idea of their biases and figure out how to best interpret their conclusions. We can’t do that because we need a less intensely personalized review process.

I’m not trying to say that anyone is wrong or right in this process. In fact, probably everyone is right based on his or her specific situation. A Nikon D2Xs, for example, could be a perfect camera or a big paperweight, depending on the needs of the individual.

Still, I come back to one thing (and I’ve also heard people with the photo companies say something similar). Gear today is very, very good. Price differentiates features and how equipment can be compared. A VW Beetle is no Mercedes, but then, it was never meant to be. Cameras and lenses are similar.

It is, to me, a time-wasting parlor game to try to compare a low-priced camera or lens to high-priced pro gear. They’re designed for entirely different purposes and markets.

The pro might hate the low-priced camera, yet a beginning photographer loves it. Both perceptions, though conflicting, are accurate and correct. The beginner might be intimidated by the pro camera, yet the pro thinks it’s a superbly designed tool that’s simple and easy to use. Again, these perceptions are accurate and correct for each.

As you look at gear, whether in our magazines, on the web or at a store, keep this in mind. Make up your mind as to what you need based on the specifications of the equipment and how it handles for you. Never get a camera or a lens because someone else has one. Go out and hold one, see how it fits your needs and your biases, and give the equipment a chance to show off its features for you.


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