The Rashomon Effect

Our perceptions of equipment strongly influence how we feel about it

Photographers love to argue about their gear. Are you a Canon shooter or a Nikon shooter? Maybe you have an affinity for Olympus or Pentax cameras. Or perhaps you love the technology companies and have something from Panasonic, Samsung or Sony.

What about your computer? Mac or PC? Do you love to hate Microsoft? Or maybe you think Steve Jobs is the hypemeister?

No matter what your feelings about gear, you undoubtedly do have some feelings there. This is why doing product reports can be so challenging. Many people aren’t interested in knowing how good or bad a particular piece of gear is. They often want to know if they made the right decision in buying it, if it’s about gear they own, or they want to know how their gear compares to other gear.

And what’s fascinating to me is that this becomes more about human nature than gear. Many people want to argue with product reports if the report doesn’t support their idea about a particular piece of gear. You really see this with computers (which we don’t review here); a reviewer says something negative about a Mac, and let the letters begin! You’d think, sometimes, that the reviewer was talking about religion (and sometimes it seems he or she is).

It‚’s a fundamental truth that we all see things differently. Take these two photographs. On the face of it, these are completely different photographs, but on a certain level they‚’re both images that record a frog. In this single example, you can see the Rashomon effect: the same basic subject interpreted in two completely different ways.

It’s a fundamental truth that we all see things differently. Take these two photographs. On the face of it, these are completely different photographs, but on a certain level they’re both images that record a frog. In this single example, you can see the Rashomon effect: the same basic subject interpreted in two completely different ways.

I’ve been covering this industry intensely for 12 years, and I’ve been involved in photography and keeping up with technology for much, much longer than that. I’ve seen the evolution of zooms, for example, from poor-quality glass that no pro would ever use into high-quality lenses that are optics of choice for any pro. I’ve witnessed how computer-aided design and manufacturing have allowed superb lenses to be made today at affordable prices. And, of course, I’ve been an active witness to the revolution of digital photography.

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.

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.