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Reserving Judgment

Johnston on PhotographyAugust 2008 (updated March 2009)


September 11, 2008 — As I write this, the Sony A900 was introduced only two days ago. The basic nature of the camera has long been known—Sony first started talking about it a year and a half ago, and its evolution has been more or less an open secret since then. It’s to be Sony’s “flagship” (the word was virtually the “in vitro” name of the camera), that is to say, the top of the line—so it’s meant to be a premium, deluxe product that has some capabilities that distinguish it from lesser models. It’s a mid-sized camera (for a DSLR) with a 35mm-sized sensor, a generously large and bright viewfinder with 100% coverage, built-in image stabilization, and a new, high-resolution sensor capable of making large prints (the specification is for a print that is more than 20 inches in the long dimension at a full 300ppi).

Although early production units are in beta-testers’ hands and a number of review samples have been passed out to the bigger sites and magazines, the camera can’t be purchased yet by the average man or woman on the street. Very few people have used it at all yet, and fewer still have long-term experience with it. Despite that, based on the remarkably scanty evidence of a few early tests that in some cases are demonstrably being misinterpreted, people all over the Internet are hotly pontificating about what the camera is or isn’t, and can and cannot do. Judgments and pronouncements are flying.

I don’t really have a lot to say here, other than express amazement that people are willing to get so lathered up on so little evidence. It’s almost as if we’d gotten an abrupt introduction to a previously unknown politician and were forced to decide, on little evidence and less familiarity, whether she’s a star and a savior or a dunce and a danger—all before her first official press interview as a candidate!! That would boggle the mind of any scrupulous, fair-minded, judicious person, now, wouldn’t it?? I mean, really.

No one would ever do that.

And yet with cameras it’s different, somehow. With cameras, we toss our good judgment and our intelligent reserve cavalierly out the window. Little morsels of evidence are held up under the virtual klieg lights with long tweezers and examined from every direction; great final pronouncements are extrapolated from these tidbits, some in one direction, some in the other—by different people but from the same scanty information. Rumors are set to cooking. People choose sides. Infighting gets progressively, rapidly, more intense. Tempers heat up. (Why won’t these idiots see it my way?) Pretty soon, it’s: the A900 is this. Or, the A900 is that. Presumptions calcify. And before you know it, the thing has gotten…ah, yes…a reputation.

All before anybody can even buy the darn thing. All before we really know anything about it. All when just a few reviewers have posted preliminary reports. A reputation, all right, but one based mainly on fancy, supposition, assumptions, with just the lightest limning of fact enlightening the outermost edges of the storm and fury.

Why does this seem to happen whenever any important new camera is introduced? It would probably make a good subject for a sociological study. But even in the absence of such a study, one thing seems certain: it doesn’t reflect well on us, either way. Are we after real information, or is it a simple popularity contest, decided on the most superficial of factors? And how do we feel when we come down hard on one side or the other, only to find out later that we were…er, well, wrong?

The Sony A900: This trial’s a long way from closing arguments

I would suggest that the proper attitude when a new camera gets introduced would be best embodied in three old, bland words: wait and see. Over-the-moon swooning about how great and wonderful the camera is, how it’s just what the speaker always wanted, how no camera can possibly eclipse it, etc., is really no smarter than jump-the-gun dismissals and dark apocalyptic dread about how terrible the noise will be, how some early samples look terrible and it won’t be possible to make a picture at more than ISO 400, how Sony has not really proven itself as a camera company and is not to be trusted, and so on. And vice versa.

It’s an old principle called reserving judgment. You want to reserve judgment so you won’t look like an idiot down the road when it turns out everything you’re assuming is wrong, that’s true, but another aspect of all this is that not reserving judgment when you ought to can actually prejudice your later judgment. That is, if you decide on scant evidence that it’s the camera for you and that’s that, you’re more likely to overlook or dismiss possible weaknesses and incompatibilities to your work as they’re revealed. If you decide that you hate the thing right from the get-go with very little reason, you’ve set in motion a self-fulfilling attitude that might be difficult to overcome later, and might prevent you from realizing that a new product is actually a good choice for you after all.

Personally, my attitude towards a new product is always a tendency to consider it from one of two ways: hmm, looks like it might be tasty and wonderful, let’s wait and see; or, jeez, don’t see much point in that, but let’s wait and see.

Furthermore, I never assume that even a top-of-the-line model has to be all things to all people. Everything’s more or less appropriate for certain people and certain uses; no product can be all things to everyone all the time.

So, finally, a few words of advice about the wonderful-and-tasty-looking Sony A900: yes, it might offer virtually the same resolution as the Canon 1Ds Mk. III but at half the price; we’ll have to wait and see. Yes, it might have more noise at high ISOs than some of its competition; but bear in mind that we’ve only seen in-camera JPEGs and RAW conversions from Sony’s own converter so far; better to withhold judgment until other RAW converters (especially ACR) can handle A900 files. (And wise to bear in mind that we’ve never seen files this big online from a DSLR before, so you’re peeping deeper into the pixels than you’re used to doing.) Sure, the built-in IS is either going to be an incredible low-light boon with fast, wide lenses, or perhaps (being the first full-frame sensor IS) it won’t work as well as in-lens or APS-C sensor IS; implementation is everything when it comes to this feature (so, yes, we’d better wait and see). Shutter noise, responsiveness, viewfinder size and brightness, shooting configurations, ease of operation, the prints on the wall, whether or not you like how it feels in your hand…I’m not going to say it again. You get the picture.

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Text ©2008 Mike Johnston.

Article revised March 2009.

Readers' Comments


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Derek Stanton , September 18, 2008; 05:34 P.M.

I wish you'd leave the politics out of it.

But, now that you mention it, i am curious to see how you guys spin Palin. Put her on the other team, and the sharkiness would be like nothing ever seen.

David Glover , September 18, 2008; 06:25 P.M.

This isn't confined to the photo commentariat. Too much of our media relies on bluster, hyperbole and polarisation. The media have learned that controversy sells, so they serve it up in bucketloads.

Any time we feel our blood start to rise, we need to check ourselves and...reserve judgement. Personally I've given up on newspapers and television news/current affairs. You have to spend all your time filtering out 'spin'. If they don't spin it to support some agenda of their own, they spin it to get us all fired up. I'm not interested in having my buttons pushed.

It does say something that the first comment wishes you'd "leave the politics out", when you hadn't included any politics - just a comment on political comment.

Incidentally, it does amuse me when people say Sony has little experience in cameras. They have a longer experience in digital image capture through their pro video gear than any of the major still camera manufacturers.

Eric Vaughan , September 18, 2008; 09:47 P.M.

Great post Mike, I totally agree 100% with your assement. I wish more photographers would remember the camera is just a tool and until you have had a chance to see what that tool can really do good or bad, keep an open mind. I have tried to get a similar point across on some other forums threads I have posted, but didn't get my point across nearly as well as you have. Thanks for post Mike.

Starvy Goodfellows , September 19, 2008; 02:36 P.M.

sony is a company who have delivered good photographic products in the past. i see no reason to assume their latest offering would be any worse than the wonderful a100, a350 et all. for established photographers and reviewers who have a vested interest in canikon glass, it would be prudent to wait and see. for others, especially those starting out, it makes little sense not to go for a full frame camera when starting out when the alternative would be the likes of nikon of canon aps-c sensor.

Jeffrey Prokopowicz , September 21, 2008; 02:34 P.M.

Geez Mike, instead of an article "discussing the Sony Alpha A900," as promised, we get a lecture about "reserving judgement."

Since most of us are grown adults here, and human nature being what it is, and since the Sony Alpha 900 isn't even available, how 'bout discussing a relevant camera instead? That way your readers wouldn't feel like elementary school students, and we wouldn't have to buck human nature and reserve judgement.

Sounds win/ win to me.

Miserere Mei , September 24, 2008; 12:14 P.M.

I find it ironic that within this hobby that is based on capturing as many tones of the visible light spectrum as possible, most participants still look at the World as if it were in high-contrast B&W, with nothing but RGB (0,0,0)'s and (255,255,255)'s.

Rarely is a camera or a lens either crap or perfect, yet this adjectives are thrown around often. No, if I cannot trust these descriptions of articles that people actually have in their hands, how can I trust them when they talk about products that still haven't been released?

Thanks Mike, I appreciate your rant. And if you did talk at us like we were school children, that's fine. I know plenty of people who could benefit from this as they didn't seem to learn much the first time they went through school.

Nick Strocchia , September 24, 2008; 12:46 P.M.

Thanks for the posting Mike and you are spot on. I work in intelligence and the first question I always pose is "who are your sources?" The fact that there has been no comprehensive testing of this camera should not generate this amount of buzz, but then again the public has been somewhat patient over the last year and a half in anticipation for the a900 to hit the streets...

Jay Moynihan , September 26, 2008; 08:12 A.M.

Good points Mike. Whether its politics or consumer goods (DSLR's in this case), Its all part of having seats in Short Attention Span Theatre.

Eugene Scherba , October 23, 2008; 03:16 A.M.

While the premise of this post (to postpone judgement until presented with sufficient evidence) is reasonable, I beg to differ as to what exactly this sufficient evidence is. To me, a sample image from a camera is sufficient evidence. This has to do both with the way I see photography and with my tendency to value the end result more than the means necessary to achieve it.

Producing a hight-resolution and low-noise sensor is an engineering challenge and requires tremendous expertise in areas that all have enormous potential for practical applications such as nanoscale manufacturing, photonics, nanooptics, semiconductor design, and so on. Designing a product that respects its user and does not get in a way of the user's decisions, a product that allows itself to be used to the full extent, presents a different kind of challenge, something I would call a "vision" or "integrity" challenge.

In my view, Sony has failed to meet both of these challenges to the extent that other manufacturers (whose names should be obvious) have. First, we have sensors that nearly approach those of Kodak in terms of noise ("trash in, trash out"). Second, we don't have an open imaging pipeline: according to Sony's reports at least, some level of software noise reduction is applied to RAW files as they are written in-camera, and cannot be switched off ("trash in, trash out squared"). To someone like me who is involved in science, the second point is very upsetting -- much more upsetting than the noisy sensor. I want a device that records pure, unadulterated data, and Sony does not give me that.

Now I can hear people saying, "but I only take pictures in studio up to ISO 400, I don't need high ISO." Wrong. High sensitivity is always good. I take pictures in studio as well, and I can find noise on pictures made with any camera at ISO 100 when I photograph dark fabric and increase brightness in Photoshop. I usually don't have to do that, but I want low noise in the first place, just in case I do.

Of course, ergonomics are important, but they must always come after image quality considerations, not before. If someone made a block of wood with one button and a large, extremely low-noise sensor inside, I would buy it.

terry vetrono , July 21, 2010; 09:59 A.M.

Here's my 2 cents worth. If you have been around the photographic industry long enough and have been paying attention we have lost brand after brand of well designed and manufactured camera as well as other equipment. Has it helped the consumer? In my opinion Canon and Nikon have done more to ravage the industry than improve it and it appears that Sony is on the same page as well. That being said if you are rich in Minolta, or K/M product making a switch to either alternative is plain financial mayhem. When was the last time that a camera came to market with just the right amount of features, who made it, what happened to it? I can not begin to imagine what kind of quality we could have if only the piece concentrated on  graphics of a singular nature, who needs to have video(just one example)capability in a DSLR?? I am fairly certain I will have plenty of nay sayers but the drift of the industry to provide a product with unlimited features not to mention the high quality electronics needed to produce large images(everyone's goal)puts strain on the marketing side, the side that should have the least to say on what to produce. After all the above being said and the comments being read I applaud the article, it says much of my feelings in relation to today's photography and today's users. This author used a common sense approach to a common misinterpretation(not an exclusive to the photo industry)and those who differ with him have a very personal agenda which they prattle on from, reread and apply as needed!!

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