So you are interested in a new piece of gear: perhaps its a new camera body, or a used-but-still-good-condition lens that you found for a bargain on E-bay. However, you have no idea if the new item is actually an upgrade from what you already own: are you just suffering from a case of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) or will the new gear allow you to take better photographs?
Photography is both science and art, and therefore the reviews that you find on the Internet for photography gear can be both objective (science) and subjective (art). Some sites, such as DXOMark report measurable and repeatable statistics such as image resolution, dynamic range, and MTF charts. Others give you real-world usage feedback that can be more subjective, such as the ergonomics of a particular camera body or the color and skin tones coming out of a camera’s files.
So how exactly can you research a new piece of gear before making a potentially expensive purchasing decision?
Try Before You Buy
By far the best way to see if a you will like a new piece of gear is for you to actually take it for a test drive. If nothing else, you can try visiting a local camera store to handle the camera in person and see how it fits in your hand – a subjective matter that no amount of online research can adequately answer. Most larger metropolitan centers have local camera stores that stock popular camera bodies and lenses on display. For those of us living in the U.S., Best Buy recently introduced “Camera Experience Shops” that carry a much wider array of camera gear than the regular stores, and these can be a good way for you to try out that new camera you have been eyeing before buying. Better yet, Best Buy actually offers free photography education classes that you can register for each month at these special stores (check out: Best Buy Camera Experience Stores.) Now, if you find that you do like the camera or lens, I recommend that you do at least consider buying it at your local Best Buy since these camera experience stores can only exist if they continue to generate a profit for the parent company. And you do get to take the camera or lens home with you right away – no shipping delay.
If you live in a smaller town and don’t have access to a local camera store, you can still try out a piece of gear by borrowing or renting it. One way is to join a local camera club, which, by the way, can do wonders for your photography. You will generally find that fellow members will be quite helpful in gear advice and letting you try out their gear. One way to find a local camera club is through Meetup. A Google search for “camera clubs near me” could also yield several results. Another good place to find camera club flyers is at your local library, community center, or community college or university.
Another alternative if you don’t belong to any clubs is to simply rent: LensRentals will drop-ship camera gear to any location within the United States, and you can use them to try out a new lens or camera body to your heart’s content and return it afterwards, or use your rental as credit towards purchase if you decide to keep the gear after the rental period.
Check Out Real-World Examples
The second best way to evaluate camera gear before making a purchasing decision (next to trying it out in person) is to see example shots that others have taken with the same gear. While camera reviews and scientific tests have their place and provide valuable objective information, unless you plan on using your camera to shoot test charts exclusively , what really matters at the end of the day is the subjective look of the photographs coming out of the camera – do you personally like the way the images are rendered? Real-world usage of a camera or lens differs from the sample images you often see on professional review sites in that these images are taken by regular camera enthusiasts and non-professionals and can provide a more honest “behind the scenes” look at the quality of images that you will likely actually get. Don’t get me wrong – there are many advantages to reading professional camera reviews – the results they publish conform to specific benchmarks and are designed to be repeatable, and since it is usually the same person or same couple of people evaluating the various gear, it reduces variability in results due to user experience and skill. I highly recommend reading high-quality and reputable camera gear review sites for such objective reviews, but they are not, in my opinion, the best source if you want to actually see the kind of images a camera produces in the real world. For real world images, the best place to do your research is Flickr. You can search Flickr’s database for any particular camera body or lens (e.g. “Canon EF 85mm f/1.8”) to bring up literally thousands of sample images posted by ordinary people (as well as professional photographers). For convenience, you can also join a Flickr group dedicated to a particular piece of gear, and scroll through the massive archives of photographs contributed to the group by the Internet community.
Finally, I recommend that you visit reputable camera gear review sites prior to making a purchasing decision. Why? Because these are still basically the only practical way to obtain objective information for comparing scientifically how a camera or lens performs compared to others on the market.
The industry standard for scientific benchmark testing of camera gear is DXOMark. This site provides scientific measurements and scores for a wide variety of camera bodies and lenses, and the “DXOMark Score” is an oft-quoted statistic by professional camera reviewers. Be warned that it can be difficult to properly interpret the numbers and charts on the site, and the site does exclude many third-party lenses and bodies. However, if you want to get “just the numbers” on a comparison between two camera bodies or lenses, this site is authoritative.
Another really useful site is Photozone, which relies on gear donations for their reviews, so naturally not every new lens or camera body will have a review on the site, but for those that are available, they do a really excellent job of evaluating the gear in an impartial and objective manner. They have a very consistent testing methodology which makes comparisons between different cameras and lenses much easier, and they rate lenses based on optical quality, construction quality, and value for money.
Other good review sites include Imaging Resource, DP Review, and Camera Labs. It is beyond the scope of this blog to delve into each site in detail, but I do encourage you to check out these sites as they provide very high quality reviews. Finally, you can always turn to Youtube for camera reviews from people such as Tony and Chelsea Northrup and Dustin Abbott. Youtube video reviews tend to go into more depth than written ones, but tend to cover only the more popular items from the major manufacturers.