17 Lies and half-truths in the Camera business

There are a lot of half-truths going around about photography. Generally, the various photographic equipment companies spread one or two of them, and then the various photography magazines and megasites play along because they realize that to go against what the photography companies want is a great way to not get access to the latest and greatest for review.

But really, people are being lied to. Not in a direct, malicious, illegal sort of way. But in a subtle way, where they exaggerate a half-truth or omit a fairly important caveat. Where they push the boundary of how much you can say before you have to deal with lawsuits.

Lie 1: Anti-Shake for sharp pictures in low light!

Sometimes, this is a lie. Sometimes this is only a half-truth. See, there's a few ways to get a sharp exposure for moving stuff in low light.

The first is lots of light and/or high performance optics. This is expensive. You may have a 300mm zoom lens that goes to 5.6 wide open. Those white lenses on the side of a sports field can be zoom lenses that go to 2.8 wide open. Your lens needs four times as much light to freeze action. The white lens costs many times more because it's harder to produce (which increases the cost) and harder to design (which means they need to charge more to make up for their optical designer's time). And it gets worse because the high price reduces the size of the market further, which means they can't take advantage of being able to order huge batches of parts and the ability to spread the cost of design out among more lenses.

The second is moving some parts of the lens in the opposite direction of camera shake or, alternatively, the sensor. For many situations, these work. For sports, of course, you'll end up with a sharp playing field and blurry players, but otherwise this helps.

The third is to bump up the ISO speed or potentially do certain software techniques. These may work, but they won't offer the same sort of quality as the first or second option.

If a camera manufacturer bumps the ISO speed or something slightly sneakier and tries to pass it off as the second solution, they are lying. Consider this: Bumping ISO speed or other such tricks will work on any camera. You can draw two conclusions. Either the camera makers know that high-performance lenses or mechanical stabilization built into the lens works better and are willingly deceiving you. Or, perhaps, whenever they get around to improving the processing software on their entire camera line, we'll have even better low light performance.

Note that the third option actually works in many situations on video cameras because you don't just contend with the blur on an individual frame but also the camera rocking from side to side while you move around. Still, better camcorders use real optical image stabilization, too.

Lie 2: ISO 8,000!!! ISO 10,000!!!

Digital sensors are somewhat arbitrary about the ISO. Configure the various parts of the sensor differently and you have anywhere between 8 and 8000 iso.

So you can have your ISO as high as you want if you can accept the increased noise and reduced dynamic range.

Just because your camera with a grain-of-salt-sized sensor has an ISO 8000 setting doesn't mean you can actually take a good picture at 8000 ISO. You need a big sensor like the digital SLRs to look even halfway good at high ISO settings.

The grain-of-salt-sized sensor in your average digital P&S camera has only marginally improved in the past few years. In fact, most modern P&S cameras have smaller sensors than before, so their noise is likely worse. It's just that they've tweaked the software so it appears like there's less noise in the image, generally at the cost of actual resolution. They do this not because it will result in a better camera, but because they want ISO speed to be the next feature they heavily advertise to people who don't know cameras well.

Remember, however, that Nikon's advertising for the D3 (6400 with boost up to ISO 25600) is not a lie.

Lie 3: 10 megapixels! 12 megapixels!

A digital SLR with a quality lens and a large sensor can handle 10 megapixels. A point and shoot with a grain-of-salt-sized sensor can't. It's my opinion that 6 megapixels was about the maximum a P&S camera should have had. What happens is that diffraction increases until even a theoretically perfect (the term is "diffraction limited") lens cannot actually give you sufficent detail to get 10 "real" megapixels worth of detail.

Oh, and as you decrease the size of the sensor, you lose dynamic range and gain noise.

The funny thing is that as you move to a smaller sensor, faster lenses become easier. Yet zoom lenses on point-and-shoot cameras are stuck at around f/2.8. The additional noise from the smaller sensor would be offset by a faster lens. You could make a zoom that's more like f/2 or f/1.8 on the wide end and still have a usable depth of field.

Lie 4: 10 megapixels! 12 megapixels! (interpolated)

I'm surprised that camera manufacturers aren't getting sued for selling "interpolated" resolution cameras without any theoretical basis for it.

Fuji was selling their SuperCCD cameras as having twice the resolution for a while because there was a mild theoretical basis for a claim of extra resolution by the way they shaped their sensors. And if you take a "12 megapixel" SuperCCD sensor and compare it against a 6 megapixel standard sensor, it really does look better. Everybody else who's doing it doesn't seem to care.

With GenuineFractals or similar software, you can create an awfully good appearance of better resolution. No cameras on the market have enough power to make it worthwhile to integrate into the camera.

But lesser manufacturers are trying to sell interpolated resolution as the spec. This is a clear intent to deceive the buying public. Bell + Howell licensed their brand to another company (because they had a good brand name 10-20 years ago before they stopped selling consumer-oriented products) who was advertising a camera with 10 megapixels of "interpolated" resolution.

The part that disturbs me is that Minox did this. Their Miniature Digital Leica M3 has a 3.2 megapixel sensor but they advertise it as a 4 megapixel camera.

Lie 5: Stick it atop your flash and get beautiful light every time!

There's two things that these products do.

The first is making the light source from your flash bigger and farther from your flash, so as to make the lighting softer.

The other is bouncing the light all over the place. This is a valid technique, mind you. But when you can't bounce, like maybe you are in a room with red walls, you are in trouble and your flash isn't as magic as you thought.

The problem is, you'll never see folks selling these things really explain which sort of situations these things work in. Of course not. They're MAGIC and they work GREAT in EVERY situation. You also rarely see them really compare the results between different diffuser products. Last I heard, there's a lot less difference than you'd think.

Personally, I either use a sheet of paper or the ceiling. Or I take my flash off-camera.

Lie 6: Makes flash obsolete!

Some of the sensitivity-enhancing products on the market are advertising themselves as making the flash obsolete.

To say this shows a clear lack of photographic understanding. A flash is useful for more things than just allowing you to take crappy pictures in low light. For example, if I wanted to modify the lighting outdoors, I'm going to need a few thousand watts of Hollywood-grade HMI lighting and a generator to do what a few battery powered flashes will do. I can't just bump up the sensitivity of the camera's sensor because sometimes the light will be really cruddy. For example, a portrait taken under the noontime sun is going to look bad in a way that added sensitivity won't help you with.

Lie 7: 100 shooting modes for better pictures!

Most shooting modes are there to impress a beginning user.

When I teach people how to use their cameras, I tell them to keep their cameras in full-auto mode until they know what isn't coming out right... and then figure out what to do about it. In my opinion, when you reach that point, you are probably interested enough in photography that you are ready to learn about the photographic triangle and related concepts and are ready for manual modes. If you are not interested in learning about the concepts of photography, you are probably not interested in learning about what each of the modes does and when you want to use it.

I suspect that a very small list of modes would be handy, maybe Auto, Night, and Action, but it turned into a numerical figure to compare cameras with and therefore got out of control.

Lie 8: 10x zoom! 12x zoom! 20x zoom!

Zoom lenses aren't easy to make. The bigger the zoom range, the harder it gets to successfully construct a lens.

Modern lens design has pushed up the quality bar so that an appropriately expensive zoom lens will take awfully good shots. The Nikon 18-200mm lens has some major fans and is an 11x zoom lens.

However, consider that throughout the 18-200mm's zoom range, it gets between f/3.5 and 5.6. Prime lenses that are at least f/2.8 are available. And if you are content to have a smaller zoom range, you can get 2.8 zoom lenses.

This comes at a cost. A zoom is just as special-purpose as a prime lens. Also, remember that the Nikon 18-200mm is a unique lens... most other 10x zoom lenses have severe problems.

Incidentally the number of "x" that a zoom has is pretty useless because you don't know where it starts or it ends. A 10-100mm lens is a 10x zoom, as is a 50-500mm lens.

Lie 9: 10x zoom camera that's just like an SLR but smaller and cheaper!

Zoom lenses get easier to design with a smaller sensor. You can make a 10x zoom lens for a grain-of-salt sized point and shoot sensor with astonishing ease. They make video camera lenses with an astonishing zoom range because the sensor's even smaller and the resolution's low enough to not notice too much blur and diffraction.

Nothing currently on the market holds a candle to a real digital SLR. If were to make a camera with (for example) a 10x zoom lens like the the aforementioned Nikon 18-200mm lens and a 10 megapixel sensor, it would end up looking like you'd taken the 18-200mm lens and glued it onto the front of a SLR body. It would cost about the same. And you wouldn't have the option of using other lenses.

Lie 10: 10x digital zoom (2x optical)

They've been at this one for ages. Digital zoom is a lie. All that's happening is that the camera is cropping the center portion of your existing image. If you have your camera set to a lower resolution, then offering digital zoom is not a lie.

Otherwise, it's a lie if you spend any time advertising it.

Lie 11: Newly developed film, made in ... by ....

This one really got me cheesed off.

Even though AfgaPhoto is bankrupt, there's another division of Agfa that still has a coating plant. They make aerial survey film and other special purpose films.

Rollei, in partnership with Maco announced that they had developed some new and improved films. One of them was a new color film called Rollei Scanfilm. The other one was Rollei IR 400, which was supposed to be just like Maco 820c, but 2 stops faster.

Oh, and while we're on the subject, the Maco 820c was really made by Efke.

Well, it turns out in both cases, these are just repackaged versions of the aerial films made by Afga. The Rollei IR is very much not the same film as the old Maco film, and Scanfilm wasn't specially developed.

This bugs me for a number of reasons. Anybody with an ounce of sense can look at the sensitivity of Rollei IR 400 and compare it to the old 820c and see that these films are not the same. Second, Rollei isn't actually investing in new products, just repackaging old stuff that they don't even control. Or, even better, selling old Agfa APX master rolls that nobody can make anymore as new product.

My initial thought was that there could be extra players in the color film market, if Kodak or Fuji ever decided to leave the market. So I feel let down that it isn't a new film.

Also, at least some of the claims made about Rollei Scanfilm aren't especially true. The absence of a color mask doesn't help make scanning easier, although in theory it could give you extra dynamic range at the same contrast.

Maco/Rollei/Agfa seem to finally be developing new films, like their ATP "tech-pan like" film.

And that's not all. Bluefire announced a "new" "made in North America" 127 film that's really just a master roll of normal Kodak film cut down to the now-hard-to-find 127 size.

The part that makes this upsetting is that it might lead somebody to think that companies are making huge bets, when they are just

Lie 12: Warming filter to improve your digital!

Unlike film, a properly designed digital camera is sufficiently neutral in colors that anything other than a severe color shift is going to be adjustable either with the onboard white balance controls, or afterwards with a RAW format file. For your average user who just wants to take pictures, they'll probably leave the camera in Auto white balance mode and they'll probably just reducing camera performance.

If somebody insists on trying to sell you a warming filter for your digital camera, ask why he's trying to sell you such a piece of crap that it won't adjust white balance on its own properly.

Note that an advanced photographer can and will carefully work with white balance and they might have sufficient understanding to find situations where a warming filter on the lens would be handy. I certainly don't have any uses for a warming filter on a digital.

The markup on cheap, uncoated, no-name filters is rather high, so it's a good way for a camera store to make up for having to compete with online merchants. When selling gear on eBay, it allows you to say "comes with 3 filters!" where one of them is a warming filter, one is a UV filter, and one is a polarizer.

Even with film, if you were shooting print film, it didn't matter what kind of warming filter you used, the results would be the same because the printing machines try to adjust the colors to look "correct".

Lie 13: Third party lenses that work great on your modern camera!!

Third party lenses are good. Sigma's 30mm f/1.4 lens is brilliant and fills a hole in the lineup of Nikon and Canon.

But they aren't guaranteed to work as well as a name-brand lens. Period. Nobody shares the electronic protocols that the camera body uses to talk to the lens, so everybody else has to figure it out on their own. This means that there's a slight but non-zero chance that somebody got something wrong. And even though Canon or Nikon probably won't go out of their way to break other people's lenses, they also don't bother checking for compatibility.

Pros tend not to use the third party lenses simply because if the lens goes on a blink for a second, they might miss something they are assigned to shoot. Amateurs get away with third party lenses because they accept the risk of a lens going on the blink. If I miss one cute expression out of my one of my nieces or nephews, I can always wait about 30 seconds for a new cute expression.

People have been told, generally by camera salesfolk, that these third-party lenses are actually better than the camera manufacturer lenses. Or that Canon or Nikon shared the protocols with one of the third-party manufacturers. These are all lies.

Lie 14: Point and shoot camera with a Zeiss/Schneider/etc. lens!

In the early 1900s, Zeiss lenses were unmatched. Eventually, everybody else got better. At this point, regardless of who developed the lenses.... Zeiss, Schneider, Canon, Mamiya, Nikon, or even Sigma or Tamron most of the time... most folks aren't going to be able to tell the difference between any two similar lenses built to similar quality standards.

People are brand sensitive when they are not equipped to analyze for themselves the relative merits of what they are choosing between, which is why Sony pays Zeiss money every year to put Zeiss-branded lenses on their cameras.

Lie 15: 3X teleconverter so you can make a 600mm lens out of your 70-200mm zoom!!

A teleconverter works more or less like a magnifying glass for your lens. It sits behind it and enlarges the central portion of the image.

You cannot get something out of nothing. A 2x teleconverter costs you two stops of light and reduces your image quality. In the days of prime lenses, a teleconverter was a good deal because your f/2.0 50mm lens became a f/4 100mm lens with a teleconverter.

Also, remember that most cameras will stop being able to autofocus below f/5.6 your viewfinder is going to be awfully dim and hard to see through at f/5.6.

A 1.4x or maybe a 2x teleconverter can come in handy in some situations, generally paired with a quality prime or excellent zoom lens. I know Canon (and I think Nikon also does this ) makes their teleconverters so that they only work with lenses that have room for the teleconverter element to extend into the back of the lens. This makes for a better teleconverter and also prevents users from doing clearly stupid things and complaining about how their camera doesn't autofocus and their lens is all blurry.

Lie 16: "L" grade lens means BETTER QUALITY!

Canon tends to like to make "L" lenses that are very good for corner cases. For example, they made a 50mm f/1.0 lens for a while. That's market leading, but that's also a lens that ways a few pounds and has such narrow depth of field that you barely notice that there's not much resolution at f/1.0.

At f/4, I bet that the fairly cruddy plastic 50mm f/1.8 lens is going to look as good, if not better.

Similarly, if you compare the 70-200mm f/2.8 L series zoom lens against the non-L 85mm f/1.8 or 100mm f/2 prime lenses (I initially said 200mm f/2.8, but that's also an L), the prime lens is going to be sharper by a fairly large margin.

Nikon is more understated. Instead of making one well-built lens that's at the very edge of light collecting ability and one not-so-well-built lens that's easy to build, they make one well-built lens that's got a reasonable amount of extra light collecting ability and one not-so-well-build lens. So Canon makes an 85mm 1.2 and 1.8, whereas Nikon makes a 85mm 1.4 and 1.8. Most folks won't notice the fractional stop between the two lenses but will probably appreciate the difference in price.

Lie 17: An EOS 1Ds Mk II for the cost of an EOS 5D!!!!!!

This is a warning that seems to require repetition. And repetition. And still more repetition.

Because most people (and their wives, generally) see cameras as a luxury, not a requirement, they want to get the fanciest camera possible for the least amount of money. So there's a whole industry of scam camera stores out there. Some of them are in tourist-trap areas, others are online.

They've got a lot of games they'll play with you. B&H and Adorama will sell "Gray market" parts for a little less, so when asked, they'll say it's "Gray market"

But then they'll tell you that the Gray Market doesn't come with a battery or case or manual. But they'll upgrade you to the "USA version" with those parts for more than you can get it elsewhere. Or they'll sell you those extra bits at an increased price. Generally selling you crap parts as if they were made by Zeiss and blessed by Ansel Adams himself.

Oh, and if you manage to not allow yourself to pay more than list price for the whole package, they'll cancel your order, so you'll just waste time. And because everybody knows about this scam, no other camera stores will try and match their price.

I stopped bargain-hunting. I figure that if I can't get it from Kamera Korner or Keeble and Shuchat locally or from B&H, Adorama, or Freestyle for a reasonable price, I don't want it.

This is clearly fraud. The problem is that they are just sneaky enough to require more effort than your average Attorney General is prepared to spend on them.

Posted by bill lehman :
I learned a ton from your warnings. I will be a regular reader. You really got my attention about gray goods, however. I think JR.com is really head and shoulders above the usual camera retailer. We, like others, are hurt by the lowballing of some of the other stores, because we generally match prices. I would like to know if you have had any bad experiences with our website.
Posted by Wirehead Arts :
I have heard nothing about J&R cameras. I generally refer people to http://www.resellerratings.com/store/J_R_Computers

Of course, I find the notion of trying to price-match bait-and-switch artists bad business. Half of what makes a good Internet store work is careful price and overhead control, such that the prices slide nicely between the outright fraudulent merchants and full-service high-end merchants.

The lies:

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