The Reviews Are All In. Yippee!

Sony's gotten incredibly good at this, but others are quickly catching on: make sure friendly media with broad reach all have your new product in hands a week or so before introduction so that reviews magically appear the day of—or in the case of a Northrup slip up, the day before—the launch. 

What then happens is that dozens, maybe many dozens of YouTube videos and mainstream media articles all appear anointing the new product as some sort of winner. 

Those aren't reviews. Those are biased impressions. And quick, first impressions, at that. (Disclosure: only about half of the 30 or so A7 Mark IV videos I looked at labeled themselves "reviews", but they all had plenty of final pronouncements.)

Surprisingly, the supposedly great Sony autofocus system in the A7 Mark III now appears to have had warts in it all along, because virtually all these quick impressions are now proclaiming that the new camera just performs so much better than the old when it comes to focus. In reality, the Sony A7 Mark III autofocus system, in my testing, lags behind the Nikon Z6 II autofocus in a number of ways. But that notion never made it into the mainstream press, because the mainstream press is only interested in being the first to reveal the Next Big Thing or make a Provocative Proclamation. Of course, they wouldn't really know what the Next Big Thing is unless the brand's marketing department told them what it is. 

Note: I did see some criticisms in the plethora of quick impression videos. These tend to be along the lines of "not what I expected/wanted." In other words, inflated expectations weren't met. But those criticisms, too, have a problem: the actual camera is probably darned good (note that I'm going to reserve my full assessment until I can adequately review it, which probably won't be until 2022).

Which leads us to the other aspect of brand marketing that's going on right now: halo cloaking. A company announces a top end and expensive camera that indeed does push the state-of-the-art forward in some way. The Sony A1 is one recent example of this, and the Nikon Z9 will be another very soon now. What the brand believers all then start to align with is the following: since the halo product has industry-leading performance/technology in some regard, all the products in the brand must be industry-leading. 

Halo marketing has been the go to mantra of the automobile industry for decades: if we can make an incredible car that wins races, all our cars are incredible. In the NASCAR world, there used to be a saying that said "if it wins on Sunday, it sells on Monday." This has turned into DIGICAM world as "If it's hyped on Sunday, it sells on Monday." 

No doubt we've had some incredible cameras introduced in 2021: Canon R3, Fujifilm GFX50s and GFX100s, Sony A1 and (maybe) A7 Mark IV, and soon, likely the Nikon Z9. Though if these were the only cameras that these company sold, they'd all be out of the photography business in a year, and your local camera dealer would soon disappear. 

Fundamentally, the Fujifilm X-E4, Nikon Zfc, and Sony EV-10 are the more important cameras introduced so far this year, as the quantities that will be sold and how they influence the actual market will be more important to the long-term viability of the camera companies. Indeed, I'm a little worried at the moment, because the number of such cameras has basically bottomed out in terms of yearly announcements in 2021. We had way more cameras in the middle introduced in 2020 than we've had in 2021. The good news is that those 2020 cameras are all still very current, but at some point we'll need to see another round of bottom and middle cameras being iterated, or else we'll just return to market downsizing. 

The reality is this: Canon, Fujifilm, Nikon, OM Digital Solutions, Panasonic, and Sony are all incredibly competitive. Each is pushing hard to show what it is they can do in the camera space. And they all have things they can point to that make them a leader in some way. Some of them have gotten quite good at the marketing game, but a very specific type of marketing game: launch hype. 

Yet most of the camera sales this year will be "well behind launch hype." That's because it's in the long sales tail that you make your money. R&D costs need to be paid back in unit volume, not launch hysterics. Sony, for instance, is still selling the A7 Mark II, which simply isn't up to the level of the similarly priced, newer, and never really hyped Nikon Z5. True, there are more lenses available for the A7 Mark II, but just exactly how many lenses does this type of customer buy? One, maybe two, typically, though having a full lineup is a marketing check box that many look at. There's a marketing position that isn't being actively promoted well: all you need. All a lot of you need is a Z5 and a 24-200mm f4/-6.3 lens. Solidly good camera, excellent imagery, excellent optics, and that's true across most types of photography its target customers would attempt.

I'll continue to do what I've been doing: actually use a product for some time before writing what I hope is a thorough and fair review. I could join the Launch Enhancing Crowd and produce talking head videos with camera body fondling, but that would go against everything I've done in the media since I wrote the first set of product review guidelines for a major national tech publication back in 1980 (a 75-page set of very specific things that dictated how we reviewed products, and for which I had to fire several people for not adhering to). Of course, full disclosure: this was shortly after I received an award from a prestigious organization for misusing the words "this computer screams." That, of course, is a total bastardization of both the English language and common sense, and full of hyperbole. But I came to my senses and settled into a more disciplined approach thereafter.

In the meantime, if you're truly interested in improving your photography:

  • You have a current camera — look at your lenses, enroll in classes.
  • You have an older camera — look at the updated model, look at your lenses, enroll in classes.
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