MACHINES VS. MOTIVES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RELEASE OF NEARLY EVERY TECHNICAL INNOVATION OR FRESH PRODUCT in the photography field is now preceded by a flurry of sample images from beta testers, the favored few shooters selected by makers to take the new gear out for a trial run and post image galleries of how it went, all the better to make you part with your money, my child. The impression created by this advance guard is that, on day one of its entry into the world at large, this or that piece of kit already has a global army of slavish devotees that think the New Thingamabob is the best thing since gene splicing, and so why haven’t you ordered yours yet?
Back when I was in the ad biz, this maneuver was called engineering desire, while the practice of making you want an item simply because others had it was known as “ask the man who owns one”. In both cases, since photographers, and not cameras, make images, it’s a good idea to cast a suspicious eye on beta testing hype bulletins and what useful info we hope to glean from them.
Primarily, demo galleries on new gear shows you how the devices work, but they really don’t show you how to use them, and, believe me, there is a difference between the two concepts. Sample pictures illustrate what the lens or camera is technically capable of, while you, and only you, have to settle the question of whether it will help you better express yourself. The thingy might create stunning sunsets, for example, but that’s only of value if you want to shoot stunning sunsets. And if the gear in question delivers a very specific effect, how much, really, will that effect figure in your overall output? Does the item fill your needs or just fill up your bag?
Beta testers now create buzz for a product the way marketers used to with their initial commercials and print ads. It’s thought that flooding the potential market for a toy with samples from shooters who are “just like you” actually is a softer and more effective sell, as it creates a kind of tsunami of instant coverage and sorta-reviews for the stuff that seem to be “balanced”, even though most of it is underwritten by the companies themselves using their customers for lab rats. I don’t mean to say that this process isn’t of value, but it pays to recall all the trends in photography, from instant prints to HDR, that were sold as invaluable to the consumer, only to pan out as, well, cool things to play with, but far from essential.