Definition: "a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation"
What is it about the tribalism of DSLR ownership that causes some people to get their knickers so twisted? (He asked rhetorically.)
In late September, 2005 I wrote an essay titled Industry Push Pull in which I noodled over the introduction of two new cameras, the Canon 5D and the Sony R1, and the impact that these two products might have on the future of the DSLR marketplace. As part of my speculation I discussed how sensor costs were declining. With the 5D we were now seeing full frame at prices that matched APS sized sensors of just 3 years ago, and with the R1 we were seeing a digicam with an APS sized sensors at under a thousand dollars. Both significant developments. I also repeated my contention, first made some two years ago, that the 4/3 format is "an evolutionary dead end".
No sooner had this piece appeared that some of the faithful on the Olympus Forum at DPReview went into a tizzy.
I won't use this space to rebut some of the comments made there. A few were perceptive, but most were knee-jerk tribalism that simply amount to "How dare you insult my brand?"; the implication being that if one brings a product into question one is therefore also criticizing the judgment of its purchaser.
Canon 5D with 24-105mm f/4L IS lens @ ISO 640
A Matter of Opinion
I've been teaching photography for some 20 years, and also have been involved in the on-line photographic community for at least that long. In hundreds of face-to-face discussions about equipment choices during my workshops and seminars and at conferences, no one has ever failed to be reasoned and polite. Disagreements? Of course. Loads of them, and some quite heated. But never has anyone said anything insulting, or told me that I was biased.
But online such behavior appears to be the norm rather than the exception. So be it. I've got a reasonably thick skin. If I didn't this site wouldn't still be here.
What I want to touch on here, and which the situation described above simply serves to introduce, is the topic of bias vs opinion.
There's a somewhat crude but nevertheless insightful saying – Opinions are like ass holes. Everybody has one.
But opinions are what makes the world go round. Think of one area of human intercourse that is not coloured, indeed driven by differing opinions. The world would be a much more boring (though significantly more peaceful) place if people didn't have differing opinions.
But an opinion isn't necessarily a bias, and that's where some of the less sophisticated online debaters miss the point.
As shown in the subtitle at the top of this page, the definition of "bias" is that it is – "a partiality that prevents objective consideration of an issue or situation". Not, that it's an opinion that differs from ones own, but rather one partiality preventing objectivity.
Partiality and Objectivity
If we can agree on this definition then understanding the difference between an opinion and a bias becomes straightforward. And this is where I need to further personalize the discussion.
As an industry pundit I am expected to have opinions. They are my raison d'etre. These opinions are based on some hopefully appropriate credentials.
But as we've seen, an opinion isn't a bias, or at least isn't necessarily one.
So, am I biased?
In one sense of the word, yes I am. As I've written elsewhere on this site, I am biased toward "equipment that produces first-class image quality and that does so with well-designed ergonomics and user interface. A good product needs both. A product fails, in my book, if it only succeeds in one of these two areas". In other words, and in keeping with our definition of the word bias, my partiality toward these specific characteristics means that if one or the other is missing, I can't judge the product impartially, regardless of what other strong points it may have.
A good case in point was my review of the Olympus C-8080 digicam of a year or so ago. It produced quite decent image quality for an 8MP camera of its generation, but was, I felt, a quite poor design with regard to usability and ergonomics. As a photographer, I couldn't see beyond the camera's failings as a instrument for taking pictures so as to appreciate its fine lens and clean image quality. This was clearly a case of my being biased.
When I write something like this, (and I've written similar negative critiques of products from Canon, Nikon, Sony, Pentax et al), some people accuse me of bias, but meaning that I have some sort of grudge against their favourite company (insert company name here), or that I prefer another one (insert company name here) for some likely nefarious reason.
The reality is that because I'm a professional photographer, not a professional product reviewer, I need to own some cameras and lenses so I can do my work. Since no one gives me (nor would I accept) equipment to keep (only short term loans for reviews), like all other photographers I have needed to evaluate what's out there and have then made my purchases. Over my 40 years of professional involvement in photography I have owned a wide range of camera systems, including those from Leica, Pentax, Nikon, Minolta, Mamiya, Canon, Olympus, Hasselblad, Rollei, and Contax.
For the past 8 years my 35mm camera system (film and digital) has been Canon. (It has to be something, right?) So, does this mean that I'm biased in favour of Canon? No, but it does mean that products from this company interest me, and I therefore review them more often than others simply because of this personal interest. Also, Canon has been forthcoming in providing me with equipment for review. Other manufacturers less so. Many of them I have to chase after to get review samples, and so I have to obtain samples from dealers. Since life is short and my time is limited, I follow the path of least resistance. Also, as anyone who has read my numerous Canon reviews knows, I have often been merciless in my criticisms of those things that the company does poorly. So if I'm biased toward Canon I guess I have a strange way of showing it.
In the end, I couldn't give a damn whether a particular product has the word Canon, Olympus or anything else on it's logo. These are simply tools for creating photographs, and if something that comes my way does a good job, I'll say so, and if it doesn't, I also make that known. I also don't mind (in fact I enjoy) speculating on industry trends. Sometimes I'm right, and sometimes I'm wrong. Sometime the jury is still out. But, are these opinions biases?
I guess that depends on whether the brand name on your favourite camera is the one caught in the cross hairs at the moment.
Michael – October, 2005.