I’ve been a participant in the DPR Medium Format Forum for over two years. I’ve been a mod on that forum for more than a year. I’ve been an MF user since, well, would you believe 1949? I’ve used digital MF cameras since 2002. About two years ago, I sold all my Hasselblad MF gear and switched to the Fuji GFX 50x. I still have, but don’t use much at all, a 72x96mm camera, which is pushing the upper limits of digital MF, and is packaged as a film holder replacement for a 4×5 camera. I make images with a GFX 50s at least five days a week, and the shutter count is about 165,000 now. The 50R gets much less use.
I’m heavily invested in MF, both from monetary and time-commitment perspectives. I use Nikon and Sony full frame cameras, but the bulk of my work is with the Fuji MF ones.
I’ve also been deeply involved in reading and writing about the GFXen. There are currently 109 posts about the cameras and lenses on my blog. I have a 100S and the 100-200 on order and intend to test and report on them when they arrive. My work as moderator on the DPR MF Forum has meant that I’ve read each and every post there in the last year or so. I’ve responded to many. It’s been a huge time commitment.
However, I’m going to back away from the DPR MF Forum. I’ve requested that I be removed as a moderator, and that request has been accepted. I expect the changes to be made soon. I’m also going to take a vacation from reading and posting on that forum. I will still write about MF gear on this blog.
It’s going to be a big change for me. The purpose of this post is to explain why I’m making it.
Aside: because I don’t like all-text posts very much, and this one doesn’t lend itself to apt illustration, I’m going to sprinkle a few photographs that I’ve made recently with medium format cameras throughout.
First off, I want to talk about how I think a gear forum should operate. It should be a source of information about what gear to buy for particular purposes, and, given a project or task, how to use that gear to best effect. People who are unsure about what to buy should be able to come to the forum and get advice from those who are using the gear in question to do things like what the questioner wants to do. People who are having problems using the gear should be able to learn useful techniques and workarounds. When new gear comes out, people who are early buyers should test it and report on their findings. Tolerance and respect should prevail. There are astute questions, naïve ones, pointed ones, questions with false assumptions, etc, but there are no bad questions, just bad answers and bad reactions to answers. The forum members should teach and support each other.
Okay, okay. At this point your eyes are probably spinning in your head and you’re wondering where I’ve spent the last 30 years. What I have described is an unattainable ideal. I know we can’t get there, but I think we should keep the ideal in mind. I am a member of two real-life photographic organizations where that ideal is almost always achieved. Anonymity and the distance seem to be corrosive.
I’m not expecting perfection. Internet gear fora develop their own cultures over time. Some are supportive and polite for the most part. Some are tribal, unwelcoming, petty, argumentative, and just plain nasty. Some are polluted with posters who are trying to drive traffic to their commercial sites. Sometimes a sympathetic culture is strong enough to deal with corrosive members, but it seems that often there is a sort of Gresham’s Law that applies to fora, and the bad posters drive out the good.
Before I circle back to what appears to have happened in the DPR MF Forum, let me discuss what I think are some of the issues with gear-oriented fora in general.
Eye on the prize
Conversations on gear fora should take place within the context that the purpose of gear is to make photographs, and discussions of what gear to use and how to use it should keep in mind that the whole point of those choices is to facilitate the making of better photographs. That’s important, because often small differences in gear are immaterial to all kinds of photography, and there are many kinds of photography for which large differences in some gear metrics are completely orthogonal. If everybody kept that in mind, we wouldn’t be plunging down rabbit holes like considering wide-open lens performance for conventional landscape photography. Cameras are tools. The right tool for the job depends on the job. There is no universal best camera or lens.
Cameras and lenses can be tested quantitatively in ways that are objective, statistically meaningful, and reproducible. They can also be subjected to qualitative, subjective, irreproducible testing. Some aspects are better measured quantitatively in lab-like settings. For other characteristics, that is impractical or impossible, and anecdotal casual testing must suffice. Some people reject subjective tests. Others rail against numerical ones. Still others say that any kind of testing is silly; you should just go out and shoot. I firmly believe that, to take the full measure of a piece of gear, you need to run tests, and that both kinds of tests are necessary.
Subjective testing should ideally be statistically valid and double blind. Unfortunately, carrying that off take a lot of work, a great deal of time, and a big sample space. We could throw up our hands and not even try to remove confirmation bias and randomness from subjective testing. I think that’s a mistake. I’ve seen what happens in wine tasting groups when unscientific blind testing is used to resolve arguments, and it changes the whole tenor of the discussion.
Fact vs opinion
Debates over whether a position is factually correct are inherently different from those dealing with different opinions. “The GXF 50S default OOC JPEGs are more accurate than the Z7’s” is testable, once a metric for accuracy is established and a test protocol is agreed on. “The Z7’s JPEGs look terrible next to the GFX ones” is a statement of opinion, and no amount of discourse can be expected to achieve unanimity. If I like the GFX JPEGs and you like the Z7 ones, neither of us is wrong, and, in a sense, both of us are right. Got it; case closed, and let’s move on. Too often forum members are not clear about whether they’re talking about matters of opinion or matters of fact. This leads to unproductive and needlessly contentious conversations. With respect to factual discussions, the rule should be to clearly define the issue and the metrics, and also agree on a way to test. That is, unfortunately, the exception.
Not even wrong
There is a kind of debate that is intensely frustrating, one in which the issue at hand is so poorly framed that no amount of discussion can bear fruit. Wolfgang Pauli supposedly said about such a statement: “Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig; es ist nicht einmal falsch!”, which in English goes: “That is not only not right; it is not even wrong.” An example of such a statement is: “GFX raws have more accurate color than Z7 files.” One of the manifestations of this in fora is a statement or proposition that rests on an inherently false assumption. There is no point debating those issues until the original assertion is cleaned up, but that doesn’t appear to keep such debates from happening.
Making photographs is easy and getting easier all the time. Making good photographs is hard. Well, there needs to be an asterisk to that. I think that, given persistent effort over a long time, that darned near everybody makes at least one amazing photograph. Ansel Adams famously set as an objective for himself to make 12 significant photographs a year. That’s hard. Faced with a difficult task, some people study, find mentors, attend workshops, create projects for themselves, get reviews from experts, join support groups, and dedicate most of their free time to the task. Others look for shortcuts. That usually is spectacularly unsuccessful. One common shortcut is to buy gear thinking that it will make you a better photographer. It won’t. Only you can make you a better photographer (though you need gear to make photographs). You see people on fora saying things like, “If I get an X1D, my colors will be luscious” or “Medium format will make my pictures better.” Or, since confirmation bias is a powerful force, “I got an MF camera, and it really improved my photography.”
At a micro level, there’s an element of truth there. Some cameras and lenses are better for some purposes than others and using a good tool with skill on a suitable project is a prescription for a positive outcome. But let’s get real. Most of today’s digital cameras, whether MFT, APS-C, FF, or MF, are incredibly capable devices, and can handle most photographic tasks with aplomb (you can anthropomorphize cameras, but they don’t like it). And the odds that your present camera is keeping you from greatness are vanishingly small. But the belief in many that they are one or two purchases away from staggeringly good images persists, and informs Internet discourse, making differences that are in reality unimportant appear monstrous, and bringing unhelpful levels of emotion to what would otherwise be rational conversations.
Photography is about trade-offs. Depth of field against diffraction. Noise against exposure. Size against image quality. Cost against almost everything. Technically excellent photography requires a deep understanding of those trade-offs, and the formulation and implementation of an appropriate strategy. Because of this, hard-and-fast rules are at best useless, and at worst harmful. (It may be more controversial, but I think this is true in the realm of aesthetics, too: I have often said that more pictures have been damaged by blind obeisance to the rule of thirds than have been improved by its use). On gear fora, some people want complex things boiled down to simple – preferably binary – rules. That is a counterproductive objective.
Pontification versus experimentation
If someone opens a topic or posts a question on a forum, some people may have actual knowledge that applies. For them, it’s easy to write that into a reply. But often, specifics and details are murky to everyone involved. Then there are two things that can happen. The first, and unfortunately the most likely, appears to be to fire off a semi-informed, self-assured, half-baked response, and then defend it when questioned. The second is to educate oneself before replying. For non-trivial questions, the most direct route to learning what to say involves people with the equipment in question performing experiments. Sometimes simple, 5-minute ones will suffice. Sometimes it might take a whole day of hard work to tease out the truth. There are those – ahem – who often go to the trouble of doing the work. They are thin on the ground. I think the Internet photo world would be a better place if their numbers dramatically increased. I’m not holding my breath. In my book, the worst people are the ones that mean-spiritedly try to pick apart the findings of the ones putting in the effort with no more time spent on the issue themselves other than that necessary to type the words.
With that out of the way, let me turn to what I think has happened to the DPR MF Forum in the last two years or so.
The MF Forum was the beneficiary of a MF market expansion based on the Sony 33×44 mm CMOS sensor. The boom started with the mis-named Pentax 645Z, which had the market to itself for a while. Then Hasselblad and Fuji both leapt into the fray. The lowering of the barriers to entry that occurred resulted in a wave of new MF users, both amateur and professional, together with great interest from full frame users thinking about upgrading. As with most DPR fora, most of the members were, and are, amateurs, although there is a smattering of working pros. As you might expect, the photographic skill level of the participants is a couple of steps up from the full frame fora. The Pentax 645Z hadn’t gained much traction, but the Hassy and Fuji entries were different. At first, it seemed that interest was about equally divided between the GFX and the X1D, but the lower price, more complete lens line, relatively bug-free firmware, and more versatile design of the Fuji ultimately dominated the mind-share of the forum.
Then, towards the end of last year, Fuji came out with the GFX 50R, at a lower price point than the 50S, and put a big, fat exclamation point on the news by offering surprisingly attractive lens bundles. This ratcheted up interest and sales, and thus MF Forum participation and skewed the interest almost entirely to Fuji MF cameras.
There’s another thread at play here. Since the X1D and GFX introductions, DPR’s camera reviewers have been fairly skeptical of the advantages of the Sony 33×44 mm sensor over 40ish MP 24×36 mm alternative. They published a comparison of the GFX 50S and full frame cameras that showed only marginal image quality advantages. A few months ago, they doubled down with a similar article on the GFX 50R. I’ve had mixed feelings about this. On one hand, since the 50 MP Sony MF sensor is a couple of generations old now, its advantages over the current crop of FF sensors are not compelling for many applications. On the other, the larger sensor makes it easier to design lenses of spectacular quality. Fuji – and, to be fair, Hasselblad/Nittoh – have followed through with a line of very high-quality lenses. I don’t think that DPR’s testing fully values the contribution the Fuji MF lenses, rendering their conclusions about the system merits flawed.
The DPR MF/FF system comparisons played into the tribalism that is always part of gear fora, and there was a great deal of controversy reflected in MF forum threads, since the perception was that DPR had called people’s baby ugly. These threads were increasingly vituperative, and veered off into proclaiming and defending magical, undefinable, and unmeasurable MF qualities. People dug in, attempts at reasoned discourse were met with anger and suspicions of hidden agendas. Heat prevailed. Light hid under a rock. The new forum participants tended to be less photographically sophisticated, viewed the world in more black and white terms (the comparison to Kodalith sprang to my mind), and the level of discourse coarsened.
One aspect of that coarsening was the ascription, to me and to others, of statements not made and opinions not held, which were then used as strawmen for rhetoric. I didn’t feel that I could let those mischaracterizations of what I’d said stand without responding, and I tried to set the record straight, with mixed success. I don’t see that changing as long as the cast of characters persists. And I may be the only person who is put off by what’s going on in the MF Forum now. There seems to be more participants than ever.
It’s gotten to the point where it is unpleasant for me to deal with the forum. Fortunately, I have a co-moderator who is willing and able to soldier on alone; I wouldn’t want to leave DPR in the lurch. I will continue to test MF gear like the upcoming GFX 100 and report my findings here.
John Hollenberg says
Love the photo in the “Magic Feathers” section!!!
Matt Anderson says
I look forward to your GFX 100 tests.
I have the itch to go back to MF ( having shot with a XF and 100mp tri-chromatic last fall, and years before H3D-39, 555ELD w/H20 back ). I like my Sony A7RIII, but I miss MF color depth. I hope Fuji comes out with a 14-16mm equip high end low coma WA.
David Braddon-Mitchell says
Ugh, sorry to hear this, but not surprised.
Yes I recall your tests of the newer MF lenses compared with FF, and it made me think there is a bit of benefit to this smaller MF format, even if the sensor benefit is marginal.
Interesting analysis of how DPRs DR etc comparisons between Sony MF and FF sensors made some people reach for the mysterious “look”. And once enough people in any society become committed to defending the indefensible, the quality of debate rapidly tailspins.
David K. says
Jim, I’m a lurker on that forum, but you’re one of the posters on that forum whose views I’ve always read with appreciation and respect. I’m glad you keep this blog, because I’ve been reading through your posts here and have been learning quite a bit. (And I’m not exactly new to this – I’m an “enthusiast” (which I cynically think means “an amateur who has spent more money than the standard amateur”) and have been into this hobby for over ten years, now.)
I agree with much of what you wrote. The tribalism aspect among hobbyist photographers is unfortunate, although with some shame I admit that I’ve fallen into and out of waving my own chosen brand’s spear from time to time.
It is doubly interesting to me, though: I’m new to being a multi-brand photographer, and new to medium format. Prior to this, I was purely a 4/3 and then µ4/3 user. It seems to me that tribalism is at its most extreme for the µ4/3 system (not that it was much different for 4/3), but to be fair, the majority of photography websites and a good number of photographers regularly put down the system for the smaller sensor size. I figured that when I started reading medium format reviews, blogs, and the like, much of the tribalism would fade away. After all, if µ4/3 is often put down due to the smaller sensor size, then a larger sensor size must be vaunted and untouchable, and there were a few different sizes of larger sensors. But what I saw was rather interesting. What I gathered was that many people are hostile to the 4:3 ratio, and people are hostile to any camera system that isn’t “35mm.”
Social media and internet forums can be fantastic sources of information and inspiration, but I often know I’ve spent too much time looking at them when it feels like a relief to step back and not read them for even a day. You said it perfectly, distance and anonymity ruin the discourse.
Erik Kaffehr says
Thanks for the long posting, explaining matters. Thanks also for sharing some really nice images.
Alan Goldhammer says
+1 to what Erik wrote!
Steve Kleinheider says
I wish you well in your future endeavors! I will try to check in time to time to check out your blog. Farewell!
Jim, I’m so sorry to see you leaving the forum. You’ve been incredibly generous with your knowledge and time. We will miss you dearly. I look forward to continuing to read your thoughts here on this blog.
Sad to see you go but i can agree with many of your observations. I also don’t go there very much anymore for much the same reasons
Trevor Butterworth says
Lovely images, important post—but most of all, thanks of enlarging my sense of the science of photography!
an MF Forum reader.
Bob J says
You are a good man Jim, and set a great example for the digital photography community in general – I wish you well, wherever you post.
Joe Moche says
The forums on DPReview and elsewhere are a reflection of our society. Some people try to help, others try to create conflict, and others use every opportunity to take to the soap box. Thanks for moderating and for always answering questions I posted. Use the time to create more of your beautiful images.
” And I may be the only person who is put off by what’s going on in the MF Forum now.”
No, you are not Jim and it is for this reason that I very rarely participate and I only read some posts because people like you have made this worthwhile.
I’m sorry to see you go because you have knowledge and skill both photographically and technically. The fora will be the poorer for your decision.
Best wishes and thank you for your huge commitment to photography in general and MF in particular.
Roger L Bunting says
I wanted to leave my thank you for taking the time to post this particular message. I’m one of the choir and you’ve stated my observations on and frustrations with gear fora very eloquently.
In a more worldly sense, I want to thank you for your dedication to this blog and for sharing your talent with us.
Steve Bingham says
Jim, As you know, I have long been a fan of your photography – even more than your understanding and testing of physics (as related to photography). I really enjoy your innovative approach to photography! Being a monitor is a thankless job! You deserve better. Please, stay in touch and keep taking those marvelous photos. Due to my age and physical limitations I am reverting more to mental imagery and nearby objects. My travel days are over, my photography days are NOT.
Sharon Van Lieu says
I’m sorry to hear you are leaving the forum, Jim. You are an incredible contributor and have helped me immensely. I’ll keep following your blog. I don’t blame you for your decision. I’ve gone into read-only mode on forums.
Best to you,
I agree with your ideology / idealist perspective, but it is just that, idealist. People on internet forums tend to be harsh, and I think whenever someone is behind a wall of some kind (figuratively or literally) e.g. a phone, car window, the internet, etc. it brings out the worst in a high percentage of them.
What you’ve said applies to forums in general and not just DPreview’s MF section. Photography tends to face a particularly unique set of problems…
Cameras are essentially a computer, with an operating system, and a sensor to acquire light data. Testing can be done objectively. Measuring the performance of the software, can also be objective. The art shouldn’t impose on an objective discussion; in the same way, I don’t mention the best digital painters if I’m reviewing a Wacom tablet or come out with something silly like “the best pencil is the one you have with you”. Yet a lot of the time, people mix the subjective with objective, in an abrasive fashion.
Sometimes objective data isn’t enough for discussion too, for example you can’t ask the question “I like portraits. What is the best lens to buy?” and expect decent responses back. Perhaps you like wide angle portraits overlooking mountains. Perhaps you like the look of a 500mm lens. Experience helps answer unknown-unknowns. Objective data alone isn’t enough.
Unfortunately, post purchase rationalisation/buyers stockholm syndrome also seems a huge problem. I can’t relate to it because I’m very technically minded and I’m also a cynic. Sony/Canon have received a lot of money from me, I don’t owe them my forum loyalty in return. Although I can’t relate to this weird phenomenon, it’s certainly quite popular.
A while back, I received some highly abusive messages from the Angry Photographer, and I ended up having to find his address (second address, actually… so much for him asking for donations while claiming to be poor) and I politely asked if it was the best address to send court summons too. The fact I had to go to these measures for someone so popular (I’m defining popularity by follower count), says a lot. I believe a certain number of people do just enjoy being vicious. It’s also highly lucrative too. Take Tony Northrup’s video on the Afghan girl, he clearly states Steve McCurry “trampled” over Sharbat Gula’s cultural beliefs (a slanderous statement because Pashtunwali at the time of the photograph being taken was not comparable to Sharia Law post Taliban; there was no cultural requirement for her to conceal her face at the time of the photograph being taken) and this generated a lot of advertisement for his channel.
Most people don’t have the time to reply to the same gear questions (which often get asked ad nauseam) and give lengthy, thought-out replies. It’s time consuming. Most people realise there’s very little in it for them. I agree with your utopian internet forum idea, I really do, but it’s just not pragmatic, lucrative or likely to happen any time soon. The solution? Don’t engage or engage selectively.
From the sound of your post, I think you’ve realised that :).
Bob Tullis says
This reminds me of what happened when Full Frame became “affordable” with the EOS 5D. I felt fortunate to be able to move to the format, and relate with the more seasoned Full Frame EOS users for the benefit of my photographic journey. The forum’s atmosphere then underwent a change, exploding much like the experience related here in the DPR MF forum. And since, it seems covetable gear becoming accessible has this side effect. I missed much of that hoop-la, but as unfortunate as it is, it’s not surprising. [frown]
Tex Andrews says
I read all this with very mixed emotions. On the one hand, I will miss you at DPR. OTOH, I rather did wonder why you bothered there.
To me, the biggest problem with DPR fora is the scattershot “rues” and their even more scattershot “enforcement”. I have had a post pulled for saying “sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. I’m not kidding. And another one for bringing the Cambo Mini Actus to the attention of the Sony FF forum. And there’s no recourse. And if you question—or god forbid!—criticize the moderators, you get yourself banned or warned, because there’s a “rule” against that. Yet threads go into the scores of responses getting uglier and uglier with ad hominem attacks, all in the interest of “free flow of info”. Look where that’s been going lately, in the 2016 U.S. elections and others in the world as well.
I have been a fora moderator for 2 different fora groups (related). I tolerate NO b.s. The gains in allowing that to go on are far outweighed by the poisonous outcomes.
Then we come down to my pet peeve bugaboo. Photography, which has a significant technical side, seems to attract a certain slice of people who can be ultra dogmatic. And then there’s the problem with Photography, capital P, itself in art circles (which I could wax on about it, but let’s just say here that it mirrors the many dogmas in Art History, another fairly new discipline…). No one involved with painting, drawing, other printmaking, or sculpture, as makers, gets into these idiocies with anywhere remotely close to the same degree.
But then also, in photography you get so many people who’ve never had any significant engagement with art history in general. It’s possible in the U.S. to become a very highly educated professional or businessperson without ever once having to take an art history or music history course, ever, in an entire educational career that goes through graduate schools. To me this is such an obvious, serious omission that it beggars the mind. Yet of course it’s all “Art is in the eye of the beholder”, matter of subjective opinion, nonsense. Sigh.
And this is why, as a comparatively innumerant individual who is well educated on “the other side”, I immediately appreciate your work, which is competent on both sides. And it does tend to make me have more trust in what you say.
Thanks for posting, Tex. I don’t know if you remember, but you were the person who introduced me to DPR. You posted a link to some work I did on Sony a7R shutter shock. I started getting hits from DPR and followed them back to see what the fuss was about. There was one poster in the DPR thread that you started who thought I was completely wrong, and that there was no such thing as shutter shock on the a7R. He and I went at it for a while, and he got progressively nastier. That was my into to DPR, after having spent time in the relatively calmer waters of LuLa. It was an unpleasant awakening. I was a bit shocked, but nevertheless I persevered, and had many interesting, fruitful, and fulfilling interactions on the Sony FF forum. There were plenty of people who seemingly posted just to work out their agressions, but they were definitely in the minority, and my experience with the Sony FF forum was on the whole very positive.
I thank you for the introduction.
Tex Andrews says
Yikes! I didn’t know/remember I was the one who sucked you into DPR! My sicere apologies for the aggro you suffered, completely undeserved, btw.
Best to you in your “retirement” from DPR. One day I hope to shake your hand, and give you that bottle of wine I owe you!
Thanks, Tex. I’m not retiring from DPR, just the MF Forum.
Stephen Horrocks says
Der Jim, I appreciate your desire to inspire. Unfortunately your effort to teach doesn’t get the acclaim that it deserves. You have many admirable character traits and I respect your decision to stop your moderation. The community will be that much poorer because of such inconsiderate Forum Members. Internet, as you have mentioned, facilitates improper social behavior. I suppose that these people with poor behavior would have limited social contacts in daily life. I know that that won’t be able to stop being who you are and am looking forward to your next inspirational adventure!
Jeff Mindrup says
There are only two real currencies in life – time and love.