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.