Random Brain Waves, vol. 4: Do your homework

There’s a lot of bad information on the internet. That statement should surprise no one. It might however be surprising to learn that some of that bad information comes from sources with seemingly impressive credentials…

Unfortunately, one of life’s many truths is that knowledge does not always equal wisdom and common sense(or common decency, though that’s another discussion all together). Knowing a great number of facts about a subject does not guarantee that one possesses good judgement. Wisdom is the ability to apply the knowledge you possess in a sound, useful, constructive manner. It’s also true that being good at something does not necessarily mean that you’re knowledgeable about the subject. Some exceptionally skilled folks who have spent years at their craft are surprisingly clueless about how they achieved their excellence. I’m reminded of a well-known professional golfer who was once asked at an exhibition whether he used an overlapping or interlocking grip. He couldn’t answer this simplest of questions, because he didn’t know the difference between the two.

So how does one discern between the wheat and chaff when searching online for information relating to photography? It’s not easy. For me, the first step is to gather as many pertinent facts from as many different sources as possible. I try to gather those facts from known sources – people or sites who have provided sound information in the past. Sometimes you come across a new potential source of information – look at their site, their credentials(no guarantee of good information, but sometimes a good indicator), their affiliations, even their portfolio if they have one. After a bit of browsing around their site, you can usually get a feeling about whether or not they can be trusted to provide sound advice. Take all the facts you’ve gathered, sift through them, and look for a consensus. Then, most importantly, use your own common sense when pondering what the consensus might tell you. Just because a lot smart people are saying the same thing, that doesn’t mean they’re right. Test that consensus if you can, through experimentation. Ultimately, you have to make the final call using facts gathered, your experience, your observations, and your own wisdom. Like I said, it’s not easy.

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The following is an exchange I had several months ago with the head of customer service for a well-known online retailer. The exchange took place in a public forum, with the understanding that it could be seen by anyone at any time, so I feel comfortable posting it here. I’ve edited it slightly to protect the identity of the store and customer service head…

Little Bluestem PhotographyI’m looking for the Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8. I understand that it’s discontinued – at least here in the states – but I was wondering if it might be available as a special order item. I’ve seen another retailer offer it in this manner, but I’d obviously prefer to order from [censored].

Also, any idea when Sigma might be releasing their new 50-150mm, and might it have a tripod collar? I was initially informed by Sigma that it did not, but I’m hoping this long delay in coming to market is because of a redesign. If the specs on the Sigma site are accurate, in my opinion the lens is too large and heavy to not have a collar.

Thank you!

Customer serviceI think the Tokina 16.5-135mm f/3.5-5.6 AT-X DX AF may be what you want. It’s in stock and while it’s not f/2.8 it’s a very good value at the price. Unfortunately the Tokina 50-135mm f/2.8 is discontinued. Sites which claim they can get it “special order,” are almost certainly either very over-confident or providing outdated and obsolete information. I’d be very very cautious before proceeding.

Sigma is featuring their new APO 50-150mm F2.8 EX DC OS HSM at [censored] but they don’t even have MSRP info up yet. Even their original press release (from last Feb) doesn’t seem to mention any ETA. Considering the continued disruptions caused by flooding in Japan and more recently Thailand, I’m not really surprised.

Sigma is touting this lens’ Optical Stabilizer system and bragging about it’s relatively light weight and compact size. I don’t see any mention of a tripod collar, nor would I expect to under the circumstances.

Little Bluestem PhotographyI’ve had the opportunity, thanks to a friend, to shoot a few hundred test frames with the 16-135mm. My impression seems to mirror the less than enthusiastic reviews around the internet regarding this lens. In terms of sharpness and distortion – and of course speed – the lens unfortunately doesn’t meet my needs.

The other retailer I mentioned is quite well-known, having been in business for over 100 years. I have confidence in their reliability, but I prefer dealing with [censored], because I’ve always had such positive experiences.

According to the info on Sigma’s site, their new 50-150mm is considerably larger than the lens it replaces – 3 x 5.5 inches and 27.5 ounces for the old versus 3.4 × 7.8 inches and 50.4 ounces for the new version. In fact, judging by the photos, the outer casing on the new 50-150mm seems identical to the outer casing used on Sigma’s stabilized full frame 70-200mm f/2.8. Based on these numbers and observations, the bragging about light weight and compact size strikes me as marketing hyperbole on Sigma’s part. The optical stabilization had better be fantastic, because I’d be quite reluctant to mount my camera on a tripod with such a large heavy lens hanging off the front. Never mind the vibration at slow shutter speeds – I’d fear for the safety of the lens mount itself.

Anyway, I appreciate your reply. Thanks again.

It should be noted that at no point did the customer service person tell an outright lie. He strongly attempted to steer me away from a competitor, and towards his own company, which for the most part is understandable. He did however try to steer me towards a lens which had little in common with the lens in which I was interested. A slow superzoom is not a fast telephoto zoom. The only thing the two have in common is their 135mm focal length at the long end. In every other regard, they’re completely different beasts. I assume that he steered me towards the superzoom because it was what he had in stock, not because it was what I needed. He also regurgitated Sigma’s exaggerated marketing nonsense when speaking about the 50-150mm, claims which were pure baloney, and easily debunked by information freely available on Sigma’s own website. Interestingly, one week after this exchange, the preview of the new 50-150mm on Sigma’s site disappeared. When the lens reappeared months later, it was suddenly sporting a tripod collar. I like to assume that I had something to do with this change – it’s good for my ego. 😛

I removed the name of the retailer and customer service head because the purpose of this discussion was not to embarrass anyone, but rather to point out that when shopping for gear, you should do your homework. Don’t rely solely on the advice, opinions or suggestions of others. Sometimes folks are uninformed, sometimes they’re mistaken, and sometimes they have ulterior motives for steering you in one direction or another. There are plenty of good gear resources on the web. Make use of them before you spend your hard-earned cash.

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I don’t talk about religion or politics on my blog, for obvious reasons. I also have no party affiliation, nor political axe to grind. I simply try to stand for common sense and justice, especially where the environment is concerned. However, I did see something today that I wanted to bring to people’s attention. It’s a quote by Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s top energy advisor, a man by the name of Harold Hamm. Mister Hamm is an oil executive working for Continental Resources, and according to Forbes is the 78th richest person in the world. Mister Hamm has been quoted as saying “The environmental costs of fossil fuels are minimal.” A great many people, myself included, would disagree with that statement. Strongly. There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that Mister Hamm’s statement is incorrect. Of course, there’s a very real possibility that Mister Hamm himself – the oil executive – knows his statement is incorrect. Those pesky ulterior motives tend to pop up all over the place. Mister Hamm is scheduled to testify before the Senate Finance Committee. The Sierra Club has compiled a list of quesions they’d like to see put to Mister Hamm.

Four Questions for Harold Hamm

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