Is There Any Usefulness in “Camera of the Year?"

bythom mtcoty

For decades now, Motor Trend magazine has been running “automobile of the year” contests, where they evaluate only the new models for that year and pick a “winner.” Over time, they added "truck of the year”, “SUV of the year”, and now “EV of the year” variations. It’s an issue of the magazine that sells, so they keep doing it.

For decades now, I’ve had a policy of not accepting awards. Why? Because of the arbitrariness that almost always comes along with the award parameters, plus the fact that judging bias or ballot stuffing is almost always a problem. Back in the late 1980’s I proved that to make a point: my little three-person software company was voted by a nationwide poll as having the second best customer support of any software company in the Apple-verse. A company where one of my many hats was doing all customer support.

How did a mostly unknown three-person company beat out big companies like Microsoft and Adobe? It was the way the award was set up: public voting, where negative comments counted against a company’s by percentage. With a software update (that had lots of new goodies and bug fixes) I also included a message to our user base asking them to fill out the judging form that the magazine had published. I knew that two criteria would favor my company (percentage of user base responding, percentage that had positive responses). I even warned the publication about what I was doing, giving them the chance to come up with a better way of making such an award. 

Result? We tied for second, and that was only after the magazine post-mortem altered the way they came up with the winner. 

I mention this because dpreview is now calling for its reader base to vote for the Camera of the Year, Prime Lens of the Year, and Zoom Lens of the Year, and eventually Product of the Year from those three winners. As with Motor Trend, only products launched in the 2022 calendar year need apply. And as far as I can tell, there’s nothing stopping someone from starting an influence campaign that would alter the votes. 

So let’s examine both aspects for a moment and see how such awards fail. 

A reader pointed out that comedian Dave Gorman has recently tackled this subject on his TV show (~30 minutes in).

First, restricting votes to products that were announced during the year might tell us something about the year, but it doesn’t tell us anything about where those products fit into the broader market. For instance, are any of the Camera of the Year nominees better than a Nikon Z9 or Sony A1? I’d say no. It is interesting that Fujifilm decided to make 2022 the year that they were first to bring stacked image sensor and 40mp to APS-C, but as my upcoming review of the X-H2S will probably make clear, I don’t believe the former has all the traction it implies (e.g. that because its stacked sensor and processor isn't in the same league as the aforementioned Z9 and A1). 

Dpreview has already anointed the X-2HS with a Gold Award in their review (whatever that means). Read their review of the camera very carefully, as there are caveats galore in it (e.g. “tracking complex motion at 40 fps was a step too far”). More recently it was awarded dpreview's Product of the Year (how many “..;of the year” awards does dpreview have?). Above the product they thought had better image quality at a similar price. Mostly because the X-2HS was an “ambitious” design. Go figure. I didn’t know that ambition was a photographic trait that mattered. Now I do ;~).

Yes, I like to pick on dpreview. They claim to aspire to content greatness, and then do things like pick the Sony A7R Mark V as the best camera over US$2500 without considering the Canon R3, Nikon Z9, or Sony A1. Why? Probably because they don’t want a product to win multiple categories, which wouldn't spread the love enough and keep them in the good graces of all the camera makers. Oh, then let's throw in their additional award for best affordable camera for sports and action, without defining what affordable is (apparently it’s anything less than a Z9 price). 

Back to the thread: a product of the year award might have some validity if it were also evaluated historically as well as how that product stacked up against the current best products. A company that was consistently launching the best product of the year and had the best currently available product and had the best product launched in the current year is one the customer should be paying attention to. Is that anywhere to be found in these “…of the year” awards? No.

Next, let’s move on to those doing the “judging.” In this case, dpreview readers. Or is it dpreview readers? 

Technically, it’s only people that go to dpreview’s site and vote. But how did they know to go to that site? Were they actually dpreview readers who saw the article asking for votes, or did some fan flaming on some other site get people to go over to dpreview and vote? At the moment I don’t detect any external influences, but those can easily be masked and hidden, as I did in the late 80’s. A big company like Sony could just go around their offices and drum up a large number of "voters.” The five people left in the NikonUSA office couldn’t move the bar the same way. (Just kidding, it sometimes just seems like there’s only five people left in Melville ;~).

Technically, dpreview should constrain voting to anyone already registered with the site on the day they posted the poll. But they don’t, so the results will not exactly tell dpreview “what [dpreview readers] think of the Class of ’22.”  

Personally, I hate this kind of faux journalism. To start with, it’s formulaic, and once started and replicated you can’t really change your parameters lest you invalidate all your previous results using the formula. Of course, those results might not have meant anything useful, either, so maybe you should change parameters ;~). 

Second, it’s lazy. “It’s the end of the year, let’s just do our usual end-of-year things.” Moreover, once you’re into the lazy approach, you just boilerplate the text, use the same categories, and even execute the same schedule. I’m pretty sure ChatGDP can do that, which wouldn’t require any dpreview editors to do any work during the holidays ;~).

Okay, that seemed like a challenge, so I did. I asked ChatGDP to create a Camera of the Year article in the style of dpreview. Here’s the first bit of it:

Here is a Camera of the Year article in the style of

Camera of the Year: The Best Cameras of 2021

It's that time of year again, when we take a look back at the past 12 months and determine the best cameras of the year. 2021 was a challenging year for the photography industry, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic leading to production delays and supply chain disruptions. However, despite these challenges, there were still a number of fantastic cameras released this year.

After careful consideration and extensive testing, we have selected the following cameras as our top picks for 2021:

  1. Canon EOS R5

The Canon EOS R5 is a powerhouse of a camera, boasting a 45-megapixel full-frame sensor, 8K video recording, and lightning-fast autofocus. It's the perfect choice for photographers and videographers who demand the highest quality and performance.

  1. Nikon Z7 II

The Nikon Z7 II is another top-of-the-line full-frame mirrorless camera, offering 45.7 megapixels of resolution, impressive low-light performance, and fast continuous shooting. It's a great option for those who want a versatile camera that can handle a wide range of subjects and situations.

  1. Sony a1

The Sony a1 is a flagship camera that truly stands out from the crowd. With a 50-megapixel full-frame sensor, lightning-fast autofocus, and 8K video recording, it's a camera that can keep up with even the most demanding...

Hmm. Does dpreview even need editors any more? ;~)

Finally, what’s the point? 

It used to be that you’d give out an award and have a little graphic that the winners could use in their advertising. (Disclosure: I’ve done that at times in my long publishing career, including for Backpacker’s Editor’s Choice recipients. Of course, that was for gear all us had a chance to experience, had a long vetting process including a long final hike by all staff with the nominated gear, and was voted on by a couple of dozen folk that had an average of well over 50-bag nights a year [that’s days we were on hikes and slept in the tents/bags we were evaluating; to put that in context, the voters were outside using these products we were evaluating for nearly two months of the year].)

Why is that little graphic important? It’s a dual validation. It validates the product, of course, when used in the advertising. But it also validates the awarder when used, too. You might see the graphic and think “Who the heck are Backpacker Editors?”. If you’re curious enough, you’d go look and find a magazine that was as authentic to one endeavor as any on the planet, and you’d want to then follow them. 

Of course, those little graphics could lead you to something else other than an authentic content provider. For example, there’s a European set of photography awards that are given out like party favors that really only points you back to the egos of the European media that invented the awards.  

But the giveaway in the “what’s the point” sweepstakes is this: the word “best.” It’s no surprise that such awards come up in the primary buying season for products. Next year’s products probably won’t launch until the next big buying seasons (spring, holidays). “Best” tells you which product to buy, or it validates the product you just bought. Of course, as I already pointed out, the “Best” doesn’t necessarily mean what people tend to think it does. “Best product launched this year” is not the “best product you can buy this year.” 

So my answer to the headline question is a clear “no.” 

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