Don’t Believe the Hype – The Problem of Buying Photography Products

All over internet-land there are people and organisations trying to get you to spend your hard earned money on their products and instructional services for improving your photography. It used to be a mad rush to acquire gear, one that even spawned the now well known acronym of GAS – gear acquisition syndrome. Now we have what might be termed KAS and PAS – knowledge acquisition syndrome and preset acquisition syndrome. Not quite the same catchy ring to them I know, but I think they get the point across.

I think a kind of fear drives a lot of these purchases. Not so much the desire to get better, but fear that not having these tools / knowledge sets will mean we might fall behind / under-perform.

Obsolescence is an obviously unavoidable factor that drives software purchase and, to some degree, training. Long a complaint with computers and associated peripherals, etc., obsolescence is becoming more of a problem with photographic software tools. The recent Mac OS upgrade to Yosemite caught me out, with some product makers (not only photography related) taking the opportunity to claim their old products no longer worked. And they didn’t. But I remain unconvinced that it had to be that way. Whatever the real reason, I’m poorer for it now.

When it comes to making an informed decision for a purchase, the problem is, unlike gear, there are no really reliable review sites that will tell you how well these products work or if services really deliver what they promise. You are left to rely on the manufacturer’s, publisher’s or author’s own marketing promises and customer reviews that may be far less useful than they appear.

It is generally accepted that many (but I’m sure not all) companies post fake reviews that glowingly describe their products or services. This occurs across the board, not only for photography related products.

Another problem is that you often cannot get your money back. I kinda understand this for things that could be copied and secretly kept while still getting a refund – such as presets or videos. However, I’m still not a fan of the ‘all sales are final’ retail model. I’m going to use the Visual Supply Company’s VSCO Film here as an example, because I own several sets of their presets. While I’m generally happy with what I have purchased from them, I do own one set that I regret buying, because I’ve never used it. They just aren’t what I expected and it turns out I don’t like that particular look. Now, you could argue buyer beware, but the thing is, I was. I went in looking carefully at the samples shown, but it still didn’t work out.* And that harks back to my point above, as often you can only see the results supplied by the manufacturer, which obviously are carefully selected and tailored to best showcase what their products can do. I’ll come back to this point later when I talk about instructional videos.

Once VSCO was (almost) the only supplier of professionally made hip and fashionable presets capable of giving photographs an organic look. That’s not the case now, so it becomes really hard to decide where to go if you are in the market for presets. They all look good on the Internet. They all make strong and convincing claims. They all have glowing customer reviews. They all cost money.

Bundling is another problem, with companies offering ‘a whole lot more’ for ‘just a little extra money.’ On1 is the classic for this,** but they certainly aren’t the only ones. Typically this kind of strategy offers a lot of dross along with the thing you actually need (or want – two different concepts). So, you can end up paying for stuff you will never use, like eight million crappy presets and wonky apps that make certain photographic tasks about three times more difficult than they need to be.

And then there’s inflated pricing, so the frequent ‘sales,’ appear to be a once in a life time bargain. Of course, the sale price just represents what should be the real price. Again this is not limited to photography, but just represents marketing strategies from other retail sectors being adopted.

Video instruction is another growing market. Basically, there are three models – subscriptions services such as KelbyOne and Lynda, outright purchases of downloadable content, such as supplied by Fstoppers, DEDPXL, etc., and finally, the 91 thousand or so videos available free on YouTube and the like. I can’t talk so much about paid video instruction, as I only own one series (unlike the distressingly large number of presets, plugins and third party stand alones I seemed to have acquired).

Several high flyers have given the advice that one should spend money on education / learning rather than buying more gear. Now, while on the surface this instantly sounds reasonable, it is not actually a solidly constructed, logical argument. However, it is true that the more you know, the better you will do.*** The problem is, how to judge the skill level of what you are buying. Ratings are a fine idea, but there is no standardisation. One person’s beginner is another’s intermediate. Several times I’ve come across things that claim to be of intermediate level but really are just beginner. So, when buying a video series, you run the risk of getting something that is just too simple or too hard. I’m a big fan of Zack Arias’ / DEDPXL’s OneLight v2 lighting series. It’s well made, comprehensive and priced far more realistically than almost anything else out there. I also knew all the technical bits that are on there. There were some other ‘get your act together’ moments that were useful for me, so the special price of US$50 I paid turned out to be just fine. However, it was a sobering realisation that it so easily could have been, for me at least, money wasted.

A real problem I have with video instruction is that the models used are always svelte, sleek little creatures with clearly defined, angular faces all perfect for sculpting with light. In real life most people are roundy types. I don’t really need to know how to pose or light top New York models so as much as I need to know how to flatteringly pose and light the, shall we say, more robust types like myself that are ever more typical in the western world at least.

Overall, my advice with video is to always look to the free stuff first. It can take a bit to sort the wheat from the chaff, but if you want to know something, there’s a good chance that there’s someone somewhere on the Internet showing you how to do it. Search engines are your friends.

Books are similar to videos, in that you don’t really know what you’re getting. However, reviews on third party market places like Amazon are far more useful here. My advice with book reviews, read them all. It’s often that one dissenting voice that gives you a fuller picture (pun intended).

In another post, so it is more easily accessible, I’ll put a wee list up, of good places to look for free video info.

Peace, and all that.

* on the other hand, I feel compelled to point out that VSCO does have a nice loyalty discount for returning customers. Also, their app for smart phones and tablets is great

** again though, I need to point out I’m a happy owner of their Perfect Resize and Perfect Layers. Also, they offer refunds

*** and better doesn’t by necessity entail good

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