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THE SUNDAY MORNING PHOTOGRAPHER


A weekly column by Mike Johnston



April 11, 2004

The Reviewer's Life

(Dedicated to the all-knowing cynics on the DPReview Forums)

"We'd sell out, if only we knew how."

—Jerry Garcia



Scene 1

I was at our local shopping mall just the other day. Clearly we were being watched. My son ran ahead to drop quarters into that game where you fish for little stuffed animals with a three-clawed crane mechanism (I'm convinced no one ever wins at those games). I was momentarily alone. A furtive figure rushed up to me and blocked my path.

He was dressed in a trench coat and a fedora, had beads of sweat on his upper lip, and smelled vaguely of pizza. Wait a minute, that was the pizza shop we were standing right next to. Anyway, he seemed nervous, and wouldn't look me in the eye. I was just about to knock him out of my way with a forearm to the kisser when he pulled an envelope from the pocket of the trench coat.

"This is from the boss," he mumbled, in a high, dry voice.

"Whose boss?" I retorted. "I don't have a boss."

"My bosses. Japan. Look here, wise guy, you know the drill...how long have you been doing this, anyway? Here's the message: you say the Nikon CoolPix 8700 is the best. Nikon. Is. The. Best. Got it?"

He thrust the envelope into my hand. Well, okay, maybe I grabbed it from him — it ended up in the same place, what's the difference?

"Got it."

"Don't screw up this time," he said ominously. "Or else." And with that, he was gone. I think he ducked into Victoria's Secret to fondle the lingerie, though I can't be sure. And inside the envelope? Two round-trip tickets to Jamaica! What, is he kidding? I love the Caribbean.

The new Nikon CoolPix 8700 is the best. Of all the new 8mp digicams, this is one of them. Capable in every respect. What can I say?


Scene 2

The phone call came late at night. "Meet us where the railroad tracks cross Sunset Boulevard. And come alone."

"Ah, well, y'see, here in little old Waukesha, it's Sunset Drive, not Boulevard. And I can't come alone. I'm a single Dad. I can't leave the kid home alone, now, can I?"

"Fine," said the voice, "but he leaves the toy guns at home this time, understand? Makes the boys nervous. We'll be waiting by the pay phone."

The pay phone. "I hate to tell you this, but the pay phone is long gone. People use cells now." It had been a long time. I hardly knew the players any more.

"Then meet us in front of the local camera store."

"The local camera store?" I said sarcastically, "you mean the one that's been out of business these past four years because of the Wal-Mart?"

"What-EV-er," said the voice. He was clearly losing patience. "Meet us in the parking lot at Best Buy."

Twenty minutes later I pulled up beside a sleek black Toyota. Well, okay, a black Toyota. The windows were either deeply tinted or else very dirty. But as I rolled down my window and my counterpart rolled down his, I could see several hulking figures in the back of the Toyata. Ah yes, 'the boys.' Muscle. Enforcers. You didn't mess with them, as my son Zander had learned last time, when he pointed his toy gun at them and pandemonium broke out. Turned out they were only fighting over pizza, but it could have been a lot worse. I gave an involuntary shudder at the memory.

"Here you go," said the driver, passing me a thick manilla envelope.

Cash. These boys from Konica-Minolta weren't subtle. Then he passed me another one. Then another one, then another, and finally one more.

"Two grand," he said. "Small bills. It's all there. You don't have to count it."

"It would take me all night to count it," I snarled back. "They're all ones."

"What-EV-er," he said. Aha. You didn't have to smack me in the face with it. There it was: a clue. I was definitely face-to-face with the guy who made the phone calls. Too bad I couldn't see his face past the dark shades and the large fake mustache. "You just say the Minolta A2 is the best, reviewer scum."

"Minolta A2 best. Roger. You bought it, you got it."

He lowered his dark glasses just enough for me to catch a glimpse of his eyes. "My name is not Roger." he said.

A screech of tires, and the black Toyota leapt forward...and hit the curb. It backed up. Another screech of times. This time they were gone, into the night.

The Minolta A2 is the best. It's only been an incremental improvement over the original 7, which I hated, but the increments have transformed it into a nifty camera. It's small, has a very high-quality lens, and, yes, uses the same 8-mp sensor as all the others. What really sets it apart, however, is image stabilization / anti-shake built into the camera body, as opposed to the lens. This really helps in avoiding those high ISOs. The best Konica-Minolta digicam yet.


Scene 3

It was a dark and stormy night. The doorbell rang. The local news was on the tube, flashing the darkened living room with cold-colored light and scary shadows. Kramer and his Kramerica intern were pushing a large rubber ball full of oil out a window. Ironic, I thought sardonically. (Or maybe it was sardonic, and I thought it ironically.) Was I going to be "slimed" in a similar way by whatever or whoever was outside my door?

I cracked the door. My eyes narrowed, "Whaddaya want, Skeezix?"

"Land shark!" the kid at the door answered brightly. Then he guffawed. Ha ha. A shadowy, lean figure behind him elbowed him to shut him up.

"Just kiddin'. Pizza delivery."

"I didn't order no stinkin' pizza," I said, my inner danger-detector beeping loudly. Wait a minute, that could have been the timer on the stove — it was almost time for Law & Order, and I was making popcorn on the burner. Nothin' fancy, understand, no Orville Redenbacher or anything like that. Just plain old grocery store popcorn, the kind that comes in a plastic bag. Reviewing — no matter what anybody tells you, it's a hard life.

"On house?" said the shadowy figure behind the pizza-delivery boy, stepping into the light. I'd never seen his mug before. He was Asian, probably Japanese, very young. Had pimples all over his face. Dressed in a business suit and a gigantic down parka, which was distorted with an odd-looking lump under one of his arms. "For you. Free."

"Free pizza!" I exclaimed. Then I went, "Pizza. Mmmmmmm." imitating Homer Simpson. The pizza kid rolled his eyes. Okay, so I do a really bad Homer Simpson. Did he think I didn't know that? Just one of many disappointments in this miserable life.

"We, um, Sony?" said the guy in the parka. He was the kind of guy who said everything like it was a question. "You say, um, Sony F-828 best? Okay? Free pizza for you!"

"Pizza? That's all? Pizza?" I was not liking this situation. Not liking it at all.

"We new at this," said the pimpled guy.

"Well, I'll say the F-828 is the best this time, but you're going to have to come up to speed if you want service in the future, you got that? Your competitors do better than this. A lot better. Take that to your bosses."

"Bosses? Never can find 'em," he said sadly. "Headquarters in Tokyo just too big. Can't even find way around website." Anguish in his voice.

"Well, free pizza usually just won't cut it. I might not be so hungry next time," I said tersely.

Abruptly, he reached his hand into his parka. Oh God. Had he had enough of my lip? Was this it? The end of the line? The moment of truth? And me without my trusty Black-and-Wesson. Er, Smith-and-Decker. (My head was spinning — I couldn't think.) My best buddy. My gunmetal penis-substitute. The old last resort. You know what I mean. My .38. Or at least my M6, which I could have used to klonk him on the head with. I was defenseless.

But he didn't pull an Uzi out of his parka. What he pulled out was...a 2-liter bottle. He held it out.

"RC Cola?" he said hopefully.

"Sure, sure," I said, trying to hide my relief. I took the two large double-cheeses and the Cola payola. "Now make yourselves scarce, before the neighbors get suspicious." I slammed the door with my foot, breathing a little easier for the first time since the doorbell had sounded. Smoke from burned popcorn filled the air. Theme music from Law & Order played ominously in the background. There's irony for ya. And hey...what was that? Yeah, I definitely smelled it — that same familiar pizza smell I'd noticed when I'd met the Nikon guy. I shook it off. Probably nothing, I thought. But that's the gumshoe reviewer's life for you — you're always looking for clues. Never any rest.

The Sony F-828 is the best! They make the new 8-mp sensor, after all, and they were the first to get it into a camera. Plus, the F-828 is the fourth generation of Sony's unique and successful F-XXX line of cameras. I liked the F-707, which I wrote about in one long-ago SMP column. The F-828 corrects that camera's main shortcoming for me, which was the limited wide end of the zoom range. And it's one of the most comfortable cameras to hold of any I've ever used.


Scene 4

I'm driving along a dark and deserted country road. Suddenly, up ahead, several sets of headlights. Cars angled into the road. Roadblock.

I slow my trusty Ford. Oops, make that "rusty" Ford. There are several hooded figures standing in the rain, nothing but silhouettes in the glare from the car headlights. One of them mournfully approaches my car window. I crack it.

"Come," the figure says. "We want you to see something."

I pull off the road, put the flashers on, step out. The night is dark. The rain is wet. The hooded figures fall into single file, and I follow. Up, up, the hillside we go, wending our way through thick brush.

A wet and windswept moor. Lonely graves. We thread our way among the headstones. A hound howls mournfully in the distance. Finally the hooded figures stop, surrounding an new-looking obelisk, carved of white marble. I push through the group and look at the inscription on the grave. What does it say? What does it say? My curiosity is at a fever pitch.

Here's what it says: "The OM System, R.I.P."

"We're still pretty broken up about it," the guy who approached my car says. "We had the world by the tail in 1984. It just wasn't as much fun selling a bazillion point-and-shoots in the '90s, you know?"

"So what'd you bring me here for?" I ask.

"Oh. Yeah. Well, we want you to say that the C-8080 is the best. Can you do that for us? For old times' sake?"

"Why should I?" I said belligerently. Would he get the point?

He got the point, all right. "Because we'll give you this, he said, pulling something from behind the dreadful obelisk.

My eyes widened. I couldn't believe I was holding one of these in my hands again! " A black OM-4Ti, with a 40mm f/2 Zuiko!" I exclaimed. "How'd you know!"

"New old stock," he said. "Nobody can get these. Now you just help us out, will you?"

"Yeah, yeah, sure! I said.

The Olympus C-8080 is the BEST! Oh yeah, is it ever the best! It's so incredibly good! I mean, it's great! Okay, so I haven't actually seen one yet. It's still the best!!! I can't believe my luck.


Scene 5

I was walking innocently along a downtown sidewalk. It was a sunny day — the rain had stopped. Finally. Suddenly, I was acutely aware that two men in business suits had fallen into step with me, one on either side. I felt something hard poke me in the side. Narrow. A .22? The hit man's calibre. Was I in trouble? I stiffened, my heart beating like mad.

"Sorry, poked you with my umbrella," said the one guy.

"In here," the other one muttered. They herded me into the gleaming portal of a large, fancy office building.

Then the elevator. What could I do? It was two against one — and one of those two was carrying. Carrying an umbrella, at least. Taking stock of everything, I noticed the elevator had marble floors. That's right, marble. The elevator. Was there no end? No end to their wealth? No end to their power?

A special key in the elevator panel. A hushed, carpeted corridor. Big double doors, with a tiny little plaque, and there I was...in a place some people only hear about...the place some people never come out of. That's right, the heart of the heart of Canon PR.

The doors swung open, and the sound of partying hit me in the face. A huge, opulent office. Men in business suits, scantily-clad "hostesses," lots of bubbly in real crystal glasses with stems, sushi by the trayload on the sideboard, riotous Japanese flute music tootling away over the burble of conversation and laughter. Quite a scene.

Then they see me. Little old me. The music stops. A hush descends on the crowd. Like a man walking his last mile, I'm taken over to the biggest desk I've ever seen. Behind it, a rotund man with deep five o'clock shadow and a giant cigar. Covering the table, tons of expensive digital equipment. EOS 1D's, 1Ds's, 10D's, the coveted Mark II. EF lenses, mostly L's. Extravagant.

"What's dis?" said the rotund man in a heavy New York accent. "A reviewer? Am I lookin' at a fokkin' reviewer? For somebody so powerful, he don't look like too much, do he?"

A chrous of agreement. "No!" "No, he sure doesn't." "Not to me, Boss!" "He looks like a fat slob!" I shot that last guy a look that was meant to say, someday, my friend. Not here, not now, but someday.

"So, little mistuh reviewer. You wanna see dis?" He held out a 1Ds. I reached out to take it, and he jerked it away from my greedy, grasping paw at the last second! "You don't GET to see dis!" he exclaimed, guffawing. Everyone else laughed too, as if on cue. "You wanna see DIS?" this time it was a Mark II.

"Golly, do I ever!" I chirped.

"You don' GET to see dis!" he said, laughing uproariously and putting the Mark II back on the desk. Sycophantic laughter everywhere.

The he came out from behind his desk and put his arm around my shoulders. "Aw, I'm just playin' wit yous, kid. Just playin'. Ain't I, boys?"

"Right!"

"Oh yeah!"

"That's what you was doin', boss, that's what you was doin'!"

"Playin'. He was PLAYIN'."

"I want ya to take this," he added, placing a PowerShot Pro 1 into my hand. "You know what to do. And listen, just to show there's no hard feelings, join the party! C'mon!"

"C'mon, join the party!" came a chorus of shouts. The music commenced, and the fun never stopped.

Well, I downed some bubbly, I hope to tell you. Massacred vast quantities of sushi. Hung all over those party girls. What else could I do? It was Canon, after all.

What can I say? The PowerShot Pro 1 is the best.

And that's just the way it is, in this reviewer's life. Yeah, I checked my ideals at the door a long time ago. Sure, I sell out every day. Whaddaya want, objectivity? Honest opinions? If I did that, what would the cynics on the DPReview Forums have to talk about? They're wise to the fact that every positive review is the result of bribery or special treatment. No, you can't fool those guys. But it's a hard world. A guy's got to get along in it, you know? It's just not so easy, this reviewer's life.

No, not easy at all.


—Mike Johnston


Now please go here. We want you to say that SMP is the best. Do it, or the writer gets it!







Mike Johnston writes and publishes an old-fashioned, entertaining quarterly ink-on-paper newsletter called The 37th Frame ( www.37thframe.com). He has a B.F.A. in Photography from the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C., where he was a student of the late Steve Szabo and of Joe Cameron.

He was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine from 1988 to 1994 and Editor-in-Chief of PHOTO Techniques magazine from 1994-2000, where his editorial column "The 37th Frame" was a popular feature and where he presented, among other things, a set of three articles on "bokeh" by John Kennerdell, Oren Grad, and Harold Merklinger that were subsequently widely discussed among photographers.

His critical and technical writings have appeared in various publications and newsletters such as The Washington Review and D-Max. A number of his articles written under the pseudonym "L. T. Gray" (el Tigre) appeared in the English magazine Darkroom User.





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