Bryan Carnathan is a photographer and the founder of The Digital Picture, one of the leading Canon DSLR gear review websites in the world. We had a chat with Carnathan to learn more about his popular site and his thoughts on the camera industry.
PetaPixel: Can you tell us about yourself and your background?
Bryan Carnathan: Sure. My formal training resulted in a BA degree in Computer Science and a minor in business. My career started in programming and quickly moved into IT management and consulting. On the family side, I am married to a beautiful woman and have three amazing teenage daughters. As a gear reviewer, I cannot have bias. As a father, I can be very strongly biased.
How did you first get into photography?
At the age of 15, I was working all of the odd jobs I could find to save enough money to buy my first SLR camera, a Pentax ME Super SE with a 50mm kit lens, and soon afterward, I added a budget Sigma telephoto zoom lens to the kit. At that time, I was shooting a roll of film a week (a burden for my tiny budget).
My photography passion was pushed to the side after college and, although I still appreciated great images, my own photography pursuit remained dormant for many years until digital cameras reached a quality level that caught my attention.
How did The Digital Picture come about?
In the early 2000s, when DSLR popularity was taking off, I added commercial photography to the IT and web services I was providing. As frequently happens, that other work financed the necessary camera gear investment. At this time, I was spending a lot of time answering camera gear questions. Moving those answers to a dedicated website seemed like a good idea as I could dramatically scale up the number of people who I could help. In November of 2003, The Digital Picture was launched and soon focused on answering many of those questions.
The Digital Picture allowed me to combine several of my passions. Merging information technology with digital photography and ultimately, my passion for helping people, made this site the perfect fit for me. And, as a someone who believes that photographs are important, I find it rewarding to work toward the site’s goal of “Making Your Images Amazing.” Helping people make the right gear purchase decisions for their needs and budgets through comprehensive reviews, helping them extend their budgets through deals on camera gear, providing tips on how to accomplish photographic goals and keeping people informed on the latest announcements and other industry news rounds out what we do.
Is the website what you devote all of your time and energy to these days, or are you working on other things as well?
A normal week finds me working for/on the site about 60-80 hours. While that is a huge amount of hours, I love the work and I especially like that I can choose any hours of the week to work. Family is my priority for me and family, friends and exercise get most of the balance of my time. With the studio built into our home, I have no commute and can take time out for all the kids’ events and for family meals. I also do some work (such as image processing) alongside the family while the kids are doing school work, watching a movie or similar.
How many people are involved in The-Digital-Picture these days?
There are three of us working full time on the site.
You seem to focus more on Canon gear for your reviews. Why is that? Any plans to branch out more in the future?
My entry into digital photography was with Canon gear. When I first started authoring reviews, I simply reviewed the equipment I was using. As the site grew, I continued to review gear that I could easily incorporate into my photographic workflow, and that workflow was based on Canon cameras. As such, the site features a lot of content specific to Canon users, and therefore, Canon users tend to be our largest audience.
I would love to expand the site to include full reviews of cameras and lenses from other manufacturers, especially Nikon and Sony. I used Nikon gear almost exclusively for well over a year and though still prefer the Canon system, I would certainly not be heartbroken if I was told that Nikon gear was what I had to use. Because I have not been willing to compromise on the thoroughness of the reviews (they are very time consuming), we have not had the time needed to create full reviews of the rest of the gear to date.
All that said, full reviews of many third party lenses and accessories are currently available on the site and complete standardized test results for most Nikon lenses are also on the site.
How much do you personally shoot these days? Do you still offer your photography services?
I spend a lot of time shooting in a wide variety of scenarios as I feel that it is important to keep my skills not only current (it is important to stay practiced), but improving. I also find real world shooting, especially in situations that particular gear is well suited for, to be invaluable for product evaluations and for advising others not only in regards to the gear, but in all aspects of photography. I typically schedule several big trips annually to somewhere of interest to me, dragging airline max amounts of gear with me to use in the field. These trips are completely exhausting, but… I love the images, knowledge and stories that I bring home from them. I also take many shorter overnight and day photo trips throughout the year, photograph many of the kids’ events and shoot around the house and studio very frequently.
Time for outside photo gigs has been almost completely compressed out of my schedule and I am currently turning down most requests, but I occasionally say yes to primarily commercial shoots. I don’t have time to market prints or stock photos, but I sell these on occasion.
What’s something about the camera gear review industry that most people don’t know?
I keep talking about the time issue, but… I think it is a relevant answer to this question. A camera or lens review takes a huge amount of time to create.
Each of the camera and lens tests (both standardized and non-standardized) can take from hours to days to complete and process. If any anomalies are discovered, many hours can be spent analyzing what is happening. Sometimes, another lens must be sourced and the entire process started over. Sometimes we test more than one lens to ensure that results are repeatable as our ultimate goal is accuracy.
Even the behind-the-scenes work is time consuming. For example: As soon as an item to be reviewed, such as a lens, is announced, it has to be sourced from a retailer. That means getting an order placed immediately. With each order, there is inventory, accounting, insurance, shipment tracking, receiving, unpacking, setup (cameras especially), etc. After completing a review, many of the items go back out the door with the same tasks needing to be done again. While these steps are necessary, they do not directly contribute to what shows on a review page.
In the field testing, product photos, writing and moving everything to the web servers rounds out the content production.
What’s a big mistake you see photographers making when purchasing camera equipment?
A common problem we see is under-spending on the first DSLR camera and (especially) lens purchase. When asked why pictures are coming out blurry, we usually ask to see a sample showing the problem. Quite often the EXIF information in that sample picture tells us that the user has the base camera model with the lowest cost kit lens available. A low-end kit lens often does not make full use of a camera’s capability and compounding the problem is that the subject in the problem photo is often in motion with inadequate light available for the lens to stop that motion. Most frequently the person inquiring is a parent that wants to photograph their kids. They make an effort to upgrade the quality of their images, but some of the key shots they wanted are still not within reach and an additional purchase, usually of a better grade lens, remains necessary.
Another common problem is underestimating the amount of time, education, dedication and experience required to routinely create captivating images. Great gear can significantly elevate a photographer’s imagery, but a well-rounded understanding of photography is necessary to get the most out of any gear. Fortunately, this problem is masked by the typical beginner’s lack of understanding of what great imagery is. As the bar is raised by realization of what makes a photo great, the photographer’s skill is also improving. This happens to be an aspect of photography that I personally love. Beginners are happy with what they are producing and I will not ever completely master all aspects of photography. I love that the challenge will always be there.
With so much of the reviews/publishing industry driven by ads and affiliate links, how do you make sure things stay objective and unbiased? In a way, it pays to write good reviews, right?
My goal has been to keep the site free for everyone to use and that of course necessitates some type of revenue source.
Ads are one such revenue source. The ads are controlled by a third party and I have only minor influence on what shows and even less influence on the rates paid, so I feel no incentive in this regard.
My favorite revenue source is via affiliate programs where retailers pay a small commission for purchases made by site visitors after using the links provided on the site. This costs the site visitor nothing additional and I can refer them to sites that I trust with my own purchases. Making products look better than they really are would potentially improve revenue from such reviews, but… that would be a short-sighted approach as people would lose trust. I’m in this for the long haul.
Another reason to not misrepresent a product is that the person looking for a product will quite likely buy a different version of that same product and there is usually little difference is revenue. If lens A does not work for them, they will likely buy lens B. If they were properly directed in their purchase decision, they will be better satisfied and more likely to come back.
The much stronger reason for me to remain objective and unbiased is that honesty and integrity are far more important than revenue and, hopefully, the former becomes key for generating the latter. Trust will create long term customers. Without time or budget for advertising, referrals are very important. Someone getting bad advice is not going to be a positive referral source.
I have and use a lot of gear that does not make it into reviews on the site. Time simply does not allow that to happen. While I do want to warn people of product issues and near-useless products, people are more interested in reading about products that will help them in some way and I weigh the time I spend toward informing of gear that would make someone’s life better.
How much communication is there between the big names in the camera gear review industry? Do you guys talk and collaborate?
Roger Cicala, founder of LensRentals.com, and I communicate with some frequency. While not specifically a reviewer, he does handle a lot of gear and often voices his findings through his blog. Otherwise, I communicate only infrequently with other product reviewers.
I have considerably more vertical communications within the industry, including with retailers and manufacturers.
How big of a gear collection do you personally own?
At one point not so long ago, I owned all of the then-current Canon and Nikon lenses along with a large number of camera bodies. Having all of this gear immediately available allowed us to quickly create test results needed for the lens comparison tools currently featured on the site.
The credit line was not so happy with that inventory level and my lens collection has been trimmed down significantly to roughly 20 of mostly Canon’s best lenses and about 10 camera bodies.
When testing a camera, I don’t want the lens to be a limiting factor. While I have lenses on my want list, the current set is what I think can deliver the ultimate images in the situations I am most commonly shooting and testing in.
What are some of the most exciting trends you’re seeing in the industry these days?
What I think is most exciting right now are the improvements we are seeing in the latest lenses hitting the streets. Improvements in image quality (such as seen in the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM Lens), in design (such as the Zeiss Milvus lenses) and also in feature firsts (such as the f/1.4 aperture at 20mm in the Sigma 20mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art Lens). There are many more examples that could be listed, but… our capabilities are being continuously expanded and improved.
At the same time, I would hate to give up some of the new features found in the latest DSLRs hitting the streets including those in my current favorite, the EOS 5Ds R. There is often talk about a slow-down in camera technology. While we cannot change the principles of light, and high ISO noise levels are not seeing the rate of improvements as they were in the early DSLR days, the improvements happening are nonetheless improving my results.
Do you think DSLRs will be replaced by another camera type anytime soon?
We are photographing in a wonderful age. The capabilities we have today were only dreamed about by a few very creative individuals 20 years ago. DSLR technology was very disruptive to the film industry. DSLR disruptive technology is likely to come at some point, but… I haven’t seen it yet. While technology marches forward, the physics of light are not changing. Large sensors and the larger glass they need are still best.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to PetaPixel readers?
I would like to send out a huge “THANKS!” to everyone who has helped make The-Digital-Picture.com possible. I am very grateful for the strong support we have been provided over the years and I look forward to serving you long into the future. I would also like to welcome anyone not familiar with the site to check us out. Hopefully we can help guide your gear choices, keep you informed, answer your questions and be generally helpful with your photography!