Buyer Beware: Ken Rockwell

Buyer-Beware
If you’re just getting into photography, you will eventually stumble across Ken Rockwell.

Ken Rockwell’s website is full of equipment reviews and (mis)information about photography, techniques, and settings. Members of the photography community, especially online, are constantly bombarded with questions or presented with “facts” from newbies who read something on his site.

Regardless of where we stand, the photography community at large does not take Ken Rockwell seriously, and neither should you. In fact, in his own words, Ken Rockwell doesn’t take himself seriously either:

This website is [snip] a work of fiction, entirely the product of my own imagination…this site is my “aggressive personal opinion,” and not a logical presentation of fact…I occasionally weave fiction and satire into my stories to keep them interesting…if you consider anything I say as an endorsement (God help you if you do, remember, I do this site as a goof)…

That really should say it all. His reviews are just one man’s opinion, and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you’re looking for photography-related tips and advice, there are plenty of more credible sources available than Ken Rockwell.

Rockwell’s stance on other matters, such as RAW vs JPEG, the use of tripods, and general photography techniques, are often way off the mark.

There’s a very good reason for that, and here’s why:

Ken Rockwell is not a photographer

He is an affiliate marketer. Basically, affiliate marketing is an internet-based business where retailers pay affiliates (like Ken Rockwell) commissions when visitors click links that redirect to the retailer’s website and/or make a purchase from the retailer.

Most large online retailers have an affiliate program, including the camera stores Ken often includes in his articles:

Paid endorsements

While Ken Rockwell claims that he is “completely independent” and does not receive free gear from camera manufacturers, you need to understand one thing: Ken Rockwell is in this thing to make money.

There are currently just over 40,000 external links on his site, most of which point to camera stores and the gear that he is writing about. When you click those links, Ken Rockwell gets paid. He makes no bones about it, either:

I worked in broadcasting for decades, and saw how spending millions of dollars to make the best shows possible made billions of dollars for TV networks who gave them away free for the viewing. TV networks made these billions of dollars up in volume: advertising.

…I support my family from what this website brings in.

…The largest source of my family’s income comes from when you use my links to these stores when you get your stuff.

Ken comes off as a lovable guy-next-door type who provides reviews and opinions from the Average Joe perspective. Surely you wouldn’t mind helping him out with a small donation, or shell out $5 to print one of his pages, right?

IMG_0800-casio-oceanus
When you donate to help support his growing family, you also help pay for an $800 wristwatch (above) and a $119,210 Porsche Cayenne Turbo S (below):

Cayenne

I would argue that most of his site is a violation of the 2009 FTC Endorsement and Testimonial Guide which requires that websites fully disclose that visitors are about to click an affiliate (paid) link. You can see my compliance with this law on my About page.

Ken Rockwell acknowledges the law here:

I have no idea how to interpret the FTC Guidelines, but I think I’ve covered it here. I get paid from stores if you use my links to get your stuff, I accept donations and put up some ads, but I don’t get paid to write anything and don’t get free cameras. I don’t even put up the ads; they’re usually placed by third parties.

The above attempt is buried about half way down the enormous wall of text on his About page, which most readers are going to miss anyway. A site with 40,000+ attempts to sell you something should be required to let visitors know just how many times they’re being panhandled.

According to web tracking site Cubestat, Ken Rockwell is generating nearly $500 per day from clicks on his website, which is likely a low estimate.

Inconsistent reviews

Here is what Rockwell has to say about the Nikon D300s on the camera’s dedicated spec page, dated July 30 2009:

If I shot DX, this is Nikon’s best camera ever, along with the much lighter and less expensive D90.

And here is what he says about the same camera on his Recommended Cameras page, last updated October 2011:

Nikon D300s: Not Recommended.  Forget the old Nikon D300s. The newer D7000 costs less and is superior. Nikon still sells the old D300s for more money because it can, but don’t you fall for it.

Rockwell bounces back and forth on other products as well, including the Nikon D3000. What was once good enough to be “carried around with him everywhere”, he now labels as “Nikon’s Worst DSLR – Ever”. Still, there are no less than two dozen external links attempting to sell you the camera and related accessories on the D3000 spec page.

We’re all entitled to change our opinions, especially if we believe something better has come along. But…

If you put stock in Ken’s reviews, then why would you want to click a link to buy what he considers to be a horrible camera?

Why haven’t those pages ever been updated if he has changed his mind? Is it because they contain paid links and he just doesn’t care what you buy, as long as you click his links to make your purchase?

Quirky sense of humor, or liar?

F100-LeftyMany photographers seem to dislike Rockwell for one reason or another. Those who do manage to tolerate him often cite his quirky and dry sense of humor as a source of amusement. But does it go further than that?

Rockwell claims to own a one of a kind, left-handed Nikon F100, which is shown on his home page. He also claims:

I even had a veterinarian friend in Africa who specializes in elephant care send me some phallus hide from the Loxodonta Africana (known for its flexibility and grip when wet) which I then had a local taxidermist apply to my camera in place of the original rubber. It took a lot of paperwork with the U.S. Dept. of Fish and Game but at least it doesn’t peel off on my D1H as the rubber does.

Sounds completely ridiculous, right? An obvious goof. No one in their right mind would believe that he has a one of a kind camera with a grip made out of hide from an elephant penis. Then why would he go to the trouble of reversing this image (above right) to make it appear as though this left-handed camera actually existed?

On Rockwell’s contact page, there is another image of this camera that is clearly edited. His hair is always parted on the other side, as documented in other photos on the site. The buttons on his shirt also indicate this image was reversed. If you look closely at the watch face, you can see that it is right-side up, showing that it was incorrectly pasted when the image was doctored.

In another prominent instance of fakery, Rockwell reviews the Tamron 10-24mm lens and claims this photo was taken at “Contract Flag Manufacturer’s Display, World Trade Show, Shanghai, China”.

Why then is the US flag featured in the center, surrounded by many state flags? In fact, this photo was taken at Sea World in San Diego, CA, which is near Rockwell’s former home.

Is this another attempt at humor, or is he trying to trick the reader into believing he is a well-traveled photographer?

Ken Rockwell’s site is riddled with nonsense like this. In his defense, he does come clean:

While often inspired by actual products and events, just like any other good news organization, I love to stretch the truth if it makes an article more fun. In the case of new products, rumors and just plain silly stuff, it’s all pretend. If you lack a good BS detector or sense of humor, please treat this entire site as a work of fiction.

Summary

snakeoilKen Rockwell’s site ranks #1 for photography-related tips and advice, and is often a first stop for newbies who don’t know any better. If you’re completely new to photography, it’s best to avoid his site altogether, as you won’t be able to sift through the nonsense and separate the good advice from the bad.

Rockwell claims that he has been “shooting seriously since he was 5 years old”, which makes him one of the world’s leading experts on photography, and that you should:

Always look at someone’s portfolio before you ask their opinion. If the person spewing out advice hasn’t made any great photos, you ought to ignore him.

…which is actually the best tidbit of advice on his site. After reviewing Rockwell’s portfolio, many photographers agree that he has no idea what he’s doing, and should be ignored.

Whether or not Ken Rockwell actually believes he gives good advice or makes controversial posts just for the sake of generating traffic to his site, one thing is certain: he is making money while doing it.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that Rockwell designed his entire site from the start to establish himself as an authority on photography for the sole purpose of selling links. At best, he is a gear nut who discovered that he could make more money by writing about photography as opposed to actually selling his work.

One thing is certain: marketing comes first, photography second.

Those seeking information about equipment and photography in general would do well to simply skip Ken Rockwell’s site and find more credible sources like the ones listed below:

Helpful Links

Equipment Reviews and General Photography – These are links to some of the more credible sources out there.

One of the best sources for equipment reviews (and often the most overlooked) are the comments sections of online stores where gear is purchased. Many online retailers provide a comments or customer reviews section under individual product listings. Read those to see what actual buyers are saying!

Personalities – Here’s a list of some good photographers with a large presence on the internet.

Discussion Boards/Forums – There are quite a few that aren’t very welcoming, but here are a few great online communities.

  • Nikonites – Awesome community for beginner Nikon users.
  • Photo Camel – Business of Photography section in particular has a lot of information
  • Digital Photography School – Also has a lot of great articles and tutorials submitted by members
  • Fro’s Forums – This relatively new forum is just getting started, but already has a good community

 

  • http://mmaddictindonesi.wordpress.com Jarot

    When I started shooting digital in 2008 I did read a lot of Ken’s reviews but eventually got tired of his arrogance (e.g “Pros like me…”) and statements about how the latest cameras are automatically the best camera -he seemed to have copied n pasted parts pf previous articles- also his family photos just got me tired of the site. About the left-handed camera, I think he clearly mentioned it was simply picture. One thing I’d like to know since I could never be able to do by myself are the lens tests, are they worth noting or not? Most ppl it seems visits the Lens Review the most.

    • Anthony Hereld

      Ken does have some insightful opinions on gear. I don’t always agree with his assessments, but he has a wide knowledge base, and most of his “tech stuff” is pretty sound.

      However, his advice on how all that tech translates into taking a good photo…not so much.

  • http://alreinerphotos.artistwebsites.net Al Reiner

    I read and tend to disagree with most of what you say. On his site a few links are named as sponsored BUT most of the ads that are on it are not placed by him : CLEARLY STATED. He HAS SOME WILD IDEAS, about shooting jpeg, and high saturation and a strong preaching about the use of film. I really feel there is nothing wrong about changing ones mind over time about a specific camera. I have taken one workshop where Ken Rockwell taught I found him to be honest and very helpful even when I thought he was wrong.

    • Anthony Hereld

      Al, that’s total bunk.

      Most of the paid links are embedded, which means they are hot linked when the article is written. 3rd party advertising can be somewhat random depending on what you’ve signed up for, but Ken has complete control over what is advertised on his site.

  • Frankie23

    Rockwell will not care but this is my perspective on him:

    His philosophy on photography is just that. His philosophy. I personally like the way he writes.

    Rockwell’s philosophy is simple: get out and take photos. Stop reading reviews and magazines and certainly do not preach on the altar of sharpness or pixel-peeking.

    Rockwell says: “I like saturated photos”. So what? He does not say: “you must take saturated photos”

    He says: get your own philosophy and decide what you like/do not like. So true.

    And, yes, tripods are certainly not required for anything other than timed shots. Carrying a load of gear around with you is daft. Take one lens and take images for that lens.

    He is right: an image you love depends on the abilities of you as a photographer to see an image, not the gear you use. Flickr & 500px are full of truly boring or clichéd images taken on tripods with full frame bodies.

    His articles on how to take better photos are insightful.

    He is right about Jpegs vs Raw. Raw is versatile, but not necessary for everyone.

    Rockwell is open about being paid via the links and that this feeds his family. Nothing wrong with that on principle.

  • DraganDL

    Some people said that Ken’s advice have to be taken with a grain of salt. I’d say: with the SPOONFUL of salt. But, nobody really ought to be avoiding his site – the place where many HARD FACTS about cameras and lenses can be easily found and are very neatly displayed. Just avoid Ken’s STATEMENTS (or, at least, compare them to the statements of other reviewers).
    About his “changing(s) of stances”: Nikon D7000, practically appeared on the scene as a replacement for the “DX King” His Majesty D300s. So, it’s only natural (and commendable) to warn people not to lose money by buying “yesterday’s news” if the fresh news are available (and even cost a little less).

    What I noticed in terms of Mr. Rockwell’s shilly-shallying and pusyfooting (and which are OBVIOUSLY motivated by the need to push or promote the specific product) is his stance towards the usability of certain lenses. For example:

    1) in many cases, Mr. Rockwell plays down the use of FX lenses on DX bodies, expressing his “reserve” in this regard, because these lenses (say: 28-105mm) are “not wide enough”. This “opinion” is but silly – the usefulness of such lens mounted to a DX body depends on the NEEDS of the SPECIFIC photographer or/and the SPECIFIC situation… But these lenses are also VERY cheap (can be purchased on a “grey market”) so such purchases don’t put any $ to Ken’s pocket…
    2) Hundreds of times, Mr. Rockwell downplayed DX lenses by “reminding” the reader (purchaser?) that the DX lenses wont (really) cover the FX sensor and a so-called “DX crop mode” is but a scam, because it downgrades your FX camera to a DX one, “so what’s the point in having a FX camera then…”? But he himself (Mr. Rockwell) in one of his reviews of a DX lens (I’m not sure was it a 18-140mm or a 16-85mm) boasts with having a GREAT time while shooting with this lens in a DX crop mode on his FX camera…
    Etc., etc. Like in a “A fish called Wanda”: “Dear old Kkkkkheeen….” Avoid the green ones – aren’t ripe yet! Avoid Ken, hasn’t become a photographer yet….

  • Trust no one

    Well, now isn’t this just a bit of ugly envy pretending to be a public service announcement!

  • Benji

    I like Ken Rockewell and actually the articles that I’ve found the most interesting have been about subjects like good composition, what it means to be a good photographer, etc..not gear reviews. He reiterates his vocal opinions on bad photography, etc, and though this is judgmental, I strongly feel that this scrutiny is very much needed today in the digital age when everyone claims to be some kind of photographer because they got a new DSLR for Christmas and can process a few actions in Photoshop. The guy is obviously passionate about upholding the integrity of the field of photography, particularly in an era when everyone is a “professional photographer” simply because they’ve bought the latest gear and believe pics of their kids or dog consist of art first without even taking a basic course on composition. I find Ken’s reviews actually really quite refreshing, although brutally honest and often times cynical which is likely derived from the degradation of a field due to the plethora of careless photographers. I have a feeling those who dislike him the most are the ones who should listen closer to what he has to say.

  • Thinkinginpictures (THKPIC)

    You write about him changing his mind on the Nikon D300- but seriously. Did you even consider the context? He endorsed it in 2009 and then recommends against it in 2011 due to the D7000- duh! Two years renders most cameras obsolete- especially when retailers try bilking consumers right before a new product release. His articles are interesting, insightful and do offer useful information. Anyone who thinks he is an final authority on camera gear should get their head checked- he never contends to be as well. You always cross reference your resources and compare an analysis before making a product purchase.

    • http://www.anthonyhereld.com/ Anthony Hereld

      Thank you for your feedback. However, it seems you have missed the point I was trying to make regarding his outdated camera reviews.

      I pointed out that everyone is entitled to change their minds, especially as updated gear comes along. However, Rockwell still leaves those old links up for people to purchase what he now considers to be a poor camera.

      • Thinkinginpictures (THKPIC)

        Thanks for the clarification and good point. I see there is more controversy stated online about him as well. Odd enough, I even spoke with one of the sales reps at my local camera store about him- first thing he mentioned was his questionable reviews. I’m sure your insight has merit and did enjoy the read. T hanks.

  • Andy

    I like Ken Rockewell too. I think his site is very well done, free of ads, easy to navigate. He is a good source for amateurs. He does
    not complicate things. If he is making money, so be it. I think many people are too jealous and try to throw mud on him, but are themselves much worst.

  • http://www.the-digital-picture.com/ Sean Setters

    Anthony,

    Really enjoyed the read. It’s nice to see someone explain their concerns about Ken Rockwell with great supporting evidence.

    By the way, I work for Bryan Carnathan over at The-Digital-Picture.com. It might be worthy of adding to your Helpful Links. ;-)

  • Anthony Hereld

    F..k you Anthony,
    Why you removing any positive comment on Ken Rockwell? You are complete idiot.

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