We get a lot of equipment recommendation questions on this site; it's currently the 2nd-most popular tag, behind the lens tag.

Many of these questions seem to start out as something vague and hard to answer, like "What SLR should I get?". Commenters ask the person to clarify their needs ("What are you going to use it for?", "Do your friends shoot Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony?", etc), the question becomes tailored to the asker's situation.

While these are useful to the asker and can teach that person a lot, there's concern that these aren't useful to the site and to the wider Internet -- after all, every snowflake is different.

What should we do with/about these questions, so that they can be useful both to the original asker (not scare them off; respect their intentions; don't insult them) and also be useful to a wider audience?

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Jeff Attwood's post is particularly apt: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping –  labnut Apr 27 '11 at 7:33
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6 Answers

We should not only allow them, but embrace them as part of how we encourage new users.

Denying questions like these will keep us from becoming the place on the web for getting answers for photography.

Online photography forums DO allow for personalized gear recommendations, and as such generate more new members, as they look for answer to probably the hardest question they'll ever face "What should I buy?"

It's true that personalized gear recommendations don't have value to a lot of people, but if it's valuable to at least one person, it should be valuable to our community (imo).

If we keep turning away potential new members who need help with gear recommendations, we just push them to places that welcome those types of questions.

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Couldn't agree more. –  jrista Apr 30 '11 at 23:12
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+1 I can agree more... than @jrista... In spirit anyway. Not like I have a lot of extra votes I can throw your way or anything. ;-) –  Jay Lance Photography May 1 '11 at 23:25
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I'm going to disagree here. There are loads of other forums on the internet where gear recommendation can be sought. I see stack exchange as a place for photographic Q&A that is much more in-depth than what you'd get in a typical forum. The moderation points tend to encourage the kind of detailed answers you'd rarely get in a forum. This site would lose a lot of its value if the noise of gear recommendation drowned out other more interesting discussions. –  CadentOrange May 2 '11 at 9:20
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+1 I came here with a beginner oh-my-god-there-are-so-many-lenses-which-one-will-suit-me personal equipment recommendation question and stayed because of the expertise I could see here. I'm still very much an ameuter so I can't contribute much in the way of answers at this stage, but no doubt I will as I become more experienced. –  fmark May 2 '11 at 9:42
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@Philip Goh: Realize, we already have gear recommendation, quite a lot of it. It is one of our most popular topics, and the primary driver of traffic. If you have not yet noticed the "noise" of gear recommendation drowning out the interesting discussions, I think that is only more evidence that they are NOT a problem, and that we should continue allowing them. –  jrista May 2 '11 at 16:38
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When editing a user's question, we should err on the side of specificity, and then later ask the more general version of the question.

If the original question is "Is the D7000 worth the additional price over the D3100?", we should first answer that question (along with all the comments needed to get relevant information about the person's needs).

Meanwhile, we can ask "How do I decide if it's worth spending more money on a camera body?" in a separate question. A good answer to this question would act as a guide to someone trying to make the same decision, should teach the basics of what the person needs to know before asking their own question. It might also present common use cases, e.g. "If your goal is to take good pictures of your kid's soccer game, the most important features in a camera body are X, Y, and Z because ..."

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I think we should be careful about the level of generality in questions. I think it is important to work to make questions as useful to as many people as possible, but I also think that a certain degree of specificity is necessary for a question to be truly useful, to both the original asker and other viewers. –  jrista Apr 27 '11 at 3:48
    
@jrista I totally agree, but I think we can manage to make a more general question/answer for most equipment recommendations. If nothing else, try to make it brand and model-agnostic. –  Evan Krall Apr 27 '11 at 4:46
    
See Jeff Attwoods's post: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping –  labnut Apr 27 '11 at 10:04
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I believe we should apply Five Tests before answering equipment choice questions.

Will the answer be:

  • Enduring?
    Will the answer make an enduring contribution to the body of photographic knowledge? Transient answers become noise that detract from the value of this site. Today's awesome camera is tomorrow's big yawn.
  • Independent and General?
    Is the answer largely independent of the user's particular circumstances and needs? We cannot be everyone's consultant and nor should we. Specific advice relevant to one person has no general value.
  • Information only?
    Is this question asking for information and not asking for a recommended decision? We can supply information but we should not recommend shopping choices.
  • Neutral?
    Will the answer be vendor/supplier neutral. We have no business taking sides and we are not the marketing department for certain big name manufacturers. Nor is this a place to exercise our tribal loyalties.
  • A Tutorial?
    Should we make an exception because the answer can provide an opportunity for a 'teaching moment' that is general and enduring? A question may fail the above tests but it may be 'rescued' by turning the answer into a tutorial.

In general, a good answer should have as its aim, to promote the art and science of photography, the mission of the Royal Photographic Society.

A shopping recommendation merely promotes the aims of certain manufacturers.

Questions that ask for shopping recommendations are lazy questions. They shirk the hard work of doing the necessary research and formulating proper questions.

References:
Jeff Atwood - Q&A is hard, lets go shopping
Good Subjective - Bad Subjective
Should we encourage responders to give citations/references?

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Equipment recommendations are really only useful when they are, in fact, personal. If we want to get into the business of general equipment recommendations, then we're essentially taking on a consumer-reports sort of role. DPReview and other sites do a great job of this already, so we should consider whether we can really do generalized recommendations better than sites like that are already doing them.

A personal equipment recommendation, on the other hand, works well when the community can understand the poster's needs and help him understand how specific equipment meets those needs. As Evan indicates, this is rarely as straightforward as it might seem; it's often necessary to draw out needs when the poster doesn't understand them well enough to articulate them clearly.

These questions, then, tend to be somewhat dynamic and fluid, which (I believe) makes them feel awkward with respect to the SE platform. The answers are also subjective, which further erodes their value as "traditional" SE questions.

I do feel, though, that the conversational nature of these questions is exactly what makes them work for the poster; when they get to the end, they've learned a little more about their needs, in addition to learning about the equipment that might meet their needs.

If P-SE wants to prohibit questions like this because they're not good SE questions, I think that's a reasonable response. Personally, though, I'd like to find a way to create a safe zone for these questions to exist without diluting the "good" SE questions, if only because I'd like to see some of those people stick around and help grow the site's active membership.

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We need to make a distinction between most equipment recommendation questions and one specific type which keeps coming up: "I am new; what camera should I get?"

Most equipment recommendation questions are great for the site. However, this type is problematic.

There are reasons other than off-topic to close a question. These are generally things which are either negative for the site, or else which are negative for the question itself (unlikely to work well) — which in turn is really negative for the site. Specifically, "I am new; what camera should I get?" falls into these:

  • Subjective: Even when specifics are given, the individual decision for the right answer is unlikely to be the same even for someone else with nominally the same starting requirements. There's a reason there's so many cameras on the market. Once one narrows down the technical specs (showing some research effort!), what remains is very personal. Subjective is not inherently bad in art, which is a key aspect of this site, but this is more on the tech side — and very likely to fall into bad subjective. (See the thought experiment below.)
  • Argumentative: It invites brand wars. The answers are most likely to be from whoever happens to be on the site at the time with a preference to push. This isn't really helpful to the questioner, and it's detrimental to Photo-SE overall. We haven't had a big problem with this yet, but as we grow, it is inevitable unless we draw a hard line against it now. (Even with existing questions, we often get "start by only looking at Canon and Nikon". I disagree with this in most cases, but don't want to get into the argument on this site every time it comes up.) So we should draw a hard line against it. The moderation/voting system does not help much here; it'll just drive away people who may disagree with the majority upvote-gaining slant.
  • Not A Real Question: Often they are real questions. But almost all "what camera?" questions I've seen start out being extremely vague, and only get to the point of being answerable with some refinement. Of all the types of questions on the site, these are most likely to come in poorly formed and with little thought or previous searching.
  • Too Localized: I think this might get overused. It's okay for things to be specific. It's surprising how often that turns out to be helpful to someone else later. But it is a risk with specific model recommendations, which are likely to be out-of-date within a year or less.
  • Exact Duplicate: The best answers are often like this one by @Nir or this one by @Darksair. But do we really want everyone to cut and paste a stock answer every time this comes up? Of course not. It's better to mark the whole thing as a duplicate.

So:

"What starter camera?" questions should (quickly) be closed as duplicates of a general "How do I narrow down the options for a starter camera?" question, and the new questioner encouraged to post any follow-up questions that might arise.

The general question should be a really good "soft landing spot", which should leave the new user with a positive impression of Stack Exchange and point them on their way to finding the camera they want and for finding further information about photography.

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"Which of these N lenses?" questions are also often poor, but that's usually due to apparent lack of effort by the poster. They are unlikely to actually cause a problem for the site other than noise. –  mattdm Jun 2 '11 at 11:05
    
Here's a thought experiment. Person comes in, says: "I've got a budget of $500. I need a camera for traveling. Portability is important. I need good quality, but it doesn't need to be great. I take pictures of people some time. What should I buy?" Some recommendations are thrown up. One is accepted. Five months later, someone comes in and asks the exact same question. Should this be marked as a duplicate of the first? –  mattdm Jun 3 '11 at 19:46
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One aspect I'd like to stretch particularly is this: Even if the question is fluid and specific to one person, I can still benefit from it.

In fact, I spent the last three days reading various taylored 'what should I buy' questions only to get a feel for what is even relevant, which questions I have to ask myself. With that in mind, I then went and bought my next lens, so these questions were at least indirectly useful to me and I would hesitate to discourage them just because they are too narrow or fluid.

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