Are equipment recommendation questions on topic and how should they be presented to be relevant?

There was a brief discussion about recommendations in answers in this topic: What is our view on product recommendations in answers?

Update: This blog post from Jeff Atwood, posted half a year after this question was originally discussed, may add some more considerations to the issue: Q&A is Hard, Let’s Go Shopping!

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Tagged as a faq-suggestion for when we arrive at a consensus. –  ex-ms Aug 3 '10 at 17:08
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See also: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping, which happens to use a camera question as the example. Maybe we can link to that in the FAQ. –  mattdm Mar 18 '11 at 14:44
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I think that, as @Reid says below, it's time to revisit this. I've been, inspired by the blog post, taking a pretty hard line against shopping recommendations. However, the vote seems pretty much split, here, and I don't think there's really consensus. –  mattdm Apr 27 '11 at 0:17
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The shopping noise level is increasing. It is time to make a decision before the character of photo.SE changes for the worse. @Jeff Attwood's blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping post sums it up pretty well. It is time for us to take a similar stand. –  labnut Apr 27 '11 at 5:51
    
This followup post from Jeff to his own blog entry is also worth adding to the considerations: blog.stackoverflow.com/2010/11/qa-is-hard-lets-go-shopping/… –  mattdm Apr 28 '11 at 1:56
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9 Answers

I think they're typically going to be off topic as too vague or subjective. The conversation usually goes as follows (examples are already on the site):

  • Q: I'm thinking about buying lens/camera A [B or C or D], how do they compare?
  • A: What kind of photography do you do?
  • Q: Fairly typical genre X.
  • A: OK, here are some generic rules of thumb about X lenses and how they relate to your examples.
  • Q: I have this idiosyncratic personal preference, what about now?
  • A: An educated guess.
  • Q: Thanks, I'm going to go with my first instinct.

I think that such questions would be much better if they were recast into things like "what do I need to know about lens A?" or "what's a good lens for genre X?" or "what should I look for buying my first DSLR?" etc. They would elicit much the same information, without the subjective back-and-forth.

The key for me here is that in the vast majority of situations, the particular quirks of the person asking the question are distractors that don't affect the outcome. Most lens decisions have two major criteria: appropriate focal length, and budget. Camera decisions have a few more wrinkles, but still reduce to a small number of criteria rather well.

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I certainly don't dispute that situations like this, the question isn't too great, but I don't believe that this example leads to a general rule that equipment recommendations are off topic. –  Reid Aug 3 '10 at 1:38
    
@Reid perhaps not, which is why I said 'typically'. I'm not suggesting a general rule, more of a reversal of the burden of proof: if it's a hugely special "what should I buy" question, great. If it's run-of-the-mill, then we have ways to suggest rephrasing it. "How to ask for equipment recommendations" might be good in the FAQ, actually, whatever way we end up treating those questions. –  ex-ms Aug 3 '10 at 6:23
    
Also, a large majority of these questions can probably get closed as duplicates, so it shouldn't be that big of a problem. –  chills42 Aug 3 '10 at 13:07
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@Matt: good point on a FAQ entry. –  Reid Aug 3 '10 at 13:27
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@chills42 To me, closing a large number of near-duplicate questions would be a symptom, not a cure. –  ex-ms Aug 3 '10 at 17:05
    
@Matt but we don't have to, can't, and shouldn't try to produce a policy which solves every potential problem. –  Reid Aug 3 '10 at 22:31
    
I'm a little torn between matt's and reid's arguments here. On the one hand, I don't think we want to allow a systemic problem, but on the other, we really can't solve every potential problem. I think that putting together a proper FAQ item on this that clearly describes the best practices regarding asking and answering equipment recommendation type questions will at least set a baseline. Beyond that, I think its just going to have to be a subjective decision for each question of this type that pops up. –  jrista Aug 4 '10 at 4:05
    
@Reid - with respect, this isn't "every potential problem" but one particular problem that's nascent on the site, and is a fairly constant PITA on many other fora. e.g.: photo.stackexchange.com/questions/1914/af-s-17-35-vs-af-s-16-35 The answer is somewhat redeeming, but how is anyone going to find the good answer unless they're trying to compare that precise pair of lenses? If the answer is what's good, the question can be improved by recasting it into those terms. –  ex-ms Aug 4 '10 at 18:33
    
Again, I agree that that particular question is bad, but I don't see how it generalizes into "equipment recommendations are discouraged". Let's wait and see if it becomes an actual problem rather than a potential or nascent problem which people don't agree actually exists. Can't we also deal with this by tagging such questions equipment-recommendation and letting people hide those tags? Does that make so-tagged questions disappear? –  Reid Aug 4 '10 at 21:03
    
@Reid - There's not yet a single recommendation question I'd class as a "good question," or that couldn't be made better by recasting it as a specific question about equipment/technique. The best we have are some good answers that, as often as not, don't even directly address the question. To me, that's as general as it gets, and I use the word "nascent" only because the entire site is "nascent". [also, no, ignored tags aren't hidden, just dim. It's not a method suited to solving what boils down to a signal/noise problem.] –  ex-ms Aug 4 '10 at 21:38
    
As an FYI, having been a member of this site for some time, and seen how well our community answers equipment recommendation questions with extremely low bias...I am officially retracting my vote for this question. Since I can't actually remove my vote, that puts this and Reid's answer in a dead heat 5 to 5. –  jrista Apr 27 '11 at 22:51
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I'd define relevant product recommendation question this way - if other people gain from these answers, it's on topic, if the question/answer is more like personal consulting, it's off topic.

Examples:

  1. I own lens X and Y and I'm considering to buy lens Z. What do you recommend? - I'd vote for off-topic.
  2. I'd like to take pictures of X. I already own A and B, but these are really not enough. What do you recommend? - I'd vote for on topic.

Vote it down or suggest your own answer:)

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@Karel, can you clarify a bit why you think #1 is off topic? –  Reid Aug 2 '10 at 5:01
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I think that the guy who asks question 1 really seeks confidence (look, "the experts" agreed) to go ahead with his purchase, while the second one might have a real problem to solve. –  Karel Aug 3 '10 at 7:21
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@Karel - couldn't agree more. –  ex-ms Aug 3 '10 at 16:57
    
@Karel, without more information on example #1, I don't think we can say. The way it's phrased, it's a vague and unhelpful question, and so it's kind of a straw man. In a real question, it's likely that would be more. Finally, a question of the form, "here is my reasoning, is it valid" seems perfectly on topic to me, and that IMO is a more positive framing of your "look, the experts agreed" criticism. –  Reid Aug 3 '10 at 22:33
    
I have to agree with Reid, I don't really think question one should be "off topic" on principal. While I do think this site could use more topics that are less technical and gear oriented and more photography and artistically oriented, I think that questions like #1 are going to be an integral part of what this site is, now and on into the future. I don't think it is really fair or objective to categorically close questions like #1. I think we may end up closing a lot of them, but I still think each should be evaluated in turn to make a proper determination. –  jrista Aug 4 '10 at 4:10
    
OK, let's move forward and try to think about how the questions need to be presented to be relevant (FAQ item for possible askers) and how we evaluate the questions (guidelines and basis for closing). –  Karel Aug 4 '10 at 7:24
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I think that they're on topic, because a very common question is: What should I buy? Thus, we should serve that need.

Questions that are too vague can be closed for other reasons.

If it develops into a problem, we can revisit. But I don't think we should preemptively react to a problem that may not exist.

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I think this is the proper approach. We are still in the early beta phase, and solving this potential problem now seems radically premature. I don't really think we should allow such repetitive questions to become a systemic problem, but on the other hand I think they are going to be an integral part of this site, and they need to be addressed on a per-instance basis. –  jrista Aug 4 '10 at 4:12
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It's not just "serving a need" (although I'd still ask "why we should serve it?"), but more like a community building type of decision here. If the front page is full of "what should I buy?" type of things, there's a good chance to lose the artistic minds forever. This comment is influenced by the discussion here: meta.photo.stackexchange.com/questions/203/… –  Karel Aug 4 '10 at 6:56
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I think it is important to allow equipment discussions here, partly because it serves to attract people to the community. I've already had two of my equipment questions answered here, and will likely stick around to participate in other non-equipment discussions. If equipment discussions were off topic, I'd probably take all of my questions somewhere else. –  Avalanchis Aug 13 '10 at 16:08
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And, yet another possibility:

We could have an Camera Recommendations chatroom, and close equipment recommendation questions quickly with a pointer to that.

People with a shopping urge could get quick advice, and it'd be in a more transient medium.

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All information is time sensitive to one degree or another. If someone asks a well written question, and someone else is willing to answer it, and the information is likely to help someone then surely that's good enough.

Take, for example, jinsta's fantastic answer to this question: http://photo.stackexchange.com/questions/3954/decrypting-canons-nomenclature-of-cameras

Sure, it has no real enduring value because Canon's range is going to change over time. That said, it is a great write up which really helped me understand the differences in Canon's lineup and make an informed choice about which model would be suitable for me - and I'm quite sure others will find it useful for a period of time before it becomes outdated.

You don't build a great community site by seeking to exclude those who don't share the same narrow subset of the common interest as those who happened to find the site first. Tags are a first class feature of Stack Exchange sites - if people aren't interested in a specific topic, such as equipment recommendations, they can ignore that tag and concentrate on those which do interest them, and a more diverse community can grow as a result.

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As this topic has come up again recently, I think we need to look to the actions of the community at large in response to equipment recommendations. There was no clear consensus in this thread before, however since the end of last year (2010) our community has been happy to oblige people who ask for equipment recommendations. The quality of answers is usually quite good, although we do have the occasional bias here and there. I think the volume of quality answers may be lacking a bit overall, and it might be good to step up the level of response we offer to people asking for clear and specific equipment recommendations. In general, though, I think the actions of the community have spoken quite clearly:

Equipment Recommendation questions are ON TOPIC.

It should be noted that in other discussions, the decision to label speculative discussion about unreleased products as clearly OFF TOPIC.

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For equipment recommendations one gets far better advice on DPReview.com. Large numbers of people from every possible perspective reply and many of the replies are very informed and of high quality. Of course there is noise, bias, subjectivity and other problems there but they are easy to ignore. I would always advise people to go there first for good advice about equipment recommendations. We have different strengths which give us an advantage in other fields. –  labnut Apr 28 '11 at 12:59
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Update:

On reflection about this, I realize that my concern is really something more narrow than the general topic of equipment recommendations. Of course we have a ton of questions in the category, and many of them are great, with great answers. It would be crazy to throw that away, and I can relate to anyone who thought I was crazy for suggesting that.

What I'm really concerned with, and what I think tends to towards the problems I'm worried about below, are what specific camera should I buy? questions. These questions don't suit the site well. They're almost always going to be subjective and argumentative (and in the bad-subjective category), and much more time-transient than other recommendation questions.

So that's what I'd like to take a hard line against. Can we encourage good equipment recommendation questions and, gently but firmly close "what camera should I buy?" questions?


I've appreciated this site being relatively free of the brand partisanship that seems to me to almost define some photography web forums. I'm afraid that having more equipment recommendations would bring that out more, and possibly spill to outside of the equipment recommendations.

And even discounting brand wars, it's nice to have a site that focuses more on photography and less on gear. I think shopping recommendations bring that out of balance.

And beyond all that, any QA which is specific enough to be really helpful to an individual is unlikely to be ever useful to someone else. Even if someone with exactly the same needs comes along a year later, everything will be out of date. That just means we'll have a site littered with noise.

Finally, I'm concerned that the majority of people asking the basic what-to-buy questions won't become positive contributors to the site in other ways. There's exceptions, but mostly, once they've got their answer (contributing to the above problems in the process), they're not engaged and won't be in a good position to stay around helping others.

So, my preference is to take a hard line against specific recommendations.

However, I'm all for general recommendations: what do I need to do this kind of shot? And I'm also in favor of the "how do I figure out how to decide" questions, including the more practical "what do I need to know so I can make this choice?".

Basically, I agree with @ex-ms and @labnut's answers here, but wanted to add the above as well.

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If we do decide to allow equipment recommendations, in contrast to my other answer, I strongly believe we should go all-in. I asked earlier if we should have a separate gear-recommendation site, which I still think might be a good idea. But failing that, if we do allow equipment recommendations here, the rules should be clear, simple, and non-subjective.

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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. They deserve neither help nor sympathy.

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Could you rephrase those tests so that they're all true or false in the same direction, rather than some yes, some no? Thanks. :) –  mattdm Apr 27 '11 at 0:30
    
@mattdm. Done, I hope they meet the exacting standards of our site's hard working curator? –  labnut Apr 27 '11 at 7:20
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