I’ve been reviewing and writing about Chinese-manufactured photography kit for a good few years now, and though this doesn’t apply to all brands, I have found that some perform what I’m going to call “silent upgrades” to products that don’t quite hit the mark when they are first released. These silent upgrades are improvements made to products that are made without any further announcement, despite sometimes being fairly significant. Since these upgrades are often quite difficult to spot from a consumer point of view, I thought bringing a little more awareness around them might be a good thing for potential purchasers.
First a couple of examples to help highlight exactly what it is that I’m talking about. The first time I was made aware of these silent upgrades was when I reviewed the 7Artisans 28mm f/1.4. At the time I was in fairly regular conversation with the brand and actually this particular upgrade wasn’t as silently made as they often are now. When the lens first came out it was announced as having a halo effect from point sources of light when shot wide open. I reviewed one of these early lenses, but after the brand got some negative feedback around this effect they updated the lens internally so this effect was removed. As it turned out, they only made 100 of the first lenses – I still have mine as it goes – and lenses made since then don’t have the issue.
I always wondered about what happened behind closed doors. Did they just make a first batch that all had this issue and then went to market with that batch to test to see if they should solve it based on feedback? Or did they always intend to fix it, but needed to clear the first 100 lenses so initially marketed it as a feature rather than a bug? I have no idea, but it was an interesting process to observe from a 3rd party perspective.
Another lens that I have seen go through some even more significant updates is the TTArtisan 50mm 1.4 tilt lens. If you read Bastian’s review on Philip Reeve, you’ll see it suffered quite a few issues when it was first released. It was very soft for a start, but also suffered from light leaks when used at the extremes of its tilt function.
By the time I got one, it seemed to me to be a lot less soft. Still soft, but I didn’t find myself with anything like the concerns that Bastian had. I actually put this down to differences in our personal requirements as it’s very hard to compare sharpness without having the two copies side by side. But even aside from the more difficult to pin down differences in sharpness, my copy didn’t have the issue with light leaks at all.
Since my review, they have made an arguably even more significant upgrade to the lens. Both me and Bastian commented about the lens not having a full 360 degrees of rotation. By the time Eric L. Woods got a copy of the lens, this too had been solved. If you buy one today, new, as one of the most latest batch, it rotates completely through the 360 degrees it arguably should have done from day one. Have a read of Eric’s fist post about it on his website here.
Another example is one I have been wrangling over the last few months. Some time last year I was contacted by a new brand by the name of Astrhori. They had a light meter they wanted me to review – the Astrhori AH-M1. The first one I received wasn’t quite up to spec. The dial, when turned, sometimes didn’t change the settings, and other times it would change them far too quickly. It was also somewhat erratic when it came to meter readings. This, as you can probably imagine, was a little offputting. Regardless, I didn’t give up, this was the first time I’d dealt with this brand, so I wanted to give them another chance. I emailed my contact there who was very keen to send me another one to try. Not long after, another meter appeared at my office and, happily, none of the same issues were evident. That said, there was one change that I didn’t like – the dial on the new meter was ever so slightly stiff. Would I have noticed or even commented on this if I hadn’t seen the first one? Probably not, but with the comparison available to me, I wasn’t completely happy. In the end, I ended up taking the two meters apart and transferring the working electronics into the older looser-dialled housing. Happy days, I had a working meter with a nice easy to rotate dial.
Then, I had another email from a new contact at Astrhori saying the first guy had left and did I want to review their meter. I explained that I had a couple already, but they seemed quite keen to send me another one in black anyway. This one soon turned up and lo and behold, it was perfect. The dial turned perfectly, even nicer in fact than the one I had made out of the two older ones.
Interestingly there was one other subtle change to the design that came to this black version. In the process of reviewing it, I had decided I was going to ask on social media if other people had experienced this meter. You can see the post here. I wanted to see what other people had found when they bought one. Had they been disappointed, or had they received a good copy? I had some feedback on the post as well as some private message conversations with a few people that ended up being fairly balanced between positive and negative experiences with those who had tried one soonest after release seeming to have had the least positive experiences.
Alongside those who had direct experiences with the meter, there was also a more pointed comment from someone on my instagram saying that the fact that the meter had the URL of the company on the dial was a sure sign that it was a low quality product. Now look again at the black more recent version compared to the earlier silver one…
Of course, not all of these product changes are worth mentioning as updates. In the case of the Astrhori meter, they are all small tweaks to quality and presentation of the product. And 7Artisans did do some sort of low key announcement of the upgrade of I remember rightly. In the case of the TTArtisan tilt lens though there are changes that I think would have been worth mentioning as a version 2 – not least as the earliest version of the lens took a bit of a battering in Bastian’s review. Creating a v.2 with a new set of features and improvements noted would separate the product from that first version and potentially bring new life to it.
I think it’s probably also worth noting that this isn’t a process that’s limited to Chinese manufacturers. Lots of manufacturers from all corners of the world make silent upgrades to products of all shapes and sizes – especially ones with longer lifecycles. It’s been happening in photography since the first cameras too – especially in older mechanical cameras where subtle internal changes were made over the lifecycle of cameras without customers knowing it across all brands of cameras to my knowledge. Often these tweaks were made to make subtle quality improvements or seemingly to change or assist manufacturing processes.
With some of these Chinese brands, the difference is that it seems that early versions of products are sometimes released with actual flaws. Early copies are sent out to customers – and reviewers for that matter – with issues that are arguably beyond the point of acceptable. Light leaks from lenses and dials on light meters that don’t turn properly don’t do the product any long term favours – especially once reviews of them are published. So it always seems a little odd to me that these brands wouldn’t want to announce the fact that they have been fixed.
What’s going on?
So what’s going on here, and how are we as consumers supposed to deal with it all? The answer to the first part of that question is a lot harder to answer than the second and involves little more than speculation on my part. Sometimes issues seem to thwart new brands more than older, but that’s not always the case. Certainly the 7Artisans lenses I have encountered more recently seem to have less issues than they used to. But TTArtisan have been around for a while too and whilst a lot of their new lenses are great, this tilt lens seems to have caused them a series of issues. Astrhori are a new brand, and whilst their meter has had a few wobbles, they brought out a probe lens which we’ve been playing with at work, and that’s pretty much spot on; I can’t really fault it at all.
I have wondered if it is simply a side effect of the speed of development of new kit that seems to come from a lot of these Chinese brands. There sometimes seems to be new lenses released and even new brands cropping up every other week, so maybe in some cases there’s just a lack of attention to detail.
It could also be a cost thing. In an attempt to keep costs lower they release kit without such a close eye on quality control. Or perhaps early runs of lenses are released to help pay for production upgrades moving forward. Even Harman have done that with their recent release of Phoenix film, though they have been very transparent about it all in a way we don’t see from some of the Chinese brands. As I say, all this is speculation. What matters more is how we as consumers of these products should react and deal with this process of these silent upgrades.
My advice to consumers
I think the first and probably most important factor when buying some of these Chinese brands is just to be aware that what I have outlined could be happening without you being aware of it. Of course, I’m not talking about everything that’s made in China. Pretty much everything is made in China these days and the vast majority of it seems to go through very stringent testing. The brands that I’m talking about here are probably most easily identified as the ones that make and sell lenses that in some cases make you wonder how they have been created for such a small amount of money when compared to the big brands.
With the knowledge of silent upgrade process in place, it’s really just a case of setting your expectations right and being sensible in terms of how you buy this kit and what you do if you do receive a duff product.
To kick off, I think there’s probably two approaches to buying from these brands. The first is to wait for reviews to come out. I can tell you from experience that these brands aren’t cherry-picking products to send to those of us who review their kit. They just take a sealed box off a shelf and stick it in the post. At least this means that the reviews you read will be based on real life products. So if the reviews are good, you have a better chance of getting a good copy. If the reviews are bad, you can either accept the negatives as part of the lower cost and take a punt to find out for yourself, or you can wait for more reviews to surface and see if over time the issues seem to be less noted by the reviewers.
The other approach is just to dive right in. I have highlighted a few products that I have found issue with here, with a couple being from just the last year. Overall though, the trend seems to be going in the right direction in terms of quality. That is to say, it seems to me that more brands are releasing more products that are of a higher quality from day one than before. There was a time when every 7Artisans wide angle lens I tried had issues with tilted or decentered optics meaning one half of the frame was softer than the other. This doesn’t seem to be the case these days – certainly much less so anyway.
A big part of buying sensible also comes from where you buy from. Buying from an unknown seller on eBay is a lot more risky than buying either direct from the brands via their own shops or Amazon, or using one of the more trusted retailers such as Pergear. This way, if you have an issue, you should find it a lot easier to return the kit and get a refund.
I think it’s also worth noting that since these silent upgrades do continue to happen, it’s not worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater when something does go wrong. That is to say, if you have an issue with a particular product that you really feel would be right for you, if you initially receive a duff one, it might be worthwhile you leaving it a few months then trying again. It’s certainly not worthwhile writing off a whole brand on the basis of one bad experience with one product.
Finally, if you do have issues then make them known. If there’s one thing I have witnessed time and time again, it’s that these products are upgraded. It might be done silently, but they are improved and that improvement seems to come about through these brands listening to feedback from consumers. So if you send a product back directly to a manufacturer, make sure you explain in detail why. You probably won’t get any sort of response to your feedback, but it does seem that the issues are noted. (I was going to share some screenshots from a WeChat conversation here where it seemed my feedback was just falling totally on deaf ears, but it seemed a bit inappropriate to do so).
I think it’s also worth posting findings on social media. That Astrhori meter post seems to prove that it can result in products being fixed or updated. And then, of course, there’s taking advantage of websites like this one. I’d love to receive more reviews of this sort of kit – good and bad – to publish here on 35mmc. Especially if the process of doing so leads to the product in question being improved.
In an ideal world, none of these silent upgrades would happen – these products would come out of China without any issues or room for improvement. The reality is though, we don’t live in an ideal world and we are dealing with products that are made to a much lower cost than the bigger brands. With that will always come the potential for the kit not being up to a standard you might like. Now, I’m certainly not here trying to fight for the Chinese manufacturers’ corner here. This post is much more intended to be something of a public service announcement. That said, if you are willing to understand what’s happening to the degree I have outlined in this article, and set your expectations as such, you’ll probably find yourself having a much more positive overall experience buying from some of these companies. You might once in a while just need to have a little more patience than you would with some of the bigger brands.
Finally, I don’t usually seek comments on posts, but if you have had similar experiences buying kit and going through this sort of process of returning then buying kit later to find it had been improved, or indeed gave any other insights, I’d be interested to hear from you!
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