When hobbyists aren’t helpful

This thread epitomizes something I’ve seen very often on photography discussion boards: a beginner asks for advice, and receives advice completely inappropriate for beginners. Someone asking for “the top five must-have lenses for a starting SLR photographer” gets recommendations for lenses that even pro photographers would have a hard time affording. Instead of beginners’ lenses, she gets dream lenses.

It’s the same as if someone asked what the best snake for a first-time snake keeper would be. (The correct answer is always “a Corn Snake.”) And it’s often happened that the recommended first snake is something that is not only obscure and expensive, but more difficult to keep. I can’t remember what it was that someone recommended, but I’ve actually seen this happen.

What’s going on here?

People offering advice like this don’t really care about the person they’re giving advice to. In their minds, offering up an exotic lens or an exotic snake instead of the obvious shows their sophistication: look how refined my tastes are, if I’m giving this as my answer. They’re not at all interested in trying to help; they’re really interested in showing off how much they know.

Or rather, what they don’t know. Both photographers and reptile keepers have shown a propensity for a staggering amount of ignorance and misinformation. If people don’t know that garter snakes don’t have anal spurs, or that Nikon’s 10.5mm fisheye is a DX lens, for example (and these are real examples), what are they doing opening their yaps at all?

Because they’ve perceived that, among their peers, expertise has value and confers status. And to be a social climber, to build your reputation, you must offer advice, because in many hobbies, advice is currency.

None of this, of course, has any use to you if you’re a beginner, but beginners and their needs don’t matter. Why else poo-poo Corn Snakes, or tell first-time digital SLR buyers that they should avoid the Nikon D40 and D60 because they can’t auto-focus cheap prime lenses? When I got my D40, I didn’t even know what a prime lens was, and these people would have preferred that I spend twice as much on a camera for a feature I didn’t even understand at the time.

That I haven’t encountered this yet in amateur astronomy so far is refreshing. Ask an experienced amateur astronomer what telescope you should buy, and you’ll be told to buy an inexpensive Dobsonian reflector. Which is, like a Corn Snake or an inexpensive zoom lens, the correct answer. But if amateur astronomy was like amateur photography or herpetology, you’d be told that nothing but a hand-made, top-end apochromatic refractor or Ritchey-Chrétien astrograph on a professional-grade equatorial mount would do (for no less than five figures). Not that the person offering such advice would actually own such gear, but wanting it would make him better than you. In his mind, anyway.