I think it's important at this point to reiterate some of the points that Jeff Baker and others made in the comments to the "Sony vs. Nikon vs. Canon" review.
For anybody with aspirations of being a photographer, picking a camera and working out what we now call a "workflow" is only the tip of the iceberg. The much more important questions are, what kind of pictures can you take? What do you care about enough to sustain a long-term visual interest in? How can you develop a "style" that is expressive of your unique outlook? How do you differentiate a picture that's somehow yours from a picture anyone else might make? And finally, how are you going to figure out what you want to end up with—and how are you going to end up there? (By this I mean a show, a book, a portfolio, a poster, a magazine article, a personal photo album, whatever the "final form" of a group of your pictures might be.) All of this can be enormously engrossing—and for most photographers I think it (rightly) sucks up the lion's share of their time, attention, and effort.
But let's forget about all that for a moment and get back to the workflow question. Various people have suggested that I should try certain other workflow parameters with the various cameras I've recently reviewed, especially the Canon, suggesting that I'd get different results if, say, I a) used a different raw converter and b) set the camera to a lower resolution. They're probably right.
When I review a camera, though, what I like to do is shoot with it for a while and get an overall feel for it (I use the jargon word "holistic" sometimes). Then, I like to discuss my impressions with whoever's reading my articles as if I were conversing with an intelligent and experienced friend. The reason I do it this way is because it's the style of reviewing that I'm good at, for one thing—if I had to write more than a couple of reviews in the style of the giant digital camera review sites I would drive myself absolutely crazy in short order. But there's another reason: it's that, usually, I have a short amount of time to spend with the cameras, and if I get "distracted" (that's what I'd call it, but just for me) by technical minutiae, then I'm not going to have enough time to find out what I'm more interested in finding out, which is that overall feel of what it's like to use the thing for a while as if it were mine.
Obviously, this means that my reviews are only one certain kind or style of review, and don't cover every aspect of the camera's performance—especially their technical performance. In the few weeks I have with the Canon 5D Mark II, for example, it's probably beyond my capabilities to try every raw converter option with it to find out what works best. The way I get around such weaknesses is by just being upfront about them—that is, I 'fess up to it with my intelligent and experienced friend (you, that would be), who can then take it into account. (Although Ctein has suggested adopting a second raw converter and trying it whenever there's a question of compatibility with ACR, which would be a sensible compromise.)
Of course,what all this elides or subsumes is the assumption that whoever buys a camera is going to get to know it better than any of its reviewers knew it. At least potentially.
And in some cases, radically better. As I mentioned below, you can keep getting to know your equipment indefinitely—keep improving your workflow indefinitely—sometimes even to the extreme of distracting you fatally from the more important aspects of photography that I mentioned above. But that aside, technical skills can really be developed to an impressive degree as we learn how to use our tools.
For example, a reader named Stephen Scharf not long ago objected to some things I said about the size of prints you can make from various size sensors. He claimed that he could make an excellent 13 x 19" (Super B/A3) print from 4-megapixel image files, which I certainly can't do. As proof of concept, he sent me a print of the following picture:
Stephen (whose name you might recognize from the comments) is Track Photographer for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, in Monterey, and Infineon Raceway, in Sonoma, in California; his work has been published in numerous Bay Area newspapers and in RoadRacer X, Intense Sport Magazine, and on SuperbikePlanet.com. The picture is of Chris Vermeulen riding a Honda RC211V at Siberia Corner, Philip Island Grand Prix Circuit, in the Australian MotoGP, Victoria, Australia, in October 2005. Chris is known as "Chris the V."
The picture was taken with a Canon 1D, 70–200mm ƒ/2.8L non-IS lens with Canon 1.4X tele-extender II, for a combined focal length of 280mm, at 1/400 sec. and ƒ/13, handheld, at ISO 200.
As Stephen describes it, "This rider was going about 75 mph when the photo was taken, and you can see every stitch, vent perforation, and the pebble texture of the leather with excellent detail and clarity."
And sure enough. So how did he do it, with the only 4-megapixel 1D? Well, take a look at his workflow:
1. Each image is sharpened upon import into Photoshop using the Photokit Sharpener "Capture Sharpen" macro to recover detail lost by the sensor (effectively infinite number of photons, finite number of pixels).
2. Each image is then upressed using Bicubic Smoother in PS to give the pixel dimensions at 360 ppi.
3. The image is then sharpened for printing using Photokit Sharpener using the Inkjet, 360 dpi, Glossy sharpening macro.
4. The image is then exported to ImagePrint, a RIP, and printed on Stephen's old warhorse Epson 2400 using the appropriate color profile and ImagePrint to drive the printer.
5. The photo is then printed on InkJet Art Microceramic Lustre.
Well, okay then. Stephen gets the prize for eking the most print quality out of 4 MP, that's for sure. My broader point here is that he knows more about printing 1D files than any reviewer was ever going to figure out how to do in the first few months after that camera came out.
So my feeling is that trying to have the "final say" on image quality in a camera review is a fool's errand to start with. It's an impossible task; not just unlikely, not just difficult, but impossible. Some reviewers like to take a shot at it; some concentrate on it; some, like me, prefer to downplay it in favor of "softer" or more subjective impressions. Yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice.
There's a lot more that can be said on this subject. But note well, too, that with any camera, from the worst to the best, there will be people who use it well and people who use it poorly. Buyers of a camera aren't buying expertise along with it. That's something they have to earn. As with most things, it's not how big a stick you have, it's how hard you swing it.
Mike (Thanks to Stephen Scharf)
Featured Comment by Tom: "As an aside I'd like to mention that the Inkjet Art Micro Ceramic Lustre paper that Stephen mentions is one of the great cheap inkjet papers out there. Inexpensive and prints wonderfully."