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January 12, 2004

Sharing your Photography and Getting Feedback Pt 2

I listed a wide variety of options for photo sharing and critique in my previous post...and now, here's my purely biased set of concerns with many of the community sites.

The issue with most of the online community photo-sharing options, whether they feature competition and ratings or not, is that invariably, the number of people posting images far outnumbers the number of people with time to provide a thoughtful critique beyond "nice image" or "needs work". Many of the ratings oriented sites are ultimately reduced to community members providing what I call "drive-by ratings" i.e a score with no explanation or comment.

Also, the standards for judging and rating at many sites are rarely spelled out. What ends up happening is that the people who rate images and people who contribute images in a given community come to some sort of shared mutual understanding of what makes a good image, through waves and waves of images and corresponding ratings, with occasional references along the way to favorite photographers and influences as a comparison or baseline. In a worst case scenario, the majority gravitate to a lowest common denominator standard focused on restrictive rules that completely shortchanges risky or highly individual work.

Granted, an open-ended community approach can work reasonably with a smaller community such as the Contax G Pages. My experience is that communities, large or small, work best with a semi-stable foundation of open-minded contributors and a manageable number of images for people to look at. In reality, any community of reasonable size with owners of multiple types of cameras tends to be choked by waves of people who commit for only a limited period of time, and don't have time to critique or rate images thoughtfully.

As a result variable standards in ratings tend to prevail (in one six month period, members may like moody portraits, in another period, they may hate them and love landscapes, etc). Or the folks who run the site may decide to set rather rigid standards for what is good and what is bad, and give a core group of talented "regulars" who conform to the standards a lot of power -- this works well if you like the prevailing standards, but it's pretty awful in terms of the ability to appreciate work outside the norm.

While it sounds like I'm picking on ratings and award oriented sites, the problems I'm describing are not confined to online communities...they've long been prevalent in real world competitions and camera clubs as well. I actually have quite a bit of sympathy for judges who are confronted with an overwhelming variety of images and must set some criteria, however arbitrary. And I've been there, obsessing over competitions at sites like Digital Photo Contest, which features some very talented photographers...I remember winning my first Photo of the Day, and how it felt like winning the lottery.


In fact, for a number of people (particularly those who've never had exposure to situations requiring judgement with some structure, such as a classroom), I might recommend joining these sites and/or entering competitions...they do allow a photographer to escape the cozy trap of supportive friends and understand the dynamics behind how people establish a particular standard for quality. You do have to play to a particular audience, but the discipline enforced by tailoring one's images to these sites or competitions can prepare one well for the demands of some branches of professional photography (stock photography, commercial, editorial). And certainly, if you like the standards set by the winners and have those as a goal for your personal photography, you are set.

But I would have to say that at this stage in my personal development, and with exposure to sympathetic colleagues and teachers at school, that I've decided that the majority of online and offline camera clubs deal very poorly with work that doesn't fit their norms. In short, they don't work for me, and for that matter they don't work for a surprisingly number of colleagues I respect. This isn't sour grapes from someone who didn't win enough contests...I'll always respect and look in on the many members who contribute work to the best competition oriented sites out there. But I've seen too many people with distinct visions lost in the shuffle. There's a surprising amount of modest to outstanding work that isn't always pretty or technically correct, but has helped me see in a different way.

In this respect, I'm fortunate to be near a school that does have a broad range of raw and interesting work that's underrepresented at such sites (and that tends to be dismissed as student self-indulgence by those with more conventional aesthetics). I do like photo.net and their Photo of the Week, precisely because its judges ("the elves") play with conventional standards of picking winners and frequently pick technically imperfect images that provoke heated discussion. It's a big and sprawling site that has a good deal of interesting visions, though it requires work to navigate through...don't rely strictly on the ratings.

I haven't even talked about photoblogs much in the context of this discussion. The growing number of photoblogs, in all their chaos, have a great deal of potential, given the issues I've discussed. I'll talk more about what I find interesting about the concept and the reality of photoblogs, and why I decided to start my own blog, in a couple of days.

01:43 PM | Permalink


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i started a photoblog almost a year ago. but not really so much to show off the photos, but more to set a goal of a photo a day.

well, i havent really stuck to that and i find that i tend to go more for a series than one shot and prefer to use a gallery of sorts.

i have a photoshop class coming up in a couple weeks. i hope that that will cause me to do more of an everyday post on the photoblog while i practice.

things like photofriday and themethursday are absolutely great to challenge yourself to take an ordinary topic and turn it into your own (i have admittedly cheesed out on a couple themes, but sometimes you just cant help it)

this year i do plan on entering contests and what have you, just to get more and more out there. but i am loving all the feedback i am getting lately from the blog and the galleries, it really means something when strangers take the time to contact you on something you have created from your heart.

now if i can just figure out how you get into a real live gallery with doors and windows and running water.

Posted by: cat. at Jan 13, 2004 3:22:35 PM

I've been involved with the Boston Camera Club, and www.photocritique.net, and www.photo.net. At first, and for a significant time, photocritique was a big benefit for me, having no formal training as a photographer. It introduced me, sporadically, to critique and some of the principles of involved with what makes a good photo. I also enjoyed the opportunity to critique others work, itself a very worthwhile experience. A side characteristic of these groups is the formation of cliques, and mutual admiration societies. And worse, periodic flame wars, which I was first introduced to in the pre-electronic days as "memo-wars". These seem endemic to the format.

On a side note, I've often wondered whether one might establish a business critiqueing photos for pay. Perhaps this exists already.

Critique itself is problematic, beyond teaching the fundamentals of photographic technique and composition. Very often I see work that is just not my style, and find it difficult to switch to a mindset appropriate to a different style, to do a good critique.

Doing a non-superficial critique is not easy either. Studying an image thorougly, much as you might do preparing it yourself, and writing a page of carefully thought out opinion and analysis, can easily take 15, 30, or even 60 minutes. Beyond a simple "crop here" and "good one", that's what a good critique can take, I believe. At least 15 minutes, anyway. So that's why surperficial critiques abound.

Posted by: John Sidlo at Jan 13, 2004 6:20:01 PM

To give meaninfull critiques, you must be knowlegable in technique, be open minded, and have an extensive experience is seing all kinds of photos, classic and modern.

That's hard to achieve, hence the shortage ;)

Posted by: Mário at Feb 11, 2004 6:35:29 PM

John, in principle you're right. In practise, however, you're wrong. ;-) You don't have to be an expert to spot what are the most common problems with photos on any photo critique site. The main problem with those sites is not that it's hard to criticize the photos but rather, it's hard to criticize a photo honestly and not getting a lot of bad feedback if you dare to say anything bad. It's what I like to call the American Idol phenomenon. Everybody thinks s/he's a star. Most people just don't want to hear anything bad about their photos - regardless of how constructive your criticism is.

Posted by: Joerg at Feb 12, 2004 3:18:02 PM

You all are correct, people don't want bad criticism and some want better Critique than he/she deserves.
I enter several sites and just wanted an honest answer so I could do better, "but the more they said" it's a nice picture.
Get this one if you could tighten on the face
maybe it would be this weeks picture...ha ha
So I stop all together and now attend college courses.
Maybe one day I'll get to be a pro-photographer..

Posted by: Alyce at Apr 9, 2004 12:30:11 AM

My experience from photo.net, photosig and photopoints is that this kind of sites are addressing a mass culture of artistically limited and commercially oriented interests, which reproduce a reductive view of photography as mere graphic object to please or sell, (without any inherent artistic and social characteristics). These sites provide no real space for creativity and the critiques are superficial, because the main assumptions governing the workings and philosophy of the site/critique, associated with some dominant and simplistic norm of 'good' photography, remain hidden and unchallenged. This norm is either forcefully established by their members (who in majority want to make nice pleasing photos from their newly bought equipment, and not think about creative processes/debates), and/or their owners (who have commercial interests to serve, so for example they censor/block anything that seem too risky against those interests). Accordingly, in such places, where no real freedom exists, the dominant norms are assumed as 'right' photography, and assumptions are hardly ever questioned (failing to support various creative methods and approaches), any photographic participation is unlikely to produce "learning", rather conforming. My suggestion is, unless you dream yourself as futured stock photographer: avoid them.

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