It's a long road to becoming truly great at something. There are countless hours of studying theory, mimicking the masters, practicing your skills, and experimenting in search of your voice. An often overlooked component of truly becoming great at something – anything in fact, is mastering your mindset. Aside from any physical, theoretical and educational hurdles, there are a whole host of internal obstacles to be overcome by those who seek to master their craft. Not to diminish the difficulty of the other challenges, but often the internal struggles – including our mindset, motivation, self image and perception, and many more – can be the hardest to overcome, and have the ability to either make or break us on our journey towards our goals.
Photography is no different. There are numerous technical challenges to overcome, we must train ourselves to see interesting and unique compositions, master the technical elements of exposure, study the work of those we look up to, not to mention the daunting task of mastering programs like Photoshop and unlocking their potential. But like any other pursuit, especially creative ones, the mental aspect of photography can propel you to greatness, or leave you asking yourself what you're doing wrong. Even worse, you'll get discouraged to the point that you end up telling yourself you just don't have what it takes, that other photographers possess some innate skill or insight that you can never hope to achieve. This is BS.
For those who stay motivated, dedicated, and curious enough to make it past the initial mental challenges posed to the beginner photographer, another challenge presents itself: The plateau, where you have achieved a certain level of skill and competency and either don't know how to proceed further, or see no need to advance your skills. This challenge is of a subtle variety, and traps many more photographers than the initial hurdles. Many don't even realize they're stuck, and may even refuse to acknowledge the fact.
One of the reasons that I think a lot of photographers hit a plateau and are unable to advance past it is the feedback they get from others. The feedback can come from other well-meaning photographers, family members, friends, or anyone else who sees your work. The feedback that I'm talking about, the feedback that I think can hold you back the most on your quest for mastery goes something like this:
“Wow, you're so talented!”
“You're photos are so incredible!”
“I wish I could take photos as well as you!”
“You should submit your photos to National Geographic!”
And so on...
While most people are well-meaning in their feedback and admiration, if the artist receiving the feedback does not reflect upon the source, and intention of the feedback, they risk hindering their ability to continue to improve their craft going forward. While receiving positive feedback like the above examples from friends and family makes us feel great, it does not motivate us to improve ourselves further. We think, “Wow, all of these people see the talent I have, and are impressed by my work. I must be a really great photographer!” and the more positive feedback we receive, the more we start to believe that we are good enough.
Now I don't have a problem with positive feedback, I love receiving it as much as the next person, it feels great! The problem lies in who is giving it. The standard process for most of us when we start out in photography is to post our photos to Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, 500px and other online social sites, most of which function in ways counter to our improvement as photographers. The fact of the matter is that the culture of most social media platforms is to give and receive likes and positive feedback, rather than constructive criticism. If you post a photo to your Facebook profile, your friends and family are pretty much expected, if not obligated to like your work and shower praise on you.
Even dedicated photo sites like 500px or Flickr are unlikely to provide consistent constructive feedback, although these are undoubtedly better than Facebook or Instagram. Even in these photo communities the people who are leaving you feedback, following you, and liking your images are probably generally people who are either below or at your skill level, neither of which will be much help in taking your craft to the next level. At least within these sites, if you ask for constructive criticism, you know that the comments are coming from other photographers, who have at least some idea of how to properly critique an image, and what to look for in ways of improvement.
This brings me to what I think is the most important thing you can do when posting your photos online. Asking for critique and constructive criticism. I've found that in most online photography communities if you post an image with no caption or request, you'll get your standard likes and “Great jobs!” even if the photo isn't all that great. Post an exceptional photo with the caption “Any CC?” or “How can I improve this?” however, and you will be sure to get a flood of feedback from a variety of sources detailing any issues they have with the image, and what they think you could do to make it better.
It can be difficult to accept the criticism of other photographers, at times it can be harsh, but In my experience, most people are genuinely trying to help, and after all, you asked for the criticism. No matter how daunting the prospect of revealing your work to the world and inviting people to point out to you everything that's wrong with it, it is a necessary step in taking your skills to the next level. Regardless of your skill level, and of how much praise you receive from others – photographers or not – there is always room for improvement, always someone who is one step ahead of you, and can help you take that next step as well, but you need to ask for it.
I'd love to hear about your experience sharing your photos online or in person, and what you look for when trying to determine how to improve your images. Do you find that people are too harsh with their criticism? Not harsh enough? Maybe you appreciate getting likes and positive feedback and that only motivates you to improves further! Let me know!
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