In my article, Taking An Emotional Beating To Better Your Photography, I talked about how sharing our work with others is one of the keys to improving our craft. It can be hard to diagnose our own work with a critical eye, zeroing in on areas that need improvement, or pointing out strengths in our work that should be emphasized and brought to the fore.
That article was aimed primarily at sharing your work with an online photography community and asking for feedback and constructive criticism in the aims of improving your images. While you can receive some great feedback and many sets of critical eyes dissecting your work through a large and varied community of photographers, there can be drawbacks as well.
As everywhere on the internet, opening yourself up to criticism seems to bring out the worst in some people, who will criticize - but without any constructive solution offered. It can be hard watching your news feed fill up with stunning images that make you feel like you'll never get to the same level, and therefor stop showing your work altogether. When you do get constructive feedback, who's to say that it's actually good feedback? Personal preference plays such a huge role in our art that what one person – or even many people – say about your image may not be accurate to what you were trying to achieve in the first place. Then there's the issue of getting a dozen different people all telling you you should make conflicting changes to the image to make it “better”.
With that being said, I still think that there are a lot of benefits to sharing your work with many people, especially when you can gauge their reaction and read their comments. Despite this however, I think it is necessary for anyone aiming to improve their craft to have a small number of trusted photographers to whom they consistently share their work with, and gather feedback from.
When looking for a mentor or critic of this nature, I think it's essential to take great care in selecting the person. There are a lot of variables to consider, and just because someone is a great photographer, doesn't mean they'll be a great mentor, or maybe they're a great match for someone, but not for you.
To help in the process, I've come up with a list of five questions to ask yourself when choosing a critic or mentor for your photography.
1. Do you respect their work?
One of the most fundamental aspects of choosing someone to critique your work is making sure that you respect the work they have produced themselves. They may be a great photographer, but if you don't appreciate their work, it can be hard to relate to them, and it may be even harder to accept criticism from them.
This appreciation or respect does not necessarily rule out working with photographers who specialize in other genres than those you are drawn to. Sometimes it's better to look outside of what's being done in your field for fresh ideas elsewhere. This also applies to photographers who do specialize in the same genre as you. There are a number of landscape photographers whose work I look at and recognize that they are talented photographers, but something about their images turns me off.
2. Have they achieved something you hope to replicate?
One of the key things I look for when choosing someone to evaluate my work, or to team up with as a mentor, is whether or not they have achieved something that I too am trying to achieve. Set aside some time and actually write down the goals you have for photography. Once you've established an objective and a list of photographers who you may be interested in working with, and pick out those who have achieved similar goals to those which you've laid out.
There are so many great photographers and artists who could offer valuable insight into how to improve your work. But not everyone is striving towards the same things, or trying to evoke the same feelings through their images. Find someone with a similar vision to yours with a proven track record of success and soak up their tips and advice.
3. Are they an expert in an area that I want to develop?
Even the best artists in the world have their strengths and weaknesses, areas in which they have focussed on developing at the expense of others. Often these strengths and weaknesses play into their personal style, and may be influenced by the genre of photography they specialize in. For example, a landscape photographer may not have the same knowledge of artificially lighting a scene as a photographer who primarily shoots fashion.
Take inventory of the skills that you feel need the most work for you to become a better photographer, and find a mentor who is especially skilled in that area. Keep in mind that you can form mentor-mentee relationships with multiple people. Personally I think that it's way more beneficial to learn from three photographers, each of whom is a specialist in one aspect or skill of photography, than one who is well rounded in all aspects, but a master of none.
4. Are they a good teacher?
This is a question that a lot of people fail to ask before forming a mentor relationship in any field, and it will determine how much you are able to learn from your mentor. Many of the most talented people in any field are excellent at what they do, but utterly unable to teach someone else how to replicate it. Teaching is a separate skill, and while to be a great teacher requires an in depth knowledge of the subject matter, the reverse is not necessarily true.
Does the photographer you're considering approaching have a blog where they instruct others on technique? Do they offer in person workshops? Do they publish tutorials on Youtube? If so, they probably feel some pull towards teaching and better yet you can examine their work and determine for yourself whether they would make a good instructor.
If they don't you may have to dig a little deeper. Reach out to them and get to know them before committing to any formal mentorship agreement (a good idea in any case). Just by talking with them about photography for a little while, you'll quickly be able to tell if they can explain techniques and thought processes with ease.
5. Can you offer something to them?
Like it or not, most people are unwilling to work for free. I don't necessarily mean that they expect to be compensated in monetary terms, but if you are asking someone you look up to for help evaluating your work, and guiding you along your photographic journey, you had better come up with some ideas for what you can offer them. If our friends and partners offered us nothing we wouldn't continue our relationship with them, and there's no reason why a mentor relationship should be any different.
Get to know some of the people you're considering asking for help first and find out if there's a service you could provide them in exchange. It could be assisting with lighting during shoots, working as a second shooter at a wedding, or something entirely unrelated to photography. Maybe you know your way around web design and could offer your services that way, maybe you can help with shooting and editing a video project, maybe you're an excellent hairdresser and can offer them free cuts. Whatever it is, find some way that you can give back something to them for the time and expertise they are giving you.
Most people who've achieved some success with their work remember someone who gave them a break and helped them out when they first started. Chances are they will be more than willing to lend a hand if asked, especially if you've already established a connection with them. If they're fairly well known however, they may have dozens, or even hundreds of people emailing them every day asking for free tips and advice. No matter how much they may want to help, they can't possibly help everyone on a personal level, which is why it becomes important to have something to offer them.
Show that you're not only thinking about yourself, and that working with you can provide something for them as well, and they will be more generous with their time, and become more invested in helping you achieve success.
I hope these suggestions help you narrow your focus to someone who can really help you get to that next level in improving your photography. You might have different goals for your craft than another photographer, and might require a different form of feedback, maybe you're looking to master a specific skill that one mentor is better suited to help you master than another. A strong mentor relationship can do wonders for your craft, but it is not something to be taken lightly, or rushed into. By asking yourself these questions and others like them you can ensure that no ones time is wasted, and that the relationship is beneficial to all parties involved.
Do you currently have a mentor who you look to for help critiquing your work? How have they helped you grow as a photographer and artist? What made you choose your mentor over someone else? I'd love to hear your thoughts on how the relationship has benefited you, and how you've made it worth their while. Continue the discussion in the comments section!
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