I've written before about how important I think it is to put yourself out there as a photographer, and show your work to others, specifically with the intention of gaining feedback so you can improve your images. In 5 Questions To Ask When Selecting A Mentor I talked about how to find a mentor who is well suited to helping you develop your skills and style, whereas in Taking An Emotional Beating To Better Your Photography I talked more generally about accepting feedback, and sharing your work with a wider audience.
Hopefully the audience you're sharing your work with is a visually, if not specifically photographically literate group, who can offer constructive feedback. The problem is that one of the first places we turn to as photographers looking for inspiration and a place to share our work is on internet photography groups and forums, and... well... It's the internet, which unfortunately has the effect of reducing some of our fellow humans to an animalistic state characterized by harsh, generally nonconstructive criticism at best, if not devolving into a series of escalating personal attacks at worst.
I like to think that the photographic community as a whole is a welcoming, accepting, open-minded bunch, but like any group, there is a small – but often vocal – subset who seem to feel that their opinion overrides all others, and YOU need to know about it. NOW! This can include pointing out everything that is wrong with your images without offering suggestions for improvement, attacking your personal style, deriding beginners for, well, being beginners and trying to learn and improve themselves, and much more.
We've all seen these attackers and trolls across the internet (don't even get me started on the Youtube comments sections...), and the mere thought of finding ourselves on the receiving end of one of these goons is enough to dissuade many photographers from ever putting their work out there for others to see, appreciate, and critique. Unfortunately, this is exactly what you need to do to continue your growth as an artist.
So what's to be done?
1. Start wide and narrow down
My first suggestion when looking for a photography group or forum is to start broad, and work your way down, narrowing in on the group or groups which are the best fit for you, and weeding out the others along the way. If you're joining groups on Facebook, what you see from your groups on your newsfeed will be naturally curated for you based on which groups you interact with the most. I've probably joined 20+ photography based groups on Facebook, but only interact regularly with a few of them.
Each group has its own predominant style, which may or may not be a fit for you. I've no doubt there are dozens of landscape-specific (or portrait/black & white/fine art/etc) groups on Facebook, and by joining a few of them and whittling them down, you'll be able to find the one(s) that are the best fit for you, and which most closely match your style.
2. Define what you want to get out of the group
As I said, different groups have different “mission statements” if you will. Some are purely meant as a forum to share photos, and not necessarily gather feedback or CC (constructive criticism). Others expect you to be open to feedback if you post an image.
I've found that often the “just for fun” groups where CC is not expected and maybe downright discouraged, are great places for beginners to share their work without fear of being torn apart over some flaw, but on the other hand, they don't offer you the same opportunity to learn and grow through the feedback of other photographers. Conversely, in groups where CC is freely given, whether you asked for it or not, you better have a tough skin, but if you do the rewards and impact on your images will be greater. Of course there are plenty of groups that fall somewhere in the middle as well, where CC is given only when asked for.
Another thing that can make a huge difference on your experience with a group is the size of the group itself. As you can imagine groups run from sizes of one member all the way into the tens or hundreds of thousands. On Google+ there are some photography groups of over a million members!
If you're looking for a tighter knit community where you can get to know people a little bit better, and maybe come to trust and understand their preferences and opinions, go for something small, maybe in the hundreds to low thousands of members. If you're looking to get your images in front of more eyes, go for a larger group, but be warned: in bigger groups your images face higher competition, popular images are often promoted by Facebook or Googles algorithms, and often your images will sink into the oblivion of the groups feed within minutes. Nevertheless, large groups can be a great source of inspiration, as there's often a lot more activity than smaller groups, and more images from other photographers to review and study.
No matter which community or group you find yourself identifying with, it's going to be tough to get much out of it unless you're willing to participate. Sure, there's a lot to be learned from studying the work of others, but there's so much more to be gained by putting aside your pride to ask questions about the work of others, and ask for advice about your own work.
Why did the photographer shoot it this way? What form of lighting did they use? What were their settings? How did they elicit the expression from the model? What can I do to improve my image? What's the narrative that comes to mind when you first view this image? All are viable - and necessary - questions if you're looking to take your craft to the next level.
4. Accept and give feedback graciously
Despite the fact that you're not going to receive tactful, constructive feedback from everyone, in any group, do your best to accept and provide feedback graciously. Personally I like to assume that most people are poor at conveying tone across the internet through written text, and thus often a well meaning critique comes across as overly harsh or critical. Give people the benefit of the doubt and don't be afraid to ask for clarification – hopefully in a polite manner.
When giving feedback, keep your tone in mind and do your best to give honest advice without sounding like a jerk. Keep in mind that everyone is at a different level in their photographic journey, and what may seem obvious to you, may not be to them. The worst feedback I regularly see is when people use phrases like “obviously you shouldn't do _______”, or “Are you serious?? My 5 year old could do better!” and so on. Don't belittle people, don't make people feel like shit. Be helpful, and offer value. It's simple.
If someone does attack you or your work personally, don't even get involved. These people feed off of attention and feeding the trolls only encourages them. I had one guy last week leave a series of comments on one of my images in a group over the course of an hour. The first was blatantly attacking my image and insulting my skill, and over the course of an hour and five more comments, he had somehow worked his way around to almost congratulating me on the image and praising me. Almost.
I never responded to him (although I definitely had the urge after the first message) and ended up having a good laugh at the situation by the end.
5. Find something at your skill level
I think there's a lot of value in viewing and studying images that are beyond your current skill level. They give us inspiration and something to aspire to. I advise however that the groups you are most active in to be comprised of other photographers that are somewhere around your current skill level.
Though most experts are willing to share their knowledge, if you're an absolute beginner asking for critique from an expert photography group, much of what they would tell you to improve would go over your head anyways. I find that these are the situations where it's more common to find “experts” getting on their high horses and cutting down those they deem to be less skilled than themselves.
With a group at roughly the same level as you, you are free to offer and accept advice and feedback without shame, while still putting your work out there.
I would also caution against posting your work in groups that are far beneath your current skill level. Sure your intention may be to inspire beginner photographers, but it can often be interpreted as showing off, or seeking some massaging for your ego.
I hope that these tips have given you something to think about in you search for the perfect community with whom you can share your work, and ask for feedback. I know it took me some trial and error before I found the groups that I could count on to inspire me, and offer consistent, sound feedback. Don't get discouraged by the legions of trolls that are found across the internet, generally people want to help and are more than willing to share the expertise they've accrued over the years, so stick in their and find them, they can make a huge difference in improving your craft!
What are you're favourite groups, websites, and communities to share your work? Do you share your images solely online, or do you get some in-person feedback as well? Have you struggled with internet trolls and attackers? What did you do to get over it? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to hear your stories!
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