We all want to get better at what we do in our work, that's a given, right? Studying, reading, taking classes or doing workshops, watching videos on YouTube, and of course tireless practicing, are a few of the many ways we strive to better ourselves in our photography. The time will come however, without fail, when nearly every single one of us will post a photo to a photography group on social media or a forum, and ask for "CC" or "c&c" or simply "Any thoughts?" and await the comment storm that's coming. And usually that's when the problems start.
I'll be blunt: In my opinion, posting your photos in random photography groups online to ask for genuine critique so you can takeaway very real knowledge in how to improve almost never results in anything useful for you. And, surprisingly, it's not only because most internet denizens are usually assholes. I'm going to discuss my observations from my years on the web as a photographer, and what I've learned from trying to learn and grow, and ultimately being in the educator role myself.
Trolls: The Poop Stain On The Web
We all experience them. Hell, some of us are them (and if you are, you had better leave a mean-spirited comment on this article). If for some reason you live under a rock or just quit being Amish last week (welcome to the web, by the way), and you don't know what an internet troll is, it basically breaks down like this (as defined on Wikipedia):
But whatever the case, trolls exist out in Internet Land because, by and large, humans are selfish, poorly educated and arrogant creatures, and the interwebs allow them anonymity and immortality all at once. This shouldn't surprise any of you.
However, not everyone has rhino skin. For some, trolls can quite literally ruin their dreams if they are not prepared, or simply capable, of coping with these comments. I have known more than a few people who have been attacked so viciously on a CC request that they remain emotionally shattered for often several days. You see, the way I see it, the person who aggressively shoots back at the troll, thus starting a 179 comment flame thread, is not who suffers the most. It's the person who quietly deletes their post, and goes off to watch TV, hating themselves and feeling worthless - that's who suffers the most.
Ok, I'll of course add that, no, it's not anyone's responsibility to coddle an adult online. If someone posts something, and others don't like it, that's just how life works on the web. I get that. But from the perspective of the one wanting to improve your photography, if you are that person who cannot handle trolls, don't post, and don't ask for CC. You will only suffer it, and gain nothing. Remember you are an artist, and you have every right and are expected to be emotionally rooted in your photography. If someone tells you you're utter shite, and then several more trolls chime in to agree and add more impudent comments, it's going to affect you. And depending on who you are, it can vary from a minor annoyance to a major emotional collapse.
And some compound trolling:
Finally, some zero fucks given disrespect:
Context: You Needs It
First off, regardless of my opinion, if you simply insist on posting your images in photo groups and asking for random comment and critique, then you need to make a semblance of an effort to give some context about your shot. What were you trying for? What was your inspiration, in detail? Why do you think you failed / succeeded at your attempt? Why is the shot not final, in your opinion? Why the hell are you asking for critique?
If you want comment and critique, the more context you provide, the better. Why? Check out these formulas I have scientifically** determined in my experience:
- A brief "hello" message + your website link + your posted photo = mostly being ignored, and on occasion some empty compliments about the shot or your work in general.
- No text content at all + your posted photo = mostly being ignored, and on occasion some empty compliments.
- A quick "CC?" + your posted photo = random acts of arrogance, bias, condescending, trolling
- Tons of context, describing your vision and purpose for the image, and how you want to improve it but would love others thoughts + your posted photo = being ignored by those who won't bother reading anything more than one short sentence, and likely some reasonably genuine comments from those interested enough to reply. Unless of course they are replying only to try to show off.
**a doctor with a flashlight can show you where I got these from.
Give the internet world of armchair experts, arrogant punks, über diplomats and trolls a reasonable chance to understand what the heck you're asking for, and why you took the dang shot to begin with. Sure, you'll still be lucky to gain anything of substance from it, but at least you gave it a real chance.
Vested Interest: Mentoring Benefits Both Parties
For an artist to grow via critique, more specifically and ideally mentoring, there has to be a strong sense of vested interest from both parties. And you almost never, ever find this to be the case randomly on the internet.
Flip sides for a moment. When you are the one giving the critique, you know what it can be like when you are hit with an image from a friend, asking your detailed thoughts. Sometimes, you are just busy and it is not a good time, so you delay doing it. Other times, the shot is really quite poorly done, and you feel weird replying at all, and you delay doing it. Yet other times, the shot is initially amazing, but you want to do your friend the proper favor of analyzing it in detail and providing real feedback, so you delay doing it. The bottom line is, random acts of mentoring don't usually work, not really. Not for benefit of the one being asked, but certainly not to the benefit of the photographer asking for the critique / mentoring advice.
But why? Often, the simple answer is that the one being asked for the critique is not emotionally or professionally vested in the work of the one asking for the critique. You don't have to be a jerk to not be vested in someone else's work, you can simply be busy. Or perhaps you are a very introverted person who doesn't do chit-chat very well anyway. Or, perhaps even simpler, you aren't a very good teacher. Fact is, you can be an expert at something, but be no good at teaching it. Even simpler still, you may not know the person very well, or at all, so you are already missing out on tons of unspoken context when it comes to trying to assess an artist's overall experience, skills, and vision. It is a disservice to the one asking you if you opt to give them empty compliments or vapid variations of "Keep trying!", so you often end up paralyzed, not sure what to say.
And on the other side of the coin, if you are fortuitous enough to connect with a fellow photographer you admire and you both just click, and now you finally have that vested mentor who you can show your work to for really great feedback, you had better be ready to accept exactly what you're asking for. A proper mentor - someone who is vested and interested in seeing you grow as an artist - will be willing and (usually) able to help you do just that through detailed comment and critique. Often, they will be generous with their time and speak at length with you because they sincerely want to see you improve and expand. If they are giving you their time, the least you can do is accept what they are saying, and discuss with them like a proper adult, even if you don't entirely see what they may be critical of at any given time.
The concept of apprenticeship works in many trades because doing is the best way learning. However, those who bring on apprentices, or proteges, have very good reasons to do so. Plainly said, while someone who asks you to become their official apprentice (or protege) often just want free labor or assistance, most of the time they categorically believe in you and want to see you grow and expand in your work, as well. You can't force this to happen, it just does. That is, if it does. You cannot coerce or beg someone to mentor you or take you on as an apprentice. It either happens or it doesn't.
Example: I don't ask, and never will ask, but what I would give to shadow a certain photographer for a summer - sigh.
Anyone who has been a mentor for a while, or is an educator of any kind, will all tell you one key thing: Teaching is a great way to learn. I would bet that most of the established and successful photographers in the world have, want, or are actively hoping to find apprentices and proteges,. But they too need to find just the right ones. They cannot force it either. Sure, they can carelessly ask any random shooter to come on board, but it may not be the right fit.
And this is why, for me, comment and critique in an online community cannot ever fully replace a proper mentor / mentee relationship. That may be an obvious enough statement, but think about how impersonal the internet makes us with one another. Sure, we have to start somewhere, but your best approach should be to meet other photographers in person, or even online, and try to develop professional and appropriately social relationships with them. No, not everyone is particularly social, and maybe that's difficult for you to do. However, if you join a photography group on Facebook, and blindly post a shot in it with "CC welcome.", you had better be ready to be ignored, attacked, or pelted with well-intended but minimally useful comments.
Can you stumble across a fantastic photographer online who is willing to give you detailed, personal feedback on your work during those crucial times where you are getting started? Of course. There are many wonderful people out there in this industry, that much I have never doubted. But even the most amazing and kind people out there may be too busy or too socially awkward to help you via a Facebook message or email or text message.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Several years ago, I did the usual thing: I shot two or three sessions, then went and posted in photography forums online (admittedly far cruder ones than today's elaborate social networks). End result? Everything I mentioned above, and then some.
I first took offense, and decided I was shocked. But it didn't take long after for me to realize that was the way things were, and I immediately stopped posting in photo groups, trying to ask advice or critique. The few willing to help were rare, and mostly too busy. I recognized that instantly, and left those shooters alone. Everyone else, I figured were there to share, discuss, brag, compliment, troll, complain, have fun or pass the time - and I wasn't gaining a thing for all that time I wasted in photography forums.
My new approach was to ask my dad, who has been a professional photographer since 1972. I picked his brain on everything I could, and he was super willing to help me, and show me, all the answers he could muster. It was just a short while, but my old man was my first mentor, and 30 minutes discussing with him and his gear trumped countless weeks of bouncing around photo forums. Thanks, dad.
Next, my focus was to shoot and retouch until my fingers figuratively and literally bled, and made it my obsession to better myself at my craft. A practice I try to do to this day, as difficult it is now to shoot for practice or fun, ever since this became my full time job. Nothing, and I mean nothing, helps you learn faster than simply getting out there and doing it. If you want to get better at something, do it a lot. It couldn't be simpler than that.
We all have a path to follow, and for some it requires thousands of hours of private study instead of out-in-the-open criticism. Still others prefer social groups, both in person and online, to bolster camaraderie and learning. Regardless of the path you want to take, as long as you remember some sage advice from Jake the [John DiMaggio voiced cartoon] dog, you will do well:
Shameless plug: The Facebook comment screenshots I used in this article were all faked. I asked the wonderful photographers, models, and other industry people in my Model & Photographer Syndicate group on Facebook to attack the photo of my wife in the blue dress with impunity, and be as rude and shallow as they could. As you can see, they managed very tame attempts at encroachment. This is testament to how wonderful the folks in this group are (we Admin work very hard to screen everyone who asks to join, and as such have a very useful and friendly group of real humans in there.) Thanks, everyone!