There are lots of different kinds of photographers and we’re all motivated by different things, but one thing that most of us have in common is the desire to improve. Whether we’re influenced by the work produced by others or simply by our own inner voices, there is usually a basic need to get better, photo by photo. In order to get better we need solid advice.
Unfortunately this can be problematic. If we share our photos amongst our friends then we’re unlikely to get a realistic opinion on a photo. No friend is going to turn around and say that your photo sucks because the light’s blown out or the horizon’s wonky or there’s a street lamp growing out of that lady’s head. And if you’re only taking photos to please yourself and the relative technical competency of that photo is irrelevant then that’s great. But if you want to improve then unfortunately you need to get some truth in your life. So what can you do?
The Truth Hurts
Before we get into the nitty gritty, it needs to be said that hearing the unvarnished truth about our creative efforts can often be a painful experience. Nobody wants to hear that the photo they thought was awesome is actually second-rate. I don’t care who you are, whether you’re a happy hobbyist or a superstar pro photog – nobody likes hearing negative comments about their photos, even if it’s constructive criticism. So before you invite that criticism be prepared to take it on the chin.
It will also serve no purpose to argue with someone who critiques your photograph. Everyone has their own opinions and it’s highly unlikely that you’ll win someone around. So look at what they’ve said, look at your photograph and ask yourself if there’s some truth in their comments. Yes, you’ll get people who nit-pick or who seem to be criticising for the sake of it, but you’ll also get some robust advice that may serve you well. There’s a great blog post over at Psychology for Photographers that covers this very subject.
Since the hobbyist digital photography scene blew up about five years ago, numerous photo forums have sprung up. They are a place where you can seek advice from fellow photographers, show off your photos and, in many case, upload to a critique forum to get the unvarnished truth.
You won’t agree with everything that’s said on these forums. In fact you may not agree with any of it, but you may well get some new ideas out of it. Perhaps a different crop will be suggested or the use of less filters or a longer exposure. Not all of these suggestions will be of use, some may be downright stupid, but the odds are you’ll find the odd golden nugget lurking around in there.
Flickr has a long-standing photo critique community that has some great rules and, judging by the comments I read, a worthwhile and involved audience. There’s also a couple of professional photo review sites (Eyeist and Gurushots) that might be worth a look – I haven’t used them but I suspect they’re of more use to someone who’s just starting out with photography.
If you just want to find out which of your photos are the best, then these sites are awesome. Pixoto and Viewbug are two contest sites that I use regularly to find my strongest photos. Pixoto in particular is great because it’s a duelling site and you get results very quickly. The photos that I think are my best are usually completely different to the ones that everyone else likes and Pixoto enables me to quickly find out where I should be concentrating my efforts.
You could also try your luck at 500px or DeviantArt – but I’m not sure they’re really of any use. The main problem with both of these sites is that your photo’s visibility depends entirely on how high profile you are . If you’ve just joined either site you’re unlikely to get more than a couple of comments and even if you are high-profile, people invariably only comment when they think your photo is good. At DeviantArt there is the critique option for photos, but I rarely see anything other than glowing critiques.
These days there are hundreds of photo competitions going on at any one time and lots of opportunities to put your photos up against everyone else’s. It’s not the quickest way of getting feedback, but since many of these competitions are judged by professional photographers, if your photo gets picked out then it’s clearly something special.
If you’d like to enter competitions then I can recommend the Photo Contests website where they collate both free and paid-for competitions. Many of these are region-specific, but you should still find five or ten competitions a month that you can enter. Dianne McLay also edits a competition blog that lists both regular magazine competitions and annual events.