Its safe to say that measured by volume, internet forums and image posting sites account for a sizable majority of the photographic criticism taking place in the world today. While in-person critiques in schools and photo clubs are still important, a large percentage of photographers young and old are now far more influenced by websites like Flickr.com and FredMiranda.com. These sites and others like them have contributed to a major acceleration of the dissemination of ideas and the progression rates of new photographers: their existence is a blessing to the art-form in many ways. However, the benefits created by such sites should not cause us to turn a blind-eye to their limitations. What follows is an examination of some common shortcomings of internet criticism. This is not intended to discount this mode of learning! Rather, it is my intention to encourage individuals partaking in this process to think critically as they assess the value of the feedback provided.
The Woman in the Red Dress:
All of us are familiar with this concept: the bombshell vixen in an eye-catching wardrobe who attracts the attention of everyone in the room. There may have been a number of attractive women in more demure costume with better conversational skills, more varied interests, and greater achievements… But alas they are overshadowed by this showy creature who may lack their substance. An internet forum is not unlike a singles bar: every photographer showing his or her stuff and trying to attract the attention of the crowd. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who does not admit that in posting their images, they hope for a large number of positive responses. It is undeniable that the more showy flavors of photography tend to attract the attention of the crowd. Attractive subjects and extreme stylization achieve the best response, and thus this response conditions photographers to create and post ever more stylized images of only the most attractive subjects. Power overshadows grace, contrast overshadows tonality, vibrancy exceeds subtlety, and only the sexy folks get posted. This ultimately can affect the sort of images we seek to create: we may begin to shoot to impress the crowd rather than to create meaningful images for our clients!
The Strawberry Jam Experiment
Its no secret that internet forums are frequented by anyone from accomplished artists and professionals to neophytes and hacks, many posting more-or-less anonymously. Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
Photographer 1 posts a handful of images
Photographer 2 slams the images on a variety of technical failings
Photographer 3 jumps to photographer 1′s defense and questions the authority of photographer 2 to pass judgement.
Photographer 4 pontificates that one doesn’t have to be a good photographer to offer valid critique.
Along the way, photographers 1-4 all pick up adherents to their particular points of view and acrimony ensues until the thread is locked.
So who is right? Does one have to be an expert to provide valid critique of a photograph? The answer is yes-and-no.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating book Blink, he details an experiment in which both experts and laypeople evaluated various brands of strawberry jam. Consumer Reports had taken all 44 of the major varieties of strawberry jam and given them to expert food tasters for evaluation and ranking. The experiment involved taking the first, eleventh, twenty-fourth, thirty-second, and fourty-fourth ranking jams and giving them to two separate groups of college students. The first group was simply told to rank the jams from best to worst, while the second group was asked for written explanations of their rankings.
Here’s the interesting part: the group that was called upon simply for rankings produced results that showed an extremely high correlation to the expert’s opinons. In general, the experts and the general public liked the same jams in the same order. However, the group that was being called upon to explain their ratings produced markedly different results from both their peers and the experts. It is the author’s hypothesis (supported by other case studies discussed in the book) that while most of us possess a remarkable ability to intuitively evaluate a wide variety of subjects, only training and experience can enable one to quantify and explain his or her “gut feeling.” Asking a layperson to evaluate a subject in technical terms frequently causes them to alter their preferences as they over-think their response. The second group of college students did not only disagree with the experts: statistically speaking they almost certainly got their own preferences wrong!
One of the fundamental differences between a traditional critique and an internet forum is that a traditional critique is usually at least moderated by individuals with established ability and stature. Internet forums provide far more democratic feedback. The experiment above suggests that one should value the snap-judgements of the average Joe, but when seeking detailed critical feedback one should be leery of the value of statements provided by those without the training and experience to quantify their gut feelings appropriately. They may in fact be distorting their own natural view of an image in an effort to apply a critical evaluation that they lack the capacity to provide.
In a 1996 paper entitled “A Disconfirmation Bias in the Evaluation of Arguments,” Kari Edwards and Edward Smith explore the extent of and manner in which individuals tend to be more receptive to facts and arguments that favor their preexisting beliefs, while seeking to undermine those that run contrary to their opinions. One relevant passage:
“When one is presented an argument to evaluate, there will be some automatic activation in memory of material relevant to the argument. Some of the accessed material will include one’s prior beliefs about the issue.”
In photography, no one evaluates an image in a vacuum. One of the most important preconditioning factors is the source of the image. When one is confronted by a Man Ray image in a museum, the validation conferred by his name and its presence in a gallery of stature causes us to seek out reasons why the work has merit. In fact, when the stature of the artist or of the third-party validation is great enough, one is tempted to find reasons to distrust one’s own judgment if it is not in accordance. Alternately, when one is presented work from a relative unknown, or perhaps someone who is an acknowledged “newbie,” one is far more likely to ascribe deviance from expected norms to faulty technique than to artistic choice.
This issue is exacerbated in photography forums, where one’s status and acceptance into the group is dictated by both one’s own ability and by the “correctness” of one’s pronouncements on the work of others. Anyone who has spent time on these forums will recognize that new participants’ work will commonly pass without comment until an established member of the community will set a baseline evaluation. Only a forum participant with a secure stature on the forum is willing to risk being “wrong” in their evaluation of the work.
This same effect causes many posters to become excessively nit-picky for fear of being branded ignorant for missing a “defect” such as missed focus or “incorrect” portrait light patterns. Technical minutia tend to become emphasized out of proportion to their true importance when images are subjected to internet critique.
For established members with a reputation for excellence, forum members will be both more likely to be looking for things to like about the posted images and be more likely to be willing to risk posting these positive opinions as the previous acceptance of the artist’s work makes it more likely that this praise will be viewed as “the right response.” Thus, forums have a tendency to create “rock stars” whose work is evaluated far differently from less established members. At the opposite end of the spectrum, this tends to explain the “dog-pile” effect when large masses of forum members descend on a thread to denounce the many failings of a piece of work.
I Am Wondering… Why Are You Here? (in Yoda Voice)
Why do so many of us devote so much time to internet forums? There are a multitude of reasons to be sure. Some enjoy finding a larger aggregation of like-minded individuals with identical interests than would be possible in our geographic vicinity. Some feel liberated by the greater anonymity offered by the internet, or feel more comfortable dealing with others by proxy: through text on a screen rather than face-to-face. Many might seek to create a mutually supportive learning environment. However, most photographers on an internet forum have at least an element of one of the following motivations at work:
1. Seeking validation of one’s work and abilities.
2. Marketing one’s business by establishing a professional reputation
3. Feeling like an authority on photography and hopefully making others respect you as such, by assigning value to other people’s work, and contributing to the education of others.
Ultimately, ego and self interest are at least factors in the participation of most forum members. This is not mutually exclusive with elements of altruism or a desire to foster a mutually beneficial environment, but it needs to be understood as a factor as to why so many individuals give so much of their time to criticizing the work of others. There is a power dynamic at work. In a more traditional critique environment, typically the social heirarchy is more rigid (IE established student and teacher roles), thus there is less incentive for power plays in the evaluation of others’ work.
I would hazard to say that a significant portion of the critique offered on internet sites is given with less earnest desire to foster the development of the artist than from the enjoyment of feeling like an authority, and the desire to be seen as one by the larger group. This is particularly true when the feedback amounts to little more than denouncement of an image or set of images without any constructive elements to build on.
This is not to say that internet feedback does not have value. However, a series of questions may assist one in filtering and evaluating the feedback one receives on such a forum:
1. Why am I posting my images? Am I looking for validation or growth? Is this an effort to learn or an effort to market myself?
2. Where do I fall in the existing social hierarchy of this forum? Am I a rock-star? A journeyman? A newbie? How does this status condition people to respond to my work?
3. What is the balance of style and substance in my work? Is my work the sort that reaches out and grabs the attention of the crowd, or are its merits more subtle and substantive? Does my work feature attention-getting subjects and locations?
4. What sort of person is evaluating my images? Do they have a body of work or qualification from which I can ascertain their relative knowledge-level and artistic preferences? Is this person providing expert critique or a layperson’s impression?
5. What is the motivation of the person offering the feedback? Are they more interested in helping me or in looking cool to everyone else?
By asking these questions, one can increase the value of internet feedback. I’d further encourage anyone participating in such a forum to seek out more traditional critique and mentorship environments where one might temper internet feedback with that from a trusted authority or colleague. By combining the benefits of this modern vehicle for growth with the best of traditional methods, one can ensure the best opportunity for real education in photography.
A wise photographer once said that the only way to know when you’ve got the best print possible from an image is to keep printing until each new print no longer shows improvement. Alas, the source of the quote and exact verbiage escapes me, but the spirit is clear: the only way to get the best print is to experiment with variations.
The first consideration when it comes time to make a killer print is paper choice. We live in a new golden age of digital printing, where there are countless paper choices to ponder. There are richly textured matte papers like the Epson Velvet, which is not dissimilar to a fine watercolor paper. There are papers with a mirror gloss so shiny that it appears to be glass. There are bamboo papers and rag papers, and papers with all sorts of coatings.
For this shot, I felt that I wanted a contemporary look with some texture, but deep blacks and excellent color saturation. I also like a heavyweight paper, so the Hahnemuhle Fine Art Bayarta 325 GSM felt like a good fit. So I cued up my edited image and set my ICC to correspond to that paper, and it looked pretty good. However, I know that this paper can really suck up the pigment, and this shot is (in my opinion) very dependent on hitting just the right saturation level to have the best effect.
So I cued up a test 8.5×11″ sheet that looked something like this:
Sure enough, I found that it took a LOT more color saturation in the background to get a print that looked good to me. It looks overdone on screen, but great on the paper. Those thumbnails may all look the same to you so tiny on this screen, but in print I can tell you that the difference between some of them is night and day.
I targeted for a 14″ print, but when I actually made my first edition of the print I felt that it looked a hint softer than I wanted it to be, so I discarded that print and selectively applied some sharpening to detail critical areas. I also found some minor color-shift in his nose that I evened out for the final version. Never noticed it on the screen, but it showed up in the print.
Some people ask me why they should pay a higher price to have me make a print of their image vs. simply taking it to Costco or Walgreens. However, they never ask that question after I show them a comparison between the two options. The hard work that goes into perfecting the final presentation of an image represents one of the key differences between snapshots and art.
On Feb 28th, 2009 in Akumal, Mexico, my beloved tripod was stolen off the beach by an evil tripod bandit while I was in the surf taking pictures of a bride and groom. I’ll miss you, beloved friend.
The tripod (A Gitzo Basalt Reporter with a Markins M10 Ballhead) has already been replaced: I ordered its successor the moment I returned home. The only change this go around is I opted for the Really Right Stuff BH40 ballhead instead of the Markins. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
This may seem strange to some as tripods are usually not considered “sexy” by many of my contemporaries. Many of my colleagues’ tripods serve primarily for extra rear-wheel traction in winter: dead weight in a car trunk. So why do I love my tripod so much?
First off, I didn’t really love using a tripod until I got a really good one. My very first go with a tripod was a little Sunpack deal purchased before I went pro. It was clunky, wobbly, and drooped incessantly. My first “serious” tripod was a Giottos leg set with a Manfrotto ballhead. It was a step up, but the legs were clunky and the ballhead still drooped. Further, the plates were uncomfortable when used with a vertical grip, so I always took them off. That setup also wound up failing rather spectacularly, when in the space of a week the ballhead chipped and the legs split in half for no good reason.
After my $400 tripod setup failed, I decided to bite the bullet and go with the gold standard: Gitzo and an A-list ballhead.
One interesting thing is I’d always thought of tripod weight as a non-issue. I’m a big macho former SF-guy, so what does a pound or two matter for my tripod, right? Well, the funny thing is that when I finally owned a light and compact tripod (and a convenient Tamrac tripod bag), I started actually taking it with me more often!
Some of the reasons I love my tripod:
-It forces me to really THINK about my composition.
-Not only can I shoot in low light, but I can shoot in low light at clean ISO’s or with more than a hair’s breadth of depth-of-field
-I can use live-view with 10x magnification to focus my lens when I’m at f/1.2 or 1.4. Even a 1D won’t hit that critical autofocus 10/10, but I can do it manually!
-Even if your shutter speed is high, swaying in or out can also soften your pics at wide apertures. Not gonna happen on a tripod.
-Composites made easy! Have trouble with a reflection from your light in a window? Shoot once with the strobe and once without…. easy fix!
-Panoramas (especially with the RRS Pano kit). Want a 50+ megapixel file?
-Depth-of-field stacking… want to get it ALL in focus?
-Using a tripod lets me stop looking through the viewfinder and get out from behind the camera. Richard Avedon typically didn’t look through a viewfinder when shooting, and connected directly with his subjects.
Anyway, I just realized I hadn’t posted in a bit so I thought a love-song to the tripod would be a good fit.