About ongoing, on-line critique groups

The photography world is often dominated by the rage for the latest camera, software or accessory. We all know that (and I am as guilty as the next person in terms of talking those up.) Long after the latest/greatest photo “toy” has been forgotten, there is one timeless thing that will make every one of us a better photographer, which is feedback. There are many ways to give and get that all-important feedback, much of which I have blogged about in the past. In my experience, one of the very best ways to get that is through an ongoing, on-line critique group.

I have blogged about how to critique as well as podcasted about I enjoy giving feedback through a process I call prints on the table. I have podcasted about the thinking points I use when giving feedback. I even wrote about the basics of critiquing in a blog entry called critiquing 101. I have built an entire business on connecting aspiring photographers and established pros so the former get useful feedback from the latter.

In the process of giving feedback, I also meet with photographers one-on-one to review their work in their studios or on-line. I also make what I call “edit movies” as I review sets of images on my computer, talking as I edit and then I make the complete editing process into a movie (the visuals being my computer screen as I edit and the audio being my narration/thinking as I edit.) I then send that final movie to the photographer whose work I was reviewing. Photographers like these “edit movies” because they can play them over and over to hear my thoughts (and analyze my edit.)

Having said all that, for me and for most photographers that I know, an ongoing, on-line critique group is probably the best method of all. First let me define on-line critique group and then I will tell you why I like them so much.

• We meet every four to six weeks on a conference call for approximately 2 hours. In advance of the meeting, the members upload approximately 80 photographs to be reviewed online. After that, we are all sent the links to preview the work of the various group members (and so we can all be looking at the same work during the critique.)

• In this situation I prefer to photo hosting site Zenfolio for this process, but almost any site will work where it is EASY to go image-to-image and EASY to see the EXIF information such as shutter speed, f/stop, focal length, etc. Flikr is one of the many sites that will NOT work on both counts, so Flikr is out. Personal web sites also usually fail in this regard since they rarely allow the EXIF information to be viewed easily.

• The students and I are usually located in different cities in the United States (or the world) and are connected through a teleconference call. Most groups I work with use a company supplying free conference calls

• The critique is provided in a group of no more than 4 students. In the conference call, I critique the work, talking about each of the sets of images for about 1/2 hour per person, including time for questions. I provide encouragement and I try to challenge the photographers to think about where they are going next with their and what their long range plans are.

• Some of my newer groups are using services like Web-Ex, where we are web conferencing, desktop sharing and video conferencing as I “host” the meeting and that way, everyone else in the group can see my desktop. This can be especially useful when I want to suggest ways to revise the framing, composition or cropping of a given image. Without such a shared desktop, I have to describe the proposed image changes and then hope my description and the interpretations of the group members match up.

• Though I am the leader of the groups, I work to have contributions from all of the members of the group. Like in any group critique, anyone can and should speak, except the person whose work is being reviewed (unless we have a question for them about the work.) My primary job is to facilitate, to make sure the critique is moving forward and that all the group members are getting feedback they can utilize to improve their photography.

Why do I like these ongoing, on-line critique groups so much?

• The fact that they are “ongoing” is very important since, over time, the individual photographers grow and evolve. Many of my groups have been the starting points for projects that have taken on lives of their own and resulted in some great work, exhibitions, publications, etc. As the groups (and individuals within them) evolve, the quality of the work ratchets up in a way that benefits all involved.

• The fact that they are on-line helps the group share the process, the work and the experience, even though individual members may be spread across the country (or world.) What used to only take place at one time in one place can now be shared across the Internet.

• The fact that they are a ”group” is almost as important, since the group experience, like that of the group dynamic of a workshop is at its best, supportive and nurturing. This is important since photographers are trying new things, experimenting and pushing beyond their comfort zones. Many times, I have heard one photographer complement, encourage and push another photographer to new challenges (and achievements!)

On a more personal level, I like these groups because I feel as if I am nurturing individuals, a group (or groups) of photographers in ways that really make them better. When individuals in the group, (or the group as whole) reach a milestone, I also feel a sense of accomplishment. I never fully understood what motivated my high school water polo coach, since it certainly was not me. Now, I see that when others on the team excelled, he justifiably took pride in their accomplishment.

I am open to creating new ongoing, on-line critique groups, but I have learned a few things watching many new groups grow and a few fail. The best ones are born out of some kind of pre-existing commonality, which sometimes but not always means a shared workshop. A group of photographers who have been working together for a while and who want to share work on a more serious level can also work well as one of these groups. Since the core of the process is critiquing, the group needs to be supportive and nurturing, a bond that is usually borne out of some common experience or time spent together, or both.

A couple of the groups I work with lost members and rather than disband, they asked me if I had existing students who would be good additions to the groups. I suggested a couple names, and “matches” were made. Credit goes to the groups that openly accepted the “newcomers” and to the same “newcomers” who braved entering an established group without knowing anyone. In all cases, they saw that the feedback they would get from the group was worth the risk.

That is, in my mind, the key to any ongoing, on-line critique group. Make the work, share it, get feedback, take a risk, make more work, share more, take more risks, get more feedback and grow as a photographer. And isn’t that what every photographer wants to do, grow and get better?

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