Learning requires failure. In photography—as in all aspects of life—we have to see which of our choices work, which we can build upon, and which get us nowhere.
In the world of photography it’s becoming more difficult to find out when we’ve failed.
We release our images into the wild waters of the Internet where popularity governs the primary metric of success: the number of Likes, Favourites or Retweets. If someone is ambivalent, they won’t click. No photo-sharing site offers a “this photo isn’t very good” button. We’re all winners.
I realised this on September 19th 2009. Remember when “Talk Like a Pirate Day” was still a thing? In 2009 that was September 19th. I uploaded a rushed photo to mark the occasion—more to allay the worry that I hadn’t posted to Flickr for a few weeks than to show the world something worth seeing. It was an awful photo.
For that day it was the most popular photo in Flickr’s “Explore”.
Nothing about that experience hinted that it was a bad photo, yet in my eyes, it most certainly was. Technically it’s OK, but it’s just a minifig on a blank background. Where is he meant to be? Why is it Darth Vader, he has nothing in common with a pirate? I’m sure you’re sick of me mentioning this by now, but where’s the story?
I can see my photographs have improved since then, but I’ve had so few critical comments—well, useful ones (My 5-year-old could have taken that)—that I’ve just had to work hard and hope I’m pushing in the right direction. Getting useful feedback is difficult.
DeviantArt offers subscribers the option to request a photo critique—which is a great idea—but offers up another problem: from whom are you getting these critiques? Not all opinions are equal. Not everyone is going to like your photograph; not everyone is moved by toy photography. If you tailor your photographs to please the average critic you will produce the average photograph. To steal a quote from US journalist Herbert Bayard Swope —
“I can’t give you a sure-fire formula for success, but I can give you a formula for failure: try to please everybody all the time”.
So what are we left with to guide us? Where do other artists go to get their portfolio critiqued? There is no group of wise toy photography masters I can show my work to. I’d love to be able to pop along to my local weekly meeting of toy photographers and show my latest work, but that event doesn’t exist.
In the past we’ve experimented with critiquing toy photographs from the community during our semi-regular Stuck in Plastic hangouts (by request of course, not just at random)—that seemed relatively successful. I hope we’ll have time to do that again. You’d hope that given our combined toy photography experience we’d know at least a little about the subject.
The best answer is to seek out someone whose opinion we respect—a mentor, and ask what they think. Not just a pat on the back and a “well done”, that’s back to the problem with sharing online—people are too polite, afraid they might offend. Make it known that you’re not out for praise, you want to get better and you need to know where you can improve. That’s how you get good at stuff.
Mastery of photography is one of those skills that cannot be taught, it must be learned, but for that to happen we must be able to get feedback on our failures.