The Facebook Syndrome (for Photographers)

Screen-shot-2012-08-06-at-1.23.29-AMThe digital revolution has helped a lot of people become photographers who otherwise wouldn’t have. It has allowed millions more to experience what it’s like to shoot something, the excitement of downloading the photos (do they look as good on the computer as they do on the back of the camera?), and then the exhilaration of sharing them with the rest of the world.

And, as we all know, this has created the Land of  Digital Photography that we find ourselves in. Taking photographs that rise above this ubiquitous digital noise is proving to be increasingly difficult … but far from impossible. To do this, the craft of photography should be treated as something that requires great care and tending, much like a garden.

Which brings me to the point of this blog entry: I believe Facebook has become too instrumental in shaping how photographers look at their own work. I believe too many of us have been allowing the compliments of how our gardens look (and not the quality of the fruit it bears) be the barometers of our success. Ok, the garden analogy may be a bit much, but you get my point. My aim here is not to belittle people or sound as though I am talking from my High Horse. I am not. I am guilty of the very same things I am talking about here.

Because Facebook is the main mechanism by which we communicate these days, it has also replaced the one-on-one time that photographers used to spend with mentors trying to become better. For example, 20 years ago, if someone wanted to become a better sports photographer, he or she would more than likely build a small portfolio of prints (it didn’t have to be anything fancy) and take them to someone who specialized in sports photography to get his or her feedback. This is the same way I imagine anyone in a creative field would go about trying to become better: showing a selected body of work to someone in that field whose work they admired.

Facebook can be extremely powerful in building up someone’s confidence, especially when it comes to photography. I know. I post photos and get downright giddy when I see the Notifications icon light up with that little red number. It means someone saw my photo and thought enough of it to “Like” it  or comment so that everyone can see. I get it.

But sometimes I wish more of my photography brethren and sistren (yes, I looked it up) would say “Kevin, this is a good photo, but I know you can do better.” Or “I see what you’re trying to do here, you should take a look at (insert badass photographer’s name here)’s work for inspiration.”

But Facebook isn’t a place for this kind of discussion. Instead, it’s a photography utopia where everyone’s work is always phenomenal and “simply stunning.” This post is directed at photographers who want to become better, who care more about that content of their work than the short-lived accolades that Facebook likes and gushing comments offer.

ben_johnsonPart of the impetus to write this blog post came after a friend of mine (pictured at left) changed his profile photo to the one you see here. It’s a (badly lit) portrait I took back in 2009 (I took portraits for his entire staff, and I am glad to report that the rest of them turned out better than this one).

I posted a screenshot from my his Facebook page to show you, in particular, the second last comment (seen here): “What’s that black stripe running down the middle of your face?”, which is valid question. My friend answers, less than a minute later, with the correct answer: bad lighting.

The background is also terrible, but the  bad lighting is what really stands out in photo. This should be an example at a lighting seminar of how not to light someone.

I hadn’t really thought too much about this portrait since I took it 3 years ago. But when this guy pointed out the lighting problems, it made me re-evaluate this photo, as well as how I think about portrait lighting, altogether. I’m not beating myself up too badly … bad photos are taken, it’s just a matter of learning from them.

It doesn’t matter if you shoot family portraits, the Olympics, or prep team photos, there’s almost always room for improvement. I want to encourage photographers, myself included, to take a selected body of work (it can be as simple as a 10-image online gallery) and ask someone whose work you respect if they can take some time to give you their thoughts on your photos. Now, obviously this isn’t aimed at people who have clearly made their mark on this industry and continually do work that amazes and inspires … I don’t expect Walter Iooss needs someone to tell him where to improve.

I’m aware that there are virtual places specifically for this kind of feedback, such as the A Photo a Day listserv, but I think more of this kind of honest feedback, especially among photographers, on Facebook could make the Land of Photography a better-looking place.

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