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I've been making photographs since 1972, when I purchased my first SLR, a Canon F-1 and in the decades since I have exposed millions of frames of film. With the advent of digital, I make even more images thanks to the instant feedback on the camera’s viewing screen where I can evaluate the photograph and then continue shooting until I get it right.
While making all those pictures improved my ability to shoot, I discovered an easier and more efficient way to get better as a photographer as a result from my experience teaching workshops over the last several years.
Photo by Berluen Lien
We love the pictures we make, and have an emotional experience as we create them, especially when the subject matter is personally important to us. This can blind us to the weakness of our photograph. The best way to become a better photographer is not to simply take more pictures, but instead to get critical, actionable, unbiased feedback on your photographs. Our families and friends usually cannot offer that, since more often than not, they simply love whatever we do. In a class or workshop, you can get that kind of feedback, but on a limited basis, such as what you produced for an assignment rather than the images you’re bound to take on a long-term basis.
Photo by Gary Payne
In hindsight, I learned the most when photographers with more experience than me, looked at my work and bluntly told me what was wrong with the image and how I could make it better. Some of that critiquing came in classes or on the job at newspapers, and some was received over a cup of coffee. It was invigorating, yet discouraging at times. Some was offered gently, while other times it stung.
Just like that saying “Whatever does not kill you makes you stronger,” whatever did not drive me out a given specialty within photography made me a better photographer.
Photo by Josh Tripodi
With that in mind, feedback can be very helpful in finding what kind of photography you are good at. For example, after years of failure, I do not do fashion, food or sports photography.
Based on this experience and my nearly twenty years of teaching, I recently helped found an online service that connects aspiring photographers to professionals, to improve their skills through personalized feedback from photographers who are wonderful teachers and experts in their fields. The website is called Photo Synesi. Synesi is the Greek word for wisdom, which is what this site is all about — sharing wisdom between the aspiring and established practitioners of photography.
It is an easy-to-use website where you can post work, select a photographer with expertise in the area that is of interest to you and specify your goals (i.e. what you’re trying to achieve). In return for a very reasonable fee, you’ll get specific, in-depth feedback on your pictures and advice on how to make them better. Unlike other sources of feedback, the reviewers do not give you assignments, instead, they look at the specific work you ask them to review.
For more information on what the service includes, check out the learn section. One of the easiest ways to understand how useful the reviews can be is to view a clip of a sample review, with audio here.
On my educational photography site, The Wells Point, there are podcasts about critiquing such as an introduction to critiquing photographs and editing and critiquing photographs of India. There are also blog entries including introducing Photo Synesi, how do you critique photographs, my favorite part of my favorite class, the art of editing, and how I learned to critique photographs.
Photo by Katherine McHale
In the process of getting to where I am today as a photographer, I now see that there was a certain value in taking all those pictures over the years. Each image that failed reminded of the difference between how people see and how a camera sees. In some ways they have little in common. Of course both involve lenses and light sensitive media but after that, the two diverge completely.
Photo by Lane Lewis
The camera is in essence, a dumb machine, projecting the image in front of it onto some light sensitive media. The human eye has spectacularly more sensitivity to light and does a much better job of suppressing contrast. Similarly, the human brain does amazing things by organizing how the eye experiences and interprets what we see. The problem is that to share what we see with others we need to use a camera and to do that well, we need to learn how to see like a camera.
Photo by Rodney Ee
What I am interested in doing is helping others learn to be better photographers. With the advent of digital imaging and the automation of cameras, being able to see like a camera may be the one last thing that cannot be mechanized. That is why getting critical, actionable, unbiased feedback on your photographs is the best way to become a better photographer.
To get some of that kind of feedback, go ahead and check out Photo Synesi.