Critiquing images online: Three Dot Lounge for Photography for September 20, 2015

Critiquing images online

One of the projects I’ve looked at on and off is building a community site to help match up people interested in having their work critiqued with people interested and qualified to critique images and portfolios.

The mechanics of the site are pretty straightforward, the work to identify and recognize the best-regarded members of a site are basic gamification techniques. it would be easy (well, relatively speaking) to build a site that would allow people to identify themselves as judges and get feedback on them from those being critiqued and use that to recognize the best and reward them with visibility and/or other opportunities (one option, for instance, would be for judges to offer paid extended critques and take a percentage of the fee to make the connection).

And every time I look at this, I put the project back down into the maybe someday pile and step backwards from it very carefully, because there’s a huge challenge here I don’t know how to solve, or even if it’s solvable.

Critiques online suck, and most users, including most probable users of a site like this, don’t really want critiques. Most people think they want critiques, but what they really want is validation. The fact is, good critique is constructive but rarely positive, and to do it well, you have to dig into what’s wrong, and everywhere I’ve looked online where people have attempted something like this, feelings have gotten hurt and bad feelings have ended up propogating into fights, or the areas have devolved into a variation of a flickr like-a-thon.

Few people are willing to put into the time to study an image and think about it, and most feedback is shallow and reactionary, not considered. I’ve also come to believe that you cannot effectively critique an image that’s online, because online images lose detail and texture, and that’s one reason why the trend of large structural items and vibrant colors do so well online where the quieter and more detailed images get lost — what looks good in a thumbnail? not subtle detail.

Guy Tal recently covered the struggle with online critiques wonderfully in his piece Lessons from Image Critique and I recommend it if you’re curious about these issues (and if you don’t follow Guy Tal’s blog, you really should). And amusingly, Mike Johnston, who run the Online Photographer blog, just annnounced he’s willing to do critiques for a fee — if you’re in the New York area and want to get together to do them in person. If you look at how he’s defined his criteria for framing his feedback on the critique, I think it nicely sums up the challenge and why I’ve come to think doing this online is a way to fail (for what it’s worth, I think most online critique requests I’d see on any site I build would define themselvse as a 2-3-2, when in fact, what they’re really looking for is 2-2-1 (or 2) in the way Mike’s defined his parameters — and I don’t think most people are going to realize that until after the fact. Online Photographer is another blog you should be following if you don’t…

So I’ve more or less given up on ever figuring out how to make this idea work, even though I think the need is there and there’s great value in connecting people wanting the feedback to the people who can give it. I’d love to hear if you know of a place that’s succcessfully navigated these problems and made it work, because if it exists, I haven’t been able to find it.

Leave No Trace

Sarah Marino has written a wonderful piece on Nature Photo Guides titled Leave No Trace: A Discussion About Our Impact On Wild Places.

Talk to any photographer, you’ll hear horror stories of them seeing other photographers doing really douchebag and/or dangerous things to get the shot, and to be honest, most of us have likely pushed the boundaries here or there to get a shot (or more likely, ignored the boundaries completely and wandered into private or closed spaces or into areas we probably shouln’t have been in…

After all, what harm is it if one person goes off trail a bit to take a picture? Well, as Sarah documents, one person going off-trail can and does do damage, but stop and think about it in the larger picture (ahem) and think that if you’re going and taking that shot, others are, too, and if ten people are taking that side trip it won’t take long for the collection of all of those visitors to start damaging and changing that location.

After all, how often have you gone somewhere and seen the “stay on the trail, area closed” signs, but thought to yourself “that trail already exists, so it won’t hurt if I use it…” — which is what all of the previous dozens or hundreds of people who went off trail thought, which is why that trail exists, in a location where it’s not supposed to.

My favorite horror story here is the day I was photographing in a favorite location (Fitzgerald Marine Preserve in Moss Beach), which has both a beach area and a forested area on the top of a bluff. I was up on the bluff wandering around, where the edges of the bluffs are rough and unstable (to put it mildly), so they’re all fenced off. This day, I stood there and watched a photographer climb over that fece and then down the bluff by six feet to do some macro photography on some flowers growing on the bluff, all without permission or safety gear like ropes, risking a solid 50’ fall to the beach below for a photograph. Now, he didn’t fall, but you could see the footprints and scuff marks on the bluff where he stepped (and in one case slid a big) getting down and back up to those flowers.

And all I could think was “dude, really? WTF?” — and no, I didn’t go up and talk to him; I’ve found doing so is almost universally unproductive. I did, however, take pictures and show them to the rangers when I saw them and emailed copies over to them when I got home. Never heard if they ran into him later or not, but they were going to keep an eye out for hi.

I (most of the time) take a fairly hard line here on myself. This is a problem in my other area of interest — birding — as well, and the damage a few hundred birders can do chasing a particularly notable bird is a well known horror, both for the area around the bird and the people who might be stuck near the bird; trespassing, trail damage, birds being chased by well-intentioned but oblivious birders until they’re stressed and/or caught by a predator — all sometimes it takes is one idiot who’s more interested in what they want and shows no interest in the needs of their subject.

I never want to be that person, so I try — and no, I’m not perfect — to play it straight. If I’m on a refuge and an area is signed closed, I stay out. If the refuge rules say to stay on trails, I stay on trails.

One set of feet placed badly can damage an area, and all of us — as photographers and birders or both — need to take responsibility for our actions and stop rationalizing our way to getting a shot by doing things we know we shouldn’t be doing.

As the drone pilots are finding out the hard way, the ones that flaunt and ignore the rules are the ones that screw it up for all of us, because the people who make the rules end up having to make stronger and more draconian closures and protections for places to try to stop the people who shouldn’t have been there in the first place — and that ruins it for those of us who were obeying in the first place.

So seriously, when you’re out shooting, don’t be that person. Stay out of closed areas, and don’t talk yourself into believing one set of footprints will hurt things. Those kind of rationalizations are damaging to all of us collectively and to those things that you are in theory trying to show off and promote with your images.

The Status of the Before and After Relaunch

One of the projects I’ve been working on and off for almost the last year is a relaunch of my before and after series, where I take images out of the camera and show how they get processed into a final image. This was something I was doing and when I did my site redesign at the start of 2015 I decided it needed to be managed as its own project so I didn’t do it as part of the redesign.

Along the way this project has grown in scope and complexity, as projects have a tendency to do, and is now looking like a combination of writing and video. A month ago I finally hit a point where I finally thought it was ready to push the project to completion, and then a couple of weeks later, hit the emergency brakes and put things back on hold again.

The challenge to getting this stupid thing out the door is a combination of outside factors; the big one being that my mother passed away in June after a long struggle with cancer, and I am current wrangling the details involved with being executor of her estate. Everything has been going pretty well, given circumstances, but in the last ten days or so I finally hit that point I figured I’d run into somewhere along the way where I hit the wall and I realized I was running on fumes, both physically and emotionally.

So it was time to pull back, simplify and focus more on recharging the batteries and not on pushing these projects forward. At one level it’s frustrating, because I think this project has a lot of potential, and I hate admitting I have limits, but I’ve learned (the hard way) that I need to manage those limits instead of bulldogging through them, or I make things a lot worse.

I expect to pick up the project again in a few weeks and start active work on it again, and my new target date is to try to launch this beast sometime after the first of the year. With any luck, this will give me time to give it a nice polish and create more content to be available at launch than I’d originally planned, so perhaps this delay will improve things.

Still, it’s frustrating, if necessary. We’ll get there, folks. One of these days.


About Three Dot Lounge for Photography

Three Dot Lounge for Photography is an email newsletter that collects interesting things that catch my attention having to do improving your craft with a camera and in the digital darkroom.

Three Dot Lounge is written and produced by Chuq Von Rospach, a bird and landscape photography based out of Silicon Valley who enjoys exploring the western united states in search of his next favorite image.

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