The good, the bad and the ugly Feedback in Portraitphotography
Getting feedback is essential in the creative industry when it comes to further develop your skills. Personally, I regularly seek advice from photographers who inspire me.
In 2019 I exchanged ideas with Luis about equipment and image style, in 2020 I got tips from Anna Duschl about wide-angle photography and in 2021 I asked Danielle about her unusual editorial work, to name just a few of the photographers who have helped me further over the years to have.
If you don’t ask, you stay mediocre
Inspirations, opinions and feedback are not only exciting for beginner photographers. In the case of a creative blockade, when you no longer really develop further, but also when you want to try something new, feedback makes sense and helps.
However, the quality of the feedback and when to ask for it, is at least as important as the feedback itself and that is what this blog article should be about. Because feedback is not necessary good feedback.
Therefore, it makes sense to ask the general question: Should I value the opinions of others at all, or just make my pictures, my art, the way I like it. For me, the answer is and was always very simple: I appreciate the opinions and feedback of others to get new creative impulses.
But anyone who is not at all interested in developing their skills and “just” takes photos for themselves, for the fun of it, for the family album, without great ambitions, can stop reading here with a clear conscience and look for something more exciting… Taking photos, for example.
Timing for Feedback – The Education Dilema
I just want to get started with the right timing for feedback. Generally speaking, one might say feedback is always welcome and useful – I don’t think that’s true.
There are times when ideas, a style or concepts are not yet mature and can be implemented in the way that the photographer/artist envision. At this point it may be too early for feedback as the basic idea, the visual style, needs to be refined.
In addition, if a good approach is subjected to harsh criticism too early, it can happen that it is nipped in the bud right from the start. Creating something new takes time, and getting good at it takes even more time – and then being able to keep up with the mainstream with this new thing takes a whole lot more time.
That’s why the classic handicraft has developed so slowly or hardly at all, because time used to be pretty expensive. As an apprenticeship, alternative approaches were smoothed out under the strict eye of the teacher, even before anything new could emerge. This is particularly evident in the fact that so many great photographers of the last century were career changers and came from different fields, like Sebastiano Salgado who was in finance until his early 30ties, or partly ignored the rules of the craft, like Nan Goldin.
Photography is now much more accessible and no longer an apprenticeship. We mostly get feedback by strangers when posting our pictures and not from experts, which doesn’t make it easier to get good feedback.
Communities can limit individuality
If you want to create an individual style for yourself and stay true to it, the choice of the audience, the place where you hope to get appreciation and criticism of your content is super (duper) important.
It becomes problematic when you have chosen the wrong platform. Because within the communities, photographers who all take similar pictures usually applaud and push each other, which means that shots that are out of line often receive little or no attention.
In practice, therefore, photographers often adapt in order to be accepted in the group. You have to be aware of this if you want to keep your creativity, your style in the long run and really want to create something new. Photographers with a tunnel vision that only appreciates their own style are bad mentors… who often overestimate their own skills.
Old-school advice: Facebook
Speaking of groups, I was inspired to write this blog entry by Facebook groups, in which I persistently upload photos and find that my photos don’t get a lot of attention at all or only in rare cases. But the topic is much broader and cross-platform.
And to be honest, if all my pictures do well in large groups, I would be worried. Because Facebook is for the most part not the audience that is relevant to me, more on that later.
Comparing Facebook and Instagram, while both meta (not in a philosophical sense… not at all in a philosophical sense) they are completely different when it comes to photography and what works good.
The fact that Facebook is pushing “classic” photography according to the old school is of course due to the fact that Generation Z prefers younger social media platforms. This means that modern trends/developments are often not well received on Facebook, because the public still has very clear and classic ideas of what photography should look like.
Good photography ala Facebook, the old school: Bokeh Baby
There is hardly another platform where you can plan successful content as easily as with Facebook.
My idea of the bringer photo in portrait groups is: focal length between 85 and 135 mm for a blurred background, the subject: a young woman with a loose bra against the light, mouth slightly open/sexy gaze, with a hotel room or rustic room in the background. Everything ironed out, of course, with dodge and burn retouching, sharp eyes and complementary contrasts – eh voilà.
Alpha male archetype in black and white
The other possibility; Hard black and white contrasts, a Rembrandt-style illuminated portrait of a “real guy“, a scratchy three-day beard, striking facial features, a sexy look and, to round things off, a smoking cigarette in his hand. Of course all the wrinkles are dramatically traced, some dirt or something like that makes the man even more manly and wicked and what is that? A color key on the eyes?! If you might think that might overdo it, you’ll be surprised.
The advantage of Facebook is that you don’t need a huge following, your Images can be posted in public groups and everyone gets the same chance of applause… Unfortunately, this makes the recipe for success a bit monotonous. I recommend it as a test of how suitable your own portrait photography is for the masses.
On Instagram, on the other hand, a younger audience dominates, and they like self-improvement, lifestyle and status symbols. So the dimensions of how many people you can reach are astronomical and at the same time somehow not existing at all.
Generation Z and the self-portrayal of photographers
Although my photography is “modern” (at least compared to facebook standards), I can only partially identify with Instagram. I think it’s great that it rewards alternative approaches in photography. In contrast to Facebook, however, Instagram focuses on the photographer as well as his pictures, which I don’t think is great: ego cult and self-presentation are gaining in importance and the way the pictures/reels/stories are consumed is at least as important as the content itself. Which is rather foreign to me as a photographer, because I like my pictures to stand out, not my persona. In addition, you hardly get any constructive criticism on Instagram, rather ♥️♥️♥️ or 🔥🔥🔥.
Additionally, the current development and directions Instagram is taking, makes it almost impossible to reach a wider audience with pictures alone – since everything is about reels and shortvideos now.
However, both platforms have one thing in common: they find status symbols and young, bare skin hot. Accordingly, it’s not surprising that photographers like Andre Josselin, who shoots selfies in the mirror with the thousands-of-euro Leica and the new Nike Air shoes, while in between the usual almost naked young model posts, are enjoying cross-platform success.
Grains of sand in the Instagram desert and the search for quantification
In contrast to Facebook groups, you have to work really hard for your visibility on Instagram and you have to be almost a jack of all trades: It is best to have an amazing charisma and like to present yourself in front of the camera, be versed in video and photo productions, as well as an exciting, desirable lifestyle and look.
With Instagram, it’s not enough to “only” deliver good photos, which is why it should be a no-go to make the appreciation of one’s own photography dependent on this platform… But we do it, and that’s why many, many photographers despair because they don’t get that sweet fame and recognition from the masses.
The fact that photographers who specifically produce high-quality content suitable for the masses are surprised to find that they are still not building up a reach is also one of Instagram’s greatest strengths: Because the platform encourages them to look for their own niche, in a small community. Provided you are not too desperate to get noticed in the almost endless mainstream feed. All well and good, but that also brings a major disadvantage: Once you have found your niche, you run the risk of no longer thinking outside the box.
Splashing around in your own hashtag bubble
I can still remember it well, it was about two years ago that I came across him via a local hashtag: A young photographer, just 15 years old, and has already produced available light portraits, which one couldn’t differ from many professional level photography. I watched his development enthusiastically, or wanted to watch it, because unfortunately nothing has really developed further.
Because the young colleague never dared to leave his niche, since every attempt to produce something else was not so well received, so he just continued doing what got the most likes and comments. That’s the problem with Instagram, and the reason I’ve flipped my feed so often over the past few years: I just didn’t want to stick with a visual style that just worked. Which isn’t, how Instagram is supposed to be used.
Instagram starts where you commit
It’s hard enough to get noticed, and when photographers finally manage to get their content out there, most of them won’t deviate from the recipe for success they found. Self-portrayal, expanding the brand and whether the look of the feed still goes well together come to the fore: It has to be like this, because this is where Instagram really gets going! All strictly talking from a professional standpoint here, what you do with the account of your dog is not what I’m talking about.
Here begins the part of Instagram that hooks so many. Establishing your own style and attracting a growing audience is not only motivating, it also gives you self-confidence, rewards your effort and is a great basis for a business.
Do I have to do it like this? No, because standing still in photography means long-term boredom for me and I know there is still a lot of room to grow and to try new areas. However, I do not hope for great success on Instagram when focusing on the further development of my photography, instead of my brand.
Likes dont pay bills… at least not mine
In general, you have to differentiate between being successful professionally and being successful within certain communities. The “success” of photographers is blurred when they pay for their publications in magazines, when they only work with professional models and have no idea how to take portraits of people who can’t pose, or when they don’t make money from their photography and don’t have to deliver to certain expectations of a client.
Especially on Facebook and in various photography groups, the most successful shots are often not taken by professional photographers, but by hobbyists who invest money in a model and location rather than earning something with it: There is recognition within the groups for this, and it is a bit far from the reality of professional photographers.
How to find good feedback
The first step to good feedback is to allow it. By that, I mean opening yourself up to the possibility that you still have a lot to learn and want to. To be honest, I am not always open to feedback, I would like to ask for it myself and ideally from someone who I have the feeling is more experienced than I am in areas that I would like to familiarize myself with. Not from that random dude commenting on very old pictures I uploaded god knows when.
It can also be very exciting to question someone from a completely different field of photography. I find these types of photographers the most exciting! I always consider my style to be very colorful, wide-angle and available light, so feedback from photographers who work with narrower prime lenses, studio light, minimalist compositions and few color accents are very interesting to me.
There are already enough photos for the masses
A photographer friend of mine once had a creative crisis that many photographers are probably familiar with. The question of why my pictures don’t resonate as hoped, although you produce exactly the content that works so well with the others.
As a result, he completely retired from Instagram, took a hiatus, sold most of his gear and is now shooting some seriously awesome landscape and street shots with a single, trusty camera and lens combo. Occasionally also portraits in a unique style. Does he have more followers now, no, does he have instafame, no, does he enjoy photography and has developed tremendously, yes!
Everyone thinks they have expertise until they have expertise
In my experience, those photographers who have become successful are also more tolerant of different styles and approaches. They have learned that there is a niche for almost every photograph and that those photographers are successful who have remained true to their individual image look – who stand out and push the boundaries.
It’s these photographers who don’t want to impose their own style on you, but recognize your potential and can help to develop it further. If you’re lucky enough to find a couple of them, keep them around and most importantly, have fun growing: It’s not a race or competition, it’s an experience that should feel grand and rewarding.