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Better Photography Through Critique Forums

January 18, 2010

I’ve been an active member of online photography forums for about 7 years.  In that time I’ve learned a few things.  I’ve made a few friends.  I may have even made an enemy or two but I blame that on the fact that I lack a filter between my thoughts and my mouth.  One thing I know for certain is that being an active participant has, without a doubt, made me a better photographer.  I decided to write this article to help photographers, whether new or ancient, find what I consider to be the best forums and learn how best to utilize the forum resources.

What Is A Photography Forum?

Photography forums are sort of like a virtual photo club.  A group of like-minded people (photographers) gather in one virtual spot (the forum) to post and critique images, learn technique, exchange ideas, ask questions, provide answers and collectively drive their spouses crazy by spending entirely too much time interacting with all their digital friends.  Some forums even contain regional forums that are sub-groups of the main forum and are comprised of people in a given geographic region, i.e. Rocky Mountains.  These sub-groups occasionally even meet in person to photograph, learn from one another and/or just hang out.

Does It Cost Anything To Join These Photography Forums?

Some times.  The two forums I am most active on both charge a nominal annual membership fee.  I can say with complete confidence it is the best money you will spend on your photography addiction, er habit, I mean…hobby.  Better than an $8,000 camera, better than a workshop, better than a new book.  Better, better and better.  Actually, you can participate in both forums for free but to enjoy all the benefits you do need to pay the membership fee.  Rest easy, I’m not trying to sell you anything.  I am not an owner of nor do I receive any kickbacks from the forums I’ll link to later in the post.

What Kind Of Benefits Will I Receive?

This is where things get tricky.  Becoming a paying member of a photography forum isn’t like buying a new lens.  You don’t sit around at home for 3 days checking the UPS tracking number every hour to see if maybe, just maybe your lens has arrived early.  What?  Oh come on I know I’m not the only one who does that!  When you sign up nothing comes packaged in a box, all nice and shiny.  You pay your membership fee and in return you get…an email.  And a password.  You might even receive the ability to upload a few photos to your very own photo gallery.

But that isn’t where the value lies in becoming a member of a photography forum.  The value is more intrinsic.  It’s more Zen.  More Buddhist.  Are you ready for this?  The more you put into a photo forum the more you get out of it.  I know, that’s mighty vague.  Allow me to elaborate.

Those who post photos, offer critiques, answer questions and just generally participate in a forum are going to get the most benefit from it.  Sure, you will pick up a few things here and there if you’re a lurker.  But to really benefit, you need to get your hands dirty.  I can not overstate the important of growing a thick skin and accepting constructive criticism on your images!

Equally important – critique other photographer’s work.  Doing so forces you to dissect an image with a critical eye.  What makes an image successful?  The answer will vary from person to person but in evaluating images you are training your eye to look for elements that create a successful image.

But what if you’re a new photographer?  Surely you can’t have anything to contribute, right?  Wrong!  Everyone, regardless of their experience level, can add value to a forum.  Maybe it doesn’t come in the form of a critique.  Perhaps you’ve been a website designer since Al Gore delivered this beautiful technology to us.  Or maybe you’re a marketing whiz.  You never know when another forum member is going to ask a question about web design or marketing that you can answer better than anyone.  Even your image critiques can be valuable as we all see images from a different perspective.  Your new-ness to photography might just be a good thing.  It means you haven’t been exposed to all the “rules” we’re supposed to abide by and your fresh view on things could be just the ticket to drive home a point.

How Do I Know If I’ve Stumbled Upon A Good Forum?

What constitutes a good forum is much a matter of personal taste.  I prefer a forum with real people who offer real critiques in an open and supportive environment.  Keeping the forum civil requires a lot of behind-the-scenes work by forum moderators and it’s critical that they quickly identify and evict problem children.  Not doing so can have a permanent, negative effect on the forum community.

If you’re looking for a forum where everyone pats eachother on the back and leaves comments on your images that amount to, “Great job”, you can forget about the forums I’m going to recommend.  If you’re looking for a forum where you can receive honest critiques from a pool of wildly talented photographers, keep reading.

Good forums are filled with people who share their knowledge with others because they genuinely like to help.  Good forums are active and responsive.  If you visit a forum and nothing new has been posted in a 3 or 4 days you probably didn’t find a good forum.  You shouldn’t have to clear away cobwebs to get to the good stuff.  Good forums don’t cost a fortune to join, they don’t promise to make you a better photographer in 6 easy steps and they don’t contain post after post after post of some dude shilling workshops or linking to a shady online camera store.  The occasional sales pitch is acceptable if it comes from a respected member of the community.  A good forum won’t spam you after you sign up.  Monthly newsletter = okay.  Daily emails = probably not okay.  If you register for a forum and you see names you recognize from the pages of major photography magazines you may have just stumbled into a legitimate forum.  Finally, scan through the image critique forums.  Look at the comments.  Are they constructive or do you see a whole bunch of “Great shot” crap?  If you’re seeing the latter, go ahead and click right on outta that site.

Finally, What Forums Do I Recommend?

If you’ve read this far, bravo!  You truly are not a quitter.  You’ve raked through all the fluff up above and finally arrived at the part you’ve been dying to read.  Without any further hesitation, here is my short list of forums I consider worth their weight in expensive Canon “L” lenses:

Nature Photographers Network (aka NPN)

NPN was one of the first photography forums I found and joined, way back in 2002 (I think).  In the first year I saw a dramatic improvement in the quality of my photography.  I met lots of photographers on NPN who have since become friends.  Not online friends.  Real friends.  We’ve met up in real life, taken trips together and photographed together and had tons of fun together.  They have taught me more about photography than all other resources combined.  And through it all, they’ve asked for nothing in return.  NPN publishes killer articles every month on every topic you can imagine pertinent to nature photography.  The forums are very active and are filled with crazy talented photographers, many of whom you see in the pages of Outdoor Photography and Popular Photography on a regular basis.  NPN flat out rocks.

NatureScapes.net (aka NSN)

At some point during the life of NPN, some members/moderators got into a scuffle and split off to start NSN.  I don’t know what it was all about nor do I care.  In the last year or so I have become a much more active participant at NSN.  I’m finding the environment there to be just as open, supportive and helpful as what I’ve found at NPN.  There is some cross-pollination between NSN & NPN as you’ll recognize a few names active in both forums.  NSN also publishes lots of great articles every month and is staffed by even more well-known photographers.  Their critique forums are active and you won’t find the “pat me on the back” attitude here.  People post photos because they desire an honest critique and you know what, they get ‘em.  NSN is a great place to hang out and learn.

The Luminous Landscape

The Luminous Landscape is owned and run by Michael Reichmann.  Michael buys and tests an inordinate amount of camera gear and posts his comprehensive reviews on the site.  He has also provided a forum for photographers to interact with one another online.  It’s very active and is different in many ways from NPN & NSN.  I don’t find the photo critique forums useful here.  What I do find useful are the forums on digital image processing, locations and general talk about landscape photography.  I also dig the Raw Converter forums dedicated to each of the main conversion software programs, i.e. Lightroom, Aperture, etc.

A Forum I Don’t Recommend

Photosig.  Some good work posted there but it’s too busy and your images simply don’t receive solid critiques.  I’m sure the people are lovely but I’m just not a fan.  Also, it is NOT a nature photography forum unless you consider images of wild & wooly nether-regions to be “nature”.

Other Forums For You To Consider

Photo.net, Fred Miranda and for you big film evangelists, the not so creatively titled Large Format Photography Forum.  I no longer participate on Photo.net or Fred Miranda.  That’s simply because I found NPN, NSN and the Luminous Landscape to be the most useful given the small amount of time I have to spend on such sites.  You may find the opposite to be true.  There’s only one way to find out – take ‘em for a test drive.

In Summary

Find a forum or forums you like, sign up and get active.  Read the articles.  Post your own questions.  Offer answers when you can.  Grow a thick skin and put up your photos for others to critique.  Offer your opinion on posted images.  Keep an open mind and you’ll start to pick up tips and techniques that will make you a better photographer.  You might even make a few friends online.  And when your spouse complains that you’re spending too much time in the forums just tell them it’s my fault.

Here’s where I ask for your comments.  Got a forum you like, or one you don’t like?  Got a tip to help someone get the most out of being a member of a photography forum?  Share your comments!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Brennan permalink
    January 18, 2010 8:12 am

    Bret, agree with your evaluations of NPN and Luminous Landscape. The equipment reviews at LL seem reliable because Michael Reichman writes them from his personal experience.

    NPN is the best for me. If one wants to learn, its the place to go. People are caring and want to be helpful.

    Bill Brennan

    • January 18, 2010 10:42 am

      Thanks for commenting and sharing your thoughts on the forums I mentioned, Bill. NPN does rock, doesn’t it!?

  2. January 18, 2010 8:27 pm

    another good article, Bret. Very informative, especially for those just starting out with photography info online..

    I originally started with POTN (photograhy-on-the-net.com) which is a Canon-based forum. I enjoyed the enthusiasm that many people had for their gear, but in the end, it was all the same discussion re-hashed a million times: “what lens should I buy?” … It became pretty obvious that the vast majority of people had very little expertise or maturity, and the number of actual nature/landscape photographers were extremely low in comparison to wedding, portrait and children’s sports photographers…

    Eventually I moved on to fredmiranda.com and still use the buy/sell forum all the time, as IMO it’s the best place to buy and sell photography gear. There are some great photographers on the different sub-forums and many people with a good attitude and willing to help, but in the end, it’s too over-populated for my liking… Plus, the Canon/Nikon drama that goes on is a little too childish for me.

    In the end, I found a home at naturescapes.net (NSN) and I couldn’t be happier. IMO, it’s the best place to converse with a small(er) tight-knit community of experienced, friendly and knowledgeable nature photographers. The maturity level is much higher here… Pretty much any answer to a question I have had; from computer problems, to bird identification, to photography location help has been answered by the members there…. I am continually blown-away by the shots posted in the gallery forums.. the ‘noob’ factor is also low on NSN, but anyone just starting out is always given the benefit of the doubt and greeted in a friendly manner and their questions answered.
    I’ve also heard nothing but great things about NPN and they’ve got a great article archive. When browsing their forums I get the feeling they are much like NSN, but my philosophy is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. :)

    • January 18, 2010 11:28 pm

      Glad you enjoyed the article! I’ve only been active on the NSN forum for about a year now. My online home has been NPN since around 2002. I’m spreading my wings now and have met some great people on NSN. I split my time between the two and all in all, life is good. Hope to meet up with a few folks from both forums for various photo excursions in 2010.

  3. January 19, 2010 10:10 am

    Another great article, Bret. I couldn’t agree more with your sentiment here. I started out posting some of my NOOB photos over at Photo.net, which can be advantageous because you have more than just nature photographers evaluating them. Despite the activity of the forums over there, I eventually found my niche at NSN in 2006 and have learned a lot. But, it took a lot of shredded photos (always shredded very constructively, however), for me to become a better photographer.

    I’m always humbled by the quality of work over there, and learn something new everyday.

    Thanks for a great article!
    Cheers,
    Greg

    • January 19, 2010 12:16 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Greg. Glad you enjoyed the article!

  4. January 24, 2010 11:37 pm

    Hey Bret, thanks for all the informative blog posts. I’ve been reading NPN for a long time now and was not aware of NSN, I just joined today and I’m looking forward to getting involved there. Thanks for the tip!

    Jason

    • January 25, 2010 8:51 am

      Thanks for reading my blog & for your compliments on the posts. I’m glad you find them useful. Looking forward to seeing you at NSN. Bunch of really good people over there!

  5. April 25, 2010 10:15 pm

    I look forward to being part of the this great community.

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