Via a meetup.com group excursion, I recently connected to a camera club in my neighborhood. For some time I had been working on my photography in a vacuum, learning what I could through trial and error as well as the internet and its near endless supply of videos and tutorials. These were both very helpful and incredibly frustrating. There are many ways to skin the proverbial cat and photography is no different, so there came a time where I thought that locating a ‘real-life’ group of hobbyists and professionals made good sense if I wanted to advance my photography skill-set.
Plus I thought it would be fun.
My first exposure to the club was at a photography excursion to a local historic site hosted by the club, which was a great experience for me. I’m not necessarily a shy person, but taking photos has been a solo pursuit and I do enjoy the quiet and solitude and peace I find while walking and capturing images. This group-shoot gave me an opportunity to meet a few new people, see what their focus would fall on when taking pictures of the same general subject, evaluate gear and methods, and casually eavesdrop on what photographers were discussing with one another.
The gathering was free of charge, a good way to entice new people to come out, meet the gang, and potentially join the club. I enjoyed the experience enough that I decided to drop in on their first meeting of the season (btw, I had no idea there was a season, but apparently they break off during the summer months to pursue other things). Gathering all of those folks in the room made me realize certain things.
Firstly, the group had an average age skewing over 60 (not sure, but I may be a bit conservative with my age assessment). I’m 49, not a kid by any stretch, but it was a much older crowd in terms of generation. These were baby boomers, and I’m Gen x. This didn’t matter to me much, after all I’m a grown adult, I have a child, have had several careers...I didn’t see the age gap as problem. In fact, my immediate thought was that there was a collective wealth and depth of knowledge that I could only mine from that room. It was likely that for many of these folks, film was their first medium, and they had been shooting and developing images by hand and in analog for a long time before embracing digital photography. Knowing how to manipulate light, compose a great photo, manage their cameras and equipment were just a few of the things I wanted help with, and I was pretty sure these folks would be glad to offer help and advice and information. They were (for the most part) warm and inviting, and while I’m terrible with names I am good with faces, and these faces seemed kind and generous and eager to share and teach.
Next, I realized that I had something to offer the group. I’m pretty tech savvy (as are many of the club members btw, who work in Photoshop regularly, create wonderful composite images, work with artistic filters etc), and my background and education is in the IT field. For many of my previous employers I’ve been asked to implement websites, blogs, online stores, and manage a social media presence. Given that only a few of the younger faces from the meetup outing had decided to visit the camera club at a regular meeting, I was hoping that there would be an opportunity to use these skills to help the club grow. If it was going to survive over time (and had already done so for approx 60 years) then it needed fresh meat. Maybe Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter could help with this.
One of the interesting things on the clubs schedule were regular photo competitions. This held some interest for me. I wasn’t so much looking for accolades (I don’t think I really deserve any, my time producing images has been so short) as I was direction and useful critique. If a professional photographer or someone of commensurate skill could point out what I had done wrong or right in one of my photos then I could grow my skills. This is key for me. If the club can do that, then it will be worth sticking around. If it ended up being a series of clique-y sub-groups within, where information was hoarded and not shared, discussed, debated, and imparted then I knew it wouldn’t be a group I would want to continue with.
At the first competition I was excited. I had submitted some images and was ready to hear some constructive criticism, but as the judging began it was quickly clear that the judge (a locally famous photographer who was, btw, a very nice fellow) had a style and method of review that was not helpful. It got the results he desired, but left me feeling like I hadn’t learned anything about my own, or many other of the works presented. Keep in mind that this was my first competition. In no way did I think I would win or be recognized. What I was hoping for was at least one piece of constructive criticism. Was my light bad? Did I over/under expose? What was wrong with my composition? Should I have cropped or not? There are a million things that a professional photographer can point out in an image to help someone like me learn from a mistake, correct that issue or aberration, and get better.
This did not happen for me. I left that meeting feeling confused and a bit concerned. More help had been offered via the group’s Facebook page where I had posted a few recent images. I was having a difficult time understanding the value of a photo competition where the brief review of the submitted work was simply subjective blurble devoid of any useful content to help the creator.
I’m not a quitter. Each competition had a different judge, so I decided to round up a few new images, take some of the great advice I had been getting from the other members online, and submit for the second competition. Again, I did not win. This time, however, the judge was much more objective and on most (if not all) of the submitted work he offered some piece of constructive criticism. There were photos I submitted that he liked, he had said as much, and he pointed out a thing or two he might change or adjust if the photo was his. I submitted one photo to which I received nothing but a bit of that subjective blurble, but overall it was a better experience. I left the meeting having learned something not only from my own submission, but from many of the critiques he provided on the other images.
The club offers a competition night at the rate of about once per month, roughly 50% of the meetings are competitions. I’m not sure that I see the value in such frequency. Halving that again and using the time not as a competition but as an opportunity to openly display and discuss recent work among the membership might be more helpful. I know that if many of the more experienced photographers in the group were able to look at 2 or 3 of my recent works and critique them at a meeting, I would get more out of that. Certainly It would make sense to invite an outside person (a judge/mentor) to come sit in as well, offering advice to interested individuals seeking help with a particular image. The point is, there doesn’t always need to be a winner, a runner up, and some honorable mentions. I’m not poo-pooing competition specifically. It has its time and place and I see some small value in it, but not the broader value of collective critiques and the general sharing of work without the weight of winning or losing present.
I’m really enjoying being a part of the club. I like the people and the camaraderie. It’s fulfilling to share what I’m working on with folks who also share my passion for photography, rather than my girlfriend who looks at an image and says ‘that’s nice’ alot.
As for competitions, I remain dubious. My participation in that activity may wax and wane as I spend more time with the club. I’m new (very new), and my opinions should and do hold little sway over a long history of success. I’m not bothered by this, but instead I plan to continue going to meetings, attending outings when I’m able, and keep a healthy hand in their social media where thus far I’ve found some of the most useful help and made some new friends.