I Love Online Photo Communities
March 19, 2015
"Wait a second. Didn't you just write about how you hate online photo communities?" Yes, I did. I wrote about that right here. I stand by that post, but there are things to love about online photo communities, just as there are things to hate. My previous post focused on the bad things, but now it's time to turn everything on its head and take a look at the good things. This photo of the Manhattan skyline was taken during a photo meetup that I hosted in 2013. Everyone in attendance that day was someone I had met online, via one social network or another and a shared love of photography. I am privileged to call some of those people close friends, and I am happy to consider them an inspiration as well. I can say with a great deal of confidence that without the existence of online photo communities, I wouldn't have progressed as much as I have today. Here's why.
When you're first starting out, it can be really daunting and confusing. You may be hesitant to try something new, because someone you see online is already doing it well. You may not feel like you have the skill, and maybe at this point, you don't. However, a good community will embrace the things that matter while you're in a learning phase: your determination, your willingness to learn, your inquisitiveness. Furthermore, you'll probably feel like there's no rush to "get good", so to speak. You should feel comfortable learning and exploring at your own pace, and you should feel comfortable with your mistakes. Good communities foster that kind of growth.
You can receive criticism that doesn't condemn you for inexperience. Perhaps they'll ask what you were going for in a particular picture instead of just blurting out flaws aimlessly. Perhaps they'll point you to places where you can find more information about things that confuse you.
Friends, Mentors, and Rivals
When you start spending time in these communities, something begins to happen. You make connections with people that will reinforce the things you do well, push you to improve the things you don't, and challenge you to do things you've never done before. You'll make friends who you can trust, you'll gain mentors who can inspire and educate you, and you'll have rivals who can drive you to surpass your abilities time and time again. There's also no rule that says these titles are mutually exclusive. Mentors can be friends, friends can be rivals—and they often are.
Uncomfortable with taking portraits? Maybe you'll find someone who will let you assist them. Maybe you'll find someone else who is also uncomfortable and you can help each other. Maybe someone you know will overcome their discomfort and it will be a catalyst in overcoming your own. You never know! There are a ton of opportunities.
The Great Outdoors
Here's the thing: the best online communities get you offline. They get you to socialize and learn. They get you to actually do, as opposed to just reading about doing. There are certainly communities that don't offer this to its members, and there are events that appear to be community based, but really aren't. Much like any social event in life, you'll learn how you function best. Do you like being around tons of new people? Do you prefer small groups to large ones? You'll be able to search for an environment where you think you'll be most comfortable, and then immerse yourself in it. How exciting is that?
"What about the false sense of camaraderie? What about the politics?" It's still there. It's like anywhere else. You're going to find people who are toxic to your growth, and you're going to find people who nurture it. You're going to find people who repel you, and those who draw you in. You've just got to stay strong and understand that it's just a hazard of looking for a place that makes you feel welcome...but you will find a place. Once you do, get offline, make friends, enrich yourself.
"You got your freshmen, ROTC guys, preps, J.V. jocks, Asian nerds, cool Asians, varsity jocks unfriendly black hotties, girls who eat their feelings, girls who don't eat anything, desperate wannabes, burnouts, sexually active band geeks, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst. Beware of plastics."
-Janis, Mean Girls
That quote applies to more than a school hierarchy. When you're looking for a place to belong while you figure out what to do with your camera, you're going to come across all kinds. The people who only shoot film, the people who hate film, ones with gear acquisition syndrome, the ones who only shoot "straight out of camera", the ones who carry ALL the gear, team iPhone, team Android, team medium format, team Canon, team Nikon, team mirrorless, the ND filter users, the HDR abusers, the art geeks, the tech geeks, the videographers, the time-lapsers, the hyperlapsers, the greatest people you will ever meet, and the worst.
See how that works? Now go out, find out who you want to be. There's no rule that says you can't be more than one of these things. There's no rule that says you can't try. There's also no guarantee that you'll find the right people right away. All you can do is be open to the idea of learning, the possibilities of discovering things about your creativity, and the power of community.
So yeah, there's plenty to hate about photo communities, but there's also plenty to love. What do you love?