The Role of Camera Clubs and Competitions

There are probably hundreds of camera or photography clubs scattered across Britain, but what do they achieve? I’ve always been a bit wary of them, because I think they sometimes can be “set in their ways”. Think of the best guitarists or other musicians and then think about how many of them were self taught. While there is a case for classical training, sometimes it takes someone who either doesn’t know the “rules” or likes to break them to push the boundaries. This often doesn’t fit the profile of a musician who has been classically trained. It’s the same with any form of art. Love them or hate them, you can’t deny the mass appeal of the likes of Andy Warhole and the various impressionist painters. But how many of them actually followed the rules? How many of the more recent artists would have “made it” if they hadn’t paved the way? Would modern art have evolved? You certainly can’t accuse modern art of following too many compositional rules. Photography follows the same basic rules as painting and other visual art forms. You have the rule of thirds, the use of leading lines and so on.
I’ve seen on photography forums how some people can be so fixated on the rules, they forget everything else. They heavily criticise others for daring to be different. Rightly or wrongly, this is how I’ve tended to view camera clubs and to some degree many competition judges also. In some ways, competitions are the more hypocritical, because they write up all the blurb about coming up with something that hasn’t been seen before, then they can end up commending the same old formula. They have their place of course. It’s always good to know the rules, so that you can then experiment on how to break them and make the picture or photograph work. If you don’t do this and everyone follows the “rules”, then art won’t progress and all pictures will look the same, with nothing standing out.
Photography groups, be it camera clubs or photography forums have their place. They are good fora for exchanging ideas and listening to others and how they view an individual image, whether it is someone elses or your own. It’s very easy to “just take pictures”, without giving it too much thought. Forums and clubs are very good at making you re-evaluate your own images, not just after the event when you get home, but also before you press the shutter. “What angle should I take that bird from?” “Should I include that post that’s sticking up, does it fit in with the rest of the scene or should I move to the right a bit?”. “Is that shoulder a bit too bright, will it distract?”. Even after you’ve evaluated your own photographs in this way, it’s always useful to hear what others think, after all, photography is just as much about the viewer. Without a viewer, then it becomes hidden. Just because you like something, not everybody will, we’re all different. This fact is never more highlighted, than when competition results are announced. How many times have you looked at the highly commended or runners up entries and thought they were better than the winner?
For all the advantages of camera clubs though, they do have a tendency towards the “traditional”. If you don’t conform, you could be criticised. The key is to listen to critique and learn to know when to heed the advice given and when to ignore it and do your own thing. Basically think, “will it enhance my own personal style or destroy it?”. A classic case in point occured last night at the new club I’ve joined. Someone was looking at one of my photos and said “you’ll never win any competitions with those cloud types, you need cumulus clouds”. To me, that was totally non-sensical, if you had to have cumulus clouds to win any competitions, then half of the entries in the Take a View books the last few years would have been rejected out of hand. A much better statement would have been “more dramatic clouds would have enhanced the imagery”, which arguably could have been a good point. Another case involved an internet friend. He specialises in black and white photography and had applied for a licentiateship with the Royal Photographic Society. He had submitted the prescribed number of images and received the feedback on one of them as (paraphrased) “You have used a very strange method to acheive your conversion and the composition isn’t right”. After several comments when he asked, along the line of “fuddy duddies” and not knowing what they’re talking about, he later entered it into the Take a View competition. The ultimate coup was when that same image was commended and appeared in the book.
So what is the moral? Photography clubs and forums have their place, but don’t always take the advice given to heart. Don’t be afraid to break the rules (either well known ones or theirs) or preconceptions and develop your own style.

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