Matt: Defining “Great” Down

We don’t get a lot of negative feedback here at Big Lens Fast Shutter, and when you filter out the emails that complain about our tendency to drop F-bombs in the podcast, we get almost none.  But the negative feedback always involves the combination of photographers thinking that their work is somehow above our criticism, with a side order of “You guys get off on putting other people down.”

A while back I wrote a post explaining how Flickr/Facebook/photography fora can be detrimental.  They can be great for networking and learning tips and sharing ideas, but can also seriously warp peoples’ perceptions of how good their work is.  We see it every day in the BLFS group on Flickr when new photos come into the group pool.  Both Ryu and I look at every picture added and invite certain ones to You Win, Podium, and Training Ground.  It’s mystifying when we go to invite pictures to Training Ground and see a stack of favorites and comments that throw around every superlative in the dictionary.  This might make your ego swell, but considering the pictures, it’s counterproductive.

No, Ryu and I aren’t the only ones qualified to critique your pictures, period.  Everyone is of course entitled to their opinion and to speak it openly, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to help you become a better photographer.  The opinion of your Flickr friend who has never shot with anything other than his kids with his iPhone might be nice to hear, but chances are he doesn’t understand that you blew the exposure, didn’t blur out the background because your f-stop was too high, and missed the peak of the action by half a second.  He might just like the specific team, the sport, sports in general, the fact that you were able to shoot a sporting event, or just wants you to click like on a picture of his kids.  The odds that you know someone who is a picture editor, or a professional sports photographer who has been subject to the decisions of picture editors, is vanishingly small.  Ryu and I have been there and are trying everything we can think of to pass along this hard-won knowledge to as many people as we can, for free I might add.  There are plenty of sports photography fora and Flickr groups where you can dump as many pictures as you’d like, but BLFS is not that.  Putting pictures in our Flickr group makes them fair game for us to direct you to add them to Training Ground, that’s integral to our mission.

I bring this up today because in the course of checking new pictures in the BLFS Flickr pool I came across this picture (Used here under Fair Use):


Caption: “While the season may be over for the Giants, the postseason play is just beginning. This is from a game I attended back in August and this evening I’ll be over at Coliseum attending the first game of the ALDS between the Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately, I’ll be up in the third deck and not close enough to get great shots like this, when I was in only the third row.

I replied, quoting the part about it being a great picture, and asking Douglas if he read/participated/listened/ to BLFS or was just using our group pool as just another one of the 76(!) groups where he added the picture.  Rather than getting a response, I later saw that he 1) deleted my comment, 2) removed the picture (and all of his other pictures) from the pool, and 3) quit the group.  Cool tantrum, bro.  Notice that if you go to the picture now, someone left a positive comment that our pal Doug didn’t delete.

All of this because he didn’t like my (unstated) implication that this isn’t a great picture?  Really?  Given that MLB games have ~150 pitches per team per game, and there are ~2,500 MLB games per season, that’s 375,000 chances to make an almost identical picture.  So it’s safe to say that this isn’t rare.  It’s from too high an elevation, an awkward angle, doesn’t come anywhere close to sufficiently blurring out the background, is under exposed for skin tone, and is simply not interesting on any level.  Anyone viewing this picture gets the message that Doug went to a Giants game at AT&T Park, managed to bring in a DSLR, and had seats pretty close to the field.  That’s all.  There’s no creativity, no thought, no athletic ability or emotion on display, no interesting lighting, nothing.  It’s at best a test picture to judge exposure and depth of field that should have been deleted in-camera.  Yet not only does Doug judge it to be “great”, he feels so strongly about it that he deleted my comment marginally questioning its greatness. Not a good show, Doug, but you’re welcome back anytime if/when you decide you want to get better, rather than just applying escalating superlatives to the same old bad pictures.

I wouldn’t be so firm on this but for the fact that the people who do participate in the group, work hard and take our criticism to heart are making great strides. The people who accuse us of getting off on being dicks are 180 degrees wrong. We enjoy watching the people in our group get better. It’s been nothing but satisfying to watch Ken Reabe Jr, Kenneth Armstrong, Andrew Carlin, and especially Brendan Bank get dramatically better, and we’ve seen other smaller improvements in plenty of other members. We love seeing Bashar, already shooting at a high level, continually challenge himself. This is why we do Big Lens Fast Shutter.

Your ego isn’t helping you. Your friends and family aren’t helping you by “liking” your pictures. Deleting semi-critical comments aren’t helping you. Calling bad pictures great isn’t helping you. You don’t need to get your criticism from us, but you need to at least get it from someone knowledgeable.

And by the way, here’s a great baseball picture:



*Please Read Below*
Big Lens Fast Shutter is funded solely from the pockets of Ryu Voelkel and Matt Cohen. If you think the information we give you about sports photography is making you a better sports photographer and as a result a well balanced human being, please show us your appreciation by supporting us on Patreon and send some of your hard earned dollars/euros/Brixton pounds our way. People who donate will be mentioned on our next show unless you want to remain anonymous. Thank you for supporting us and may the force of sports photography be with you, always.

20 thoughts on “Matt: Defining “Great” Down

  1. Huh. I thought the whole idea of submitting my offerings to BLFS was to get better as a sports photographer. If I want compliments, I’ll show the pictures to my mum (after all that’s what mums do), but it won’t help me learn, explore, think and – ultimately, possibly – start to get the kind of images that I would like to see as a consumer.

    Sure, we all have our favourite shots, but isn’t that more because of the content or subject than the technique? Just because it’s my favourite football player doesn’t make it a great picture. That was the first thing I learned on BLFS. I WANT to know what I’m not doing well. I WANT to know where I can improve and, in the end, I WANT to have the tools & techniques to take a photo that is unique, tells a story and captures that single moment that might not occur again.

    I don’t want people blowing smoke up my bum, I want honesty and guidance. THAT is why I joined the BLFS family.

    Every time Ryu says one of my pictures is shit, every time Matt says I blew a shot, I take it on board and try to improve on my next outing. Having a tanty and chucking my toys out of the cot isn’t going to make me a better photographer. Eventually.

    Doug, others, don’t be a dick. Man up and realise that Matt and Ryu are two great exponents of our craft, will offer you their opinions for free, and gain their satisfaction from watching you grow as a photographer.

    And if ever I contradict what I just wrote, call me out on it and remind me why I’m here.

  2. Matt, you are completely bang on re: your comments on that picture. If someone thinks that’s a great picture, they really need to redefine their concept of great. I’d delete that one in a flash if I bothered to take it in the first place. All of the valid technical critique aside, bottom line is….it’s boring! He could have at least got the batter swinging with the ball in the frame, and if he worked for it a bit, get the ball on bat with one of the batters.

  3. I started with you guys way back in the beginning and hesitated putting any pictures in Training Ground for quite a while. Once I did, I was crushed to find out that my pictures weren’t everything that I thought they were. I blushed at home listening to the feedback on my pictures because I was mad. And then I took a breath and looked at my pictures again. You guys were absolutely right. I froze the action, but there was nothing else there. Just a guy on the (underexposed) ice with a puck on his stick. Something that happens all game long, every game in hockey. Great pictures for parents, so I still take those, but because I listened to Matt and Ryu they are now properly exposed, bonus!

    Hockey season just started again here in northern Virginia so I’ve started shooting again. But now I’m looking for moments. I’m a slow learner, so I’m still trying to figure out what qualifies as a moment, but I’ll get there. I’m sure that I will blush with embarrassment listening to the critiques of my pictures again, but I’m also sure that it is making me better. I’ve actually had the chance to have other professional hockey photographers review my work and the criticism has been along the same lines, so I know that what Matt and Ryu are saying is good information.

    Keep up the great work, I’m learning, slowly but surely.

    dfndr13 on Flickr

  4. Matt,

    I think you are being too harsh on this gentleman.

    I am a loyal BLFS follower. I cannot begin to tell you how much my photos have improved because of you.

    Please remember that people operate on different levels. I have come to realize that many people are proud of their photos, because they don’t know any better.

    Meanwhile, your training ground videos are long-winded, disorganized, and full of technical errors. And . . . brilliant in content.

    You don’t have to browbeat everyone to impart knowledge.

    1. “You don’t have to browbeat everyone to impart knowledge.”

      Fair enough. On the other hand, delusional is delusional. Beyond that he deleted my comment which is really dickish and beyond the pale. I wasn’t insulting him, nor (at that point) browbeating. I was assessing whether he was going to participate in the group or dump pictures and bail, knowledge that helps us run the group and help as many people as possible.

      “Meanwhile, your training ground videos are long-winded, disorganized, and full of technical errors. And . . . brilliant in content.”

      They’re also free. How much more unpaid work should Ryu and I be doing to prepare and organize Training Ground? I’m only half kidding.

      “I am a loyal BLFS follower. I cannot begin to tell you how much my photos have improved because of you.”

      You could try. Stories like yours could help us reach the more delusional members.

      Thanks for your feedback.

  5. I posted a picture in training ground last month to get feedback. I have posted a similar picture this month, but I have taken some of the advise that you gave and hoping it will get better reviews. That will at least let me know if I am headed in the right direction.

    It is hard to listen to someone tell you that your photos are not very good (especially when friends have raved about them ), but to get better you need to hear the bad. I welcome any feedback that will make me a better photographer.

    Hey, I even donated to the cause last month.

  6. Just to clarify that we give compliments where compliments are due. But praises and such are for photos which deserves them. We also live in a society where 5th place gets a participatory trophy. I for one don’t think that accomplishes anything when you are rewarded for a subpar performance.

    For instance my wife is my harshest critique. She will look through the photos I shot and tell me “This one sucks” and “This one is nowhere near as good as the similar ones you shot last time” and “I don’t get it. Why do you like this one?”. So I get my own TG at my house as well.

    I think the difference is that both Matt and I are professionals. The quality of our work will determine our next pay cheque. Therefore we are used to being critiqued as well as critiquing our own photos. When you are an amateur, you get people like Doug who thinks getting a photo as common as food porn on instagram is a good photo. We are here to tell you that is not the case. That complacency is your worst enemy. That you should continue to challenge yourself. That becoming better at something is a great feeling.

    Lastly, our advice are good. You might not even like our photos but our advice will make you a better photographer. I’m sure it pains you to listen to us disintegrate your photos, but it also pains us to see crap photos as well. :)

    Just want to thank you all for being part of BLFS and we promise to continue to give you contents that will enhance your sports photography life in a true masochistic fashion.


    1. “For instance my wife is my harshest critique. She will look through the photos I shot and tell me “This one sucks” and “This one is nowhere near as good as the similar ones you shot last time” and “I don’t get it. Why do you like this one?”. So I get my own TG at my house as well.”

      Coincidentally this is exactly the same case at my house. And my wife is almost always correct.

  7. Couple of issues here:

    It’s really important to understand WHY people are taking pictures. Some people take them just to record their lives and things that happened to them, and simply doing that is enough. I’m guessing poor old Doug is in that category, and for his purposes that may be a great shot (personally, I agree with the criticism, and it’s not working for me, but I’m not Doug). It’s unfortunate that he wandered into BLFS, clearly it’s not the right place for him.

    Some people want to document events – a slight step up from the first category. Technical competency is really important here, correct exposure, accurate focus, good framing, all that stuff. These people will definitely learn something from BLFS, and that’s good, but they’ll never become pros. And that’s probably fine with them.

    The last category is those who are out to create art. Their goal is to transcend the media and make something that is lasting and memorable to not only themselves but to anyone who stumbles across their pictures. These are the people who really benefit from BLFS and its like elsewhere. They are the ones who will take the criticism to heart and push to improve themselves. This is the audience that Matt and Ryu are really going for, and clearly they’ve won it. Congrats to them.

    As for the criticism and how it’s delivered, I’m sorry, but I’ve had my fill. And frankly, it really pissed me off. I spent five years in architecture school, and receiving criticism of my work and thoughts was a daily occurrence. Yet in that five years, I hardly remember an instance when it was delivered with the kind of negative spirit that it often is in the reviews in this group. I realized very quickly – and most of my professors clearly already knew – that criticism delivered in a positive, reinforcing manner is far more likely to yield long-term benefits than being raked over the coals. So after listening to Matt and Ryu go after it through a couple of podcasts, I decided I had enough. And it wasn’t even about my own pictures – I only submitted a couple, and they received a mixture of positive and negative, and the negative was generally justified.

    So I’m still a member of the group, and I still come and troll through other people’s stuff, but I have no plans to submit more or listen/watch again. Honestly, after listening to only a few podcasts, I can scroll through the Training Ground entries and tell you exactly what the comments are going to be on each one. I like going to the podium entries and the themed competitions and looking at the work there, which is usually of a significantly higher quality, and draw inspiration and ideas and get all excited about going back out and shooting more. So thanks for that, hope you don’t mind me mooching.

    Good luck to you in the group, the podcasts, and your shooting, and thanks for what I have learned from it and will learn in the future.

    And by the way, your wife is your harshest CRITIC, not critique – a critique is what a critic gives. Get it f****ing straight next time!!!

    1. “It’s really important to understand WHY people are taking pictures.”

      Couldn’t possibly disagree more. People can do whatever they want. And there are lots of places to dump pictures, including the 50 dead sports groups on Flickr. We are trying to do something different, and everything we do is directed at our mission. We’re not tricking people into posting in our group, it’s clearly stated that putting pictures in the group pool makes them fair game. I can’t make this clear enough: Ryu and I don’t spent the (unpaid) time we spend on Big Lens Fast Shutter (Recording, looking at pictures, writing posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc) to provide a place in which people like Doug can dump shitty pictures in the hopes of getting a few more views he might not be getting in the 75 other groups where he dumped his picture. We do it to help people who want to get better in fact get better.

      “I realized very quickly – and most of my professors clearly already knew – that criticism delivered in a positive, reinforcing manner is far more likely to yield long-term benefits than being raked over the coals. ”

      100% matter of opinion, and I completely disagree. I ONLY got better because of negative feedback delivered fairly harshly. Ask the people who have used our advice to get better what they think. I don’t understand this thin-skinned attitude. If I went in on fellow professionals’ pictures in this manner I could understand a little, after all they are feeding themselves on the pictures I would be shredding. But if you’re just starting out, what ego is there to protect?

      “Honestly, after listening to only a few podcasts, I can scroll through the Training Ground entries and tell you exactly what the comments are going to be on each one.”

      Then you’ve learned quite a lot I’d say.

      “And by the way, your wife is your harshest CRITIC, not critique – a critique is what a critic gives. Get it f****ing straight next time!!!”

      I generally refrain from nitpicking Ryu’s English, he’s gone through the effort to be tri-lingual…

  8. Tom,

    Hello there and thanks for the comment.
    As for how we do the things at BLFS, it’s how we do it. Whether you think it’s good or bad is entirely up to you. We respect your opinion as long as you respect ours.

    But I do have problem with you mooching. As you have clearly stated, we do help you become a better sports photographer. So we should be expecting a healthy donation from you in the future? :)

    I will make sure to remind myself with the critique v critic in the future. Thanks for correcting me.


  9. Responses to Matt:
    “We do it to help people who want to get better in fact get better.”
    Fine – then focus on that and let Doug go. He did something he shouldn’t have, you bit him in the ass for it, and he went away. He’s still happy with his picture, you still think it’s shit, and everybody’s good. No need to dance on gravestones.

    “I only got better because of negative criticism delivered fairly harshly.”
    I feel sorry for you. My point is there are other ways to accomplish the same result. And as for having no egos to start, you think 4 accomplished architecture professors cared about the egos of 80 freshman architecture students? And yet they went out of their way not to shred us to pieces.

    A couple of years ago, I took part in a motorsports photography workshop, taught by three highly accomplished professional photographers, with an average of about 25 years in the business, and with photos published in SI and major car and racing magazines, as well as books and other publications. There were about 30 of us taking the workshop, all amateurs, some with more experience than others (I was somewhere in the middle of the pack). We shot on track all morning, downloaded and critiqued over lunch, shot all afternoon, and did another critique session after they put the cars away. I don’t want to think how many thousand frames the pros must have looked at. But I don’t recall hearing one f-bomb dropped on anybody. And everybody got better and learned. So don’t pretend it can’t be done.

    “Then you’ve learned quite a lot I’d say.”
    Yes, I learned how you guys enjoy ripping people apart. The stuff about what makes a good image I learned a long time ago from others.

    Response to Ryu:
    Yes, I do respect your opinion, and appreciate that you respect mine. And I’m glad that your system works for others, it just doesn’t work for me, and maybe the only reason that I’m saying that is because I think I could actually learn from you if I could stand to listen to the podcast. But I can’t.

    And yes, I clearly did learn a few things from you. Whenever I go to a sporting event and see a line of people standing up and hammering their shutters, thoughts of you yelling at people to kneel down always bring a smile to my lips (something I also learned from others, but what the hell). And yes, I will consider a donation to your cause, but only after I manage to sell some shots, which doesn’t seem to be happening in any big hurry. But who knows?

    As for the critic thing – that was supposed to be sarcasm, hope you took it as such. But it is a reminder that if you’re going to dish it out, you better be able to take it as well (and apparently you were). Consider it a small contribution to your tri-lingualism from someone who arguably never mastered one language.

  10. This has been really interesting to follow. Nobody would be commenting if they didn’t care. But, we do care about BLFS.

    I don’t want just 32 episodes. I want 1000 episodes, because I learn something in each one. I want BLFS to become one of the biggest photography sites on the web. You are deserving of the recognition that comes with that.

    Matt, I listened to your story in episode 32 about how you learned from having your mentor rip you to shreds. Wanting to pass that knowledge on to the next round of photographers is very admirable on your part.

    I think you can be true to your mission, but still avoid some of the things that drive readers away.

  11. My skin so so thin, I can see through it. That’s why I have a show where I can condemn people into sports photography hell when and how I want to. :)

    What I like is that everyone has their opinion about our methodologies. Some people love it, some people don’t. Some respond to our ways and some don’t. Some might find us offensive, rude and crude, and downright subhuman, but hey, that’s how things are done at BLFS. If we have been unsuccessful with our methods, we’ve be happy to try out some “nicer” ways. But fortunately, the results speak for themselves and our methods have been vindicated thus far.

    The most important things is that Matt and I have fun doing the show and at the same time we see improvements from you. You cannot imagine how great we feel when we can literally “see” the improvements from month to month. It really is a great feeling.

    We will continue to spread the good word of BLFS and we will win some and lose some. As long as we are winning more than losing, I think we will be in good shape until episode 1032. :)


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