When Malcolm Gladwell wrote his book, “Outliers“, he had a chapter devoted to the “10,000 hours” rule that intimated that it took 10,000 hours of practice to become good at something.
I think this single criterion has been mild to totally debunked already, and he has said that most who quote that are doing so out of the real context of it, but he was clearly making a statement regarding the absolute importance of practicing one’s skill.
What was fundamentally lacking in the oft-quoted “10,000 hours to achieve mastery” was the unforgiving truth that if you practice something incorrectly for 10,000 hours you will be a master at doing it incorrectly.
Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, it makes it automatic. Automatically playing it wrong will not be a triumph if you are working on a Beethoven Sonata, it will make it nearly impossible to correct it without a struggle.
Perfect practice makes perfect is the best way of thinking of the often stated meme. But what does “perfect practice” mean?
To do something well, I believe we need to concentrate on three different aspects of learning how to do it. The mechanics of it, the reason for it, and the personal execution of it.
The mechanics are lighting and exposure and composition and… you get the idea. How the camera, sensor, lenses work together to form an image in the technical iteration. A capture. A shot.
This can take the form of trial and error, self-study, workshops, practice, and, well, schools. (I am actually very unexcited about “schools” at this point.)
The problem with only trial and error and self-study is that we may not learn the optimum way of doing something, and this can land us into the “practice it wrong” for 10,000 hours camp. Not a good place to be. Working with learning technical stuff means getting feedback on the technical stuff.
Find a mentor, a group, a select tribe of photographers that can look at what you did technically and make some suggestions. If it is not sharp, they can help you understand what may be going wrong.
Many times this takes the photographer to a place of self-measurement. In order to know if it is working for them, they will compare their work with the work of an established photographer already found to be excellent. Want to learn large format black and white landscape? Perhaps studying the work of Ansel Adams, John Paul Caponigro, or John Sexton may help you find your technical ‘base point’.
Once we have found it possible to make a ‘good quality’ image, we begin to be more selective in what we shoot since we are now looking for the reason to shoot it. This is the part of the process where we narrow our vision down a bit from shooting everything we see to making choices about subject matter, genre, and our personal style.
This is usually a longer process than the first. Building the body of work without a full reference of our own work means that we may have influences that are heavily invading our work. It can be derivative, similar, and in some ways a natural copy of those photographers we studied heavily in the first phase of the process.
We measure our work against others for style and resonance. Does it have the same tonal quality as so-and-so? Does it look too much like her work or is it more of a collection of watered down copies of that other guy’s work? The struggle is real. In photography, it can become extremely easy to copy a technique, style, and genre approach. Too easy, but that will not change at this point.
Our next phase is when we get personally frustrated by making photographs that are derivative or copies and we start to stretch for our own vision. A style that ties all of our work together – and while technique and reason are always a hugely important part of it, the reality is that this last phase is all about choices.
The technique we have down. The subject matter we know. The presentation is second nature… NOW we have to use all we know to begin to develop a body of work that makes all of the images tie together into our own vision.
Some photographers think I mean that your work has to be 100% unique, and that is not it at all. It has to be 100% authentically YOU. If your work resembles someone else’s work, but it 100% authentically yours, that is fine. There are many landscape shooters who have the same subject and similar style… but many of them will approach the same subject with a slightly different perspective, or point of view.
The similarities are not important, the difference is.
You have heard me quote the great jazz trumpet player Clark Terry before:
“Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”
The three parts of the process synthesized down into three simple words. However, each word is nearly a book into itself on the process of learning an art.
How many hours will it take? I don’t know. You don’t know, nor should you think about it in that macro-managed sort of way. To do so puts a hierarchy on the irrelevant aspect of time. It is not about the hours… it’s not about the number of photographs you take.
It is about the process… and these processes can take different amounts of time for different people. Some will find the technical part to be a piece of cake while others will struggle with it. The technical strugglers may find the second part of the process – assimilate – to be easy while the tech-minded struggle.
You are you. You are uniquely you. Your approach will be done the way you want it to be done.
And to add to the fun… heh… much of these different phases overlap each other. We are constantly working on technical even as we are producing a unique body of work in our own style.
Do not worry about the 10,000 hours or 10,000 photo rules. They aren’t rules, but more a set of guidelines to remind you that nothing will make you better than a focus on doing the work, having the work evaluated, and doing more work.
About the Author
Don Giannatti is a photographer, writer, and avid motorcyclist. Currently, he is working with a wonderful group of students at Project 52 Pro System, and helping them transition into full or part-time commercial photography. He has owned studios in Phoenix, LA, Chicago, and New York. He has been a guest instructor on CreativeLive, and he is busy writing a book of images and fiction from this past summer’s motorcycle ride through the smoke of the wildfires out west.