The first summer I bought my first DSLR, about six years ago, I took a photo that I thought was one of the best photos ever taken. Looking back, it is still a pretty good photo; however, it was beginner’s luck more than anything. It was somewhere in the 900th photo I took with that camera. Prior to that, my experience with photography was a 110 mm camera I had since I was eight years old. There were a few lucky factors involved that helped me to get that shot, but the truth is, I had a vague idea of what I was doing and just so happened to get a really good picture. Anyone can take a couple thousand photos, a few classes, and call themselves a photographer, but the difference between the mediocre and the exceptional is about 10,000 hours, hence the 10,000 hour rule.
There are no exceptions to this rule
It is no coincidence that some jobs require five years of work experience or a degree when considering potential employees. One of the things I learned working in a school district was that you do not need a degree to obtain a career tech teaching license; five years of full-time work experience or the equivalent in the intended field is acceptable as well. If we do the math, five years of full time work experience comes out to about 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours of hard lessons learned, problems solved, and consistent effort are what it takes to be considered excellent at what you do.
The Beatles gained around ten thousand hours of playing experience in the UK before coming to the US which was a huge factor in their popularity and reputation. In 10,000, they had learned how to cover a wide span of genres, each with their own learning curve, and were comfortable playing in front of crowds. They had such an advantage over most musicians at the time. While 10,000 hours was not the only factor in determining their success, it was certainly a major contributor.
I’ve recently started reading Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, which outlines numerous examples of how this rule is universal- from chess players to programmers, ten thousand hours of practice is an important (but not only) factor that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. (If you are looking for some inspiration to take this journey, I would highly recommend this book!)
A Smooth Sea Never Made A Skilled Sailor
In ten thousand hours, you can learn a lot of things. Experience taught me to have a backup file system. Thank goodness none of the photos I lost with my first hard drive crash were for clients, but there were some photos that I wish I could have again. Experience throws you hardships- it can teach you how to cope with things like equipment failures or the importance of a written contract. Experience can be a nasty teacher, but I can guarantee you will be a better photographer because of it.
One of the things that has contributed to my photography is the experience I gained at Portrait Innovations. I’m not sure if any of you have ever been through that shakedown, but I felt bad for the people that subjected themselves to it. I was hired in as a part time worker for the holiday season, and we were so overbooked and understaffed. Having a love for photography, it was easy for me to adapt to the job, but there was a very large learning curve that was not for the faint of heart. Imagine putting in 20 hours a week where you have to take a frustrated family through a sequence of 24-36 poses (averaging 75-120 photos) across four different backgrounds in about 20 minutes. Imagine this family has a baby that is past cranky or two small and easily distracted kids. Then you also have to sell your work to them on the spot. Sure, they could have hired in more people or not booked as many sessions, but that is cutting into the corporate profit margin. However, there is shining beam of light at the end of this story- the cruel and repetitive experience taught me how to work with people quickly, efficiently, and under pressure while presenting good photos and satisfying customers.
Under the right conditions, you learn how to think outside of the box and solve the visual puzzle presented to you. You know what to expect going into a shoot, how to prepare for it and rock it 100% confidently. Not only do you learn how to do this, but ten thousand hours teaches you how to do this consistently.
The Difference Between Ordinary and Extraordinary is that Little “Extra”
Practice is not enough- there has to be a level of difficulty involved with what you do. Ten hours of hard work is more beneficial than ten hours of easy work. When playing an instrument, I never improved by playing the same easy measures over and over again. I had to play the measures that stumped me, the tricky ones that had to be played especially confidently, in tune, and on time with the proper and consistent sound. Committing to practicing these parts were the difference between last chair and first chair in orchestra.
The same thing can be said in photography. You have to push yourself outside of your comfort zone when practicing. Shoot into the sun, shoot with different apertures, experiment with angles to decide what works best for you. You might discover something you like that you want to add to your style. This beautiful transformation is only achievable by putting in hours of hard practice. At the end of the day, you will be much happier with your work knowing you have pushed yourself to do the best you can possibly do.
Another way to push yourself is to accept critique on your skills. Ask your friends for their opinion on your stuff and share it with people for feedback. Another great way to figure out what you need to work on is to have your portfolio reviewed. This will give you insight on what skills you should put your time and effort towards.
In addition to being comfortable with accepting critique, you also have to be willing to work towards improving the skills you may not be as confident in. Sometimes this requires you to ask for help. This is where things like classes, lessons, and apprenticeship play in. You will learn what to improve and then work towards refining it. Make no mistake though- these things will help you understand what you need to know, but putting in the hours after class is over is what will truly transform you.
Immerse yourself in what you do
In addition to shooting constantly and applying the above principles, I make an effort to keep myself in touch with the photography world. I read at least two or three articles related to photography every day. There are a plethora of resources such as TED talks and Youtube tutorials to inspire and educate. Take photos constantly and share them on a personal blog or website.
Surround yourself with people who have similar interests as you so that you are in an environment that makes it easier for you to work towards your goal. One of my favorite things to do is to find a photographer whose work I admire and pick their brains about what they do. You will find that most artists are incredibly friendly and love helping out.
The cool thing about experience is that it is abundant if you know where to look for it. People are always looking for help with photos, and lending a hand will certainly help you towards your 10,000 hour goal. This tidbit is especially useful for things like weddings- if you are wanting to shoot a wedding without the pressure, ask a photographer if they need an assistant. They will appreciate the extra help, and you will appreciate the experience without the stress!
Go At Your Own Pace
Obviously you do not have to rush to develop your skills, but putting in work on a regular basis certainly helps when you are trying to stick out in a sea of photographers. You have to decide how fast you want to develop your talent, what you want to do with it, and work that into your life accordingly. Everyone works at a different pace, and honestly there is no fast track to success; we all need to learn from the 10,000 hour journey. I am patiently working my way towards 10,000 hours of experience, and I encourage anyone who wants to master anything, not just photography, to do the same.