In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master an art, sport, or instrument. He tells of certain people lucky enough to access special training or circumstances, allowing them to get to this magic 10,000 hour mark faster. The simple take away from the book is: you put in your time, you reach mastery. If only it were that easy. Even if you have the access, and are able to practice for the years it takes, simple practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You have to know how the perfect golf swing feels, the sound of that power chord, or the taste of that soufflé’ before you can replicate it. You need education.
Mastery simply does not happen without education, you need good teachers. There are plenty of teachers, classes, and books to guide your way. We are living in a golden age when it comes to access to information. Unfortunately one of the best photography teachers is often overlooked, and has performed a bit of a disappearing act. That teacher is called “Pain,” and you should get to know it, because it can rocket you to the next level.
For three years at the Brooks Institute of Photography, my fellow students and I lived and breathed photography everyday, all day. It was our whole life, and nothing hurt more than being dedicated to something and coming up short. Many of us were on tight budgets. Film and 4×5 Polaroids were expensive. It was not uncommon for people to choose whether to shoot or eat (the answer was always to shoot). If you spent a full day in the studio, shelled out hundreds on supplies and didn’t get the shot, it hurt, it hurt a lot. There were a lot of mistakes you could make, and we made all of them. You could load the film wrong, get the exposure wrong, mix your chemicals poorly, be off on your temperature while developing, over agitate, under agitate, get an air bubble stuck to the negative, etc. Maybe you would see the perfect color shot, and have B&W film loaded. There were a million ways things could go wrong, and a very long list of things you had to get right to get the shot.
Sometimes you felt you got the shot, then get to class and realize it was not as good as you thought. It was soul crushing. Some couldn’t handle it and dropped out. Those that stayed, learned the way to survive was to get better. The only way to get better was to have discipline. The pain of failure imposed that discipline. With digital photography the pain of failure is gone. You can shrug off the bad shots, and keep firing away until something acceptable comes along, you even have the option to “fix it in Photoshop.” If your exposure is not correct, it is no big deal. There is no penalty for taking a bad shot. No doubt these are valuable improvements, but they have had a profound effect on how we learn photography. I’m not suggesting that new photographers should suffer because old film photographers did, but new photographers need to learn to value the shot. With digital there is no value to an individual frame anymore, without that value it is so much easier to be careless.
There are countless paths to becoming a good photographer. Learning on film is not a guarantee that you will be good, and there are amazing artists who have never shot film. What all good artists have in common is that they care. If your goal is to be a better photographer, you need to care more about your work. You need to find ways to value the individual shot more. Mindlessly shooting aka “Spraying and Praying” will not make you a better photographer. Bringing back some of the “pain” in learning photography, will help you care more, and help you get better faster.
Bring on the Pain
Because the “pain” is gone, we have to bring it back. This means imposing artificial limits on how we are shooting. It is very much like working with weights. Just like a weight stimulates muscle growth, challenging ourselves helps us grow as photographers. Here are a few ways to bring the “pain” back into your photography.
If you don’t have one, you can borrow or rent a 35mm film camera. Go out with one roll of film, then go shoot for 2-3 hours. Paying for film and processing, and having to wait to see the results will profoundly change your experience. Underwater photographers, who had to surface and go back to the boat to change rolls, had a rule, “Always leave 2-3 frames for the swim back to the boat.” Often a great shot would present itself on the way back. Keep that rule in mind.
If you have to do this digital, get the smallest memory card you can find, and go out with just that card. Limit your self to just 36 shots. Turn off the display or cover it, and don’t look at your images until you get home.
Shoot Polaroid. Shooting Polaroid is like nothing else. It inspires you to think about your composition, every shot has its cost, and every shot is one of a kind. Shoot some, and hang them up. Don’t scan them, just let them be. Shooting a Polaroid is so different from digital, and it opens you up to a different way of thinking about images and how you shoot.
Take a Class.
Find a photo class where your work is displayed and critiqued. It is going to hurt, but experiencing the pain is the quickest way to be a better photographer. Hearing positive comments about your work feels great, but “It’s nice,” or “I like what you did here, good job,” doesn’t teach you much. In my experience nothing makes you work harder to improve than getting your work cut to shreds. If your goal is to be a better photographer, you need to test yourself in the fire.
Do a 365 Photography Challenge.
If you can’t take a class, then take part in one of the many “Shoot a photo everyday” challenges. Many of them offer shot lists and assignments. Share your work and see what people respond to. Shooting and sharing a photo everyday is not easy, inevitably you will share something that you know is lame, and you will hate it. You will also post brilliant shots that no one comments on. This is all good for you, as it re-enforces what interests you about photography, and gives insight into how other people view your work.
Photography is not like other skills, it is a bit more mysterious. It is also a skill prone to people picking up a camera and trying to learn without instruction. If you can’t play the guitar, it is pretty obvious why, and the path to excellence is clearer. Photography is a combination of art, science and psychology, so the path to getting better can be murky. You have to explore, you have to experiment, you have to make mistakes . If those mistakes hurt, then you will try to understand them, and you will get better. If you let pain be your teacher, you will be much stronger for it.
All images ©Thann Clark