Ten Thousand Hours…

or the shot cut solution?

Back in the days, when I was young, and had time to fritter away on such things as video games I remember the frustration of never being able to complete a whole game. Not for me the congratulations screen that patted the backs and egos of those who made it to the very end after hours and hours of button pushing and joystick twiddling. I had to be content with completing the occasional level in Space Invaders, Pacman, Ridge Racer or whatever. That was until I heard about the cheats. The sequence of secret button presses hidden deep in the bowels of the game by the designers. Sequences that had been unearthed by mind bogglingly nerdy game players.

Eventually I got my sticky fingers on a cheat or two and began to explore the new super powers they endowed upon me. My Pacman raced around the screen like a demented smiley without a care in the world, my car never slid off the track again no matter how much I abused it! I won more levels and eventually reached that most holy of holy: the end of game screen. A short-lived glow came over me and quickly vaporised into thin air. No, I hadn’t really finished the game. I’d cheated. I’d used a shortcut. Eventually I hung up my joystick, or rather passed it on to my daughters and stepped away from the first flush love of video games.

Putting in the Hours

No doubt if I’d have put the hours in I may well have reached the dizzy heights of ‘end of game’ screens, but I just didn’t have it in me. My commitment wasn’t there. And this thought brings me fairly and squarely to photography. Photographic shortcuts abound today. My email inbox makes daily boasts of quick fixes, novel cheats, life-changing presets, compositional shortcuts with guarantees of success, cast iron business plans to go pro. Apparently there are so many ways to succeed I wonder why bad photos exist at all! I know I’ve taken my fair share, and still do. Perhaps I’d do well to enlist, subscribe and part with my cash to the new kids on the block who offer me a quick route to faultless photos.

This approach is in direct contrast to the 10,000 hour maxim, that oft quoted ‘rule’ that scares many away. Ten thousands hours or a quick fix? What is it to be. Admittedly there can be a certain amount of credence in some of the guides out there, I also have produced a 14 Tips to Better Photos ebook, but to view shortcuts as direct routes to craftsmanship can bring nothing but a shallow victory soon to be followed by a hole in the pit of your creative stomach. Surely there must be a balance somewhere in the middle of these two extremes? Well, this all depends on where you want to go with your photography. Where exactly is your benchmark, your creative line in the sand?

Let’s take a look at the 10,000 hour rule and see if it stands up. It originated from a very wordy document which can be downloaded here and is entitled “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. The author advocates practice, and lots of it. He suggests that anyone who merely puts in the time will eventually become an expert and it will take about 10,000 hours to reach this pinnacle. Henri Cartier Bresson too once famously stated that your first 10,000 photos will be your worst.

Practice makes perfect

I think we can all agree that practise makes perfect but with our photography perhaps that practise needs to be focussed, defined and clarified especially in the digital era. Cartier Bresson couldn’t shoot and shoot and shoot like we can. His process was infinitely slower and more costly. He couldn’t afford not to learn from his mistakes. Maybe if we adopt a similar attitude and approach our photography could come on in leaps and bounds.

So, just how much time is 10,000 hours? Breaking it down to a daily practice it equates to 2 hours per day, 7 days per week for almost 14 years! That’s a lot of exposures! However if the time is spent merely taking photos the learnings will be restricted. What if those two hours per day were spent on anything related to your photography? What if spending time looking for photographs even without your camera were included. And reading books, looking at your own photos, studying the work of others, processing, optimising, planning, researching shoots, pushing your boundaries when out with your kit?

What’s your goal?

When you take all of these fields of study into the equation it becomes more doable. The key is practice, as in developing a practice, following a routine and doing your utmost not to vary from it. This practice will benefit from having a real intent too, not just an all adrift kind of approach. Specify exactly what it is you’d like to learn this year, set yourself a 1,000 day goal to achieve a big thing with your craft. Then go and implement it.

Yes, go ahead and purchase those Lightroom Presets, Photoshop Actions and pre-made textures if they really appeal to you but I suggest you use them wisely and put the time in to understanding why they work (or don’t as the case may be). Rather than blindly applying another artists methodology to further your photos practise with them and then make them your own. Devise your own presets, actions and textural overlays. Personalise your approach, make it your own and then you’ll begin to hear your own creative voice speak with increasing clarity and volume.

Work to understand why your photos communicate and when they fail, don’t let the quick fix of auto anything lull you into laziness. By doing the hard yards you’ll find such depth in your work, your images will sing with stories and you will eventually become a true master of your art rather than a flash in the photographic developing tray.

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