“It’s hard”, they say. “Practice is the solution”, the others answer. It’s that easy, right?
We all encounter difficulties in our crafts but we hear that all it takes is practice. If we work hard it will eventually pay off. Rock bottom is a solid foundation to start from. We’ve heard it all. We’ve heard all the “truths” there are out there, as well as all the “counter truths” that should guide us.
For example. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today”. And then “Don’t cross the bridge until you come to it”. Or “You’re never too old to learn”. And then “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.
Which one is it?
All in all though I love these quotes. The more I come in contact with them the more I can pick and choose which one suits my current situation the most. I think we all do it from time to time hoping to find enlightenment from these often quirky sayings.
But the one that I wanted to focus on today, in the continued spirit of this blog, is the 10,000 hour rule that I’m sure you’ve heard about.
Malcom Gladwell, author of the book, The Outliers, describes, in summary, how it takes 10,000, which is equivalent to 20 hours a week for 10 years, to become an expert in a skill. He references examples such as the Beatles, and how their 1,200 performances in Hamburg helped them master their skill. He speaks about Bill Gates having access to computers at the age of 13, and many other examples.
I don’t like hard rules or as I’ve mentioned in the past, such schematic approaches. It’s not a process, it’s not a production line, it’s not something mechanical. I don’t think we can parallel humans to machines by saying 10,000 hours of practice will make us great at something.
Imagine if I played 10,000 hours of the saxophone. I might become better, surely, but my wife and neighbors would probably go deaf.
And how is it that in the playlist I’m listening to now Notorious BIG’s “Sky is the Limit” ironically comes up. Sky’s the limit. You can reach it if you practice 10,000 hours, they tell us.
Just like the quotes I was mentioning earlier the moment a rule is created, critiques and contradictory studies come out on the counterattack. Although I have yet to read one that, to my favor says, “you don’t need 10,000 hours, rather 10,000 minutes”, I do agree with some of the statements I read.
For example, this article references other studies showing how practice is more helpful in stable structured activities like tennis, chess, and classical music, where the rules don’t change. Essentially the more you practice the better you become, until you become the best.
On the contrary, less stable fields, like entrepreneurship and music, or any creative endeavor, the rules are being reinvented continuously. So there is no clear foundation to practice on.
And isn’t photography the same?
I don’t want to be a master of the Rule of Thirds. I don’t want to be an expert on layering. I do though want to continue to hone my craft to become a master of composition, imagery and storytelling.
The truth though is that no two photographs are the same, and that little voice that says “it just works” is founded on feelings layered on top of rules. In other words, you can break all the rules and still have a compelling end product. That the feelings themselves may be influenced by the rules is another topic in its own right.
And we practice. And practice. And continue to practice. Hoping to reach that Zen level, knowing that we can’t just dismiss any criticism by saying “art is subjective”. No, if the drummer if off tempo, the song will be crap even though a few people might like it. If the photo is underexposed we don’t just say “I love black”.
I do though think that we must consider how practice should be specific to the skill we are pursuing.
Let me use my experience as examples.
I would come back from work and practice my saxophone, or even play before going in for the day. One hour a day, minimum. I was getting better. I was happy with what I was doing. But I never had the courage to “put myself out there”. Should I have practiced my confidence rather than my saxophone?
And what about after that hour? If I’m watching the movies Bird, or New York New York, am I practicing? I think I’m learning, but I’m not practicing. So now, with 1 hour a day, I’m already at 30 years to reach my 10,000 hours.
Then there is cooking. Admittedly, I love to eat more than I do cooking, but I do genuinely love trying out both classical and modern takes on recipes. At one point I was even thinking of opening a food truck. But let’s take a deeper look at cooking. You cook probably one full meal a day, and it probably doesn’t take 1 hour, so there is another 30 plus years to become a MasterChef. And like playing the saxophone, if you are reading how to use a knife properly, are you practicing?
But the one I love the most for this little exercise is Photography? Do you follow me? I tend to use 1/125 as my go-to speed when I’m in the streets. Let me do the math.
That’s 10,000 hours, which is equal to (10,000 hours * 60 minutes * 60 seconds) 36,000,000 seconds. Now let’s multiply it by 125. That’s 4,500,000,000 photos.
I would have to take 4.5 billion photos to satisfy the 10,000 hour rule to master my skill. I wish I could interview Henri Cartier Bresson. “Mr. Bresson, can you please tell the audience how many photos you have taken to become so masterful?”
Click, click, click. 10,000 clicks? No. 4.5 billion.
So I ask myself. Is reading, viewing videos, discovering, writing this blog practice? Is that not beneficial to mastering photography? I think so. And in looking back at photos taken with point and shoots, iPhones and more “serious cameras”, I’ve noticed that the study, the perseverance and the passion does count towards the tally.
But who’s counting anyway?
An interesting book that I have yet to get my hands on is One Second of Light, by Giles Duley, who says: “When putting this book together I became fascinated by the question of time. Most of my images are taken at 1/60 sec or 1/125 second, which means when you put this whole collection together, the reality is they only add up to a second of light. A second that gives insight into other lives, but also makes us question how much we don’t see.”
I find the idea fascinating. Giles must have that innate talent we all seek. In 1 second he managed to publish a books? “Still a long way to go there Mr. Duley.”
Below are some of the photos from the past that I look at from time to time. To relive the emotions surely, but also to critique them and see what I’ve learned.
Buggy Farm in Conway, Texas, 2008. Taken with a point and shoot. The shadows curiously form a bridge between the cars and the horizon is not in the middle. But the colors, are pale, the focus isn’t tack sharp, and in general it’s just a photo.
Istanbul, Turkey, 2010, taken on a Sony point and shoot. I didn’t know what RAW was, I thought sepia was a cool looking feature, and hadn’t read anything about composition. I just loved the scene.
A bridge in Boston, 2015, shot with my Nikon DSLR. At this point I was experimenting with small apertures to get the light flares, using a tripod and practicing with colors.
Rome, Italy. Shot with my trusted Fujifilm x100F. The scene unfolded in front of me and I made the picture and then did some adjustments in Lightroom afterwards.
I particularly like this photo because it proved to me that reading and studying photography also helps develop the skill.
Don’t get me wrong. It is practice. It is Getting out there, camera in hand.
But 4.5 billion clicks? Are you kidding me?
Until Next Time,