Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Photography expertise - still 95% to do

Ringed, originally uploaded by jiihaa.

Practice, practice, practice (take 2) is a nice posting about how much time you have to spend to become a master of some skill. The posting links to The Guardian, here is a quote: "This idea - that excellence at a complex task requires a critical, minimum level of practice - surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is a magic number for true expertise: 10,000 hours."

This idea is not novel, but here it is discussed in an interesting manner. I have also run into the so-called "ten year rule", which means that you have to develop a skill daily for ten years to become an expert. As my main interest has been writing, I'll borrow some ideas from that source here (I have written one or two columns on this topic years ago).

One source for such an idea is Ray Bradbury, who wrote about this in the introduction to one of his later short story collections. Bradbury started writing in his early teens, and his routine went as follows: on Monday he wrote the first draft of a story, on Tuesday he rewrote it, on Wednesday he rewrote it, on Thursday he rewrote it --- until on Sunday he had a finished piece which he sent to a magazine or similar place for possible publication. But it was not until ten years of this until he got his first story published, when he was 21 or 23 or so.

A lot of practice! But then Bradbury's writing is as smooth and flowing as can be - he is no Dostoevsky, but his writing has a unique tone which combines a clear style with complex human emotions. Here is a quote about him: "distinguished, prolific, and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy."

Returning to photography, I calculated that I have spent perhaps 150 hours doing photography within the last six months or so, when I got interested in developing my skills more in earnest. Earlier, in my teens, I spent some more time doing photography, but all in all, I'm probably somewhere between 500 and 1000 hours with photography. (But if you actually calculate the time to do photography instead of walking with camera or post-processing, then the time is much less.)

So, I'm at about five percent level of the required 10,000 hours, and I need to do the rest, 95 percent of the required work. A lot of practice needed!


Andreas said...

Yes and no. Calculating tightly (i.e. no post-processing, no blog writing, walking with camera included) I may be at a total of about 1000 hours, but that's not all.

I'd include post-processing, because it is too entangled with taking the photos and your photographic abilities will profit from it. Let's face it, we all want to keep the effort low, that we need to put into something. OK, we raise our expectations while we learn, thus it never gets less in reality, but that's another story.

When I find out that I need to put insane time into post-processing, and mostly to always fix the same errors that I could have avoided by properly exposing, actually looking at what's in the viewfinder, putting that piece of litter aside that I otherwise would have to clone out, keeping the horizon level or a line running in a corner, when I find that out, then I'll begin to think of doing these things while I take the photo. Doing so, will make me a better photographer. Thus: post-processing counts. QED.

Suddenly I am at around 2000 hours minimum.

Now let's look at blog reading.

Huhh??? Why should blog reading make you a better photographer?

Well, at least with some blogs it may. I mean those blogs that make you think about photography. Think of Mark Hobson, Ted Byrne, Paul Lester, Paul Butzi, Mike Johnston. Not only does thinking about photography make you want to go out and actually do it, no, it gives you new ideas, it is another way to fuel your creativity. Mind: it won't make you creative in the first place, but if you are, it gives you ideas to work on.

Then there is the time you spend watching Craig Tanner's Daily Critiques, Mark Johnson's Photoshop tutorials, David Ziser's tutorials about composition, and so much more. Think of The Strobist, think of the time you spend in forums looking at photos, giving critique. That's not nothing, to the contrary.

Or another very important thing: the time you spend browsing your own photos, deleting what you deem clear failures, judging what may have potential for publication.

I'd call all that photography-related. It is not only being out there and taking photos what counts.

That immediately brings me to ... to ... Holy S***!!

Guess I have to stop now :)

Juha Haataja said...

An impressive calculation!

I agree that "studying" (books, magazines, blogs, podcasts, tutorials etc.) should be included, perhaps also writing and commenting about photography (but I would exclude Dpreview from this ;-).

Perhaps also related topics could be included, such as arts (painting, drawing, ...). Could also some experience of life or even just reading novels about humans be included as learning? And what about music - rhythm, tone, ...?

Paul said...

I would certainly have to agree with Andreas. This is not a simple calculation. I would imagine, too, that you spend a great deal of time thinking about photography. This creative thought-time while you are driving or walking, for example, is part of the equation.

I wonder if expertise and expert can be categorized separately? For example, one can have expertise in a certain area of photography, such as lighting, but not necessarily be an expert in photographic art, or perhaps 'directing' someone on how to pose. Perhaps these are different areas.

Also, given that it is a moving target because you are constantly learning new techniques of post processing, lighting, etc., it is a moving target, perhaps requiring more than 10,000 hours or 10 years or whatever. To be sure, it is a journey to be enjoyed without worry about the destination.

Craig talks about these things in his Myth of talent talk that he gives at some of this workshops. It's very inspirational.

Thomas Edison said it best: Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration! Keep perspiring! Keep shooting!

Juha Haataja said...

@Paul: The Thomas Edison quote is rather good in this context.

Another interesting aspect of The Guardian article was the reference to computers, in effect saying that developing a deep expertise was not possible before time-sharing type use of computers became possible is some universities.

But I wonder is it really so? I learned Pascal programming from a book during one summer, without having any access to computers, just writing algorithms on paper and in my head. Later on, this experience proved to be quite valuable.

On the other hand, perhaps some future photography genius is explained away by saying that his/her work would not have been possible before digital cameras and post-processing techniques.