Think back over the last month or so. How many pictures did you shoot and how often did you go out shooting? This idea jumped out at me listening to an interview with the great Jay Maisel. He uses this as a probe to find out about his students.
Who cares how many?
In reality, it should not matter to anybody else, except you, what your photogrpahy habits are. It’s a trick question in the sense that there is no right or wrong answer. At least not quantitatively.
Jay uses the question as a probe to understand his student’s style and work habits. He would rather hear that you carry your camera all the time and shoot some every day. If you say you go out once a week and shoot some he will likely tell you that you need a lot more practice. If you say you go out once a month he may tell you to go home. That would be a shame because his workshops are expensive and hard to get into.
I’m hoping to convince you that you, and only you, should care how many shots you take.
So in Jay Maisel’s experience your shooting habits are a predictor of your ability. Frequent photo practice, in his view, helps you become more experienced, quicker to see a good image, and more practiced in the technical aspects of using your gear. This all combines to make you far more capable of recognizing and capturing the best moments and gestures.
The repetition and the self evaluation that comes with it also makes us more thoughtful. We learn to see more when we practice seeing. Our ability to open up and be receptive to the stimulus around us increases.
In one sense the constant repetition of taking a lot of pictures frequently builds the equivalent of muscle memory. It is the same way a good athlete does a lot of practice. Besides their intense training a basketball star may spend hours just shooting baskets. A baseball player may spend hours in the batting cage hitting balls over and over. A soccer star may spend hours just kicking the ball around, kicking goals, taking passes.
Doing this makes them more used to the feeling of the ball or the bat. The pump or the swing of their muscles. The rhythm of the movement. It builds familiarity with the movements they want to do in a game. The motions become routine and automatic.
I believe a similar effect happens to us in our image making. There is great benefit in being out a lot. Taking lots of pictures, even if we throw most of them away. We are practicing the motions of using our camera, framing, composing, executing images. It becomes a smooth and automatic reaction. The camera controls become instinctive. Our fingers learn to find and use them in the dark, without having to think.
In addition, lots of repetitions gives us lots of opportunities for failure and evaluation. When the result we get does not match what we visualize we can ask why. This gives us lots of very personalized feedback to help us improve.
Then when we are taking “serious” pictures, this helps us work smoothly and confidently. We can concentrate more on our creativity and less on the techniques of using the gear. The camera becomes an unconscious extension of our creativity. We are adept at framing great compositions so it flows easily.
This may seem fairly obsessive. Good. I hope so. It is and it should be.
A great athlete or musician, or artist, should be obsessive about their work. It is not a simple 9 to 5 job you can just step away from. It consumes a lot of your thought and time.
In looking at examples of athletes or musicians I find that good ones may come to a point where they can say “I’ve achieved good proficiency in what I do and some fame and recognition; I can settle back and enjoy the good life.” But the top ones are driven, obsessed. They practice hours every day even if they are considered to be the best. They know that they can improve and they are driven by some internal guide to only compare themselves to their own results, not other people.
Your mileage may vary.
I talk a lot about how Jay Maisel does his work. It is because I believe we can learn a lot from him. He is a fantastic artist, an interesting character., and very open about what he does
But Jay is Jay; you are you; I am me. We cannot and should not just try to imitate another artist, no matter how much we admire them. We each are different. Each one has different vision and responds to different stimulus and motivation.
I am not trying to be a (slightly) younger Jay Maisel. Nor am I encouraging you to be that. When you find wisdom, though, it pays to study it. A wise mentor usually has something we can learn and adapt for our own life.
I was reminded of this again recently viewing a class by Jennifer Thorson. She has an interesting class on conceptual fine art photography on CreativeLive. Her work and working style is completely opposed to my thought processes or interests. I would never do the types of work she does. Nevertheless, I learned things from her that I can adapt. Part of my constant practice is to learn from the best.
Practice, practice, practice
One of my key learnings from Jay Maisel is to practice, practice, practice. Have your camera with you all the time, as far as you can. Take lots of shots. Experiment. Try new things all the time. Make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. Get so familiar with your camera that you can do most of the settings automatically.
I try to get out with my camera 4-6 times a week and shoot something each time, usually regardless of the weather. I find that when I have a camera with me, it gives me permission and encouragement to shoot. Has it made me a great artist? Well, that is an evaluation for someone else to make. Just doing these things will not do that by themselves. If you shoot baskets 10 hours a day it will not make you a Michael Jordon. But it helps.
Try it for a few weeks. Get out a lot and take lots of pictures. Try to build muscle memory. Let me know if it helps!
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle