Practice, Practice, Practice

How do you get good at anything? Practice. Does it apply to art? Yes, practice. When? Now.

Seemingly it is a very simple thing, but constant practice trains your muscles and your brain. It refines your skill and makes your decisions automatic. It improves your concentration and your vision.

The 10,000 hour rule

You can learn to do many things pretty well with about 40 hours of work. Yet it is said that to become great at something takes 10,000 hours of practice. Now realistically, few people will put in 10,000 hours on anything (except maybe watching TV). That is 5 years of doing nothing else except practicing your craft for 40 hours a week. This is the level of effort required to become the level of a Michael Jordon or Tiger Woods. But isn’t that the level we aspire to as artists? I do.

That seems an unrealistically high standard. But in most unrealistic situations, you do what you can. Putting in the time consistently is key. A good discipline is to make yourself get out with your camera every day. Having it in your hand makes it comfortable. It teaches you to see more, observe. You will not make a great image every day. That is not the point. The point is to improve.

“The discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience.”

Jascha Heifetz, renowned violinist

One of my exercises is to practice street photography a few times a week. I touched on this in my article on hunting images. It gives great practice in consciousness, fast reflexes, anticipation, using your camera with little thought. Most of my work is not street photography, but this is great skill development for everything else I do.

Carry a camera

It is hard to practice if you don’t have your tools. Not impossible, just hard. Going to the trouble of having your camera with you provides an important discipline. It is intentional. You have consciously committed to making images. It gives you permission (in your mind) to look for and take pictures. It makes you aware and on the prowl.

The great Wayne Gretzsky famously said “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” This is true of photography, not just hockey. When you are carrying your camera, make yourself stop and capture interesting scenes when you see them. As I noted in a another post, it won’t be there tomorrow.

Examine, improve

The purpose of doing this practice is to improve. It has been said that in 20 years, some people get 20 years of experience and some people have 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. Doing the same thing over and over without improving is very sad.

Unless you have someone you trust to critique your work frequently, you have to learn to do it yourself. Be honest with yourself. And brutal. Did that work? Was it what you wanted? Is it technically perfect? Was the composition effective? And one of the hardest to judge objectively: is it actually a great picture?

I used the 10,000 hour rule to give a sense of how long it takes to become an expert, but it is well known that the so called rule is flawed. People often practice for 10,000 hours or more but remain mediocre. Why? They are not learning from their mistakes! They get 1 year of experience 20 times. Don’t make the mistake of not learning from your mistakes.

Be brutal on yourself. Better you than other people. The reality is most of your shots will not be very good. Most of mine are not. That’s OK. You have to get a lot of bad shots out of your system before you can start making better ones consistently. Be honest with yourself. When a frame just doesn’t work, examine it carefully. Understand why. What can you learn from it? A bad shot may lead you to a new understanding and be more valuable than a good shot that doesn’t teach you anything.

The few, the proud

The legendary Ansel Adams said “A photographer does well to get a dozen first-quality shots a year.” Technology has changed a lot and it doesn’t take much time or cost to shoot a lot of digital frames. But how many of yours are really great? Quantity is not quality.

I’ll be candid, looking at my digital collection only, less than 2% of my shots are “gallery quality”. Two out of 100. Is that discouraging? No, in a weird way it is empowering. Based on Adam’s experience I am encouraged to be getting that many. Or I could be delusional. Of course I keep a lot more than that for various reasons. And since I like to do collages I have a lot that are not stand alone but would be excellent material for constructing new composites.

Not the outcome

This leads to the final point for this post. When I am practicing, I need to concentrate on process, not outcome. I am learning, doing repetitions, trying experiments, getting more familiar with my equipment. This improves me over time and sharpens my eye. If I get a “keeper” during practice that is just a happy accident.

Practice daily and plan to throw almost all of it away. It is worth it.

Do you have a regular practice regime? Has it helped? Let me know!

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