How Many Pictures Do You Shoot?

Leading lines

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

Get Out and Take Pictures

Snowy Colorado Mountains

The image above was taken on a beautiful Colorado afternoon in the mountains. It was 1 degree F, snowing, and windy, about a foot of fresh snow. Awesome! Except for the wind. Still, an excellent opportunity to get out and take pictures!

This is a theme I keep coming back to. You don’t improve your technique or vision by sitting around thinking about it. You have to take pictures. And evaluate them and throw most away. Daily should be a goal. Up to a point the weather shouldn’t matter.

My inspiration comes mostly from the outdoors, so that is what I will talk about. If you do your work in the studio and that is where you get your best, most creative ideas, great for you. I will be outside taking my inspiration from the world around me and getting exercise, fresh air, vitamine D, etc.

Shoot in these conditions

Cloudy day? GREAT. Use that giant soft box to look for those soft light images you have been wanting to take. And if it is scattered, broken clouds that is great too. It gives much more interest to the sky.

Sunny? GREAT. Use it. In Colorado, where I am most of the time, the sun is harsh and clear, not filtered through a lot of atmosphere. Conventional wisdom is that you can’t take outdoor images during the middle of the day when the sun is overhead. I like to challenge that. It is a good creative exercise.

Raining? GREAT. Unless it is a thunderstorm or really pouring down pack up a minimal set of gear and get out. Your camera is probably more water resistant than you think. Just keep it covered as much as possible and wipe it down frequently. And it won’t hurt you to get wet.

Snowing? GREAT. See above. I love good snowy pictures. I am amazed at the range of moods I can find.

Fog? GREAT. I love it. I don’t get nearly as much practice with this as many people do. It is too dry here. But fog is great for moody, minimalistic compositions. And the junk areas you pass by every day take on a whole new interest when blurred by the fog.

Cold? GREAT. Bundle up and get outside. Take an extra battery, because your camera battery is not as robust as you are. Other than the battery, your camera is pretty tough. I have a beard and I sometimes come back with my beard completely caked with ice. You warm up.

Hot? GREAT. For me personally, this is one of the conditions I like least. I grew up in the southern USA. Summer days could be 110 F. I hated it and moved away when I could. Still, I challenge myself to go out almost every day in the summer. (It’s usually only in the 90’s here)

Practice leads to…

You get the idea. If you see a dedicated athlete, musician, writer, teacher, engineer, whatever, how do they get better? They practice. Every day. Obsessively. That is not all they do, but the good ones all do it.

That basketball player may spend hours shooting free throws or practicing layups. That is not playing a game. But the point is it is building the reflexes and the muscle memory that will be used in the game. Making the moves automatic.

When we are out for our daily practice do not have the attitude that every image has to be great. They won’t be. Mine are not even if I am trying to shoot good ones. Practice is to build skill. Plan on throwing most away.

And the process lets us evaluate what we are doing. We can think more about what we like and what we will avoid. We see what works for us and what does not. This leads to helping us to perfect our style.

I have mentioned before that one of my heroes is Jay Maisel. I think he is in his 80’s, but I believe he still goes out walking every day looking for pictures. He’s starting to get pretty good. πŸ™‚


Have you heard music or other things referred to as a “discipline”? It is a very appropriate term. To build skill you must discipline yourself. The repetition, the striving to improve each time helps you grow into your skill.

Photography is no different. Constant practice helps us improve our skills. Technical decisions become quick and effortless. We learn to more easily analyze a scene and hone in on the part that is important to us. Most important, we learn what we want to bring to our images.

Plan on throwing most of your practice away. The real benefit of these images if learning.

Have you tried this? Do you agree? Let me know.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Girl and Chandeliere

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.

β€œThe 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!