The More You Shoot, the Better You Become

One of the most frustrating feelings for any artist is when there is a disparity between your initial creative idea and the final result—when the result isn’t able to convey the vision you tried to express. Talking in photographic terms, it’s the disappointment between the image your thought you got and the one you see on your computer. Quite often the reason for the disparity is lack of experience. The more experienced you become the smaller this gap between vision and result will end up being. It simply takes a while to get better, and there is no other way around it than having to fight your way through it.

According to Henri Cartier-Bresson «your first 10,000 photographs are your worst». When we take into consideration that he used a film-based camera, inherently much slower than today’s digital cameras, maybe we need to update his quote to your first 100,000 photographs. Or maybe even better to use the so-called 10,000-Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book Outliers. The rule basically says that if you do anything for 10,000 hours you will become an expert at that task. Put in a different, simpler and maybe more obvious way; it comes down to the fact that—as a photographer—the more you shoot, the better you become. As simple as that.

Perhaps the ultimate shooter when it comes to volume was street photographer Garry Winogrand. When he died of cancer at the age of 56 in 1984, he left behind 2,500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35 mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of developed but not contact-printed film, and another 3,000 apparently untouched, unedited contact sheets. Colleagues, students, and friends talked about him as an obsessive picture-taking machine. We can all learn from his industrious approach to photography. If we want to become good at what we do, we need to put in enough hours photographing. With enough practise comes confidence, skills and mastery.

If we want to excel as artist we need to do the work, we need to be working continuously over a long period of time. As I wrote in my post Creativity is Work (back in 2011): «You can talk or think all day about photography and creativity, but if you don’t actually perform, nothing will ever come out of your desire to express yourself». Are you willing to do the work necessary to become the photographer that resides in you—or whatever art form you are working with?

83 thoughts on “The More You Shoot, the Better You Become

  1. I think I did 10,000 hours when I was younger, doing (nearly) the same things all the time….having said that, my composition improved. But it’s only in more recent years that I have tried to stretch myself, and of course, we always keep learning!

  2. I believe I reached that mark as well as a young girl…but as Sue says, in recent years I too have changed. We always learn, and most of us go from the documentary phase to a more expressive one. When it comes to writing and painting as well. But most of us have to choose…there is no time to “excel” in all art forms.

  3. Detta kom som så ofta mycket lämpligt Otto, har precis plockat fram vidvinkelobjektiven och konstaterat att det är omöjligt för mig att “knäcka den nöten”. Just nu blir jag bara sämre ju mer jag fotar med dessa objektiv. 🙂

      1. Tack Otto, tar det i omgångar och fotar annat mellan varven för att behålla skaparglädjen.
        Ha det så gott! 🙂

  4. I look at my images from 3 years ago, and think “I wasn’t very good back then.” I look at what I take now and I see a difference for sure. I shoot a lot, and I am certainly more aware of what I’m actually shooting now.

    1. This is what we all hope for, that pictures taken today will be better than those taken some time ago. It’s not always the case, some times I feel I am going backwards, but then suddenly there is a jump in the right direction.

  5. So true Otto, practice is a must! than practice and practice again 🙂 of course you need dedication, you must feel the desire, the need to improve your skill and the joy and, this is very important the satisfaction when you get the results you were looking for.
    PS: but sometimes we are lazy…myself included 🙂

  6. I like to think we practice until the day we die. If we reached perfection there is nothing to look forward to. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone took the time to process and print all those photos left behind by Garry Winogrand? It would make for an interesting show.

    1. I agree, one can only hope that someone one day will take the necessary time and commitment to edit and print those images of Winogrand. And, yes, the day we stop yearning for more knowledge and think we have learned what is, that is the day we may just stop doing anything more. 🙂

  7. Experience is a great teacher, as long as it’s done with an eye towards improvement. I think it goes beyond the camera, and into the (digital) darkroom as well.

  8. I haven’t come near the mark as yet, though judging by my “pics” folder one would think so . Thank you for the wonderful text and encouragement Otto.

  9. I am struggling with what may be considered the opposite problem to not realizing my vision in the downloaded photograph. If I understand what Ansel Adams said about visualizing, it is that photographers must know exactly what they are going to get before they release the shutter. The vision must come first. In the case of the photo on my blog post of July 22, I did not visualize what I got. The interesting colorful reflections in the metal-sided building were an artifact (maybe I could call it a gift) of exposure and processing. When I saw the image after downloading, the color reflections fit my aesthetics and so I didn’t try to remove them. My “vision” came after the fact. The effect might be considered as luck. What do you think: does this kind of luck have a legitimate place in photography?

    1. Ansel Adams was indeed an avid believer in pre-visualization. But I think it’s only one way to approach the photographic process. Personally, I never fully know how a photo will turn out after it’s been through the whole post-processing before afterwards. I work with a more intuitive approach during the actual capture. And to answer your question, yes, luck has always a legitimate place. You create your own luck. Although I am not sure that what you refer to here is necessarily luck. It sounds more like an intuitive or unconscious use of vision.

  10. Yes, I think this should be about anything we do and it goes a long the same line of “practice”, “practice”, “practice”… I’ve heard the mark before but I’ve not thought of the number was for film time. You are right, the digital age would be at least 10 x as much.. That is a lot of work!

  11. yes, but more than that. haven’t you ever hit a brick wall with a scene that looks magnificent to the eye, but the frame just doesn’t satisfy no matter how many times you retake the photo ? i certainly have. that’s when i learned, “not everything was meant to be photographed. some things are just meant to be enjoyed”.

    certainly love this scene you’ve captured through the filtering light and smoke

    1. Oh. I have indeed experienced the same. And I think it is for that purpose so we don’t forget to actually be with the experience and not always having to photograph it for it to be real.

  12. There is a corollary to Bresson’s statement, a more universal rule called Sturgeon’s Law (Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer): “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” I believe this is true even after the first 10K photos and spans the entire creative universe and includes writing, painting and photography.

  13. Great article, Otto, and true for many art forms. I’ve written a lot of bad music and killed many plants; it’s the only way to learn and to get closer to the essence of what you are seeking to create. The more I photograph, the more I learn to see.

  14. I smiled at your image of the game-players. In Liberia, it was called waari, or mankala, and I spent many, many hours trying to learn the game. I probably didn’t put in 10,000 hours, but eventually, I could win a game now and then. And that’s part of the point, too. Once I won, I didn’t stop playing, just as I don’t stop taking photos once I’ve achieved one that feels “perfect.” Practice can make perfect, but it’s a perfection that always points forward, to the next perfection to come.

    1. There is no such thing as absolute perfection, is there… As for mankala, I never learned and never understood the game, although it’s been explained to me a couple of times. 🙂

  15. Thanks for the Pep post, Otto. I *have* to get my a** up now and go out, trying to train my gaze and prying eyes. Even after 10 years of photoblogging there’s new things to see and to learn.

  16. Inspiring post and great comments as always, Otto. I absolutely agree with you, it’s a constant process of learning and improving ones photography and it doesn’t work without practising.
    «You can talk or think all day about photography and creativity, but if you don’t actually perform, nothing will ever come out of your desire to express yourself». It’s the post-processing procedure that I find tiresome. I love being out with my camera, but I need to develop more discipline to invest just as much time developing the images.

    1. When I had to work in the darkroom I didn’t enjoy the post-processing very much. But now in the digital era, it’s all fun – for me. 🙂 At the same time I see more and more over-processed photos due to all the possibilities, so I think doing less post can be a good thing.

  17. Yes, I absolutely agree. As one continues to view and compose their universe over and over and over, it certainly continues to add to one’s ability to see, really see in new ways.

  18. in a word or two, ‘no, i’m not willing… not anymore’… i have fun taking bad photographs, and I spent many years in the past ‘getting better’… but now? if i’m going to devote my life energy to something, it will be the age old search for God’s thoughts… as Einstein said ‘the rest are details’

  19. I totally agree with the views you express,Otto, and note particularly your comment about ‘film’ hours and ‘digital’ hours. I sometimes feel that the more expensive film days encouraged greater preparatory thinking – choice of view point, composition etc. The bonus with the digital camera is that it provides opportunity for experimentation at the time of shooting. We can experiment with different angles. composition etc at little cost. But learning only takes place when we critically examine what we have taken.

    1. There is learning in just doing something a lot, but, of course the yield will be significantly better if one critically evaluate the process and the result. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Louis.

  20. It wasn’t until I retired that I had the time to put in the work to shoot the volume of images that enabled me to really grow as a photographer. I think that the people who manage to excel as photographers while holding down a full-time job are remarkable people.

    1. It does take a lot of work to get to that higher level. One could say being a professional photographer gives the benefit of photographing in work hours. On the other hand a professional photographer often has to shoot somebody else’s idea and not his or her.

  21. I love the way your image here conveys your message twice – one can imagine the men have played a lot and may be experts – at least, they’re not sitting around talking about the game. And your photogrpah has such superb handling of light and shadow, composition – everything! So that proves your point as well.

  22. I am starting as a beginner tomorrow, I think the satisfaction of obtaining the perfect image will be worth the hours working for it! Thank you for the insight, nothing good comes easy. Love the photo choice.

    1. Oh, I think some good things come easy, but it most cases you need to work it. But you are right, the whole process of getting good is worthwhile. Thanks for visiting and commenting.

  23. I absolutely agree it takes time and effort to become skilled at your craft, and I think we’re willing to put in that time when we love what we’re doing. In between all that effort, we get to take time out to be inspired by the work of others, and I always enjoy seeing your images.

  24. Gosh! So true, lolll! I discovered a passion for photography through the photo shooting process of our Etsy shop and I’m starting from scratch, one tiny step at the time, taking 1000 pics in different angles, trying to understand lighting, shadows, zooming, textures, everything! It’s hard, but it’s a wonderful learning process…

  25. Really great photo – so much going on there, and the clarity of the ‘board’ as well as the wisps of smoke, the light and shadow on the people — really nice – it tells many stories.

    I continue to take photos of just that right moment when the light/shadow brings an almost-spiritual presence to a person’s face — yet it’s rarely captured. Perhaps part is that they freeze, hold their breath, suck in the torso or hold up their chin – – – but other times they are relaxed and it still becomes a dud…..

    Keep practicing, grasshopper!

  26. Thank you for liking my post on the Transit Museum and yes, the more you shoot, the better your pictures are. I never thought that the first 10,000 pics you take are your worst. Wow. That’s an awful lot of pictures. I’m going to try to keep getting better and better. Not for nothing, but I would NEVER guess that you had ever taken a bad picture . Happy travels

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