A question I often see from eager young space cadets who want to take over the world in photography is “What do I need to do to be good in photography?” or “How do I become a good photographer?” or “How do I get to be the best photographer?”
Now this is a very valid question. And fortunately, we have an answer. Can you get good in this beguiling medium if you are willing to do the following.
1 – Put down the camera and pick up a book.
Ooh, people hate it when I say this, but its true. Photography is a theoretical medium, and the sooner you learn the theory, the easier it will be to get right. Many people accuse me of being a grumpy old man (which is false, I’m merely a middle-aged man), and they say “shoot until you figure it out”. While I’m sure this technique can work, it is a highly inefficient method of learning. Imagine going to school, ending up in an empty science lab with no teachers or handbooks, and Richard Feynman comes in, scoffs at your ignorance and says “Go experiment until you figure it out”. You’re not going to do well, and if you are truly unlucky, blow up the classroom. Luckily photography is not as difficult (or as dramatic) as theoretical chemistry, it still makes sense to know what you are doing before you do it. (It does not have to be my book, but it will help both of us if it is…)
2- Study the masters
You can never be good unless you know what “good” is. If you have never seen anyone running the Olympic 100 meters, you would assume your best time of 26 seconds was pretty darn fast. But once you see Usain Bolt bolt, you realise you have a lot of catching up to do. This is why you should study the masters. And when I say study, I mean study, not just merely look at them. If you study the masters, examine at how they use light, composition, highlight and shadow, really try to understand their work, you will realise what you need to do in order to become good in photography yourself. And who are the masters? I do not know. I only know who MY masters are. You need to find your masters for yourself. Pop into book stores or fashion or nature magazines, hit the Google, find out.
3 – 10,000 hours.
Malcolm Gladwell said that success in any field is practicing—in the correct way—for at least 10,000 hours. If you practice, correctly, for eight hours a day, seven days a week, it will take you five years to become “good”. It is not a quick process, and there are no shortcuts. (By picking up a book and studying masters, you eliminate the chances of doubling that 10,000 hours). Legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”. He was not wrong, except he worked in film. In the digital age, ad another zero to that, maybe two. You will need to take at least 100,000 bad photos, and learn form each and every one of them as to why they are bad, before you will consistently become “good”.
4 – Practice.
A reporter asked legendary Spanish cellist Pablo Casals why he keeps practicing 4-5 hours per day. His answer: “Because I think I’m making progress”. He was 81 when he said this, and already received the Honour of Charles III from the Queen of Spain when he was a mere 21 years of age. Don’t think you will ever need to stop practicing. Photography is not like a bicycle where you never forget. If you do not practice, you will lose it.
5 – You cannot be the best.
Ansel Adams already has that title. (part of your 10,000 hours is learning why Ansel Adams has this title)
If this list intimidates you, then please forget your dreams of becoming a good photographer. Take snapshots and make memories and be happy. But if you are willing to put in the hard yards, maybe, just maybe, you will get somewhere. I’ve been doing this for 25 years – I may just begin to know what I’m doing in the next few years.