How Long Will It Take You to Master Photography? (Part 2)

How Long Will It Take You to Master Photography? (Part 2)

Last week, we addressed the concept of mastery in photography. Now that we've touched on the basics of photography history and education, let's dive deeper into more tangible elements of this subject.

Defining "Mastery"

Last week, in part one of this article, we established that you need a solid plan to become a professional photographer, and that plan doesn't necessarily involve college education. The article elicited thoughtful responses from Fstoppers users in the comments section. Many of them questioned whether mastery of photography can ever be achieved.

The general consensus seemed to be that "mastery" is an elusive goal that most people practicing a highly complex craft such as photography can only strive for, never achieve. Some photographers commit their entire lives to becoming excellent at just one subject matter, only to retire feeling the weight of unlearned skills.

Can most people accurately judge their own skills? I’d say most of us can not. The perception of skill can be inflated by simple admiration. Intermediate shooters often look at a more seasoned photographer's work and simply decide that that shooter has "mastered their craft." This can lead to compliments or jealously, but the wisest of seasoned photographers tend to take such valuations in stride. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

Unless you do something beyond what you already mastered, you will never grow.

The "expert" tends to be humble and hungry for more knowledge. Aware that technology is always changing, they can run the risk of becoming frustrated and dropping out or keep up with new techniques and processing practices as they emerge. And if they're smart, they'll take critiques from their peers, years after most people would stop paying attention to feedback on their own work.

Critique: Giving and Receiving

If you've read this past Fstoppers article of mine, you know how much I value the photography critique process. Feedback via critique can come in the form of artistic or technical review. Both are important for the improvement of your work.

From beginner to expert, it's crucial for photographers to always be receptive to outside opinion and feedback on their work. Although unsolicited feedback can be jarring and even confusing (as is more often the case when the source is online), experts need to be open to criticism as well. When they aren't, they might over the course of many years fall into bad habits or lazy processing techniques without even realizing it.

Take, for instance, an architectural photographer who has spent a decade honing her or his craft. In the beginning of her photographing interiors, she uses her camera's Live View function and a magnifying loupe on her display to make sure that pin-point focus is achieved at the correct depth of the room. Her images are always sharp, and no client ever complains. As she becomes more confident in her results, she eventually stops using the loupe. Why bother when it works out with the bare eye? She has become so busy that shortcuts begin to seep into her practice. And she's fine with that, as long as she believes they don’t affect image quality.

After a few years, she slowly phases out much of her mid-shoot focus checks. One day, a client commissions a shoot from her, and from there, enlarges a large-scale print for a trade booth display. Both parties are upset to discover that the image isn’t nearly as sharp as it needs to be. How could such an experienced photographer let such a crucial step slip?

Many of us photographers have unwittingly wandered into a blunder of this type. A photography lover with decades of experience could spend a whole year excitedly preparing to photograph a total solar eclipse, but in the excitement, might forget to remove the lens cap or bring the monopod out in the field. How long will you need to practice in order to avoid such oversights? For all of us, the likeliest answer is: just keep practicing, keep trying to cut down mistakes.

My live music photography: 2006 and now

One business guru, however, thinks he has the answer: 10,000 hours.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

The 10,000-Hour "Rule" was developed by K Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist, later brought into the modern mainstream by Malcolm Gladwell, a well-known business development author and public speaker.

The basic principle is: to achieve excellence in any category, it takes roughly 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. To be specific, those hours should constitute productive, applicable practice that produces learning, as opposed to aimless noodling. So, instead of accumulating 10,000 hours of just shooting the same squirrel on a branch outside your window, you spend this time soaking in and applying practical lessons from nature photographers who can sell a squirrel photo like it's nobody's business.

This rule of thumb theoretically applies to to all crafts, which might also be considered a weakness of the rule. Not every craft or hobby takes 10,000 hours to master or even take half of that. The other issue with this theory is that, as we’ve discussed, “mastery” is a slippery concept. The 10,000-Hour Rule tries to quantify an elusive goal.

But the 10,000-Hour Rule does provide one dramatic lesson: mastering anything requires enormous commitment, and photography is no exception. How would Gladwell’s rule translate to the achievement of excellence in photography? Something like 14-hour workdays every day for two years! (Not recommended.)

My approach to architectural photography: 2009 and now

Here’s another route, a special one.

One Route to Mastery: Specialize

Instead of the impossible challenge of becoming a master of the entire photographic world, consider taking some deep breaths, then picking one genre of photography to specialize in. You’ll still have your “crossover” assets: the tricks and techniques you’ve learned from other genres. But specializing provides you the opportunity to stand out and market yourself directly to a target audience.

Anyone who has taken Marketing 101 knows that specializing is the most effective strategy to market a business, for targeting, anyway. The photographer who can target clients in a specific industry and provide top-quality images will often fare better than a photographer with no identified target market, one who is simply doing his best at shooting in many different styles. That doesn't mean you can't diversify, but you should eventually become proficient at shooting at least one genre.

It's unlikely that any photographer has fully mastered every genre of shooting at the level of the top experts in any given niche. Sure, some can shoot well across the board; many versatile, experienced photographers hop around between excellent portrait, photography, architectural, compositing work on a daily basis. But for one person to know all the shooting, processing techniques, and tricks for every genre would require an almost supernatural synthesis of expertise, experience, hard work, and luck.

Genre specialization might strike you as a narrowing of your talents and ambition. But it can also be a pragmatic concentration of your talents.


So how long does photographic mastery really take? Fstoppers user John Ellingson says:

Forever... I'm 77. I've been doing this for at least 65 year both professionally and as an amateur. Ansel Adams had some of my work in his personal collection. I shoot a couple of thousand images a week (mostly at high shutter rates). I have patents in digital imaging. I'm still learning and hoping one day to master photography, but realistically know it will never happen, and that is a good thing.

Mr. Ellingson continues to travel the path that pursues continual improvement, mindful of professional pride and humility.

Granting the impossibility of ever wholly “mastering” photography, let’s review the factors that can improve your continual improvement:

  • The time you have available to learn.
  • The rate at which you learn and practice new skills (with carefully self-taught skills being the fastest route).
  • Willingness to receive feedback and continue learning.
  • Resources available to you (internet, books, tutorials, peers).
  • Low on the list, but a factor: monetary resources to acquire the gear and education needed.
  • Specializing in a single area.

Have we missed any important factors in this lifelong process? Feel free to comment or add any additional points in the comments section below.

Scott Mason's picture

Scott Mason is a commercial photographer in Austin specializing in architectural imaging.

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Opinion: Especially in the age of digital photography. Things are forever changing. The moment you feel like you've "mastered" photography, you've begun falling behind.

I have no clue what you're trying to say but I like your enthusiasm.

Read part one. I think I'm a master now. This is just icing on the cake.

I wish it was as easy as reading articles!

First paragraph, my friend :)