The Boring Secret to Becoming a Great Photographer

The Boring Secret to Becoming a Great Photographer

Few of us will ever become truly great photographers, but giving yourself the best chance of it is still very much worthwhile. There is one method that is certainly a key ingredient, but it's often overlooked because it's not as interesting as buying new equipment or traveling to new places.

I want — no, need — to start this article with two caveats. The first is that I'm not a great photographer. The chances are I never will be either. However, you don't need to be great at something to identify the important factors to getting there, and it's something I have obsessed about both inside and outside of photography. The second is that the title implies a number of things: it's a secret, it's a guaranteed route to greatness, and it's always boring. None of these are necessarily true, but nobody is clicking "the often dull tip that might make you better at photography." Ok, let's get on with it.

I have been obsessed with people who have reached the pinnacle of fields for as long as I can remember. For the last decade, it's something I have sought out in all forms of media, though primarily books. The book I have mentioned a few times, including in my article, "The Books That Can Change the Way You Approach Photography: How Brute Force Can Take You Further Than Talent," is Grit, by Angela Duckworth. The objective of this book — and many others in what is becoming a sort of sub-genre — is unpacking what makes the greats in any field great. Sports are typically the focal point, but music is a close second, and many other disciplines fit the same mold.

There are many influential factors, for example, having a proper mentor. However, one that appears to span every activity one can be great at is also rather mundane.

Consistency: Dull, but Irreplaceable

Consistency, as far as I can tell, is utterly irreplaceable if you're striving to improve at anything, let alone be one of the best. That is, regarding photography, if you're looking to become a better photographer, you need to take pictures regularly. It seems obvious, but so few practice it. What this doesn't mean is taking thousands of pictures one weekend, then not touching your camera for several months before doing it again. Taking even just 10 pictures every day would likely yield greater improvement for the photographer.

If you look at anyone great at just about anything, they practice religiously every single day. The top musicians, even and especially the ones called prodigies, practice for hours daily. The top athletes not only train every day, but it guides their life in all other areas so that they can train that frequently. Writers such as Stephen King — and like his work or not, few have been more successful in the last 100 years — write 10 A4 pages every single day, including Christmas Day and his birthday.

This relentlessness is identified, broadly, as grit by Duckworth, and it appears to be crucial in motivating yourself to maintain consistency in your work. The greatest photographers and artists create work on an industrial scale and do so for decades, and there is no substitute for that. However, consistency is easy in concept but difficult to put into practice. So, here are three ways you can improve how regularly you take images.

Staying Consistent: 365 Challenge

This is perhaps the most obvious of the ways to maintain consistency. The 365 challenge is exactly as it sounds: you must take a picture every day for a year. This sounds easy on the face of it, but there are plenty of days you will not feel like picking up your camera, and it's these days that are the most important. As Chuck Close once said (and incidentally, he did photography too): "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work."

There are plenty of structured 365 challenges you can follow if that interests you, but I'd like to add one important note: you don't need to wait until the 1st of January to start; 365 can start from any day.

Staying Consistent: Always Have Your Camera With You

I walked past this stranger in Tokyo during a festival and, despite not speaking a lick of Japanese, asked if I could take her picture, as I had my camera on me. Glad I did.

Another often overlooked strategy for creating more images more regularly is having your camera with you at all times. This will encourage you to use it whenever you see a potential image or composition present itself, and knowing you can do so means you'll look for them constantly. If your go-to camera and lens are too cumbersome to have on your person, perhaps it's time to look at a walkaround setup. These can be cheaper than you think. Remember, the point is not to create great images every day but to take many images on the path to being able to create great imagery.

Staying Consistent: Themes

An image I have discussed before. Shot for a weekly theme competition, which was "bridges," though there are none near me. I used a macro lens to capture an ornamental bridge on a frosty lawn in panoramic.

There's no getting away from it: some people will not be able to take photographs every day — it just isn't feasible. This is where I'd like to point out that consistency doesn't have to mean creating images every day. Though you will reap more rewards from shooting every day in most cases, committing to shooting every week is still a marked improvement on what most photographers do.

The best way I found to be consistent when busy with things outside of photography is weekly themed challenges. There are many of these dotted around the internet; I chose to be a part of a community that had a theme each week. Its members submitted their entry, with the winner picking the theme for the next week. Not only will this get you shooting more, but obscure themes will put you out of your comfort zone or force you to do some creative thinking just to enter.

Consistent photographers: how do you stay consistent? Photographers who struggle to stay consistent: what is the biggest barrier? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Lead image by Hoover Tung via Pexels.

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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20 Comments

I appreciate the point about consistency. It is tough when you have a day job. I have never done the 365 day challenge because I figured that I would have about 310 bad-to-mediocre photos. Perhaps I will give it a try.

Indeed! To paraphrase my most common advice to my students, it's better to have 310 bad-to-mediocre photos and 55 good-to-great than no bad-to-mediocre photos and 10 or 20 good-to-great. Nobody ever needs to see the mediocre ones and the numbers of good-to-greats will indubitably increase.

When I was younger, and a much better photographer than I am now, I used to shoot several rolls of Velvia of E-100 a week. I was wildly happy if I got 3 or 4 good shots per roll.

Nowadays, I'm old and don't move as well as I used to, so I shoot less, but am looking forward to retirement in a few years so I can devote more time to photography again. I do have to say that modern digital camera let me make a whole new set of mistakes!

Good post as always Robert!

I know when I was first getting in to photography it was a struggle to separate myself from the camera each day. Now that it's a career I look forward to the off days where I can take a stroll and daydream.

The beauty of a smart phone is I can capture what moves me (light and shadow play) without hauling my gear around when I'm hiking in nature. That said, I would love a recommendation on a walkabout camera if you (or anyone else) has one.

This is what micro fourn thirds was made for!

I have a Z50 and with the compact 16-50mm lens, it will easily fit in a jacket pocket or even a cargo pants/shorts pocket. I take this on more hiking focused outings because it is so light, but it is a very good camera.

Like Scott said, an MFT body like a Pen-F and one of the small zooms. I'm also tempted by the Sony RX-100, which looks like a perfect walkaround camera. Tiny, it will fit in a coat pocket and takes pretty good photos within its point and shoot limitations. The lens covers my favorite focal range 24-200 and is fast enough. Just don't look for great bokeh from the one-inch sensor, and the camera is pretty expensive at around $1200.

Being a wildlife photographer who is only interested in photographing certain species of animals, most of which don't live anywhere near me, I don't see how I can develop the type of consistency you are writing about with my preferred subjects. I'm not going to waste my time with House Sparrows every day just so that I can do a wee bit better (and that's debatable) when I finally get to travel to where the Moose and Loons and Rattlesnakes are.

Really? It's debatable if practice makes you better?

Such great advice! It always amazes me how many mistakes you will make do to lack of consistency. This advice was very timely; after a shoot just last week I realized that I did not take all the images I needed to properly blend a panorama. It had been a few months since my last serious outing, and this was a mistake I would not make when am out on a regular basis.

😂

I would have clicked on that, too. There is no need at all to write titles that "grab" a potential reader. Those who are interested will click on an article based on the type of content it contains, regardless of the title. The only think I demand that a title be is accurate. I hold this author in contempt of proper, honest titling.

I am fortunate, I work near many public lands and get an hour lunch . Being a wildlife photographer it works out perfectly. My 90D has over 400k shutter accusations in a little over two years. I bought it because I was worried my 80D with 300k would fail soon. So far they are both still clicking away. I hike my lunch everyday sun, rain, or snow and often after work

Often solutions are so obvious, they get completely overlooked.
There is another connected aspect to this idea. A swimming coach told me 'Practice does not improve your stroke and can make it worse. Rather, effective practice is what you need. You will improve more quickly with a little effective regular practice than hundreds of hours of poor practice.'
I think that applies to photography. One single considered and carefully shot image every day is worth hundreds of 'mud on the wall' images.
Thanks for a valuable article. Now I need to take up the challenge.
P.S. Absolutely love the short DOF Japanese lady's portrait.

Yes! This!! I'm also a swimmer, so can very much relate to the example. I'm also a musician, and a designer. And a photographer, to stay sane 😂

Consistency can just reinforce bad habits as much as help you improve. What it takes is intentional practice -- choosing a single skill and focusing just on that for a number of reps. Maybe it's arm recovery in freestyle swimming. Maybe it's a particularly gnarly Mozart passage for clarinet. Or maybe it's how to use shallow depth of field more effectively.

Picking a skill to work on, and really getting to work on it, actually means improving at a faster rate. It'll make being consistent pay off even more! And it's why the top talent in many performance fields (like music) actually practice for slightly less time than the second tier talent.

Love this Robert K Baggs. David Bayles quoted an interesting study in the book Art and Fear. The study took 2 groups of art students and gave them (I think it was) 2 weeks to complete an assignment. Group 1 had to create pieces and they were graded on volume. If you produced 30-40 pieces you got an A, 20-30 B, 10-20... and so on. The other group was assigned to turn in one piece: the best they could produce, and they had the entire timeframe to pour all their energy into it. The study found that it was a complete blow out- the 1st group (the volume ones) produced significantly better pieces then the 2nd group. I found that fascinating and it's always stuck with me: just keep producing art- that's how you create your best work.

What a great insight that study result is! Thanks for adding that to the discussion - it's a very useful and pertinent insight.

Thank you! I found that extremely insightful. Also, my best friend's husband is the head of R&D for world famous chef Jose Andreas. Every time Jose opens a restaurant, my friend creates the menu. He's designed the food for hundreds of the most loved restaurants across the globe. I once asked him, "Rick, you have to create at the HIGHEST level, and every single time. You can't really fall flat, or have a bad month or a rut. How do you create amazing work when you don't feel inspired, or your mind is tired?" He said, "No matter how I feel, everyday at 9 o'clock, I leave my phone in the office and I go in the kitchen with my notebook and cook until noon. Everyday. It doesn't matter what I make or how good or bad it is, as long as I am in there undistracted cooking. With all that time cooking, I always end up finding my way to the recipes." I thought that was brilliant. Just create. Without being overly hard on the judgment. Some will be great. Some will fail. Some will be mediocre. But with that level of volume there are always many great ones.

Excellent article!! I am going to join the 365 challenge starting today! The group you mention for themes, is that a public or private group? If it's public can you post a link?