Your First 10,000 Photographs Are Your Worst

Your First 10,000 Photographs Are Your Worst

If you are first starting in photography, this quote by the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson might seem outrageous or overly harsh. But as someone who has taken at least 10,000 photos, I can tell you that there is a lot of truth to this, and more importantly, this idea can be freeing.

It is intimidating for those, myself included, who always want or expect themselves to be fairly good at something right off the bat. When I’m not good at something, I tend to question whether I should do it or not. Luckily for me, I suffered under the delusion that I was good at photography many years ago when I started. I felt like I might have a natural propensity for it, and I was encouraged by others to keep going. In retrospect, looking back at those photos, there are not all that many that are very good to me. But now, I know that’s not the point. The point is that I was learning and growing. I was developing my ability to see the world through my camera.

Perhaps those first 10,000 shots are not all my worst, but I've certainly developed a greater ability to produce "keepers" when I go out and shoot, and those images also tend to be better shot.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

In a recent Fundamentals of Photography class that I teach, I spoke to my students about a very similar idea to the one presented by Cartier-Bresson. It’s something called the 10,000-hour rule. Much has already been posted and said on this topic, so I suggest you search it out on YouTube. The rule, in essence, states that you are not likely to be very good at anything until after the first 10,000 hours spent doing it. There are, of course, examples of child prodigies and people who seem to have a high degree of natural talent, but when you look closer, they've all put in lots of hard work, and their best usually doesn't occur until after a substantial amount of time spent. Maybe their best is better than you or I could do, so we think that it just came easily for them. I would say that it does not. The whole idea of an overnight sensation is highly overrated and is likely mostly an urban myth.

It's easy to try to discount the rule and look for the exceptions. But in the competitive world of photography, if you are wanting to get ahead, the best bet is to assume that you are not that exception. It will just take some time and work to get where you want to go. It doesn’t mean you can’t be successful; you may just have to work a bit harder at it than the gifted person.

An earlier landscape image of mine, taken on medium format film at the Garden of the Gods park.

This is the part where this whole idea can be freeing. For myself, those 10,000 hours spent behind the camera and those more than 10,000 photos taken have helped me be where I am today and where I am much more confident and at home with my camera. I have been able to produce images people want to buy. I've been able to earn my living with a camera for several years, and I’ve also had the opportunity to teach others some of the things that will help them hopefully do the same. 

There’s always more to learn, and I know that I will never completely arrive. I had always imagined myself as someone who picked things up quickly. And while there may have been some truth to that, the thing I’ve discovered over time is that thanks to that work that I’ve done thus far, I can now make better use of whatever natural talents that I have. Being a quick study can only take you so far.

An early "keeper" from the Olympic Rainforest. Shot on medium format film.

So, if you are someone who is just starting in photography, take heart. You don’t have to expect to be great, or even very good, right off the bat. It’s a learning process, and you are still gaining that experience and probably still working on those first 10,000 photos. You are free to make mistakes and even fall flat on your face. You’re free to have your work not be all that great. Every photo that you take is just adding to your experience, and it’s another photo closer to getting those first 10k under your belt.

The nice thing about learning photography in this day and age is that it will probably take you far less time to take those 10,000 photos than it did me with all of the films that I shot at 36 or 24 exposures at a time. Doing the math, this is somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 rolls of film, more than that if you count all the medium format rolls. You can also throw in quite a few sheets of 4x5 to boot. Plus, learning today, you get instant feedback on your rear LCD screen while you are still at that location instead of having to wait for your film to be processed at the lab.

Our society can tend to put a premium on talent. Some of us may even have been discouraged from pursuing certain careers in life because we seemed to lack that natural talent. And while there certainly is a place for natural talent, you can also get where you want to go with time, experience, and a desire to learn. So, get out there and shoot.

Casey Chinn's picture

Casey Chinn is a landscape photographer based in Colorado Springs, CO. He leads workshops geared at helping beginning photographers understand the medium, and helping more experienced photographers develop their potential. He also teaches various photography classes at Pikes Peak Community College.

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Remember that HCB was shooting 12-shot film packs so the 10,000 images is way more of an investment in time (and money) than it is today. These days, I suspect HCB would say your first 50,000 images are your worst - possibly more.

Back in my film days, I remember having a running tally of how many pictures, or rolls, I'd take in a day. Now, sometimes I'll go out and see just how long it takes to fill up a memory card.

The key is actually *wanting* to learn. If you have that much, it's a joy. Frustrating at times, sure. But that desire to be better is the real motivation. It's not like Avedon didn't take a crappy photo from time to time even later in life.

So true.

I don’t think my first 10,000 photos were my worst. I still enjoy looking at my older work and find it quite good.