Industry icons like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz often look to us plebs like they’ve been blessed by the photography gods with talent the rest of us can only dream about, yet their success stories often include incessant practice, unwavering determination, apprenticeships, and lucky breaks. What separates those of us at the bottom from the select few at the top? And, if you want to be front and center stage, how do you get there?
We often hear that magical phrase: “The only way to get better at photography is to shoot as often as possible.” But is that true? Not entirely, at least not according to Anders Ericsson, professor of psychology at Florida State University. He’s spent 30 years researching and studying peak human performance, and his conclusion is that “deliberate practice” and not "talent" is the key to unlocking your full performance potential.
What Ericsson calls deliberate practice isn’t merely repetition, but undertaking challenging practice that forces someone outside their comfort zone and is focused on a specific, measurable area of improvement. According to a paper published by Ericsson and his colleagues in 1993, the amount of deliberate practice required to become an expert is approximately 10,000 hours worth. This “10,000-hour rule” was also used by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book, “Outliers,” as one of the common factors of success in unusually successful people such as Bill Gates.
According to Gladwell, though, it isn’t deliberate practice alone that indicates whether or not someone becomes a raving success. In “Outliers,” Gladwell concludes that outrageous success stories are built like a spiders web, comprised of multiple strands to form a full picture. Heritage, birth year, ethnicity, opportunity, social bias, luck, and a huge number of other factors work together with deliberate practice to complete the full picture of success.
So, what does a photographer do if their dream is to become not only an expert but an outlier? Much of what Gladwell asserts comprises success stories lies in factors beyond the control of the average person. After all, there isn’t much one can do about the state of the technology industry when they’re born. Deliberate practice, however, is something most photographers are capable of.
To engage in deliberate practice and take the first step on the road to becoming an expert, there are several things the average photographer can do.
Find a Teacher
Finding a teacher to guide the practices is one of the aspects Ericsson considers vitally important. While apprenticing was standard practice for years, it has fallen out of vogue for most photographers, and this could be to the detriment of those seeking expertise. While there are countless sources of information available, direct feedback from an experienced eye can be an invaluable part of learning where one is falling short. While finding a mentor may not be possible for every photographer, or even always desirable, direct 1-on-1 mentoring is almost guaranteed to produce better, faster, and more consistent results than trying to go it alone.
Set Incremental Goals
Incremental goal setting is about reaching realistic goals, like signposts, on the journey toward expertise. Ten thousand hours is a long time, and if the goals are too distant or unreachable, a photographer can quickly become disenfranchised and frustrated, which can put the entire scheme in jeopardy. If a goal is attainable, however, those small successes will serve as proof of capability, and allow momentum to build so that expertise doesn’t feel like a pie in the sky. The goal may be as simple as nailing manual exposure consistently, or as complex as creating visually striking lighting setups for groups of people.
Practice Specific Skills and Techniques
The difference between common practice and deliberate practice, as Ericsson proposes, is that deliberate practice focuses on a single technique or skill that can be measured to show progress. There are several areas of skill that can be broken down for photographers to use as a focus during deliberate practice, such as composition, posing, or lighting, and those categories can be further broken down into subcategories like asymmetric composition, bridal posing, and hard natural light. The smaller the category, the more direct the practice. Choosing one of these areas to perfect will give the photographer the chance to build measurable skills that can then be compared to past work so that progress becomes apparent.
Make it Uncomfortable
In order for a deliberate practice to be effective, it cannot be merely a repetition of an activity the photographer already finds comfortable. A strobe photographer might be confident getting a great shot as long as they’ve got a flash on board, but continuing to repeat past successes doesn’t allow for growth. Growth only comes through discomfort, and expertise can only be reached when the photographer is pushed beyond their current capabilities. To reach expertise, the comfort zone must be left behind.
Be Prepared for the Long Haul
Becoming an expert photographer is not a goal for the faint of heart. This is a task that doesn’t simply require 10 years or 10,000 hours, but 10 years of determined, focused practice, which may mean grueling hours, thankless jobs, failure after failure, and times when success seems so far away as renders the end goal hopeless. To become an expert photographer requires grit, and a determination to go the distance despite the difficulties. According to Ericsson, “We have shown that expert performance is acquired slowly over a very long time as a result of practice and that the highest levels of performance and achievement appear to require at least around 10 years of intense prior preparation.”
While the goal is formidable, expertise is achievable with enough persistence. Becoming an “outlier” though, in the sense Gladwell uses the word, is a much more nebulous goal that requires a mixture of hard work and chance. Since chance is no man’s mistress, it may be better not to chase after fame and fortune and aim at expertise instead, which is at least a target that can be hit. One of the benefits of becoming an expert may turn out to be crowds of fans or maybe simply a very successful career any photographer would be proud of. In either case, the benefits of becoming an expert will belong entirely to the photographer who dares to try.