« How Do You Translate Three Million Words to Photography? | Main | Large Format Online, c. 2019 »

Saturday, 06 July 2019


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

"My gut feeling, however, is that far too many photographers these days have fallen into the trap of claiming accomplishment, involvement, and even prestige in terms of pure numbers."
I don't think I've ever seen that claim made. Perhaps I hang out with the wrong people.

Even in the analog days, there was always a contingent that believed- if you can't take good pictures, take lots!

I think shooting thousands of photos on a vacation is probably a failure. I think it means you have no clear idea of what you want to do and just take the splatter approach.

I think that there is a lot to be said for the idea made famous by Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes about 10,000 hours. As with the equally famous [meme] about walking 10,000 steps a day, this seems to be something pulled out of a hat as well as being a conveniently round number. But in both cases the numbers are actually very reasonable.

For 10,000 steps: well, I walk at about 100 steps/minute and I suspect this is fairly average. So 10,000 steps is about 100 minutes of walking per day. This is easily achievable: walk 30 minutes each way to work, 30 minutes at lunch and do 10 minutes of walking around other than that. 20,000 steps is 200 minutes – more than 3 hours – of walking per day and is hard to square with a normal job (but if your job involves walking it should be easy). 3,000 is 30 minutes and that's clearly far too little. So 10,000, give or take, is a very reasonable number.

Similarly for 10,000 hours: let's say you work 200 days a year for 10 hours a day (or probably more days for fewer hours). So a year is 2,000 hours of work. 10,000 hours of work is about 5 years. And ... that's kind of right: 5 years is about how long it takes someone to get really good at something. 5 years is a first degree and a PhD, with the inevitable lost time due to drink & romance, and that's the point where people are going to make their mark in their field, if they have one to make.

[But isn't 10,000 hours for "mastery"? That's five years of full-time work, which I don't think is needed for fluency, or to become something, or to know if you're any good at it. I just think we might be talking about two different standards, is all. --Mike]


We returned from a trip to Italy in 2012 with about 10 thousand pictures taken. What a pain in the butt! Sure, there were a few worth printing and showing, and sure, they evoke pleasant memories, but I wish I had practiced some restraint. It takes a lot of time to go through the glut, and not enough time on any individual one to learn anything.

This sums it up nicely for me and applies to more than photographs.

"And Bellow's point, I guess, is simply that it takes more practice than you might think before you achieve real fluency.'

There are lots of Wedding Photographers(???) on Craigslist advertising 1,000 shots, on a thumb-drive, for $99.95.

After only 10 weddings, they will have achieved Mastery—NOT

From my POV, Chiaroscuro and Composition are what's important. Learn that, and the rest is easy.

A very long time ago I had a boss who said it takes 10 years to get really good at your job; you have about ten years at your peak and from there it is all down hill.

A standard goal for writers is to write 1000 words a day. Do that 6 days a week for 10 years, and you're pretty close to 3 million words. And with some talent, you've become a good writer. I'd guess that's how Bellow came up with his number.

In everything I have been involved, photography, writing, managing businesses, racing, flying, etc. I have concluded that some people are naturals, some try hard and improve and some just need to try something else. I am sure the same thing exists in athletics because I have no relevant abilities no matter how much I tried.
Thus I am skeptical that any number of repetitions will make anyone competent. Some things you can learn, like grammar, but that will not make you a competent writer. Reading what others think is great literature might help but where does creativity come from? Perhaps it’s innate.
Same with photography, I think.

I cannot imagine taking 10,000 pictures on a vacation. Most vacations are 2-3 weeks. I worked as a wedding photographer for over 20 years and never approached 1,000 shots. My film days still limit how much I shoot. 108 shots in a day ( three rolls of thirty six ) is a good day for me.

I am in Provence for the summer and average about 80 pictures a day. I also enjoy the smells, food, wine, people and other memory creators that being in this beautiful place provides.

I think you are putting the wrong train of thought on the idea of "numbers". There are many very good photographers who take large number of images during short periods of time. Think National Geographic photographers. Several of the have stated that they took thousands of images only to get less than ten images published. The quality of the images is not all that related to their numbers.

I spent two months in Central Europe in 2017 and being that the trip was a one off I took around 6K photographs. In 2018 we spent two weeks in England resulting in 1,236 images. In June, we spent a week in Alaska resulting in less than 600 images. In September, I will making my ninth trip to Yellowstone where I will add a few hundred images to my 400 old slides from previous trips.

The fallacy in counting also showed up in the IT world. Back in the day it was KLOC (Thousands of Lines of Code) that ruled your career as a programmer. Many of the highest rated programmers wrote garbage, but they met the false metric and reaped the rewards while the systems they wrote failed. (thanks IBM for that treat)

The idea in photography of taking a lot of images as a badge of honor comes from having tools that brag about their frame rate. The trick is to take a lot of high quality images. The hardest part of photography in my world is editing the "best" one out of a large number of "good" ones. I tend to show too many images anyway. I think the 3 million number/count/words/images does not capture the essence of your arguments to the degree you think it does.

[But that's not the topic! We're not considering how many images you need to take to get a job done. We're talking about how much work it takes to achieve competence and fluency when you're starting out. Obviously I have no objection to photographers whose working method is to take lots of images. There's nothing wrong with that, if it works for them. --Mike]

I like to call this "editing with the shutter finger".

How many potential photos did I form in my mind, put the camera to my eye perhaps, consider taking - but, failing to "make the cut", assign to a virtual wastebasket!

And then usually feel right to have done so, though sometimes very regretful - but either way, for me, that decisiveness seems to be an important part of claiming authorship.

If there have been many such moments I have had a busy day photographically. Even a productive one, so far as saving myself from trawling through hundreds of perfunctory attempts later on!

Thanks Mike, nicely summed up.
As per the quote:
“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Calvin Coolidge

Dear Mike
I'd love to hear Peter Turnley's thoughts on this subject. After all he has attained mastery in his art. He is one of the greats. Could you please ask him to offer his thoughts? It would surely make a marvelous classic post.


Well, time spent is another meaningless measure of skill, unless it’s related to “number of keepers” or “good images, where the quality of the images is determined by either your client(s) or someone moderately objective. I met a photographer after an all day trip around a Caribbean island. He was frustrated, as he said, “I spent the whole day shooting and I know I didn’t get anything”. Time spent = all day, result = junk. I have, for example two groups that view my photos: volley players and their parents and other photographers. When the volleyball folks tell me they like one or more of my photos, I know I’m doing well (enough). When my photographer friends like and comment on my photos, I know I’m doing OK. Am I skilled? Sort of...but not in McNally territory! I’m the guy who isn’t a natural, but improved through diligent effort and, most importantly, credible feedback. Interesting insight and comment from Jim. Thanks for posting it.

Even though I am the one who asked the question that generated the last couple of posts, I will admit that I am more interested in enjoying the process and finding joy in creating a new image that pleases me than I am in reaching some final destination.

I love my day job (university professor) and I do this for fun. The more photos that I make that please me, the more fun it is.


Maybe it's easier to take "unmindful" photos than to write unmindfully? That could explain the difference, easier to build up numbers in photos without really practicing, maybe.

I can neatly support two wings of the photo arguments. I have felt I shot too much on some occasions; I have been shooting too randomly, just counting on luck to come through, I guess. "Spray and pray" doesn't work very well. I have also found that in some kinds of fast-moving environments speed is of the essence to get any good photos. You have to shoot the right things at the right time -- but you also, in some cases, need to shoot a LOT, because you do need to count on luck coming through on top of everything else.

The ability to take thousands of pictures with minimal extra cost may be the curse of contemporary "photography." My friend Tatyana recently returned from a trip to Europe, during which she took, she said, about 10,000 pictures with her phone. She said she had promised herself to purge when she got home. Once home, daily life caught up with her and she has not looked that the pictures again. Now she can't find the ones she thought might be good ones. My other friend, a bird photographer, told me that he is still reviewing his pictures from our Cuba trip in early 2017. More and more, I welcome the discipline of 12 exposures on a roll of 120 in my Rolleiflex.....

The number of images one shoots productively is clearly related to the genre of photography one is engaged in. Pro football? Thousands per session. If you don’t, you are less likely to capture the decisive moment that gets published. Landscape? If you shoot thousands during a session, you’re doing something ... bizarre.

More important seems to be the number of hours of diligent practice.

Very sharp insight here in the comment by richarplondon. Yes, "editing with the shutter finger" is the key. The decision not to take the picture is a creative act.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007