It’s no great mystery: maybe the best way to learn something is to do it. The more you shoot, the better you get. Period. The more you shoot, the faster you react, the more experience will teach you what works and what doesn’t. The more you shoot, the more your eye is on the viewfinder and you find yourself in the right place at the right moment in the right light without having to consciously think about it. There is no substitute for putting in the the time and practicing. In my experience, you need to go through a volume of work to get to the other side of great images.
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” —Henri Cartier-Bresson
I’ve always tended to shoot a bit much, even way back in the film days. When I was a newspaper photographer, I would often shoot more than my fellow shooters on staff. To a certain extent, it might have been insecurity—not wanting to miss the moment—but mostly it was an approach that allowed me to trigger on instinct, which is important when trying to capture moments in life that cannot be predicted or repeated.
Being a photographer is a bit like trying to see the future so that you can trigger the shutter before the moment peaks. Doing this meant not guessing right much of the time, but this kind of liberal shooting ethic was rewarded when it worked. It was a formula for making sure (or trying to) that I got the best image out of every assignment.
Henri Cartier-Bresson was known to be a prolific shooter in his long photographic life but shooting with a Leica film camera, as he did, is a process inherently slower than today’s DSLR with fast frame rates. In the digital realm, perhaps he would update his quote to “Your first 100,000 photographs are your worst.”
A point I want to make clear is that going through a volume of work does not mean keeping your finger pressed on the shutter release and shooting for the sake of shooting. Cartier-Bresson also said you should not overshoot, which he compared to over-eating or over-drinking. In photography, when a split second can make the difference between good and great, the best images can be lost between frames. I’m talking about a concerted effort of going out and shooting more, working the situation and studying the results to learn from mistakes and correct them before you make them again in the future. This back and forth growth is highlighted throughout the passionate photographer course section in the blog.
When you think about it, there is no substitute for being there, particularly in landscape or documentary work. The odds of being somewhere when the light is just so, with the right camera and lens combination pointed in the best direction from the right spot, framing in the most dynamic way, and triggering the shutter at the decisive moment—well, the odds are against it. That said, there are so many possible camera positions and moments to trigger the shutter, maybe the odds aren’t so bad after all.
In this blog space, I distill all the things I’ve learned over my 35 years as a photographer, and getting through this volume of work is the one process that may take the longest, because there are no real shortcuts. The paradigm shift from film to digital—with instant access to what you just shot—is probably the closest thing there is to a shortcut on your way to becoming a great photographer.
There is little doubt that digital has accelerated the learning curve, and some of the technical innovations we’ve seen of late have advanced the cause. But you can accelerate your progress by simply shooting more. Technical mastery to let your creativity soar is a given, but first let’s talk about the idea of doing a volume of work.
I liken in to a roller coaster. As you inch your way up, the process feels long. But when you reach the tipping point, you’re in a whole new world in that same coaster-car. As you go through a volume of work, that same camera produces far better results. It’s a bit of magic and mystery, but mostly it’s practice and gaining experience which gets infused into your process. More to come…