Lately I’ve been thinking about where we are on our photographic journeys, and wondering if we ever really come out of beta. They say it takes 10,000 hours to really master something, but does that mean that you have to hide in a closet until you’ve done your time? Hell no! Let’s get our work out there, and learn from that experience too.
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I was looking back at some of my old work recently, and chuckled as cringed at that work, and thought to myself that I was still in beta back then. Even if you don’t work in a software related environment, I’m sure at some point, you’ve come across the word beta as a term to describe software that is not yet finished, or polished enough to become the full release version. Beta software has most if not all of the final features developed, but we expect there to be some bugs still in there. Basically, it works fine most of the time, but not all of the time.
I feel as though with my early photography, it worked most of the time, but there was much less predictability. The result was that I would produce some work that blew my socks off, and other work that would fall flat. That got me thinking about which was the real me? The competent photographer producing reasonable quality work, or the one that could go out for an entire day and come back pretty much empty handed?
I recall conversations in our old sadly missed forums, where we discussed how being professional was more a statement of our productivity and quality standards, rather than simply differentiating between a photographer that it paid for their work, or not. When I ditched my old day job almost four years ago now, I foolishly said that I was now a professional photographer, and was quickly both chastised and praised by my friend Landon Michaelson, as he replied, “No Martin, you’ve always been a professional. It’s just that now you do it full time.”
Looking back at this exchange, I feel that even though I was well into my career as a photographer, and I had indeed been getting paid for my photography for more than 7 years at that time, in some ways, I was still in beta.
We had also discussed how we can kind of gauge our skill and ability as a photographer by our ability to produce consistent results in our work. I managed to break away from my desk a few days ago, and went for a walk in our local park with my wife. It was literally more a walk than a photography session, especially as we’re still in the rainy season here in Japan, and apart from the promise of some past-their-best hydrangea, I knew that there wouldn’t be much to photograph, although I did know that the lotus plants would be flowering, and there are a few planters with lotus in near where we’d probably stop for a sit down for a few minutes before making our way towards the exit of the park.
Because I knew what to expect, and because this was more a walk than a photo session, I took with me my 5D Mark III and a 70-200mm lens, and my 100mm macro lens, and nothing more. I shot a few images of the trees, moving my camera upwards as I made the exposure, creating some intentional camera movement shots, really just exercising my photographic muscles, shutter therapy as they say. But when we got to our rest point, after a few minutes sit down, we went over to the lotus planters and found a couple of flowers that were starting to open, and I shot this image (below). Nothing to write home about, I know.
But as I shot this, I already knew that I was just gathering materials for a final photo, and that final photo would be black and white, as we see here (below). Bear with me here, I’m just using this as an example to make a point.
The original image is nothing special, but the black and white image feels much more polished, and dare I say it, artistic. This got me thinking further about my analogy of being in beta, and indeed, what my current version number as a photographer with going on thirty years of experience might be?
You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell discusses in-depth in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. Gladwell basically says that to excel in any field, you have to practice in that field for 10,000 hours. The more I think about this, the more I think that we might even consider ourselves to be in beta until we’ve got that first 10,000 hours under our belts.
Does that mean that we will produce crap photographs until we’ve practiced for 10,000 hours? Absolutely not! But I do believe that our successes are more sporadic, and less predictable. Happy accidents if you will. We return home with a bunch of photographs, some of which we really like, and feel that they work, but put in a similar situation again, can’t necessarily reproduce the same quality of results. We’re like beta software. We basically work, but still not as reliably as full version software.
Developing Your Visual Toolbox
To help us get out of beta, I think it’s vitally important to develop our visual toolbox. The Visual Toolbox is in part our database of image possibilities, in the form of images that we’ve stored based on our own work and looking at the work of others.
From our own work, we learn from our mistakes, during that 10,000 hours of shooting. We get home all excited about our shoot, but then look at the images on the computer, and instantly feel deflated as we look at our results. I hear from a lot of people that are in this state. The images we’ve captured don’t match our recollection of the scene or subject that we photographed. When we do this, it’s important to try to envisage what we would like to have created, and add that vision to our database of images to draw from in the field as we continue to shoot.
The other part of the Visual Toolbox is literally the tools that we use to take our images to their optimal state. Remember that your camera was developed by engineers who’s only interest is capturing an image as close to what the scene looked like as possible, but within the technical and financial restrictions placed upon the product. If you shoot raw, you will also be saving an image to your memory card that will although look nice, is actually not considered a finished image.
It’s up to you to tweak that image, and the point of that tweaking is to create your final piece of art, and art, by definition is not necessarily an exact replica of what you saw in the field. We start to change that the moment we select a focal length to make our image. The aperture dictates how much of the scene or subject will be in focus, and how much will not. The shutter speed can either freeze the subject or background or capture longer slices of time allowing the recording of movement. We might use light modifiers or a multitude of other tools to change what we include in our image in the field. The same goes for what you do to the image in your computer later.
With the lotus flower example, I knew as I made the photograph that I would convert it to black and white. I also knew that I would make the distracting background totally black, isolating the flower in the frame. This comes from years of practicing my art and craft, and from an understanding of the tools that I have at my disposal.
I use Silver Efex Pro to convert to black and white, and I know that by darkening some colors and lighting others I can create that much contrast between the two. I also know that I can use Control Points to selectively darken areas of the frame. I know that I can use Lightroom to reduce the grain that I was introducing by shooting the image at ISO 3200 because it was a heavily overcast day and the breeze was blowing the flower around so I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze it.
Looking at this another way, if I was not aware of the tools at my disposal, I might have left my ISO too low, and gone home with a blurry image that disappointed me. I might have taken one look at the background, either in the field or on the computer, and decided the photo was crap, not worth keeping, and instantly deleted it from my computer.
Your 10,000 Hours
Before we move on, let’s put this 10,000 hour theory into a realistic time scale. If you shoot or do something to improve your craft for 5 hours on a weekend, it’s going to take you 2,000 weekends to put in your 10,000 hours. That’s the equivalent of 38.5 years. Of course, there are incredibly talented people that become amazing photographers in just a few short years, but you know what, I’m pretty sure they don’t get there only practicing their craft 5 hours a week. Most people that get really good at something live and breathe it. It’s all they think about!
When you really live and breath something, you might even be able to put something like fifty hours a week into it, but then it’s still going to take four years to reach 10,000 hours. When you think about it, many trades that carry an apprenticeship term last about four years, so this is starting to make sense, right?
Seth Godin talks about the necessity to “ship”. That we have to at some point actually push our ideas and creations out of the door into the world. It’s important to note that I’m not saying that we should wait until we’ve completed our 10,000 hours and really mastered photography before we ship. Don’t let fear of ridicule or negative feedback hold you back.
Start to show your work to others, create a Blurb book, try to sell prints, do an exhibition or start looking for paid work as a photographer. Set yourself a goal, and start to do whatever it is you decide to do with your photography. These are our acts of shipping, and you don’t have to fully master your craft before you make a start. Indeed, any and all of the above will help you on your journey, adding to the future photographer that you’ll become.
The important thing, is deciding what you want to do with your photography, and setting a goal, a date, and actually doing it. You will never be perfect, and you will never be fully satisfied with every photograph you make, so cut the cord, and let it out into the world.
A Moving Target
You could of course argue that the instant feedback that we now get from digital photography can really help us to become better photographers much more quickly than we could in the film days, and I agree with that, but another thing to keep in mind is that everyone now has that instant feedback. So just as how you feel about your photograph is relative to your current location along your own personal path, people that are putting in the time and advancing their craft are also arguably now producing much higher quality images than before as well, so again, it’s all relative. We’re chasing a moving target, and that, I think, is a good thing. It’s what helps to keep us on our toes.
What we want or expect from our photography will vary from person to person too. I think even within each of us, our feelings about our photography can vary daily. One day I can throw up a body of work in a slideshow, kick up my feet and feel really happy with myself for making such beautiful work. But then the next day, I can look at the same images, and think that most of them suck. It’s all relative.
I’m at a point in my photography where I know that I can produce decent work with my experience and visual toolbox, but you know what? I felt that way 10 years ago too. I felt as though I was consistently producing quality work, but now looking back, I realize that even though I was creating some nice work, I was producing a lot of crap still too.
I recall how confident I felt in my work four years ago as I handed in my notice and gave up a perfectly good job to pursue my photography full time, but I look back at that work, and although I still like a lot of it, there are images in my old portfolios that I kind of cringe when I look at it now.
I imagine—in fact—I know, that this trend will continue. I think if we ever become fully happy with our work, we would stop trying to push the boundaries, and improve our craft. We should remain open and never stop learning. Keep up with new technology and the possibilities available to you in working with our images to create masterpieces from your raw images, and continue to develop our visual toolbox.
I also think it’s important to look at the art of others as a means of extending the possibility database in our toolbox, and by art, I don’t just mean photographic art. I love visiting museums and art exhibitions of all kinds. I can be inspired as much by a piece of sculpture than I can a by a photograph. In fact, I’d say that it doesn’t even necessarily have to be a visual art. A good book will fire our imaginations and cause us to conjure up all sorts of images and ideas that may influence our photography. After all, it’s no coincidence that the word imagination describes the act of creating an image.
Do We Ever Really Leave Beta?
OK, so let’s think about where we are on the photographer development road map. What’s after beta? Well, knowing that what we chase is a moving target, and knowing that in another few years I will be looking back at my current work and cringing just the same, I’m not sure that we ever really leave beta. I think we “ship” in the Seth Godin sense, but this doesn’t mean we’re bug free, and I think that’s OK.
Look at the way software and even hardware is being designed and shipped these days. More and more software companies are shipping what used to be considered as unfinished or flawed software, knowing that their customers will find the remaining bugs pretty quickly, and let them know. This used to be a total no-no, and for sure, it reduces the customers’ perception of quality overall, but it’s probably still cheaper than hiring hordes more testers and finding many more of the bugs before shipping the software.
The same is happening with hardware. Look at how many recalls we’re seeing now in our cameras for example. Whether you agree with this practice or not, hardware manufacturers are spending less money fully testing their products, knowing that the general public will let them know what they didn’t get right pretty quickly after the product hits the streets. I hate it when I have to send a camera back to Canon to fix an issue that they introduced in the first place, but I’m still using Canon products, right?
So, let’s ship, put ourselves out their, be as good as we can at this point in time, but let’s also not pretend that we have arrived. We are all still on our journey, and I like that. You might remember the wording that I have on the back of the USB memory sticks that I give to my workshop participants. I’ve actually changed this for the next batch, which will read “Let’s not rush to ‘arrive’. It’s all about the Journey” and I think that state of mind is so important.
The Importance of the Trusted Critic
One last thing that I wanted to touch on, is the importance of the trusted critic. As part of a new role that I’ve undertaken as a Master in The Arcanum, over the last week I completed a critique of eleven of my apprentices work. One thing that I always find in critiquing others’ work, is that it really helps me to think about photography and art on a deeper level, but it’s really difficult to actually get someone to put the time and effort into the critiques that they give us without doing something like joining The Arcanum, or paying a professional for a critique session.
When you post something online, you will either get a string of “love it”, “great capture” remarks, or you may just hear crickets. Unfortunately, if all you hear are the crickets, that doesn’t mean your work is crap. It most likely means that you aren’t engaged in the community that your posting to enough to have people take the time to comment. Many online communities are just exercises in back-scratching, as in, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. There are very few communities out there that will give truly constructive critiques of your work.
You are much more likely to get constructive criticism of your work from a member of your family or a friend that has an eye for art. They don’t have to be a photographer. In fact, I’d say that sometimes it helps if they’re not. Photographers can sometimes get too hung up on the technical, and fail to see the beauty of an image because of some technical flaw that a non-photographer would not care about. Photographers also tend to overlook issues that they know are difficult to work around, such as halos in an over-processed photograph, but you can bet that a non-photographer will point that out to you in an instant, as just not looking right.
You can of course also go to portfolios reviews, and have professionals give you an impartial critique of your work, and I think this is one of the most valuable aspects of The Arcanum to the apprentices that each master is taking the time to really do a quality critique.
This isn’t an advertisement for The Arcanum though. The point here is that it’s vitally important to find someone whose views and advice you trust, rather than listening too much to the often faceless or nameless comments of online communities. These can be crippling despite you not having the slightest idea of how qualified the person is to be writing those comments, and pats on the back feel good but aren’t really going to help you to improve your craft.
Power in Persistence
Finally, I want to add that at the end of the day, it’s your art, and people don’t necessary even need to get it. If it makes you happy, and even if your most trusted critique thinks it stinks, if you don’t agree with them, I don’t think you need to change a thing. There is power in persistence. If you do something often and long enough, you’ll build a body of work that cannot be ignored, especially if it’s coming from your heart.
And as you work on your craft, you’ll gain invaluable experience, build your visual toolbox, and gain that 10,000 hours that you need to really become a master in your chosen field. I don’t know if I’m still in beta or not. Some days I feel as though I’m Martin version 30, and other days I feel like I’m barely out of alpha let alone beta. Maybe it’s better to adapt the year as version that some companies use, and right now I’m Martin 2014, and I should be happy with that, but looking forward to Martin 2015, 2016, and so on.
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