All-star wedding photographer, Roberto Valenzuela says “Perfect Practice Makes Perfect” instead of the more common “Practice Makes Perfect.” I have thought a lot about that since I heard his talk at WPPI many years ago. As I grow older, I realize that there are times when I was “practicing” my photography but practicing the wrong things. Not everything you do with a camera in your hand will necessarily drive you to your end goal.
I read a book by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool called “PEAK – Secrets From The New Science of Expertise. This book helped me take Roberto’s quote to a new level.
Seth Godin said of PEAK – “This book is a breakthrough, a lyrical, powerful, science-based narrative that actually shows us how to get better (much better) at the things we care about.”
Ericsson makes a strong case that success in today’s world requires a focus on practical performance, not just the accumulation of information. Too many of you are watching TOO many videos on YouTube. You are studying TOO MANY different photographers. You are amassing tons of information, but in most cases, it’s not really changing anything for you. Too many choices is actually bad for creative people. I have also read whole books on this subject, but suffice it to say that you need to define goals, practice those goals using one method you trust from one teacher you trust, and you need to measure your success after your practice to make sure you stayed on mission.
Just walking around taking pictures may lead you to some moderate (and occasional) success. But using your camera in a deliberate way, with deliberate practice, will yield CONSISTENT results and more success.
In other words – There is a right and wrong way to practice. Likewise, you can practice the wrong things. You can take the scatter gun approach or you can drill down to something meaningful. You can be focused and intentional or you can be strictly reactionary. We live in the Internet age where everyone has a YouTube channel and all it takes to be an “expert” in the public eye is to have a lot of downloads of your videos.
Those of us with gray hair know the difference between LOOKING or SOUNDING like an expert and BEING an expert. You can go deep or you can go wide. Going deep means taking one thing down the road for 10 miles. You’ll master that one thing. Take 10 things down the road for one mile and you won’t master anything.
I like to think my audience is more sophisticated than most. That means most of you already realize this. But rather than leave you with ethereal platitudes, I wanted to offer you concrete exercises and information that will actually help you improve your photography, in a MEANINGFUL way.
DISCLAIMER – before I dive into the exercises, I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. Photography is not something you ever really master. You master specific things about or related to photography, but you never really, really, know everything there is to know about photography. Your goal should keep the aforementioned in mind. Your BIG/LOFTY goal can be to master some small subset of photography. That is huge. Your short-term goal should be to go very deep in one tiny segment of photography. Practice THAT and a serious of similarly sized mini goals and you will end up hitting the BIG goal of mastering a small subset of photography. In other words, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just learn what you can, at your own pace. Do NOT compare your skills, your camera or your pictures with anyone else’s skills, camera or photography. It is impossible to practice purposefully if you are spending time comparing yourself to others.
Now let’s begin.
The two things you have to decide on don’t seem so hard. Decide what and how to practice. But there is much more to it than that. You have to be mindful and purposeful and have a set routine to really improve your photography but the good news is that it can be done in an hour per week.
I suggest what I call my 12-minute rundown. Mon-Fri, (or weekends if you work on a weekday) spend just 12 minutes each day doing the following and in a year, I guarantee you will tell me you have improved your photography. I have worked on this with literally thousands of photographers and every one of them that was faithful to the system told me it changed everything for them.
1. Create a specific goal. Remember that if you don’t set your attention on ONE specific thing, EVERYTHING will get your attention and you’ll never advance.
2. Pick the same time of day each day, at least five days a week, to work on that specific goal. This helps create what some call a “tiny habit.” You just do it like you brush your teeth, without thinking about it.
3. Set a minimum (rather than maximum) time commitment for your photography practice. Setting unrealistic goals yields failure which leads to giving up. So set small minimal and simple goals that you know you can achieve. This will actually propel you further and faster. You can always ADD time if you want to, but stick to a commitment on the MINIMUM.
4. Divide your practice time into three categories.
a. Muscle memory – handling the camera
b. Learning new skills – read your manual and practice something with your camera that it is capable of but which you have never availed yourself
c. Take a picture of something “creative” without fear or concern about whether or not the picture will be share-worthy. Do it for yourself.
5. Clear your mind and reflect on what you learned during the practice session. Say it back to yourself aloud to reinforce it or write it down (in longhand, not on a computer) to do the same thing.
6. Think about what opportunities the practice session uncovered for you to use as areas of needed improvement. If you don’t get it right the first time, just look at it as an opportunity to get better next time. Don’t give up and do NOT get down on yourself.
7. Think about what you realized you DO know and the fact that you can feel good about mastering one tiny aspect of photography. Allow yourself to celebrate the wins, even the tiny wins.
8. Make sure your camera manual is part of your practice if you are unsure of how to get the most out of it. Without great gear knowledge, it’s hard to free up your mind to learn other things that follow and in fact rely on that gear knowledge.
9. Create a practice log or workbook. Refer to it often.
10. Find a supportive community, which means 99% of the camera forums you visit right now should be avoided. Instead, (and this is strictly ONE example, there are other ways to do this…) join a MODERATED Facebook group where the members share your passion, and your goals. And look ONLY to that group, not the hostile places like comment forums full of camera trolls.
LAST PRACTICE TIP – MOST IMPORTANT PRACTICE TIP
HAVE FUN! Photography is supposed to be fun and if it IS NOT fun for you then I guarantee you are doing it wrong. Follow guys like Derrick Story or Rick Sammon. Yeah, like me they are older guys you won’t see wearing a man-bun, but what they both know, what I know is that this is fun. One of the reasons I like and respect both of them is that they both know how to have fun with photography. This should be front and center in your mind, even if you are a professional or an aspiring professional. So don’t practice with the intent on world domination. Practice with the intent that you want to make your photography more fun. If you do that, I am certain you will improve. I am rooting for you.