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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Becoming a Better Photographer Through (Deliberate) Practice

The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ is usually seen as a truism. The more you practice the better you will get at something. Except it doesn’t take into account that the word ‘better’ is the wrong qualifier in that statement. ‘Better’ assumes that there will be an improvement in what we do. It assumes that if I take a 1000 photographs I will be a better photographer than when I took the first photograph (make it 10 000 photographs since digital doesn’t cost us financially in the same way that film did). The oft-said truism has bothered me for quite a while as I often explain to photographers that one has to spend a considerable amount of time learning and practicing the art of photography. If we go by the 10 000 hour principle as espoused by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, ‘Outliers’ (based on research by Eric Anders), then we need to put 10 000 hours into any venture or skill that we want to master. Except this doesn’t work for photography anymore. 

Going back to the simple statement of ‘practice makes perfect’. I shoot a thousand frames, all I have really done is trained my finger muscles to press the shutter button. If I have improved in any way it might only be that I now have a muscle memory of where the shutter lies and how much pressure it requires to trip the shutter. Does this make me a better photographer? Not necessarily. I started to think more critically about this while hiking in the Drakensberg recently with some fellow photographers. All of us are professionals who earn a living from creating imagery. One of them commented that I work intuitively with filters and don’t seem to think at about using them. It was said as a compliment, but made me realise; am I using them in the best way possible, or am I just using them. Am I so practised that I don’t think about it anymore, to the detriment of the image?

As an analogy, you often hear about people developing bad habits. Drivers who have had their license for decades often struggle to pass a drivers test when they move countries because they have now developed bad driving habits over years of practice. The simple act of practicing doesn’t do anything other than reinforce behaviour or action. The more repeat a task, the more mindless it potentially becomes - this is not something one hopes for in creating something like a meaningful image. Then I stumbled across the concept of ‘deliberate practice’, also studied and written about extensively by Eric Anders (in his book ‘Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise’). The entire concept of practice suddenly clicked into place and helps explain how to get better in a much more accessible manner.

The problem we all face when we start out with any new activity is that we are told that we have to practice. But what do we practice? The idea of practising photography is exceptionally difficult. The creation of an image is not the result of a single skill, or action for that matter. First, you need to be able to see the image, or at the very least have an idea of what you want to photograph. Next you need to know how to compose through the lens, as well as know how to arrange the composition so that it is more than just an object replicated by the camera. You then need to know how to use the camera in all its varied ways in order to capture something of what you ‘see’. This means knowing about focus and exposure control. Then you need to have the skills to get that image file into your computer and work the image digitally to approximate your vision of the scene in the first place (for some this is a simple, to the point that they might shoot in jpeg or on their phone even, for others it can be hours of work in post-production).

Deliberate Practice can actually speed up the learning process, and hopefully significantly shorten the whole 10 000 hours idea. The starting point is to break the process into its component parts. Anders writes about prominent golfers breaking a swing down into tiny micro-components. In photography we can do the same. Starting out we can look at fairly large chunks of action, but break them down as we become more adept at them. For example, photographing a landscape involves several large components; technical knowledge of the camera, understanding of the light and how it is recorded onto the sensor (or film) and the aesthetic arrangement of the scene and its elements to create a composition. Considering the first chunk, this can be further broken down into the camera’s controls; aperture, shutter speed, ISO, metering patterns, focus settings etc. By practising working on one component we master that component faster than simply saying, “I’m going to practice landscape photography. Instead one could say, “I am going to practice getting in-focus images in landscape photography”. By breaking the goal down to a more definite, measurable and achievable goal, the practice will lead to improvement. Moreover, by identifying ‘focus in landscape photography’ we are further refining the set of skills that need to practised from say ‘focus in sports photography’ (which should also be further broken down to the type of sport).

The next part is actually the harder part. According to Anders for deliberate practice to work there needs to be some form of coaching and feedback for it to really work. By this, feedback needs to more than just a ‘heart’ in Instagram or a ‘thumbs-up’ on Facebook (or whatever other social media site is the current pill). It means finding some kind of feedback that lets you know you are getting better. Some skills you can actually do this yourself. Going back the example of perfecting focus; you can demonstrably see if your image is more focused. In the same vein you can see in the images whether this becomes consistent or not. However, it is a good idea to get other people involved by getting their input. This can be in the form of showing work outside of the social media sphere to people/photographers who will actually give you real feedback (think peers, clubs and online forums of photographers you trust).

The coaching similarly doesn’t mean having to find an actual coach. All it means is that there needs to be an active attempt to gather learning and information on the chosen sub-component that you are wanting to practice. Once again the internet is a treasure trove of information (and baloney). Ignore click-bait articles that claim to ‘improve your photography in ten easy steps’. These are far to general to actually be of any good. Look instead for dedicated sessions on particular aspect of photography related to the tiny component that you have chosen to perfect and practice. Some of the most valuable lessons I have come across on the internet are the small, webinars and videos working at a very specific task. Because they are so specific they tend to have low-viewership, and are a little harder to find as a result. Because they don’t promise ‘ten easy steps’ they tend to be packed with the kind of specific coaching that is actually useful (think of the Capture One Webinars as an example).

Still, not everyone learns the same way from the internet. If this is the case, find a local workshop with a photographer you trust and use this as a coaching option. Engage with the workshop group/instructor and find a way to improve the practice with their input and feedback.

Anders points out that in order for deliberate practice to really work you need to move out of your comfort zone. As with my use of filters mentioned above, mindless practice does lead to a comfort zone where we all we do is repetitive action without actually thinking. It is necessary to push ourselves in new directions in order to improve. If you are wanting to perfect focus in landscape, there’s a good chance that you will have to improve your manual focusing technique. In todays age of photographers who have either learned on autofocus, or who have ageing eyes (having once upon a time learned on manual focus), manual focus is a step too far in terms of comfort or convenience. Yet, it is a vital component of good landscape photography. Want to move away from a comfort zone while practicing improved composition? Ditch the zoom and use a prime lens for a while.

One of the core tenets of the concept of deliberate practice almost goes without saying. Motivation is integral to the practice actually having any effect. If we are not motivated to practice in order to improve, then all we end up doing is sliding back into mindless practice and repetition without thinking. The idea of practicing something in order to get better at it is fantastic, but unless we are actually interested and motivated enough to do it in the first place, it’s unlikely that we can stick to practicing it. Perhaps the first thing we really need to decide is why we want to improve. If you can figure out the why, there’s a good chance we can figure out the motivation.

As ever, there is no quick fix to becoming a better photographer or creating better images. One of the joys of photography is that it isn’t something that can be learned overnight. It is a constantly changing exercise and pursuit that shifts with the times that it finds itself in and with the technologies that emerge. This is exciting to me. Although the incessant learning and practicing can be exhausting, and Sisyphean in nature, there is a reward in seeing images that are more consistently ‘good’ (by whatever measure we find in good). The idea of deliberate practice is also particularly useful when you are at a stage in your photography when you have probably already done over 10 000 hours. Deliberate practice now helps focus onto aspects that need refinement. In this way we can truly master the aspects we want to, rather than mindless repeating and further digging ourselves into a photographic rut.

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