10,000 Hours

Bathing Beauties

Bathing Beauties

Young photographers often ask what they can do to “go pro”. They often want to know about tips, tricks, or shortcuts to achieving commercial and financial success through photography. Ironically, few are interested in knowing how to become better artists and image makers.

Allow me to immediately clarify that no matter how much effort you invest, your photographic success will never be guaranteed and it will most likely never be the result of shortcuts, clever maneuvering, or social media marketing strategies. I’d like to also mention that I am not aware of any current professional photographer who makes their entire living from print sales and image licensing. Those glamorous days of free-shooting globe-trotting photography died long ago with 35% investment returns, bloated real estate values, and freely flowing cash. As a professional photographer, what you can expect is inconsistent income; to be asked regularly for free use of your photographs; the requirement for multiple income streams from different channels; and more hours at the desk doing non-photographic stuff than you’d care to. If you believe that “going pro” means buying a full frame d-slr, going on great photographic vacations, and then sitting back and watching the income roll in from image licensing and print sales…. good luck with your career!

In his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell contends that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice and commitment is required to achieve excellence in ones chosen craft/sport/art. There’s no shortage of disagreement regarding Gladwell’s “rule”, however this essay is not about whether 10,000 is the right number of hours. There are certainly exceptions to every rule, and gifted prodigies indeed exist (although in very tiny numbers). Looking at photography, it’s reasonable to suggest that it really only takes minutes to master the pushing of camera buttons and gaining accurate exposure via the real-time histogram. Operating a camera is a rather easy affair, but operating a good camera does not ensure good photography. We can account for the rest of those thousands of hours as time that is (or should be) spent seeing, building ones visual vocabulary, and becoming proficient artists, communicators, and image makers. I’d posit that fiddling with gear and software does not factor into these hours. Good photography is the result of good vision; the camera and software are mere tools.

Just how many hours is 10,000 photography hours? That’s two three-hour shoots per day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon= six hours total) every day for four and one-half years. I’ll round up and suggest that if you do not have at least five solid years of image making practice behind you and not more than a few dozen strong photographs to show for all your effort, forget your Facebook, Twitter, and G+ social media campaigns: Work first at being a better artist and photographer, and consider marketing it later once you’ve got a unique body of work and an organically grown audience that cannot get enough of it. You cannot now nor will you ever achieve a level rivaling Steve McCurry or Art Wolfe (two randomly chosen hard-working artists of excellence) through clever Search Engine Optimization or through lots of Facebook “friends”. Get offline and get shooting.

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on TwitterFacebook, and Google+.

22 thoughts on “10,000 Hours

  1. Hey Michael

    Good advice; though I’d add, the 10 000 hours to become a “professional” photographer ought well include 9 000 hours of editing, keywording, invoicing, budgeting, doing taxes, writing submissions, sending submissions, proposing article ideas, client recruitment, and on and on.



      • Why does your blog show me as having an extra extended name?

        Re; your reply – Well, maybe; though I’d go so far as to say that if someone really put in those solid 9000 hours on the office work, the number required to be spent working on their artistry in order to be a “pro” goes down. Drastically.

        On the other hand, if those 9 000 hours are spent tweeting and social media-ing, it’ll be the rare few who can turn that into a profession.

    • Thanks, Carl! I don’t know why WP showed the extra bits, but you seem to have fixed it.

      Are you suggesting that keywording and filing copyrights makes one a better photographer/artist?

      • No – I’m suggesting that in order to become professional, one has to do a lot of things; do them both well AND frequently, and those things, such as keywording and filing submissions, might have nothing to do with becoming a “better” artist. But in order to sell this sh**, we need to do very “non-artsy” things.

  2. I wonder how many readers of this will immediately start calculating either how far away from the 10000 hours they are or check the box? I suppose that is the problem with trying to quantitatively define something like this. I suppose there is also a certain threshold in there where you are able to self edit your own work effectively.

    Stunning shot with this post MG.

    • Thanks, Mark – you pose great questions. I wouldn’t actually know how many hours it takes and think it is best left un-quantifiable. The pursuit of excellence continues to (thankfully) be a life-long affair for me. The bottom line is that the best thing a photographer can do for their photography is to do [a lot] more of it.

  3. I agree with 10,000 hours to become a master photographer, but not with the premise that it is necessary to be a master photographer to be a successful professional. It is neither sufficient, so I am with Carl. As for making a living from image sales alone, without being neither a master photographer nor a good businessperson, I’ve done it year after year since turning full-time.

    • Hi QT: I forgot that you are a rare example! I would, however, suggest that you ARE a good businessman. No matter the endeavor, there are many financially successful hacks out there, and lots of unknown artists of excellence. Agreed that the two are not synonymous!

      I have issues with using the word “Master” at all. Most “Masters” tend to be self-appointed, and “master” is often used to imply some sort of conquering (can we conquer creativity?). Even worse are the articles offered by numerous publications that suggest one can “Master” something merely by reading an article.

  4. 10,000 hours, let me suggest that it takes a lifetime to really be considered a master photographer. And even then that may not be long enough.

    You can’t equate the term master photographer with commercial success 100 percent of the time. Just read Edward Weston’s Daybooks (I and II by Aperture) and you begin to see what a struggle it can be to perfect your art.

  5. Pingback: Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog – Links – January 31, 2013

  6. Michael,

    Wow 10,000 hours, sometimes it feels like much, much more than that. Of course, as artists as we invent and then reinvent ourselves sometimes the clock seems to start over. There is no substitute for pure experience, both with creating your craft/art/etc. and with marketing/selling it.

  7. Another practical guide as to whether or not you’ve put in ‘enough time’ is having completed at least a couple of meaningful projects. And probably having some insight in to how they could have been better.

  8. An interesting post, Michael. In my experience, making the best use of the limited time I have for photography is way more beneficial than simply trying to clock more and more hours on this endeavor. Sometimes its all about the ‘how’ and not ‘how much.’

    BTW, ‘Bathing Beauties’ is a killer image!

  9. Pingback: Links – January 31, 2013 :: Beautiful Flower Pictures Blog

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