Thus, echoing the common exhortation that ‘practise makes perfect’, Cartier-Bresson would probably have been a fan of the 10,000 hours theory too. After all, his first 10,000 photographs may well have taken 10,000 hours as he worked with film cameras (see the photograph of his lovely Leica) and in the darkroom.
Of course these days, with digital cameras, you can take 10,000 photographs very quickly so, perhaps, it is the 10,000 hours that is actually more important than ever if you want to become a talented photographer. Modern DSLR cameras (and smartphones come to that) are brilliant pieces of technology that take much of the guesswork and technical variables (focus, exposure, etc.) out of taking photographs. Also, with sophisticated photo manipulation software, any glitches that do occur when the image is taken can now be ironed out on a computer. As Peter Cope says in his book Using Free Image Manipulation Software:
In fact, if you were to look back through photographic magazines of the 1970s and even the 1980s you would probably be a little surprised at the type of images that were considered acceptable. Some of those magazines’ most prominent photographs look positively mediocre today. Skilled photographers –and readers too – would accept that absolute perfection was a rarity and that a degree of compromise was often necessary.
So, really, a technically perfect photograph is not enough these days to identify a talented photographer. To create a really great image – an image that is truly beautiful, absorbing and that demonstrates a distinctive photographic style – you need something more and this ‘something’ cannot be provided by the computer in your camera or by the one on your desk. This ‘something’ is often called ‘genius’.
In 1903 (the words were formally attributed to Edison through publication in Harper's Monthly (September 1932) Thomas Edison said ‘Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’. So Edison was also a fan of the 10,000 hours theory as he went on to say, ‘Accordingly, a “genius” is often merely a talented person who has done all of his or her homework.’
Therefore, to make the difference between a technically ‘perfect’ image and a work of art, surely it is the ‘inspiration’, the ‘genius’, that is crucial? The origin of the word ‘genius’ is from ‘Late Middle English: from Latin, “attendant spirit present from one's birth, innate ability or inclination”, from the root of gignere “beget”. The original sense “spirit attendant on a person” gave rise to a sense “a person's characteristic disposition” (late 16th century), which led to a sense “a person's natural ability”, and finally “exceptional natural ability” (mid 17th century)’ (quoted from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/genius).
This definition is very depressing for those who aspire to become a talented photographer as it suggests that ‘genius’ is something you are born with. I am sure a lot of talented people like to believe this as it makes them ‘special’. However, while this may be true for a few ‘special’ people, I think that genuine in-born ‘genius’ is very rare and that most talent and expertise actually develops from a combination of two things – knowledge (that which you can learn) and experience (or practise). Knowledge and experience combined creates wisdom and it is the wise photographer who takes great photographs.
Our photography authors are very modest people and they certainly wouldn’t describe themselves as geniuses. However, they do take wonderful photographs that exhibit the characteristics of a wise photographer. For example, Tony Worobiec and Paul Gallagher began their careers studying art, graphic design and photography at college, thus gaining background knowledge and learning the artistic principles that underpin a great photograph (Tony’s book The Complete Guide to Photographic Composition is a brilliant guide to these artistic principles). David Penprase came to photography much later in life but it is very clear from Developing a Photographic Style that he has also developed great photographic wisdom and he also exhibits the characteristics of the artist craftsman with both vision (inspiration) and fantastic attention to detail (perspiration). Peter Cope is a very skilled technician and his wisdom is demonstrated in his ability to explain and teach photographic skills – as Tony describes in his Foreword to Using Free Image Manipulation Software:
Peter Cope is an accomplished writer and photographer who has established an admirable reputation as someone who has fully explored and understood the potential of digital photography. In addition to his many books, he is regularly invited to write articles for numerous national photographic magazines. He enjoys a reputation of being able to engage with his readership, due in no small part to a very readable style of writing. So often books of this nature prove unappetisingly ‘techie’ and can so easily lose the reader’s attention. By way of contrast, Peter is a natural teacher who possesses the ability to explain issues from the point of view of the learner.
Of course, what all our authors have also done is to take the knowledge they have gained and put it into practice time and time again. Another indicator of a wise photographer is that they learn the ‘rules’ but, after much practise, they also know how to break the rules in order to give their photographs an extra edge and personal style. Their experience gives them the courage to do this with confidence.
The one key element of great photography that all of our authors (and other great photographers I have met) emphasise is taking your time. As one well-known photographer pointed out to me, just because your digital camera can take hundreds of photographs quickly doesn’t mean that you should take hundreds in the hope that one or two will be worth looking at. All our wise photographers probably take fewer photographs with their DSLRs than they did with their film cameras. Why? Well it is because the digital camera takes the technical vagaries out of photography, allowing the photographer to spend their time on the crucial factors that make a really great photograph - things like, for example, previsualisation, preparation, composition, creativity, patience and timing. So their photographs are better not because they are geniuses but because they are wise enough to spend their hours on those things that a digital camera can’t provide – those factors that their knowledge and experience have combined to form their innate photographic wisdom. Talented people are often able to do difficult things without thinking – a talented pianist doesn’t have to watch her fingers on the keyboard or read the score and an experienced surgeon doesn’t have to read a textbook in order to carry out brain surgery. Their wisdom has become a part of them through experience and practise – they weren’t born with it.
So, in conclusion, does all of this mean that you should be spending 10,000 hours taking even more photos because your digital camera allows you to do this? No. Instead, to become a talented photographer with your own distinctive style, you need to spend at least an hour (and probably much more) on each of your images. You do need to practise but you can spend some of your 10,000 hours on learning from those who have already done their 10,000 hours practise to develop photographic wisdom. That would be the wise and efficient thing to do. In our RHE Media Photography titles we offer you words of wisdom from those who have had both their one per cent inspiration and put in their ninety-nine per cent perspiration.
Is photographic talent 10,000 hours or 10,000 photographs? Both - it is a combination of the two. In fact, with digital cameras, it might be better to spend 10,000 hours on 5,000 photos and some background reading!