How Long Does It Take to Learn to Shoot Like a Pro?

Book Cover for Outliers by Malcolm GladwellI read lots of blogs with technical and creative advice, some are excellent, many are misleading. But the real secret is volume, volume, volume. You’ve probably heard of the 10,000-hour rule made popular by Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. In order to be exceptional at something, anything, you’ll need to spend 10,000 hours practicing to get there. That’s about three and a half years of non-stop practice. Well, here’s my take on the 10,000-hour rule: to get 100 exceptional photos, you’ll have to take 10,000. You’ll also learn how to work your camera while you’re at it.

And that’s how the pros do it. When the opportunity presents itself to capture a scene, a portrait or an event, take lots and lots of photos. Not indiscriminately, but with thoughtfulness.What’s shooting all these extra photos going to cost you anyway? After you’ve bought the camera, digital costs you practically nothing, so why not experiment and keep on shooting until you fill that 64 or 128GB memory card with raw captures.

Landscapes? Bracket, change position, shoot at different times of day, shoot on different days. Portraits? Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. Have a dialog with your subject, make them comfortable, get reactions, standing, sitting, smiling, looking at the camera, not looking at the camera, change outfits. You will get better by shooting photos this way! And, keep track of how those happy accidents happened. That’s where learning more about using your camera comes in! You will develop your own personal technique shooting photos this way.

Part of this process is to also learn to edit your photos down to the best of the best. Travel photographer Nevada Wier, writes about this “painful, but important editing process,” and aims for a “good” image once a day and a “great” image once a week. That’s it. Remember, magazine editors never select multiple variations on the same photo. They pick one. The best one, and you never see the outtakes, the “dogs”, the not quite there photos. Only the one-best-shot. I know that’s hard to do, but that’s where you hone your vision and create a focused body of work. After looking closely at thousands of photos during the editing process, you will have a clearer focus on what to shoot and when to shoot it. Not every single photo a pro takes is a “winner.” You can become a better photographer by editing your photos more critically!

a range of Lightroom photos being edited

Taking lots of photos increase your chances of capturing a great photo!

And, without exception, shoot camera raw. DNG, NEF, ARW, OLF, CR2, whatever your camera’s raw format is, you’ll always have a greater dynamic range of tones shooting raw instead of JPEG. The one time you take the most spectacular photo of your life, you’ll want it to be a raw file. That’s because JPEG is a “lossy” file format. That is to say the image is compressed and some quality is always lost. Adobe invented camera raw and in 2003 introduced this revolutionary lossless image file format to take advantage of the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor.

Like many of my students who used to insist on shooting JPEGs because they liked the way they look, at least set your camera to shoot raw plus JPEG. The belt and suspenders method gives you an option. And, like many of my students, you’ll probably discover that fantastic Guadeloupe landscape you shot in JPEG with the burnt out sky is actually recoverable in your raw capture using Lightroom. When that happens, raw will suddenly become your capture format of choice.

Now, the next time you’re out shooting, be thoughtful, and shoot away!

Over the next few weeks I’ll be traveling to Muscat, Oman and Kerala, India planning out my 2017 workshops. I’ll be writing blog posts about this trip and posting preview images of this reconnaissance tour.