Saturday, February 8, 2014

Taking Bad Pictures

It is part of the received wisdom in photography that one must take a lot of bad pictures.

Cartier-Bresson is frequently quoted as saying that your first 10,000 pictures are your worst. What is left out is that your first 100 and your first million are also your worst, taken as a whole. Generally, we get better over time.

Another oft-quoted truism is that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something, anything. This is, of course, completely idiotic. It probably takes 10,000 hours of work to become proficient, in some sense, at flying an airplane or playing the piano. It does not take 10,000 hours to learn to fry an egg. I can get you frying eggs exceedingly well in an hour, if you're more or less attentive. Photography is slightly more complex than frying an egg, but much much easier than flying an airplane.

If photography were hard, there wouldn't be nearly as many people doing it. Yes, yes, most of them are awful. There are still huge numbers of truly excellent photographers out there. It's basically pretty easy to do pretty well, for pretty much any definition of pretty well.

These sorts of things bolster a culture of photography wherein one must take a lot of crummy pictures "first".

In reality, doing anything badly is the best possible way to ensure that you never do it well. A piano student is given accessible pieces to play, and urged to play them as slowly as necessary to play them first correctly, and then well. Of course the student would have trouble with the trickier Chopin, which is why the trickier Chopin is reserved for later in the process. Music teachers are at some pains to tell students not to practice mistakes, not to practice bad playing. Practice good playing, practice with focus, and only when you can focus, and only things that are within your grasp. Attempting pieces that are far beyond your grasp teaches you nothing, at best stalls your education in its tracks, and at worst teaches you a lot of bad habits which must be unlearned.

The admonition to carry your camera with you, always, and to shoot, shoot, shoot, is all about practicing bad picture taking. Are you a terrible pianist? Well, just be sure to spend 6 hours a day hammering randomly on the keys, 7 days a week, until you get awesome! Pick a piece of music, any piece, and smash your head against it endlessly!

It simply doesn't work that way. Even the neophyte should try to take good pictures. Simple ones, perhaps copies of other people's simple but good pictures. Don't just charge into the world clicking away at everything that looks cool. I certainly tried to learn to take good pictures by shoot, shoot, shooting. I'm still mad about it. The sculptor is not urged to carry a slab of marble everywhere, the painter does not carry paints everywhere, or even a sketchbook. Only the photographer is urged to Always Have The Camera.

If photography were a musical instrument, how would you practice your instrument today?

Instead of carrying your camera everywhere today, do that.


  1. 10,000 hours is enough to be a really skillful with a camera but the time means nothing without some modicum of talent.

  2. I guess part of the learning process is not only in the learning activity itself (being practicing in front of the piano or shooting behind the camera) but it is the assimilation process as well. You sometimes realize that when learning something : you've learned it, you know it, but you did not assimilate it yet. It is not part of you, it is still a conscious effort you have to make, and as consequence you cannot move forward toward the next step, because the next thing cannot be assimilated before the previous one is. May be that's the reason why you cannot simply add the time you actively spent learning something as a meaningful counter, but you should account for the necessary breaks between the lessons. The necessary digesting time between the meals that prevents you just get filled and throw up without taking benefit of what you ate.