The 10,000-hour rule is often quoted as the magic number of hours that you need to practice in order to master an activity. Now, I’m not saying that after 10,000 hours of practice you’ll definitely have mastered photography. But I do think it’s true that the more you practice, the better you will get!
The secret of practicing to improve your skills is to have a plan. You need to know what you’re practicing, you need to set goals, and you need to find a way to somehow measure your improvement.
Recently, I spent the day practicing with a new lens at Silverstone motor racing circuit. I just wanted to improve my panning to show speed and learn more about my equipment. I was reminded at the time that many photographers can find real joy in just practicing their craft and trying to improve. So with that in mind, here’s my guide on how to make a plan to make your practicing more productive!
Decide what to improve
It sounds obvious, but you need to start with something in mind that you’d like to improve. Wanting to improve your photography is too general. Try and narrow it down more. I wanted to improve my automotive photography and identified that shooting moving objects was a real weak spot in my technique.
Once you’ve narrowed it to something specific you can begin to research. Start here on Digital Photography School. There’s a handy search bar on every page to help you find articles that might be useful. Read those articles and make some notes on things to keep in mind when you’re next shooting. Start building your own instruction manual in your own words to take with you.
Plan your practice
When you’ve decided the things you want to improve, you need to start planning a subject, time, and a place to shoot. This could be as simple as photographing food in your kitchen, or as complicated as a week-long road trip. Put your plans in your diary and make a note of how long you’ve got to prepare. If you get organized, you’ll be far more likely to stick to your plan.
Make sure what you plan is something you find interesting too. Don’t plan for a day of photography (or even a few hours) that you’ll find boring and won’t enjoy. It’ll only put you off photography in the future.
Source the right equipment
If you need a piece of equipment that you don’t currently own, now is the time to decide how you’re going to get it. Hiring lenses can be a cheap way to try new options before buying (but borrowing from friends is even cheaper). Sometimes a piece of new equipment can be just what you need to kickstart your photography, but you need to practice and learn how to use it.
For some pieces of equipment, there are even DIY solutions. Don’t be afraid to experiment and try things out. It doesn’t matter if your shots aren’t perfect; this is an exercise in practicing, not perfection!
Take your notes with you
When you go out shooting to practice, make sure you take your notes with you. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a notebook or on your phone, but make sure you’ve got that research that you did while you were planning.
If you’re trying something new, then you may well have questions as you practice. Even if you’re an old hand at photography, it’s still good to refresh your knowledge before you start taking pictures.
Practice as much as you can, for as long as you can
The costs of film and developing don’t limit you in this digital age. This means you have the opportunity to shoot lots of images when you practice.
Make the most of your time out practicing photography and shoot as much as you can. You never know which image you’ve taken will teach you something new. It could be the first, or it could be the last!
I like to make a day of it when I go out practicing, stubbornly shooting images long past everyone else has left, and my friends have got fed up. It feels like the more I practice, the more I learn, so I try to make the most of the opportunities I get to practice.
Don’t worry about perfection
The aim of practicing isn’t to get images for your portfolio or to take pictures to publish on social media or show your non-photographer friends. The aim is to improve your technique or your creativity.
You should be taking the opportunity to try new things and be experimental. Don’t just write off an idea that you’ve had because it won’t work – take the pictures and prove to yourself that it won’t work! You never know what you’ll learn from a failed experiment until you’ve got back home and reviewed the pictures.
Review your shots
Sometimes your practice will be over when you finish shooting. You’ll have learned enough about the technique that you don’t need to review the images.
However, while the experience is fresh in your mind, it’s worth sitting down at a piece of software such as Adobe Lightroom and reviewing the images in conjunction with the EXIF data to try and work out exactly what worked and why (and what didn’t work and why).
The Library module in Adobe Lightroom has the ability to view all the data from your images including shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and focal length. Start pulling up your images one by one, marking the ones that you like, and then reviewing the EXIF data for them.
Make some notes
Ideally, with the research notes that you made before you went shooting, make some notes on how your practice went. Look for patterns in the EXIF data to tell you what was successful and what wasn’t. Write down how you feel about the images, and perhaps make a note for other related techniques that you’d like to work on in the future.
Research how to correct your mistakes
If you consistently made the same mistake over and over while you were practicing, then you’ll want to work out how to fix that for next time.
Read some more articles or even try and find a mentor. Ask questions to your friends who seem to already have the technique nailed (or see if you can go shooting with them for some practice).
Make notes on how to improve for next time using everything you’ve learned so far. If you try and keep it all in your head, then I promise you’ll forget most of it before you get your camera out again!
Plan more practice
Practice makes perfect, after all. And you don’t learn everything on your first attempt.
Using the notes and research that you’ve gathered plan another time to practice. Perhaps this time you’ll work on something related that you’ve identified as a weak spot in your technique. Perhaps you could try the same technique but in a different setting (I’m planning a day out shooting moving wildlife next having now practiced on cars at a racing circuit).
Whatever you plan next, don’t stop practicing. Not even after you’ve reached over ten-thousand hours of practice because there’s always something new to learn.