Do You Practice Photography?

Wind sprints, running routes, scrimmages, gym time, endless muscle pain and physical therapy. Before an athlete steps onto the field under the lights in front of a cheering crowd, they practice. Like an athlete, a musician would never expect to perform before an audience without first practicing for hundreds, even thousands of hours. In the performing arts and athletics, practice is a given. It's a way of life. What about photography? Do photographers need to practice?

This is something I've been thinking about a lot as I desire to better align my photographic skill with my taste. You've probably read the famous Ira Glass quote about that. If not, here's the part I'm referring to, "All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap."

I want to close the gap. Subconsciously, I know I'll never close the gap because I don't do enough photography to get to the level I'd like to be at. Shooting the occasional paid portrait gig or TFP shoot isn't going to get me there. It's not nearly enough.

Until recently, I haven't associated the traditional concept of practice with photography. Not sure why, but the two never crossed paths in my mind. Then I watched a YouTube video of a photographer I had never heard of before named Roberto Valenzuela. His story is moving and he happens to be a self-taught professional musician in addition to being a solid wedding photographer.

He applied the concept of rigorous practice in music to his photography and when he described that, I felt like an idiot for not having considered the simple idea of practice to photography in the traditional sense. But, I also realized practice isn't something photographers talk about often and that's what made his perspective unique. Sure, we discuss things like personal projects or photo challenges, but I don't see that as deliberate practice.

In my estimation, practice involves doing an exercise repeatedly and working to improve something specific with each iteration. This means acting with a goal in mind. For instance, as a portrait photographer, to improve lighting, working with one light and modifier in different positions, moving it incrementally to see the effect of different lighting positions on a subject. Sitting at the computer, analyzing each frame and figuring out what works and what doesn't. Then, doing it again, improving with each shooting session and post-processing review.

[practicing lighting on my son]

The goal isn't to come away with portfolio material or to even show anyone the images. It's purely for practice. It's the deliberate act of improving upon one single thing until you reach a level of mastery that closes the gap between your taste and your ability. When you book a client shoot, the position of the light is second nature. You're no longer learning how to light on a paid gig.

This isn't limited to portrait photographers. Street photography, landscape, product, you name it, there's always room for practice. Pick one thing to work on, do it over and over, review the images, take actual or mental notes, then do it again minus the things you identified as not working in the previous iteration. Further develop the things that are working. It takes a lot of time and dedication, just as it does for the athlete or musician, but the more you practice, the better you become at photography.

Until recently, I approached photography more casually, and for many people, that's fine. It's a hobby and practice might ruin the fun. For me, I want to improve and deliberate practice is slowly starting to pay off. What about you? Do you apply deliberate practice to your photography?

Author: Don Fitzsimmons
Co-Founder of Gear Offer, software developer and photographer.

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