The Practicing Photographer: Why Practice?

By Ben Long

Your goal as a photographer should not be to take great photos.

Don’t get me wrong, your goal as a photographer should not be to take lousy photos either, but building your goals around the idea of a final product often keeps you from engaging in the processes that make you a better photographer. 

Studying theories of composition, guidelines for exposure, and best practices for shooting are all important. I certainly spend plenty of time teaching those things, and you do need to invest time in learning them. But such study will only take you so far. What will make you a better photographer is figuring out how to improve your photographic self. Some of the ways you might do that include:

  • Learning how to consistently see the world photographically.
  • Learning how to defeat the editors and other negative thought processes that you carry around in your head.
  • Discovering the unique characteristics of your way of seeing the world, so that you’re expressing your own ideas rather than simply copying someone else’s.
  • Learning to combat boredom.
  • Adapting to changes in your own interests and tastes, over time, and learning how those changes affect your photography.
  • Striving to understand what makes a successful photograph work.

None of these practices follow any rules or theories. They are not things you can learn by rote, but they are necessary if you want to move beyond the simple, process-oriented, “eight ways to improve your photos” type of instruction that you find littered around the web.

The key to all of this is practice. Unfortunately, most of us learn our ideas of practice at a young age, when we’re learning either a sport or a musical instrument. In my middle-school orchestra class we had “practice report cards.” Each week, we were required to log at least 30 minutes of practice every day, and then have our parents notarize this document, which was critical to our final grade. While this did get me to saw away on the cello for a lot of hours, it also taught me that practice is a particular activity that you engage in, and that it’s different and separate from performance or playing for pleasure.

Years later, I found myself working for a number of jazz musicians. From them, I saw a very different attitude and approach to practice. The first thing you notice about the practice habits of professional musicians is quantity: they practice a lot. But what also struck me was how much they thought about their process of practicing. They discussed it with each other, they experimented with it, trying different approaches and different disciplines. Practice, it turns out, is something you have to practice. This is why I don’t buy the “10,000 hours to achieve mastery” idea. Number of hours isn’t as important as quality of hours, and figuring out how to get quality hours takes some work.

But for all of these people, practice was not seen as an activity that was necessarily separate from the other playing that they did — rather, there was only playing. I asked one musician friend, on the night before his wedding, what he was going to do the next morning, since the wedding was not until the afternoon. “I think I’ll practice,” he said. “It relaxes me.” 

As a kid, I had never considered the idea of practice as something enjoyable, let alone relaxing, but if you practice enough it becomes a comfortable, familiar activity — a relaxing place to go where you can engage with your own strengths and lose yourself in something familiar.

Practice is a state of mind that you should, ideally, be living in as much as possible. Every time you pick up your camera, you’re practicing; every time you look through a book of photographs you’re practicing; every time a play of light catches your eye and causes you to think about it, you’re practicing. If you make practicing your goal then you’ll be re-shaping yourself into someone with a stronger visual sense, who has an easier time achieving a state of mindful interaction with the world, who is possibly more relaxed, likely more curious, and who lacks the achievement-oriented mindset that makes for self-defeating thoughts. And, as a nice benefit, all of this will lead you to take better photos.

Reprinted from The Practicing Photographer, Essays on Developing Your Photographic Practice, by Ben Long. ©2021 Ben Long and CDP Press. All rights reserved.

The Practicing Photographer will be available in August 2021 from CDP Press LLC. ISBN 978-1-7326369-4-1 (print); 978-1-7326369-5-8 (ebook).