I suspect that most of you get photography e-mails, read photography books and/or magazines, subscribe to photo on-line classes, and maybe count on Blogs to get you motivated. I do, and I have to admit that I don’t always follow through and practice what they are trying to teach me. But a recent e-mail post by Rob at Lightstalking.com caught my attention.
The Lightstalking.com piece was a reflection on the Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers I read a decade ago. As an educational Psychologist I was really intrigued by the theme that explored what motivation impacted personal success. You may have heard about the “10,000 hour rule” that Gladwell used to explain the success of the Beatles and young hockey players in Canada. If you haven’t heard, take a look at Gladwell on Wikipedia, or better yet read the book.
Rob at Lightstalking.com raised the question about why Ansel Adams became the “best ever photographer” and pointed out an explanation that most of us believe; Time on Task is Critical. The Beetles clearly spent over 10,000 hours playing music at a club in Hamburg Germany before the British Invasion in the mid-1960s. And very young hockey players who were born early in the year (January, February, March) held about 90% of the spots on All-Star hockey teams, including the NHL. Gladwell explains why these folks were successful: Time on Task. But it wasn’t just about time, it is about the quality of the time!
The Beatles weren’t playing their guitars and drums in a garage someplace for thousands of hours. They were playing together at a nightclub (actually a strip club), 7 days a week for about 8 hours every day. And the young hockey players (at about 5 years of age in Canada) who were born early in the year were much bigger than kids born in later. The bigger young hockey players were selected for the All-Star teams where they received much better coaching and went to bigger tournaments. The more you play organized hockey or challenging music the more likely it is that your will become an expert.
So it is not just about time, it is about quality time. So, what in the world is quality photography time? If you wanted to improve your photography, what should you do to make the time quality? If you want to improve your athletic skills, you need to put yourself in challenging situations with a very good coach and probably a good team on which to play. If you want to improve your skills playing the guitar, you need to put in many hours, AND challenge yourself to more and more difficult songs, and have a good coach OR at least fellow musicians who will give you feedback on your music. If you are truly committed to improving your photography, it is probably NOT good enough just to spend more hours clicking-clicking-clicking.
Let’s start by finding some photography comparisons to athletics and music. It seems to me that there are three attributes that are important to consider: time-on-task, challenging opportunities for photographs, and someone who will give you feedback on the photographs you have taken. Time-on-task is fairly simple. If you are truly committed to improve, make a plan for taking a lot more photos and stick to it. But simply getting out and doing a lot of “clicking” without any thought isn’t likely to help.
You need to have a clear focused goal that is challenging and different. When you stick to new goals and assessing your progress you are taking important steps. And to help you assess whether you have made progress, you need someone to give you honest feedback on your progress for higher standards.
I have experienced a very helpful organization that has completely changed my photography – and I will share the details for the Peer Mentor Program in my photography club in my next blog. But for now, I want to share a fairly fundamental experience as an example how to push yourself to recognize a way to improve. I am very fortunate to live fairly close to two national parks – Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park. That doesn’t guarantee improvement if I continue with the same-old, same-old approach.
If you look at my Grand Teton National Park Gallery (Grand Teton National Park Gallery ) I hope you will notice that I have taken a fairly wide variety of photos from a number of different places. I have worked at creating a variety of photos in the Tetons and I am now realizing the value in seeing this beautiful park differently.
I also have a Yellowstone National Park Gallery (Yellowstone NP Gallery) but I have to admit that in many ways this is same-old, same-old set of photos. I haven’t pushed myself to go about a different approach and create opportunities to learn new ways to take photos in landscape photography. When my son wanted to go to Yellowstone last week, I saw an opportunity to stick to a new goal; using a telephoto lens to take landscape photos. I made a commitment to myself to only use my telephoto lens and to look for different ways to express the beauty and diversity of this landscape.
Let’s Take a Trip Thru Yellowstone … with a 70-200mm Telephoto Lens
When we have company visit us we typically visit the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. My son Adam wanted to visit Yellowstone (he hasn’t been there in probably 20 years) so I took him on the typical route.
We started at Gibbons Fall
Gibbons Falls is beautiful and right along the highway in Yellowstone National Park. I have taken dozens (maybe hundreds) of photos of the falls from a variety of angles but never got a photo I really liked. The road-view is at the top of the falls so you can’t see the falls from the bottom without risking your life trying to climb to the bottom. This is a very different image taken with a telephoto (70-200 mm) at 70mm, 1/125, at f8.0. Hmm, nothing great but certainly different.
On to Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
One of the most popular places to visit in Yellowstone NP is the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Every year there are hundreds of thousands of tourists that take millions of photos of the canyon. Artist Point is the most photographed observation point, and this is one of my most common image of the canyon. I took this photo with my 70-200 mm lens at 1/160 at f5.6. So it is taken with a telephoto, but it isn’t much different than the photos I have taken and all the thousands of tourists take every year. It’s nice but …
I’ve often noticed the beauty of the color and depth from Artist Point but have seldom been serious about “important” photos of views other than Artist Point. I continued to use my 70-200 mm telephoto (I no longer need to tell you that since it is the only lens I used that day) but I pointed the camera down and got this image a 1/200, at f5.6. I didn’t have good light but it is a unique view that shows the Yellowstone River.
And a Quite Different View of Grand Canyon of Yellowstone
I’ve been visiting Yellowstone NP since the early 1970s and I have viewed the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone just about every time I have been to the park. But I probably haven’t been to the Upper Falls at Uncle Tom’s Trail in 20 years; let’s go there and see if I can get a different photograph – think telephoto! I didn’t have to walk very far from the car and the view of the Upper Falls was very nice, including the tourists taking photos on the other side of the Yellowstone river right above the top of the falls. This time I was really taking a telephoto shot with a 200 mm, 1/1250, at f4.0. It is interesting and the people emphasize the size of the falls.
On to Old Faithful
You can’t take visitors to Yellowstone without visiting Old Faithful and I have taken thousands of photos of this famous geyser. I’ve taken photos in every season, at all times of the day and night, and in a variety of weather conditions… but always with a wide-angle lens. My goal was to challenge myself to take all my photos with a telephoto and to take photos that were clearly very different to challenge my standard photography. I could climb the hillside and take photos from ¼ mile away OR look for very different perspectives. The pandemic was encouraging a long walk to get away from all the tourists, but my son wanted to stand back of the crowd and watch the eruption. So, I set my lens at 1/800 and f 9.0 and the image is very different … and I like it. It isn’t exactly “abstract” but it is different way of looking at Old Faithful. Blown-up you can see the droplets … good thing they aren’t from someone with covid-19.
On to Midway Geyser Basin
One of the most colorful and largest hot spring in Yellowstone is the Midway Geiser Basin with Excelsior Geyser Basin and Grand Prismatic. I’ve taken a lot of photos of Excelsior but the steam always gets in the way; so how about using a telephoto and focus on what I can see. I didn’t trust my telephoto since the steam made it hard to see, but I took the shot with 105 mm at 1/500 at 9.0 and ended up with some cropping.
And to finish off our trip to Yellowstone we took time viewing the Grand Prismatic, one of the largest hot springs in the world. The color is always amazing and a bit of wind on a warm day will decrease the steam. I have taken many photos of Grand Prismatic and since become a “real photographer” (but certainly not really an advanced photographer) I have taken quite a few panos. But on this day with my lens set for 70mm at 1/500 at f 9.0, I took my shots differently; I took 6 or 8 shot in portrait mode and included the people to show the size of the hot spring. It may not seem like a big deal but it got me thinking about what I was seeing.
So, What am I Learning?
I think it is fair to say that with my improvement as a photographer the last couple years, I am not just a click-click-click guy. I take my time, try to become one-with-the-environment, and have mastered most of the attributes of my cameras. I adjust exposures and focus accurately for most types of photos. I have acquired a fairly good understanding of Lightroom-Basic but still have a lot to learn about the more advanced procedures.
But what I am learning is that working to achieve 10,000 hours of clicking by itself is NOT enough, at least for me. I have grown as an advancing amateur photographer to the point where a key ingredient in my future improvement is to learn to see the world of landscape photography with a new eye. For the past year or two I have taken most of my good landscape photos with a Nikon wide angle (24-120 mm) or super wide angle (16-35 mm). I used my telephoto (70-120 mm) occasionally, but I hadn’t learned how to see the world differently to make good telephoto landscape photos. For the last couple weeks, I have taken only telephoto landscape photos and I think it is having an effect on how I see the landscape world.
Working to advance your photography is impacted by the hours you spend taking photos. But even if you were to spend 10,000 hours, you may not make the improved jump that you are striving to achieve. You also need to work to develop advancing skills. I have found that the best way to adopt skills that will advance your photography is to step outside your comfort zone. I took that step by only using my telephoto lens, but I have another way to step outside my comfort zone that I will share with you in my next Blog.
Here’s a suggestion to get you to think about the next step: Can you find another amateur photographer who is about at the same skill level as you, or maybe slightly more advanced, that would be willing to work with you?
The teacher in me was thirsty for working with other photographer so I started a Peer Mentor Program about 4 years ago. We have adopted a monthly Theme Challenge where we pick a topic like “Telephoto Landscape Photos” for everyone to work on and then critique their photos. I’ll let you know how it has worked in my next Blog.