Applying the 10,000-Hour Rule to Photographers

Malcolm Gladwell famously asserted in his best-selling book Outliers that for a person to truly excel at something, he or she must have approximately 10,000 hours of practice at it. It’s become known as the “10,000-hour rule.”

The 10,000-hour rule isn’t meant to suggest that if you cook for 10,000 hours, you’ll become a world-class chef. Many factors come into play, practice being just one.

Let’s take photography, for example.

How should we apply the rule in our profession?

And what activities should count toward us earning that 10,000-hour merit badge?

Counting Up the Hours

We could start by adding up every flip of the shutter — at, say, 1/125 of a second each. The photographer would need to take about 450 million pictures to reach 10,000 hours that way.

Obviously, that’s too literal an interpretation. You should include all your time spent on shoots and preparing for shoots, too.

So, if you spent three hours on shoots each day for 10 years, that would add up to 10,000 hours. Difficult, but certainly achievable.

But I don’t think those are the only hours that should count toward your 10,000. I would also include time spent with mentors. A good mentor can give you advice that advances your photography by leaps and bounds.

Talking with and learning from the best can make a huge difference. I would contrast this with other kinds of photography discussions — such as gabbing with others at your skill level about the latest gear.

I would argue that the former activity should count toward your 10,000 hours; the latter, not so much.

Finding Your Own Style

But learning from mentors, preparing for shoots, and clicking the shutter are not enough in themselves. Even if you do them for 10,000 hours — or 20,000 hours, for that matter.

If you simply imitate your mentor in your work, for example, you’re still a wannabe.

To truly excel, a photographer must develop a personal style and approach. This requires self-reflection, and ultimately, to see the world in a unique way.

So even when you’re not making photos or talking with others about photography, you can still be logging hours toward that 10,000-hour goal. Just walking down the street, even without a camera in hand, you can be logging those hours.

As Michelle Black put it in her recent Black Star Rising post, “Photography is about moments, whether we capture them with our camera or not.”

All the time you spend seeing the world as a photographer, as opposed to just another resident of the planet, is “practice” toward becoming great at what you do.

I’m not sure how that jibes with Malcolm Gladwell’s interpretation, but it works for me.

10 Responses to “Applying the 10,000-Hour Rule to Photographers”

  1. Although hands-on camera time is definitely a necessity, I find that I work on photography in other ways: Taking in other visual artists' work, observing light in the real world, etc. So I very much agree with your statement about seeing the world as a photographer.

  2. In product photography especially, there is considerable time arranging lighting and accessories compared to time 'at the camera'.

    P.S. Pedant Alert! I think 1/125 x 125(1 second) x 60(1 minute) x 60(1 hour) x 10,000 = 4500 million.

  3. You have to count everything. I spend time everyday "composing" images...working on capturing the right image whether I have my camera out or not. My last painting took 40+ hours of time at the easel, but I spent well over 100+ hours working on it, staring and working through details, visualizing in my mind. It all counts. It is all development and advancement.

  4. I agree! Photography is a lot more than releasing the shutter. I do a lot of reading and looking at other's work. And of course if shopping for equipment counts, I must be getting close to my 10000!

  5. Pedantry check - In his calculations, Craig neglects the shutter re-cocking time in cameras with a mechanical camera. There is also the fact that in an SLR the viewfinder is blacked out during the exposure, so perhaps this time is actually to be taken away from the 10k hours...

    But seriously, it takes away from the key principle that it takes time and practice to be very good at something (really? stop the presses for this one 😉

    We all have our own ways of using the time to our advantage - I find looking at the work of other photographers nowhere near as inspiring as some others suggest - a lack of formal training and having to write essays about my 'influences' really helps here 😉

    I do however agree that even walking down the street or sitting in the pub watching things counts, whether I've a camera with me or not...

  6. "I see pictures." That's what I tell my friends sometimes :).

    I see them all around me. And when I do, I make this quiet shutter noise inside my head, lol.

  7. The 10,000 hour rule is but one of many important factors highlighted in Malcom's book to identify outliers (vs. excelling). Having 10,000 hours under your belt, however you calculate it, doesn't guarantee greatness. Work ethic, influence, subject, etc. are but some of many other factors that define greatness in the realm of photographers. Once can work 10,000 hours in a mediocre fashion and still never be an outlier.

  8. @Keith - Slightly off-topic, but the point was to compare with the calculation Leonard made - hence the deliberate omission of the points you raised.

  9. 10000 hours was not originally Gladwell's idea (but it is a great read and specific to outliers - not garden variety talent), it was Dr Suzuki of The Suzuki Method fame (1898-1998). “Knowledge is not skill. Knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions is skill." Suzuki also refers to this method as "talent education". This implies that, with enough practice, talent can be produced (that it is not only latent). It is very true that practice needs to be diverse but above all it needs to be of quality.

    Suzuki's teachings can be applied equally well to any industry - including photography. However, it is collegate, non-elistist and highly encouraging of the new and inexperienced....these are things that the photog world often does not appear to be.

    "Character first. Ability second"

  10. I am so glad I read this article, because as you point out above, "just walking down the street, even without a camera in hand, you can be logging those hours" and this is what I have started doing since my affection for photography was rekindled.

    I thought perhaps I was becoming obsessed with photography and should probably focus more on the task at hand and stop "daydreaming" about photography.

    But I could not overcome this idea of "seeing the world as a photographer" and this in conjunction with just having my simple cell phone camera on hand, has yielded a couple photographs that admirers found hard to believe were shot with my phone.

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