What does it take to be a professional photographer?


Do you know how long it takes to be a master at a particular thing? It takes 10,000 solid hours of experience. At the least! That assertion, based on research, was made well known by author Malcolm Gladwell in his recently released bestselling non-fiction, The Outlier.

After doing some simple calculations, this means that to be really good at one thing, one has to devote almost 8 to 10 years to be able to reasonably do something at a level of true excellence—spending at least 4 hours a day every single day. That is a conservative estimate, of course, meaning that a person must reasonably devote and apply one’s self consistently to the mastery of a single thing. The time to really master one thing can take a bit longer if a person is hampered by other constraints, such as a full-time job, interests and hobbies in other fields, and social responsibilities as well as obligations that all take away precious time from pursuing mastery. If one decides to fast-track mastery, the shortest humanly possible time when it can be done is about 3 to 5 years, but then, that means there’s going to be no time for anything else including eating and sleeping. How about a shortcut? There is no shortcut, according to Malcolm Gladwell. One has no choice but to simply commit and devote to the 10,000 hours.

What does it have to do with being a photographer? Well, photography is one of those things that requires 10,000 hours to master, even (and most specially) in the advent of digital photography.

The era of “digital” of photography is relatively new. It is, as a matter of fact, still in the process of evolution. Many great discoveries are still being made, which is a sign that this field hasn’t yet matured. This is a time when even well-known master photographers are coping up with learning new things every day in this relatively young “digital” field of photography. Which means, if an individual is going into it only at about this time, that should tell us that he has a very long way to go. Anyone who has been lured only recently into photography because of its popular digitization means that one must begin to take serious steps to its learning and mastery. Those who engage in digital photography in a haphazard way, as a hobby for example, cannot hope to master it just yet. It really takes a long time. So, just because a person decided to own a pro-looking dSLR camera and learn the rudiments of the digital camera’s technical operations, and perhaps, dabble a bit into the post-production workflow that is necessary to completing the photographic process for a few intense days, doesn’t necessarily mean that he is an expert at what he is doing, or will he be an expert any time soon. It takes time.

Many people wonder or are naive about the nature of photography. How hard can it really be? If you see someone clicking a camera to take a shot and posting “nice-looking” pictures on the web, many are mislead to believe that anyone can do that too. That’s because professional photographers make it look easy, very easy. That’s how it is with pros—the long years of practice, learning and experience they have undergone, specially those who started with film photography, has given them the power, confidence, talent and skills that seems to make it look easy to anyone. That is simply an illusion. Such an ease has taken the true professional photographers years to develop. It is, of course, the same with any other profession or field of endeavor. Anybody can pick up a pen and paper or type on a computer, and start writing, but that doesn’t make one a professional writer.

Of course, anyone can fake it. If a person knows enough, it is possible to bluff one’s way into photography. But it seems baffling that anyone will do something at the risk being discovered a charlatan. It’s actually easy to uncover the untrained photographer—even with just a quick look at the manner and style of shooting, and even with something as simple as how one holds a camera up to the eye when looking through the viewfinder at a subject. And that’s just the act of shooting! How about things like being able to properly read a histogram, identify the difference between color spaces and profiles, measure the quality and characteristics of light, properly process RAW image files? It goes on and on. Because photography is specially a seamless blend of both technical expertise and artistic merits, one needs to devote a whole lot of time to learn and master all these, and more.

The advent of the digital age has opened up the art and craft of photography to a lot of people of all ages. And that is a very good thing. The revival of interest in photography on a massive scale tells us that we can now record all important moments in our lives and enjoy it. Unlike in the analog era when photography has been the domain of only a few, many didn’t have the opportunity to record personal lives. Nowadays, with its ubiquity, everyone can visually record such personal moments in, literally, a snap.

However, just because anyone can now take a picture with a digital box doesn’t mean that anybody can be a professional photographer. There is more to it, so much more, than just tripping the shutter.

The secret to mastery of any one thing is not just having an inclination but making a serious commitment to devoting one’s time—and it takes a whole lot of time. And this is where the chaff is separated from the grain, the amateur from the professional. If a person is just beginning now and doesn’t have the time to commit, it is best to rethink one’s options, directions and goals. Anyone can still enjoy it, but one has to give up hopes of becoming a master of it. But if a person is truly dedicated and committed, the doors are wide open to becoming a professional. Anyone is more than welcome.

[Note: Dominique James is a professional photographer, writer and graphic designer based in New York City. Visit his website at http://www.dominiquejames.com or email dominiquejames@mac.com for more information.]

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