Henri Cartier-Bresson is known as saying, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst”, meaning you need to take that many photographs before an appreciation of how to make lighting and composition work for you as a photographer. Of course, this is considering a couple of thoughts, first of all either because of hobby or profession, you want to be good photographer. That is because I know lots of people that have been taking pictures for years, and all their pictures are about the same quality, since the first time they pressed the shutter. Secondly, the statement is not implying that a photographer cannot make a fantastic photo in any of the first 9,999. The primary difference is the ability to consistently make good photographs instead of simply hoping things will work out. The context is important as well, because when Cartier-Bresson was alive he shot film, so that number of 10,000 means true investment of effort, time and expense to hone photographic skill.
In this age of digital photography, I think that number should be more like 50,000, but the sentiment is still the same. The comparably lower cost of equipment, processing and access to knowledge makes it easier than any other time in history to become a photographer. What that number represents is the work required, not what kind of gear they use, or how many YouTube videos have been watched, only for the photographs that are actually produced.
In my opinion, many digital photographers follow a development course similar to this.
First is “the high volume snapper”, trying to capture what the eyes and mind see in a scene. A good chunk of those developmental photographs that Cartier-Bresson spoke of are shot here. Lots of pictures are taken of everything including thumbs over the lens, sidewalks instead of people and blurry pictures of Bigfoot, (or maybe that was Aunt Karen?). I know that I spent a lot of time taking the same photograph over and over again trying to reproduce the view and mood of the real world in my image. The feeling of triumph that I got when I’d eventually get it, made me feel like I was ready to work for National Geographic!
Next step in the photographer’s journey is becoming a “thoughtful shooter”. As a “thoughtful shooter”, the volume of shots is lower and there is more awareness of composition and creativity. I think this is where many amateur photographers really see and understand their development and growth, especially when compared to their earlier efforts. In many ways this is also the crossroads for photographers; until this point the amount of effort put into learning about photography produces an equal amount of improvement. However from this point on, a considerable amount of time and effort must be spent to achieve only a small or, if lucky, a moderate improvement in photography. Also at this point, you’ll understand Cartier-Bresson’s genius, not only for his photography, but for somehow knowing that it takes thousands of photographs, not reading a book or two, and not watching a few YouTube videos, just dedicated work!
The “journeyman photographer” is the next level in the evolution, and where the concepts of capturing and shaping the light has meaning, and becomes a part of every photograph “made”. That’s right, “made”… because at this point, we stop taking shots with whatever lighting condition, or scene that exists, and we instead use our skill to “make” the image that we have in our imagination, using the camera. This is a prestigious level of achievement, and in the digital age many people pretend to be members of this group, using post production tools like Adobe’s Photoshop. The difference is that the “journeyman” will create in the camera, what the novice will spend some time to simulate in Photoshop.
An “artist” is the level when aesthetic, technique and style all intersect. As an “artist“, you bring more perspective to photography than just being an application or a science used to produce pictures. As an “artist”, it is about incorporating other influences in the world of creativity, and to expanding the options in making a photograph. The emphasis becomes creating photographs that are compelling and mesmerizing and communicating without verbally speaking. This is also the point when you realize, all that time spent looking through a lens has finally taught you to how to truly see.
I’m sure there is a level beyond being an “artist”, that place in the rarefied air, where photographic idols create and display their work. As “artist”, this is the only place that we want to be… where our work becomes a unique definition all by itself, to be admired, studied and emulated by other up-and-comers as they work beyond their first 50,000 photographs.