What does it take to succeed in photography? I'd say discipline is near the top of the list.

Copyright ©2010 Kirk Tuck.   All rights reserved.

When I was six years old I decided that I wanted to be a swimmer.  This was in the days before goggles were in wide use.  It was a time in which Doc Councilman was the most famous swim coach in the world and his swimmers at the University of Indiana won just about everything under the sun.  Doc Councilman wrote an enormous tome entitled, The Science of Swimming.  The book was a must read for swim coaches from California to East Germany.  He was a proponent of getting the technique right and he was a BIG proponent of getting your yards in.

I swam year round.  Beginning in high school we practiced twice a day.  I remember the cold January mornings when my best friend's older brother, Steve, would pick me up, along with three or four other swimmers, and we'd be at the pool and ready to hit the water at 5:30am.  Five days a week.  We'd swim four or five thousand yards and then, at 7:30am we'd hit the showers and head to class.

In the afternoons we'd hit the pool right after our last class and put in our two p.m. hours of practice.  During the holiday breaks, while our friends were skiing or at the beach or just slacking off and sleeping in till noon, we'd keep up the same schedule.

Now, as a 54 year old person,  I still get up six days a week and make the pool my first stop.  This morning my master's team hit the water at 8:30 am.  Most of us were hoping that we'd see Olympian and world record holder, Aaron Peirsol, again today.  He'd come to several practices during the week and we were all thinking the same thoughts, "Maybe I'll learn some technique that will make my swimming better."  He didn't show but that didn't stop us from swimming hard and getting a little over 3200 yards in before breakfast.  That's around 160 lengths of our 25 meter pool.

About the same amount of yardage we did yesterday.  Why do I mention this when, statistically, you don't give a crap about competitive swimming?  I mention it because the underlying thing that makes swimmers show up, stay in shape, compete and excel is......discipline.  And that discipline gives you quality time in the water.

Discipline is often the missing key in photographers' businesses.  It's the mental element that keeps one on task even when there's more exciting stuff going on over on South Congress Ave.  or in your neighborhood pub.  Discipline is the juice that drives you to finish each segment of your master marketing plan on time and with good follow ups.  Discipline is the thing that keeps you constantly working on your chops.  On your style, on your delivery, on your eye/hand skills.  On the big picture.

So you have a cold, the flu, a hangover, a set back.  Discipline says, "Tough! Get out of bed and get to work."  "Stop feeling sorry for yourself and finish your post production."  "Pick your self esteem back up off the floor and get on to the next big chance."

Swimmers know that every work out missed means a slight dilution of their feel for the water and a physical and mental click backwards when it comes to endurance and focus.  LIfe sometimes intrudes and swim practices get missed.  But discipline is the thing that drives you back to the pool and gets you back into peak shape.

Copyright ©2010 Kirk Tuck, All rights reserved.

I constantly hear photographers bitch that focusing manual focus lenses is hard.  Yes.  It's different than AF.  You actually have to practice and get used to recognizing the moment of highest acuity during the focus ring rotation.  Your hand and your brain have to work together.  It's not an instant thing it's a practice thing.  You do it over and over again until your hand has muscle memory of the process and your brain has tuned into the parameters of sharp focus as a moving target.  It takes discipline to practice manual focusing.   The pay off is that you have access to a wider selection of tools in that optic tool kit.

I see photographers in workshops and on locations that seem very uncomfortable with their gear.  They seem hesitant when they set it up and hesitant about where to place lights and how to angle them.  It's obvious to me that they spend very little time working with the gear.  It only gets trotted out when they have an assignment.  But what they really need is what my swim coach always called, "Time in the water."  And that's because there is no short cut to physical mastery.  Physical master of cameras and lighting gear comes from setting it up and using it over and over again.  Learning iteratively from your mistakes.  And if you do it over and over again you'll find a side benefit:  Your own inimitable style will emerge.

Just as all great swimmers learn from the same coaches and swim in the same workouts, if you were to stand on the pool deck and watch you would see that each of them has a personal swimming style that's different from their competitors and teammates.  It could be the angle of their arm entry, the pattern of their kicks, even the way they roll to breathe.  But it all comes from trying techniques over and over again until they find the one that suits their mentality and body characteristics.

It's the same in photography.  Dan Winters didn't read a book and go out, fully formed, ready to take his own style of celebrity portraits.  He worked and worked on the styles.  He assisted Chris Callis who assisted Jean Pagliouso.  And after each of them assisted they worked and worked and worked on their technique.  On their equipment handling.  And they learned how it influenced the way they saw things.  Which influenced what they shot and how they shot it.  They spent their time behind the camera and in the darkroom until their "photographic muscle memory" was deeply ingrained.  And they still do.

Richard Avedon felt that a day spent without shooting a photo was a waste.  And, as for time in the water, you have over six decades of his work to look at to see just how prolific he was and how much time he spent in the photographic water.

Behind every "rocket to success" like Joey Lawrence there's a backstory of a guy who lived, night and day with his camera until he understood what he wanted to show and how he could get the machine to do his bidding.  He might have compressed his "10,000 hours" by working around the clock from the age of 14.  He didn't just roll out of bed one morning, meander over to the local camera shop to pick up a camera and say to himself, "I've got nothing better to do, I guess I'll be a world famous photographer today."

Behind nearly every artist I can think of the secret weapon they all share is discipline.  And the better the artist the more ingrained the sense of discipline.

I'm used to swimming my yards outdoors in the freezing rain, before the sun's come up or in nice weather.  I'm used to swimming when I didn't get but a few hours sleep the night before and I'll make it to practice when I'm already sore and tired.

But I carry that discipline with me into the photography business and you should do the same.  This is a freelance undertaking.  We set the schedule.  We set the bar.  We set the goals.  We succeed by following thru.  We succeed by being better than the other 100 people who want to push us off the hill.  The practice informs the style.  The style differentiates the photographer.  The differentiation gets us noticed by clients.  The clients buy the style.  But the client depends on our discipline to make work perfectly each time.

I have the same nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach each time I head out the door to start an advertising project that I used to get when I stood up on the starting blocks before each swim race.  That's because the outcome of the race will be based on the net result of all your discipline and planning. You will win or loose based on how well you execute technique, how much endurance you have and how strong your drive to complete the race or the job is.

Discipline is mastering the camera in your hand.  It means reading the owner's manual until you understand every function.  It means backing up your files right now at three in the morning instead of some vague time in the future.  It means reaching out on a regular schedule to market to your clients.  And it means getting up and doing it all over again every day.

Photography and competitive swimming are so much the same.  The products of right thinking, much practice, and commitment.  In each, time in the water is critical to creating success.

I've said before that no one can expect to be a good photographer unless they constantly practice.  Non professional photographers sometimes opt themselves out.  They think they have an excuse.  They have other stuff to do.  But in reality as long as they can dog paddle they think they're swimming.  Wrong.  They are just wet and keeping their heads above water.  There are very few swimmers who make a living past their 20's from the sport.  But that doesn't keep 40, 50, 60 and 70 year old swimmers from practicing, racing and breaking records left and right.  The ultimate reward of discipline might be nothing more than proving to yourself how good you can be.  And if it pushes you to excel then that's enough.

Don't miss practice.
Practice good technique.
Don't cheat yourself.
Don't give in.
Don't give up.
Don't settle for less.
Work through the pains and disappointments.

You'll be a better photographer or a better swimmer.......or both.


Robert said...

several years ago I went from being able to operate my camera with my eyes closed, to having to look study the manual and search for the buttons every time I got ready to shoot. besides being technically proficient, it builds confidence, knowing your camera. I don't think I will ever let that much dust settle on my camera ever again.
on another note, I find it easier to manual focus, than to select an autofocus point, and then beg my camera to cooperate with me. I should probably practice autofocusing, just so I can do it in a pinch.

Keith Taylor Photography said...

Nice post Kirk -- and something I needed to read. These days one of my biggest issues is time management. It's something I have been struggling to get better with and am determined to do.
Your post also brought to mind that I need to go out and shoot for myself more -- and push myself while doing so. Alot of the jobs I shoot the days don't really challenge me like they should -- so I don't feel like I am really getting better at the craft of shooting. Thanks for the post man.

Dave Jenkins said...

My grandson is eight years old and already on his way to becoming a champion swimmer.

I played high school and college basketball and ran track. But I've never figured out swimming. On the day I was in the best condition of my life, I would have been hard pressed to swim 200 yards without drowning.

I suck at discipline, too.

These are hard truths. This post will not be popular with the dilettantes.

Anonymous said...

This post will be lost on all the people who got trophies just for showing up when they were kids. It will be lost on everyone who thinks there's a quick fix to everything. It will be lost on the people who think they can become the next Joe McNally or Don Giannatti just by going to a weekend workshop. This post will be lost on the people who believe that buying the latest Leica or Zeiss lens will make them artists. This post will not make sense to the people who are waiting for inspiration.

This post will only make sense to people who have come to know that most things worth having or doing in life take time, commitment and, well, discipline.

Lazy people may get rich but they never achieve mastery....

Anonymous said...

Great post Kirk, this will be a classic I'm sure. An honest question about swimming (and I suppose one may extend it to photog): You wake up with a bad cold, head pounding, exhausted, coughing, no appetite... Do you really still go to your swim workout? If so I'm impressed.

Maybe the trick is to ALWAYS go (barring literally not being able to walk) but allow yourself to pull back on the workout itself as required?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

You go if you are able and you put in the effort you are able to. Just being the water keeps your ability to feel the water intact. You shoot when you are able because it keeps your vision honed.

Daniel Fealko said...


Are you disciplined in all areas of your life?

I'm asking because discipline is quite easy for me in activities I enjoy doing, but not so easy in other areas.

I guess I've always thought of discipline as forcing yourself to do the things you should do, even when you greatly dislike the activity.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Discipline is the systematic follow through on something you've committed to do.

Fran├žois said...

Thanks Kirk for the kick in the ass !

Patrick Snook said...

Gosh I wish I could go swimming every day. Around here (Philadelphia environs), the only opportunity is in the summertime. The local HS pools have openings for the public, but at impractical hours (for me . . . sleep is more important than anything).

Curious: you recommended the total immersion method a year or so ago. Talking of discipline, there's someone, Terry Laughlin, who appears to have applied rationality to a topic with enviable logic, clarity and persistence over a lifetime. Wow! Do you still find it useful too?

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Patrick, I recommend Terry's book, Total Immersion Swimming, to anyone who asks me how to swim better, swim with less effort or to improve their strokes. You could use the drills in Terry's book as a beginner or as an Olympian.....and they do.

The secret to swimming every day is to find a pool and a competitive program that's religiously regular and then mould your schedule to the swim schedule.

It's all interwoven. When I swim well I shoot well.

Bob said...


What a great message.

I'm one of those who started in reverse (digital cameras first). I got frustrated when my Canon PowerShot A620 was clearly not giving me pictures that were on par with the Canon S3IS a friend of mine had. We had the same mega-pixels, what gives??? (short answer: the lens).

Two years and 15 cameras later, I'm at the stage where three things stand out.

1. There is a difference between being a camera nut and a photographer. I'm a camera nut and sometimes a photographer.

2. Computer software is the modern day darkroom analog and as such has a very big impact on the final output.

3. Output is completion. Without backing up the files, perfecting them in software and then displaying them as either prints or web pages there is no sense of purpose and no way to improve.

With these three things in mind, I've been thinking that I should start printing my own prints with an inkjet. I don't like the bs involved in photoshop and I don't like the bs involved in keeping a printer in good working order. (But, I'm never going to adapt until I work with these tools enough that they stop bothering me...)

I thought that a good simple goal would be to make a print a day. This keeps me on the hook to consistently get to completion and rounds out getting stuck on any single part of the process.

As I thought about it, I didn't like the pressure of needing a print a day.

This article has made me re-assess the pressure.

I think that's exactly what I need.

Great Article.

Anonymous said...

This is the same with achieving success at anything in life, and you hit the nail on the head. I'm no great photographer, and I love gear as much as the next guy. But I know the only way to get better at taking photos is to take more photos.

-- 1 year ago I stopped buying gear, and spent the same amount of money on photo books and courses
-- I've been taking a camera with me daily for 18 months. I don't always get a photo every day, but on average, take 200 photos a week.
-- I try to analyze every photo I take according to what I have learned.

Maybe one day I'll get good enough to display or sell something (as a hobby... I work 70 hours a week at my regular job).

Thanks for your website - always a fantastic read.

Robin Wong said...

Hey Kirk,
I find this entry of yours so beautifully written, inspiring and very relevant to my own thoughts and perceptions on photography in general. I strongly believe that constant exercise is very important to keep the photographer's mind in focus, and to be in tip-top condition.
I have taken parts of your post here and reproduced on my own blog. I do hope you do not mind, as I have credited a direct link back to your blog here as well.


Dave said...

"The War of Art" by Steve Pressfield talks about the discipline it takes to be a "professional" in any of the arts, and in life, really. It's a great book on this theme!

Unknown said...

Thank you Kirk for this insightful read. It really helped me today. I need to get back to MY muse, MY workout- Getting up at the buttcrack of pre-dawn and photographing a sunrise somewhere remote... :-)

Take care,