What If You Thought You'd Done Your "Ten Thousand Hours" Only To Find That You'd Only Done One Hour Ten Thousand Times?

People ask me all the time,  "Why do you change gear so much?"  "Why are you constantly experimenting with new lights and new ways of lighting?"  "Where do you find such interesting models?" But what they are really saying is, "Why don't you find a comfortable rut and stay in it?"  The idea being that you get to have one big idea or style in your career and once you hit that point you should keep endlessly reiterating it in order to squeeze all the juice you can out of that particular turnip.

So much chatter on the web last year and the year before about Malcolm Gladwell's observation about the need to log ten thousand hours of practice before you master your (fill in the blank) art/craft.  And I think, at the core, it's a useful concept with eddies of truth and substance.  But it never ceases to amaze me how our western culture wants to distill everything down to quantifiable results, with a maniacally singular focus.  But that seems to grow from our linear and metrically obsessed modalities of gauging business success and, by extrapolation, everything else.  We tend to equate quantity with good and speed with success.

With the rise of corporations the general goal seems to be the reduction of any craft or art to a series of production steps that can be isolated and repeated, ad infinitum, always finding a way to cheapen or condense the product while remaining profitable.

This applies so handily to the craft and hobby of photography.  In books, at workshops and online the constant demand from would be artists is for the "formula."  It's always couched in these questions and requests:  "What's the correct ratio?"  "Give me a diagram showing me exactly where to put the lights?"  What's the best (lens/camera/tripod/lightstand/modifier) to use for XXX?" And my favorite:  "What is your technique for getting people to look interesting?"

Once many people have run the gamut of workshops and books and on line forae they narrow down the stuff they've learned about each niche in photography and then slavishly follow it.  And if they follow the same course of action over and over again for ten years or ten thousand hours they are generally no closer to their goal of making their own art.  They've done the hour or twenty hours of instruction and practiced the same small things over and over again.

The goal, perhaps, should be to abandone any sort of formula and rely on your own intuition and taste to augment your experimentation and your growth as a collaborative and empathetic human being.  That might be the secret people are really looking for.  And it has a formula:  experiment and refine your own vision.  Hold the camera your own way.  Make the most of your ten thousand hours.  Even if it means sitting quietly and listening to the person you'd like to photograph.


Marshall said...

Very well put, Mr. Tuck. And while it may be a "smaller" picture (i.e., no grand landscape or creative portrait or whatnot), that is one of my favorite of you photos that you've posted here.
(Sorry, no frothing criticism here...)

Nikhil Ramkarran said...

I've heard the advice that you must find your style and stick to it, quite often. And I think that there is some merit to it, particularly if your goal is commercial success. I think also that the opposite (flitting all over the place) is limiting too.

I realized the other day that I rarely take photos of dogs and cows, many of them are all over the place and I've seen some very interesting photos of them. So I took a few myself. Then I realized that this really isn't for me :)

All things in moderation I guess. You can go too far in the acquisition of a particular style, just as you can go to far attempting to generalize.

A thought provoking post, as usual.

Michael Gowin said...

Well said, Kirk. A college professor of mine said the same thing only differently: do you have 20 years of experience or one year of experience 20 times?

Having followed your adventures through cameras and lights in just the past few years, I've wondered as well why you can't just pick something and stick with it. Maybe I was hoping you'd blaze a trail that I and others could follow. But you keep blazing new trails!

In some quarters it seems that there are established rules that aren't meant to be broken. "You can't light a portrait like that! It's too contrasty/too flat/not enough contrast/the nose shadow is in the wrong place/the pose is wrong..." To be sure, some approaches work better than others but isn't it advice like that that encourages people to look for formulas?

And yet I've encountered many of those same people who ask me (in my limited experience) for magic bullets (read: shortcuts) and seem to walk away frustrated when I say, "Well, it depends. In this situation, I... but in another situation I might..."

In summary, I appreciate watching you (and others) NOT staying with the same old thing, exploring new directions. Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

This doesn't apply just to photography.

I meet people in the technology industry who have "10 years of experience", but it turns out that they have "one year of experience, repeated ten times"

Dave Jenkins said...

In 1972, I was hired as an intern/assistant/general dogsbody at a film/audio-visual production company. We made what were called in those days “industrial” films and also made many training filmstrips, mostly for the fast-food industry. I had been involved with photography since 1968, and was looking eagerly for a way to make a career out of it.

My first out-of-the studio assignment was to go along as a helper on a shoot for some A-V training filmstrips for Arby’s Roast Beef. We went to a brand new store in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, where everything was still sparkling clean.

My company was by no means a large operation. Usually, a two-man team was sent out on jobs like this: a director, who was also in most cases the script writer, and a photographer. I was just along to help out and to gain experience.

Our lighting setup for this kind of work usually consisted of three 1000-watt daylight blue tungsten floodlight bulbs in 18-inch reflectors which we called “scoops.” I was salivating with anticipation, because this was finally my chance to learn all about lighting ratios and exotic stuff like that.

We set up the lights at the work area and the photographer moved them around a bit. He turned to the director and said, “That look okay to you?” The director said, “Looks good to me. Shoot it.”

And thereby I learned the most valuable lesson I’ve ever learned about photography: photography is all about how things look. If it looks good, it is good. Shoot it!

(And then rearrange a few things and shoot it again. It may look even better.)

rodney said...

I'm an avid follower of your blog, and I have to say I think this may be the most important post you have ever made. 10,000 hour of shooting the same ole crap is 10,000 hours. Finding out what it is you reallllly want to shoot and spending 10,000 hours shooting that, learning where to place the focus, learning where your light is coming from and should be metered from, figuring out the right angle so the background doesn't suck, well, that's the deal right there. I truly appreciate your candor and insight into an industry that I really love being a part of. Hope to come to Austin one day and buy you a cup of coffee.

Anonymous said...


You are such a wise man it's not even funny. I wish other people would subscribe to your motto - do your own thing, man! - you may live longer and happier.

Frank Grygier said...

Many great artists are great because they broke the established rules of their craft. Your philosophy echos some of the teachings of Bruce Lee in his book the Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Avoid the "Classical Mess" and seek the truth of your art.

Jim said...

When teaching photography I've found that most of my students weren't really interested in learning the 'why' behind the process. They were looking for the 'how's', a quick tricks that, as you observe, can be used to get a predictable outcome. I'm more interested in 'why's' that I can use to come up with my own vision but that is a hard concept for many to accept.

Anonymous said...

Kirk, as a good friend of mine who worked in human resources told me,"there is a big difference between the guy who has twenty years experience and the guy who has one year's experience twenty times". For one thing, you learn different lessons. On one hand you might learn how to be flexible and inventive. On the other you might learn how to be more effecient and detail oriented but in a narrower manner. Both approaches have value, but their strengths are different, think sprinter versus marathon runner. They both have their place. The trick is picking your event. Steve Willard

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to add a "crazy" box to the 3 other choices (interesting, funny, cool) ?

michael mckee said...

I read your blog for a number of reasons having to do with photography and how a pro works at his craft. This observation is an unexpected gem with a lot of truth in it.

arg said...

1. JR Saul wrote that western society overvalues depth (specialization) and undervalues breadth (liberal education, historical perspectives, genre-crossing analysis). And there is a price to pay.

2. You wrote of the "maniacally singular focus". It could be related to western religion. Back in the days when C. P. Snow wrote philosophical essays about science, a Japanese scientist (name escapes me) responded that western science is obsessed with discovering The One Great Law of The Universe (One Truth). Eastern science is not. He argued there is a strong parallel between the focus of western science and the One God (One Truth) of western religions. It was a detailed argument, not an internet post :) and I thought it was an eye opener on how underlying cultural philosophy can influence everything.

Greg said...

What a great title, Kirk! What a great article!

I share your views on our calculative western culture. I've spent considerable time in India and on countless occasions I'd witnessed the triumph of the eastern approach to life and art over the western one.

We are blinded by the secondary value of our technical outcome completely forgetting the primary value of things immeasurable, like substance and emotion.

Greg Shanta

Anonymous said...

Hi Kirk,
Thanks for another thought-provoking post. It's good to reflect on whether what you've been doing with your own photography (or other art or work), is growing and changing or whether it is the same old thing.

I've just been worrying about whether I'm in some developmental block. A friend says that's a sign I'm pushing outside my comfort zone. Probably true, because it feels uncomfortable at times.

Your blog is a good source of inspiration and helpful provocation. Please keep it up and don't let the naysayers get you down.

almostinfamous said...

I just found this today via APE and thought you might appreciate it also (even though it's kind of a formula - i like prime numbers, i guess)


kirk tuck said...

I'm in the middle of reading a book called, "Shibumi" by Trevanian. Has anyone else read it? Amazing.

Danny Chatham said...

Bottom line,variety is indeed the spice of life!

Bold Photography said...

... that's why I took a "Miksang" contemplative photography class... and why I really relish the trips to the museums (something I really hated when I was younger). Attempting to gain a deep understanding of an art that happens in moments 1/125th of a second long... (give or take your favorite settings)

Art said...

I read Shibumi in 1979 and I loved it. Check out Wikipedia on Trevanian.
I've Eiger and Loo and I have to find the other books, as I really love his writing.
BTW I really enjoy your blog!

Anonymous said...

I suspect that if one had been relatively happy for those hours, the answer would be moot, wouldn't it?

Clay said...

One of the joys of being an amateur is you don't have to adopt a style, please an audience, shoot what sells. You're free to try anything: what "works" is anything that helps you see the world better, or tells you something about yourself.

kirk tuck said...


Gordon said...

The challenge for any teacher is to reveal a path to mastery without giving students the illusion that this is the ONLY path. The challenge for the student is to learn not just how to follow the master but how to find one's own path to fulfillment.

In other words, feel free to follow Kirk's example--or not--as long as what you're doing has integrity and is authentic to who YOU are.

Anonymous said...


"The secrets of any trade that is pursued with serious intentions are more than a series of rules and working methods based on logic and experience and applied so as to obtain the greatest possible effect with the least amount of effort. They also include a continuous process of observations, thought and ideas that are pushed ahead even if at the beginning they seem to have no logical basis."