"Dear Thom: I just got my first serious camera. How long until I can shoot like a pro?" Signed FuturePro.
Dear FuturePro: Longer than you think. Signed Thom.
As you might have figured out, I've been doing a series of "how" articles, where I tackle some of the how questions I get in my In Box. This particular question is a tricky one, as there are hidden bits and pieces as well as a not perfect answer.
The not perfect answer is the 10,000 hours rule, which comes from studies by Anders Ericsson, et.al., and was discussed at length in Gladwell's recent book, Outliers [affiliate link]. The 10,000 number actually comes from something like "gifted performer...before they win international competitions," so it is setting a very high bar, basically one of top performer. Obviously, not all pros are top performers, they're just better and more consistent performers than most (but not all) amateurs.
Still, I think most people underestimate just how much time it takes to really achieve very high levels of competence at something. 10,000 hours is five years of full-time work. Hmm. A truly dedicated college student who figures out what they want to do by the end of their sophomore year isn't going to achieve that by the time they graduate. Which is one reason why they get entry level jobs: they need more time. But often than not a lot more time.
In photography or videography these days there's a double-edged problem: you not only have to learn what to do in the field, but these days you need to usually have competence at the computer, too. You might have to put in a large number of hours shooting and post processing/editing. In other words, become expert at two things. One of the dirty secrets of a few pros is that they don't spend their time at the post processing/editing side. They either have employees that do much of that work for them, or someone else in their organization that does it. Thus, they can spend their time concentrating on and becoming an expert on the capture.
I don't think it's surprising that the incoming wave of high-competency photographers tend to split into two groups: the young and the old. The young usually have had cameras in their hands for most of their life, early on decided that's what they wanted to do, and spent huge portions of their time practicing at it. They come out of their schooling with high passion and closing in on those 10,000 hours. All they have to do is keep those two things moving. Keep the passion alive, and keep practicing.
At the other end, we've got folk who often have flexible professional jobs, a reasonable retirement account, and post-children free time. They know how to spend their time wisely, aren't distracted by 100 possible hobbies, and build that 10,000 hours regularly right into retirement, where the hours pile up even faster. They have the means, both financial and time, to do accelerated learning. My only caution to them is that you can't take long breaks from it. You must shoot and process regularly, even if it's only for a few hours a week. That's because the corollary of the 10,000 hour rule is that you can't maintain the expertise with 0 hours. It's sort of like running: you can take days off here and there, but once you take more than two weeks in a row off, you're generally going to step far backwards in ability and have to rebuild.
It's the folk in between, trying to juggle the raising of a family and working 40+ hours weeks at a non-photo job to try to make the mortgage payment that have the biggest problem with the 10,000 hour rule. They just don't have 10,000 hours. Not in five years, not in ten years, often not in twenty years (which would be ~10 hours a week).
You shouldn't read into that last statement that you can't get better at photography. But the question was "shoot like a pro." That takes real commitment of time, resources, and energy. (As a side note, the four basic things you have at hand are money, time, energy, and skill. You can often use one or more of these to help generate one that's missing, like money and time to generate skill, which is exactly what we're discussing here. But time is the tough part. You can borrow money. You can get motivated in some way to increase energy. You can develop skills. But you can't invent time you don't have and you can't buy more at The Apple Store or Walmart or amazon.com.)
There's one other important other side note to this discussion: don't get flustered. Overnight successes take at least five years, at least in my experience. And that correlates with the 10,000 hour rule. You will have ups and downs in that time. The downs can get you emotionally down and rob you of much needed energy, which in turn may cause you to not commit more time.
It's a really tough hill to climb. But it's not Sisyphean. You can get the rock to the top. Just don't expect to do it quickly.
Update: It isn't just spending 10,000 hours, it's how you use those 10,000 hours. Most of those who excel had mentors for much of that time. But even without mentors there's still this: you have to be 100% self-critical and 100% no-BS about where you stand during those 10,000 (and beyond!).
You will fail for many of those 10,000 hours. Maybe not big failures, maybe only intermittent failures, but you will fail. I believe failure is good. Failure tells you something about what you don't know or see and gives you a place to start working. Now, some of that is my Silicon Valley upbringing. Failure is a rite of passage in Silicon Valley. Indeed, venture capitalists often tend to prefer those that have failed. As long as they're self aware about it.
When you fail you must do a number of things. First, you have to admit you failed. This is a bigger hurdle for most people than they think. The natural position is to just get defensive. When it becomes clear that that won't work, they'll try to point to a positive small bit in an otherwise big failure. Or worse still, point to someone or something else as contributing to the failure. No. You failed. Acknowledge it. Accept that your mentor, your co-workers, your advisers, your investors, your peers, your friends, your family, or whoever is telling you that it failed have a clear and reasonable view that you failed. Accept that even if you think something about what you did worked. If you can't accept the failure notification, you can't get to the next thing: analysis.
What exactly did you fail at? How big was the failure? What could you have tried differently? What paths did you reject in doing what you did that you need to go back and re-examine? Make sure you absolutely understand why others are judging what you did as a failure (if this is a self-judged failure, make sure that you're right!).
Finally: fix failures before moving on. If you keep failing at getting focus and acuity spot on, for example, it makes little sense to try to improve your post processing skills. You'll be fighting your previous and continuing focus failure in the pixels you're trying to nudge and improve. You don't build successes by trying to stack something on a failure.
So, if you spend 10,000 hours just doing the same things over and over and failing in the same ways, you won't become an expert. Find a mentor or peer to help keep you focused. Push yourself to fix things as you discover they're broken. Build on successes, not failures.