Practice Makes Practice

Elephant Seal Bull Coming Ashore, Mirounga Angustirostris ©Mike Spinak

In my last post, I said that practice doesn’t make perfect, but effort may. By “practice”, I’m referring to exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill.

I don’t practice my photography. I can’t recall ever having done photography practice at all. I quite possibly never will.

That might sound surprising. Professional baseball players practice batting. Likewise, most professionals in most fields practice what they do. Why don’t I?

It makes sense for Major League Baseball players to practice during the off-season, so that they can perform at their best, when it counts. The same kind of reasoning is true for most other sports, and many other types of endeavors. However, with photography, there is no equivalent to an “off-season” and “on-season”. Thus, there is no need for dry runs. You can make every photo opportunity and every shot count.

If you want to learn how to spot meter, you don’t need to sit in your living room and take practice shots spot metered on the door, the wall, the window, the carpet, etc. If you want to learn macro photography, you don’t need to take practice shots of pawns on a chessboard. If you want to learn off-camera flash photography, you don’t need to take practice shots of your bored son sitting on a stool with his hands in his lap, staring vacantly. Nothing is stopping you from doing real photography – i.e., trying to make worthwhile photos – and learning your spot metering, macro skills, flash techniques, etc.,  in real photography situations, instead.

Of course, I’m broadly generalizing. I recognize that there are some situations which some photographers may encounter where it makes sense to practice with a dry run before doing the real thing. So, don’t take this as an absolute rule, if it doesn’t apply to you. But, otherwise:

If you want to better your photography, then treat every shutter actuation as an opportunity to make something significant. Treat it that way by making your best effort. Learn by actually doing, not by setting unnecessary, artificial boundaries, and then hollowly going through the motions.

Don’t shoot for the purpose of acquiring skill. Shoot for the purpose of making good photos.

Acquiring skill will then naturally follow.

“Practice”, as it is most often done by photographers, is a rationalization for half-hearted effort. Practicing is a crutch. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes practice. Effort may make perfect.

Many photographers spend most of their photography time and energy practicing, rather than doing. If you’re one of them: What are you waiting for?

When I started photography, I told myself, “There are enough mediocre pictures in the world; there’s no point in me contributing more”, and, “I’m only going to press the trigger when I’m absolutely convinced this one could be something special”, and “In that case, I better try damned hard if I’m going to come up with any photos at all”. I stuck firmly to this for my first several years of photography. (Ultimately, I eased up on this because there are times in professional photography when expediency must be the priority.) I still have strong tendencies to refuse to allow myself to actuate my camera unless I have compelling reason to think the result could be special.

If you want to get on the fast track to good photography, then I suggest: No rationalizing insufficient effort. No dithering with practice runs. Think. Observe. Plan. Make a worthwhile photo. Or refuse to press the trigger. This will force you to think about what you’re doing, and make a real effort.

If you want to excel at photography, trying your utmost to make every shot the best you can do is a more effective path than doing systematic technique exercises in controlled situations to gain proficiency.

Thanks for reading.


Elephant Seal Coming Ashore, Mirounga angustirostris, Piedras Blancas State Beach, San Simeon, California

All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917. For workshops, please go to

  • Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer) - You know, that makes a whole lot of sense. I clicked over and was all ready to be like, “No! I practice a lot, and it makes me better!” But you’re right. I’m obsessed with making every shot count. I can count on one hand the number of “throw-away” shots I’ve intentionally taken. Never thought of it like that, though. Well said!ReplyCancel

  • Robert Kusztos - Practice or not practice, you may be happy getting one really outstanding shot in one hundred and than you are lucky.So keep shooting, have a sharp eye, look for the right subject and know your camera. It is a never ending journey.ReplyCancel

  • Michael Russell - I think the only time I have actually “practiced” was my initial attempts at using a GND filter or when I was testing how much overlap I needed for a stitched panorama. I wanted to figure this out at home in the backyard rather than in front of a good scene with good light. For most other things though I have tried them in the field while attempting to make a photograph that works.ReplyCancel

  • Ian Downey - Hi,
    I think you have nailed it as I have tons of so,so, photos from just shooting, I suppose you could label it practice, instead of taking my time and thinking through what it was I was trying to say/capture in my image.ReplyCancel

  • Dale Matthews - For a beginner I think it important to take pictures of everything. One must learn the camera; what the buttons do, what over and under exposure look like. How can one learn what the difference in lens, aperture and shutter speed without making pictures and seeing what happens? Is that not practice?ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you all.
    Dale, to be clear about how I’m distinguishing between “practice” and “not practice” in this article:
    By “practice”, I mean just doing it for the learning exercise.
    By “not just practice”, I mean doing it not just for learning the skill, but also trying to make worthwhile pictures. That’s perhaps vague, and it’s perhaps more of a spectrum than binary. But there are many people who spend most of their photography time taking pictures which are of no potential lasting interest, even to themselves – because they’ve chosen to declare what they’re doing a learning exercise, and then have chosen not to bother to see, think, interpret, communicate, create, etc.
    That’s just not usually necessary, in photography. You can learn the camera, what the buttons do, over and under exposure, different lenses, aperture, shutter speed, etc., just the same in real-world situations, trying to make a good photo of something that interests you.
    In fact you learn these better, in real world situations, than in practice exercises.
    Too many folks get so caught up in practicing technique that they rarely, if ever, get around to fully making photos.ReplyCancel

  • Ray - Mike

    In film days, there was no way around it. You had to practice and you had to take notes, so that you could look at your results later and relate them to what you did.

    With digital, the feedback is immediate, and thus, you can practice on the job (not meaning a paying gig). You can experiment and find out what works and what doesn’t. You can hone the shot until you get what you want.

    But some skills do take practice so that they become automatic. Anticipating the peak moment, developing a quick eye for framing, and knowing how to work your camera without fumbling is necessary for any kind of action photography. Some of that can be developed in your living room.

    In fact, I’m going to somewhat disagree with you here ;) and say that shooting with real subjects CAN be a distraction from learning some of these things. You can be so intent on getting the shot, that you forget to practice the things you wanted. You will likely do it the same as always. I think there are times when an exercise removed from live action may be the way to go.

    Think of athletes who work in the weight room and musicians who play scales.

    So I think, as usual, it comes down to balance. Working out gives me more strength than I can develop riding my bikes, and thus helps me on my rides, but it isn’t a substitute for a ride. ;) ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Hi, Ray,
    It’s simply not true that there was no way around practice in the film days. Please note that I learned photography in the film days – started photographing for money in 1998, 4 or 5 years before buying my first digital camera – without doing any photography practice. When I decided to take up photography, I was intent to make every shot count, from the very first shot.
    Here is that very first shot, by the way:
    When I started out, I kept notes, to refer to them later and relate my results to what I did. I soon stopped bothering, because I found it was unnecessary for me. I found that the experience of making the pictures was so intense that it burned into my memory what settings I chose, and why.
    While it’s true that some photo skills do take doing repeatedly so that they become automatic, it’s not true that this repetitious learning has to take place as a controlled exercise. Learning through repetition takes place just fine in real world photography situations.
    Perhaps some of those skills can be developed in your living room practicing artificially constructed exercises, but why? Learning those skills in real photography situations, while trying to make the best photo you can, has several advantages:
    1) More efficient use of limited photography time, doing the real thing, instead of practice runs.
    2) You learn how to deal with all the subtle complexities which crop up in the real world situations, which are absent from the controlled exercises.
    3) The intensity of the real situations makes what you learn more memorable.
    4) You end up with worthwhile tangible results (i.e., nice pictures), which are not only a pleasure to have, they’re a big motivator and source of encouragement.
    5) Constantly striving to do the best you can do is the way to push your limits, be your best, and do your best.
    While what you say may be true for athletes and musicians, the analogy just doesn’t transfer well to photographers. There are ways in which they’re just not equivalent. For one thing, the technical knowledge (lighting, exposure, depth of field, focus, etc.) and physical skill (operating your camera gear well enough to get the desired shots without impediment) involved with most kinds of photography is trivial to master once and for all, compared to the physical coordination and skills that many musicians need to master. (That is not a statement that photography is trivial to master; it’s a statement that most of what a photographer must master is not technical skill and physical skill.) Likewise, an athlete has an unending need for exercise, in the struggle against catabolism and entropy. Secondly, a musician can’t get together with other performers and play a concert, whenever they pick up their instrument, and an athlete can’t get together with other athletes and play their sport, whenever they pick up the ball (or whatever equipment) – but photographers CAN try to make worthwhile photographs whenever they pick up the camera.
    Sorry to disagree, Ray. However, I am delighted to have you visit! Please feel welcome to drop in, more often.ReplyCancel

  • G Dan Mitchell - A quick thought. You offer the following definition at the beginning of your post: By “practice”, I’m referring to exercise for the purpose of acquiring skill.

    Practice is really far less about _acquiring_ a skill than it is about refining and internalizing it. I may have mentioned before that my primary background and training is in music, so I’ve had a bit of experience with practice! In fact, I have brought the idea directly into my work in photography.

    The results of practice are that a skill, once acquired, becomes so automatic and familiar that even a very difficult or complex task can often be executed with seeming ease. Acquiring the basic skill is only the very basic entry-level result of practice – it is in the unending work to achieve and maintain the near intuitive ability to _use_ the skill that is the core of real practice.

    Using music as an example, if acquiring the skill were the goal, no one would need to practice once that skill was learned. But quite to the contrary, musicians continuously practice the same stuff over and over. (I’m married to a professional oboe player!)

    Take care,


  • Robert Kusztos - It depends on what is your definition of practice. When you start learning about photography obviously you want every shot to be perfect. However it just does not happen. There is a never ending learning curve despite your best intentions. You make thousands of pictures in the process. It is up to you how you name this journey.ReplyCancel

  • cecil white - This is a total eye opener. I would have said I practiced allot. 300 to 2500 shots a week pending the weather and time i have. After reading this though I would say that in fact I have never realy practiced. I will also say that a little education has also taken my photos to a new level from three years ago. Thanks for the new insight and great post.ReplyCancel

  • Ray - Mike
    While I admire your passion (and your photography) don’t fall into the mistake of thinking that your way of learning will work for everyone—it won’t.

    I find that I make more mistakes in a high pressure situation than I do in a less time sensitive session. To reduce those mistakes takes practice. Practice to make my hands and mind do automatically what they need to do.

    To take it away from photography again, I just got new pedals and cleats for my racing bike. They are unlike my previous ones, and are difficult to get into and out of. I can either wait until real life situations occur on rides and hope I do the right thing, or I can practice over and over so that I don’t think, I just do. So I can ride for years and hope to develop that proficiency, or I can practice over and over, including on real rides, simulating a need to get out quickly.

    FOR **ME** photography has aspects that are very similar. To know what to do automatically, you have to do it a lot. Practicing in a real life situation would be ideal, but not always practical (weddings). For paying gigs, where you only get one shot at it, you need to know what you want to do and do it right without fumbling. It’s best that you have some experience before you need that experience. That comes with practice, however you get it. ;) ReplyCancel

  • Carol Elaine - I never realized it, but that’s how I like to take photos. I’m purely an amateur photographer who, until recently, just had a point-and-shoot camera I could keep in my purse for those times when something would catch my eye.

    Last night I received my first digital SLR – a hand-me-down from a friend who got a new dSLR – so I decided to play with it at home. In my mind it was just practicing to get used to the camera, but I took my time with each practice shot (especially using purely manual focus, which is going to take time for me to get used to). As a result, I turned out a few photos that I rather like (this one especially, which was with manual focus). There was no artificial exercise involved – just looking at my living room and taking photos of the items that captured my fancy (including my cat).

    My hope is that every photo I take is a masterpiece, even if I’m “just playing around.” I know that’s certainly not the case, but I’m going to keep taking my time as if it were.ReplyCancel

  • Friday Foto Finds | Deb's Digs - [...] I’ve come across in the past week with helpful photography info: Practice makes Practice – some thought on practicing your art by Mike Spinak It’s that time again, so here are some [...]ReplyCancel