Photographic Etudes & Deliberate Practice

One thing that changes when you begin to study music seriously, as opposed to playing for solely for fun, is the addition of scales and etudes to your practice. Sure, we still practice the repertoire we love, but now we add technical work to our routine.

Scales and etudes are not necessarily fun, but they are designed to build our technique and the work will pay off later.

Etudes are pieces of music composed specifically to target a technical skill. Want to play higher? Faster? Or to perfect that awkward fingering? Practice an etude. Later, when we encounter this particular musical technique in a piece of music, it will come easier to our fingers.

Etudes are the medicine of music. We practice them to make us better.

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Early photograph of mine where I’m practicing selective focus and shallow depth of field.

Photographic Etudes

Photography can have its etudes as well. Any exercise designed to enhance a particular photographic skill is a “photographic etude”.

It doesn’t even matter how easy or advanced the photographic technique – if you need to practice it, go out and focus your attention on it. Create a photographic etude for yourself.

Recently, I attended a local bike race. It’s not that I’m particularly into sports photography, but it was a great opportunity for me to practice panning.

If you’ve not yet encountered the technique of panning, it’s taking a photo that holds a moving subject still while adding motion blur to the background. To get the effect, the photographer must move the camera at the same pace as the subject is moving while using a slow shutter speed – it’s not a photographic skill that most people can pick up easily. It takes practice!

Cycle Race-1630 Web

The bicyclists went round and round the course and each time I’d try my hand at panning. There’s nothing like attention and repetition to increase your skill level at something!

I have no plans on how I want to use this technique in the future. I’m not switching over to sports photography anytime soon, but on the flip side I never know when I’m going to need this technique when I’m out doing travel photography. It’s better if the technique is in my back pocket and I can pull it out when I need it rather than trying to practice the technique when it matters. I don’t want to miss the shot because I don’t have the skill.

I did similar practice activities when I was learning the Rule of 3rds and shallow depth of field and many, many other photographic techniques.

Foggy Winter Morning 11 Web-2
One of my early photographs trying to practice composing using the Rule of 3rds. The photo also uses converging lines, but I didn’t realize this at the time!

It doesn’t matter if I get great photographs during my practice – though that’s always an added bonus – musical etudes aren’t necessarily the best music ever written, you’ll probably never hear one in concert or on a recital.

Etudes are the work a musician does behind the scenes.

Deliberate Practice

The point of etudes is to focus attention on one particular technique. On an average day of photography, we may encounter dozens of different types of scenes and use many different techniques.  If I’m out doing street photography and I see a bicyclist zooming by, I can try to pan, but I only have one shot at the photograph. Likely, I’m going to miss it if I haven’t practiced this technique in advance.

Deliberate practice is a term that comes out of the theory of expertise development. In a nutshell, the theory is that anyone can learn anything – music, photography, whatever – if they really put their mind to it. It’s not so much about talent as hard work and attention. If you really want the research behind all this, look up psychologist K. Anders Ericsson.

“Putting your mind to it” is deliberate practice. We dedicate time and energy to focusing on the learning.

The theory of expertise development includes elements of both quality of practice and quantity. The oft-quoted estimate is 10,000 hours of quality (deliberate) practice is needed to achieve expertise in any subject. before the 10,000-hour rule became popular, Henri Cartier-Bresson said:

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.”

Maybe Cartier-Bresson was onto something.

But take the 10,000 hour-rule with a grain of salt. It’s more about how much attention you bring to your practice rather than how much practice you do – though you do need to put in the time! You won’t get better at photography unless you’re out there doing photography.

You’ll find very few photos sitting on your sofa.

Trinidad Day 5 Morning Walk 101-3 Web
I went to Cuba specifically to focus on improving my street photography. There was so much going on that I had lots of opportunities to practice.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes musicians encounter a technical skill in a piece of music and only then realize they need to work further on the technique and they need an etude. If you really want to photograph something specific, maybe night photography, or light trails, or shallow depth of field, take yourself out for a photo excursion where you focus specifically on the technique. You may need to do this more than once.

Take a walk in the local botanical garden and practice shallow depth of field. Take 100 photos of flowers — and then take 100 more.

Don’t worry about perfecting every photographic technique, focus on the ones that interest you that you want to master. Read a little bit and practice a lot.

Need some ideas?

9 Photography Techniques That Every Beginner Should Practice

10 Photo Assignments to Inspire and Challenge Your Skills

150+ exercises and projects to improve your photography

The PhotoYoga Facebook group is a perfect place to post your photographic etudes Join, today!!

Artist Tree


This post is sponsored by PhotoYoga.

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