A Mile of Film

Merlin Mann posted about getting better at photography by shooting a lot, and that reminded me of an observation in a photography book I read in high school.

The author observed that the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional photographer was a mile of film. I’m pretty sure this was from The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook by Aaron Sussman. If it isn’t, there was a lot of other good advice in there and the book deserves a link anyway. If you don’t have a calculator handy, a 35mm negative is 36mm wide, roughly 1.5 inches, so that is over 42,000 exposures or nearly 1200 36 exposure rolls of film.

Hmm, 42,000 is awfully close to Herbert Simon’s estimate of the 50-100,000 chunks of information needed to become a chess grandmaster. Simon later generalized that to a “ten year rule”, where ten years of heavy labor are needed to master a subject (for a nice survey, see the Scientific American article, “The Expert Mind”.

When I was Photo Editor of The Rice Thresher, I shot around 300 rolls of film in one year, roughly 10,000 exposures. That made a huge difference in my skills as a photographer. Ten years at that rate fits rather neatly with the 100,000 chunks and the ten year rule.

Of course, you have to pay attention to each exposure to make progress. Film is better for that, because you invest time and meticulous care in developing each roll and each print. I bet I’m still an ace at loading 35mm film onto metal reels (in the dark). I can still hear the sound of 35mm acetate smoothly winding onto stainless steel rails. We had three reels that had been dropped and bent, and I kept those on the back of the top shelf in the dark closet, because I was the only one who could load them without destroying film. I think I threw them away when I left the Thresher. They were too big a risk for unskilled hands.

My year in fine arts photography classes was partly a journey through increasing investment in individual frames. First 35mm, with 36 shots per roll, then 6×9, with 8 shots, then 4×5, where each negative is individually developed. I developed 4×5 by hand, gently moving negatives from the bottom to the top of the stack while in the developer.

Digital sure is easy, but I have not learned as much from the 30,000 photos I’ve logged on my digital SLR as I did from the 10,000 frames I shot and developed at Rice.