What Henri Cartier-Bresson Meant by This Quote

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

Continuing our series on deconstructing iconic quotes and applying them to modern photography, today we are looking at the above quote from arguably the greatest street photographer of them all.

Henri Cartier-Bresson 1908-2004 – Street and Documentary Photographer.

Born in North East France, Cartier-Bresson was the master of the phrase he coined, capturing the “decisive moment.” He initially trained as an artist and was heavily inspired by the surrealist movement of the 1920s. It wasn’t until the 1930s that Cartier-Bresson took to photography, still heavily inspired by the surrealist movement, he sought to capture the intimate and natural in life rather than the more formal aspects that photography was known for up until that point.

Getting to 10,000 Images

Cartier-Bresson’s quote is an interesting one for the digital age. Mainly because we get there so much quicker than in his day. Ten thousand images shot on 35mm film is the equivalent of nearly 300 rolls of 36 exposure film and its incumbent expense. Today, shooting jpeg on a 16mp camera, that would fit on one 64gb SD Card. The throw away nature of digital imaging means that we can be at that 10,000 shot mark in a matter of weeks after picking up our first camera. However, there are a couple of important points about the 10,000 image mark, and that is, that we are learning the basics and laying down the basis for our own unique style.

Is the 10,000 Image Mark Still Relevant?

The answer to that is yes, no and maybe. If you are just starting out on your photographic journey what you will learn inside 10,000 images is more down to your character than anything else. If you are a carefree, happy snapper, then the chances are 10,000 is going to be too low for you to progress your knowledge to any great extent. For the more considered and patient person, shooting 10,000 may well provide a huge range of experience.

If you are truly wanting to learn photography well, then setting a number such as 10,000 images can be a good exercise. By taking your time and getting there slowly, you can learn from your mistakes, spot trends within your image making and see tangible progress in your photographic abilities. Don’t get fixated on the number though, trying to chase it will cause you to speed up your image making process and possibly skip steps, ignore mistakes or not spot trends. It is best to not count the shots until you are at or above the 10,000 mark, then look back and see how you have progressed.

It's also worth noting that it is quite possible that Cartier-Bresson used the figure of 10,000 because it had a nice ring to it and not because of any cast iron rule.

What Happens After 10,000 Images?

One of the good things about setting the 10,000 image mark is that you have a reference point to refer to. It can mark the end of your apprenticeship in photography and the start of the road to specialisation. Looking back over your first 10,000 you will not only now have the experience to spot trends with in you photography but also be able to isolate issues such as poor technique and even laziness. Whilst the quote suggests that the first 10,000 will be your worst, in fact amongst those images will be some real gems, keepers or even potential portfolio shots. These are the images that will be the cornerstones of your future photographic journey.

If you take inspiration and knowledge from your first 10k shots, the next 10k will be a significant improvement and will also be, almost certainly, more specialised.

Should I Stick to the 10,000 Rule?

The simple answer is only you know the answer to that. As mentioned above, if you are the methodical, patient type then yes, 10k is a good starting point. If you are more carefree and less methodical, then you might find that rather than setting a shooting limit you may benefit more from a time limit, say one year.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the most important and influential photographers not only of his time but in the history of photography. Whilst his quote of 10,000 images may well be what we, in modern times, like to call a soundbite, it is a useful point for newcomers to photography to aspire to. On reaching 10k, you can look back and truly see what direction your photography is taking.

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here

The interesting thing about the number 10,000 is that it has been arrived at on analyzing numerous experts ranging from Bobby Fischer to Bill Gates as the threshold number of hours of ‘practice’ to achieve the top of your game. It does however go onto say that it is not any type of practice but a deliberate focus on the weaknesses in your game so that the improvement can be mastered. This is consistent with your analysis of the slow and reflective approach.
Great article. Thanks CLEVE

i think you can change this slightly and say your first 10,000 intentional photographs are your worst.

Intentional shooting is where you start to thrive. When you stop just snapping away at everything, and start clicking when you’ve lined up light, color, and composition or have started to attempt it, at the very least.

I think to fully appreciate the ‘10,000’ idea one should shoot 36 and have prints made from them. And NO Lightroom or Photoshop! Wait a few days before picking them up. Then, at first look, put them into 2 stacks, good & bad. Study the bad stack and see why they are bad. Vow to not do that again. Study the good ones and try to do that again. Now onto your 2nd set of 36…

Doug’s comment reminds us that we have to be careful in bringing forward rules created before anyone knew what “Gigabytes” means.

In my high school sports photography I’m at something like 40,000 images, but much of those were shot at 6 or 7 per second. Can you imagine what HCB would think if he knew we were doing that? I don’t think he’d smile (but maybe he would?).

In music (think about learning the guitar) the rule is “amateurs practice until they get it right; professionals practice until they can’t get it wrong”. There is a lesson there for photographers, too.

Some interesting thoughts, thank you for sharing!
One question: What does it mean practically “setting a number such as 10,000 images”?
As a photographer, one should try to learn and improve all the time, even after 100.000 images. So what do you want us to do differently during the first 10.000? Just be more deliberate and thoughtful?

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