If you feel like you’re not getting better at your photography, could it be that you’re “noodling” instead of “practicing?”

I follow a number of online guitar teachers, and I recently read an email from guitar instructor Griff Hamlin that really struck a chord with me (no pun intended, but it’s just so on the money) — his article was asking the same question above, but about progressing at learning guitar, and in not so many words he asked “…are you noodling or practicing?”

I wanted to illustrate this concept, so I grabbed a guitar, and Brad made this quick iPhone video (right before I discussed this same concept on “The Grid”)  so the production quality is “iPhone grade” but you’ll totally get the point. Plus, they’re really short videos — less than 30-seconds).

First, here’s the difference between Noodling and Practicing:

This is Noodling (below): 

It’s fun noodling around and playing some riffs you already know but you’re not getting any better at guitar. It’s not moving you closer to where you want to be. You’re not improving, you’re not growing — you’re just having fun, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with having fun — as long as you realize it’s nothing more than that.

This is Practicing: 

That video above of me playing different positions of the Pentatonic scale is as boring to play as it is to watch, but that’s OK because that is something that actually does make you better. It’s practice. It makes you grow. You’re improving. And if you do enough of it, you know what happens? Suddenly your noodling becomes a whole lot more fun, because now you can do things you could never do before, and you’re able to play things you never dreamed you could, at speeds you thought you couldn’t. That’s the power of real practice.

It’s the same thing with photography
If you grab your camera, head out the door, and just kind of shoot whatever comes your way — you’re noodling.  It’s fun — just walking around and taking photos of whatever — I do it myself when I get a chance, but it doesn’t make you better at photography. It doesn’t improve your photography. It doesn’t make you grow, but it’s fun and there’s nothing wrong with fun, as long as you understand that’s what it is.

The problem is — I’m not sure a lot of photographers realize that. And that’s precisely why they’re not getting better. They’re doing a lot of noodling, and not a lot of real practicing at all.

How do you practice photography?
Practice has a goal. Practice is a lot of repetition. Practice is trying a technique again and again to until you really have it — you really understand it – you can do it without thinking. If you find yourself working with a hot shoe flash, and you’re moving it an inch or two after each shot, and then seeing the difference it makes in the shadows on your subject’s face — that’s practice.

If you’re doing street photography, and you go out — not trying to make a great picture, but trying to practice your timing, or setting out to look for interesting shadows and only shooting those, or maybe you’re looking for nothing but contrasting colors, or going way outside your comfort zone and taking pictures of people (if you’ve been uncomfortable with that in the past). That’s practice.

Practice isn’t a lot of fun, but if you do it a lot, you’ll start to see a difference fast. You’ll grow. You’ll see the results. And then, when you do go out shooting for fun (noodling), your noodling will be more fun because you’ll come back with more keepers, and when you feel like you’re making better images, the “fun” suddenly become a lot more fun, and a lot more meaningful. You’re not just out there hoping to get lucky any more. Now you know what you’re doing, and you can have more fun doing it.

Now that you know the difference…
Ask yourself, truthfully…have you been practicing or noodling?

I realized that with my guitar playing, I was noodling a lot, and not practicing nearly enough. I made a conscious decision to change that, and I already have. Same with my photography. If I want to have more fun, and get better results, I know exactly which path I need to take. I hope this helped you a little bit on your path, too. My thanks to Griff Hamlin for inspiring me, and making it clear for me. I love the difference a great teacher can make.

Hope you have a great week, everybody. Let’s get some good practicing in. :)



  1. Scott, thanks for an awesome post today (I just had a chance to read your blog today). Too often I get in the habit of noodling with my photography, just because I don’t get the opportunity to go out on a regular basis and shoot. So I shoot what I can, when I can. The next time I go out, I’ll make a conscious effort to practice one technique to just get better at it. Another reason why I love your style of teaching!

  2. What about getting paid to switch to Canon? I feel that would help me more than not noodling. I’m not sure that it would help my guitar playing though, what do you think?

  3. How stacked are you to have a EVH hahaha beautiful guitar man and great article, as a photo and guitar hobbyist this really put practice into a whole new perspective.

  4. Boy, this has stirred up some controversy over on Reddit. I think a lot of people there are missing the point. Sure, you can get better by taking photos without a specific purpose, as long as you review them and analyze why the picture you took doesn’t look like the one you had in your mind’s eye.

    It’s the whole reason the scientific method was developed. You can learn by “doing fun stuff,” but a pointed, systematic approach will produce results much faster.

    This was said long ago by whoever coined the phrase, “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”

  5. I first heard this idea from Roberto Valenzuela in Mia’s interview with him on your Kelbyone and I have to admit, it had me going back to techniques, and lighting tutorials IN ADDITION to just going out and “findin’ something purty” to shoot. Great reminder to not rest on status quo skills–I need to keep stretching.

  6. Practice can be fun! Pick something you want to do – one of mine was getting reflections of buildings in downtown Cincinnati – and spend an afternoon getting shots. Then evaluate them yourself. I learned a lot about shadows, angles and composition as I tried to fins windows to reflect great buildings. I’ve picked a lot of other mini “projects” where I learned a lot and had a lot of fun.

  7. Thanks for that Scott. As we say in the Netherlands, this is like almost like “kicking in an open door”, but it did made me think again. I was really starting to enjoy noodling less, because I was not practicing enough. That cursed comfort zone again . . . . .

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