Dealing with The Ninety-Ninety Rule in Photography

by | Oct 27, 2020

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

“The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time.”—Tom Cargill, Bell Labs

I think the Ninety-Ninety Rule applies equally well to photography. I believe that many photographers can get to  90% of knowing all they really want to know about digital photography, although I’ve met one gentleman whose on-line bio states he is an “expert on all things digital.” It’s that last 10% that takes another 90% of the time to learn (and practice) digital photography and that applies to me just as well as anybody else.

I think it’s another law (not Farace’s Law) but Hofstadter’s Law that states: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.— Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

All of this neatly fits into my idea about the three phases of learning I believe all photographers go through:

The first phase occurs just after they get their first “good” camera and discover the medium’s potential. During this time, they enthusiastically explore their world and every memory card is chock full of files that contains images that look so much better than they could have ever imagined. Unfortunately, this blissful period doesn’t last long and is quickly replaced by the next and longer phase.

During phase two, the photographer’s level of enthusiasm is high but is diminished when reviewing their latest images only to discover these new photographs are much worse than they expected. This phase then becomes about managing expectations and can last a long time. Aas the photographer continues to improve their skills by, most importantly, practicing their art, they eventually reach the third and final phase

When reaching phase three, the image that the photographer sees in their viewfinder and what they actually capture is exactly what’s expected. There are no surprises. While reaching this phase can be fulfilling, some of the magic is understandably lost, which is why experimenting with other styles such as infrared and film photography can keep the flame of inspiration in this phase at its maximum levels.

How I made this shot: Sometimes that right combination of lighting, subject and photographer’s mood and inspiration will capture a magic moment and that’s why I like working with available light; you remove all the headaches of dealing with lighting equipment to focus on the subject. I photographed Kirsten for my book Available Light Glamour Photography using only available light coming from a window in the back door of my former home. Unlike the book cover image of her (see below,) no reflector was used in order to keep the portrait as moody as possible. Camera used was my Canon EOS 5D Mark I with EF28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM lens at 105mm. Makeup is by Diana Lareé. The exposure—1/100 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 400—was slightly, OK it’s more than slightly, underexposed so I used the technique explained in Correcting Underexposed Portraits to restore some balance to the original color image file. Noise was somewhat mitigated by Dfine and the file was converted to monochrome with Exposure Software’s Exposure X5, enhanced using Vivenza and Color Efex Pro.

If you would like to experience some of that same thrill of discovery that occurred during that first phase of your photographic education, I suggest you make a few photographs when the available light may not be so available.


You can learn all of my tips, tools and techniques on shooting available light glamour photography in my book surprisingly titled  “Available Light Glamour Photography”. New copies of the book are available from Amazon for $20.75 with used copies starting at only $10.39 as I write this. The Kindle version is $20.08 for readers preferring a digital format.