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The Dangerous Myths of Talent + Gear

Upload from September 20, 2011

There are two pervasive myths in the world of photography that are downright dangerous. You probably have heard them. You probably have actually fallen into their trap once or twice. I think we all have. So let’s get them out in the open.

Myth #1:

That photographer is so talented. I could never be as good.”

And some variations: It’s a natural thing. I’m just not a creative person. I could never do what they do.

Myth #2:

If I only had the same fancy gear, I could take great photos too.

And the variation: I can’t do that kind of stuff, I only have a cheap camera.

It’s honestly sad to think of how much great work is stifled because of these myths. It is my very firm belief that these concepts are simply not true. Let’s chat about it.

Talent

Photography is a challenging medium. Hopefully folks understand that it’s not just going out and taking pretty photos. There is a LOT to learn about. And yet, even though most photographers figure that out in the first couple years, the myth of talent still pervades. That word is thrown around carelessly, and it’s worrisome.

See, the term “talent” suggests that it is a natural ability, inherited at birth, and unable to be learned. You have it or you don’t. And that becomes a convenient excuse. If you feel like you don’t have the “talent”, well, there’s just nothing you can do about it, so there’s no point in trying, right? So very very wrong.

Now, there has been debate for ages about whether talent exists or not. It might or might not. It actually doesn’t matter. Talent might give someone an edge at the beginning. But from there on out, the only thing that determines real, lasting success in photography is that dreaded “p” word that we’re always using.

Yep, you guessed it. Practice. It all comes down to practice.

Here’s Some Science

Let’s take a peek at a psychological study that set out to answer the question: talent vs. practice. The study observed experts and novices in a variety of fields—from sports, to art, and medicine—and sought to understand the differences that make an expert so much more skilled.

One of the biggest differences was in how they think. Experts tend to notice more details, and have more understanding of their thought processes. Very cool.

But what was most interesting about the study is that the researchers found that the biggest factor in dramatic improvement is not innate talent—but rather deliberate practice. In fact they found no evidence that talent had anything to do with it. Deliberate practice is key.

Deliberate practice is more than just practice. It involves working on the things that you are weakest at. Many people will continue to do the things they are strong at, and avoid the things they aren’t good at. It’s much easier, and more fun. But true growth won’t happen like that.

Basically, you need to honestly assess your skills, identify your weaknesses, and then practice your butt off to improve on them.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, even gives an actual number of hours of practice required. He estimates about 10,000 hours are needed to master something. Seth Godin expands on the idea, suggesting that the big factor is the amount of competition, and how far you have to go to outlast everyone else. The number may be debatable, but the basic idea is that it takes a whole heck of a lot of practice.

Look, here’s what I’m getting it. It’s not nearly as dour as this whole article is seeming. It’s actually quite positive…

You can be as good (or great) of a photographer as you want to be. Even if you want to be the best in the whole world—you can get there. But you need to understand that it’s not talent that makes it happen. It’s extremely, intensely, unendingly hard work, perseverance, and persistence.

For the days, months, or even years, that you feel like you suck, you keep going.

During the ruts, when you wonder whether your work matters at all, you keep going.

And, possibly most important of all, during the times when your friends, family and clients are telling you that you rock, you keep looking for your weaknesses, and working on them. You don’t sit back on your laurels. You always keep pushing.

If you want to be great, you can be. But you have to really really want it.

For those that don’t want it enough, stop blaming it on talent. The photographers at the top worked really really damn hard to get there. It wasn’t talent. The process of reaching the top takes intense dedication. Respect it.

And for goodness sake, use the concept to your advantage! Keep practicing. Forever. That’s an amazing part of photography—the continual growth and progress!

Gear

Ok. Enough about talent. Let’s quickly look at the gear myth. Hopefully at this point we don’t have to talk much about gear, because the idea of a piece of gear making great photographs should seem laughable.

I mean really, does the camera turn itself on? Choose the settings? And, most challenging of all, choose how to frame the photo? Decide on the best light, best angle, best distance and focal length, wait for the right moment, possibly interact with the subject, and decide to take the image. And then put in the hours and hours and hours of practice necessary to improve?

Of course not. Seriously, it’s a bit of an insult to a photographer to suggest that their “good gear” is the reason for their good photos. It takes a few hours to read the manual for a camera, and a lifetime to learn how to take great images.

So let’s all put these myths to rest, and leave the excuses behind. Let’s free ourselves from any notion that we can’t create the images we want. We can do anything we want. The only thing holding us back is ourselves.

If you want it bad enough, and dedicate yourself to improving, you’ll get there. On your own time. In your own way.

What are you waiting for? 

Agree? Disagree? Have some thoughts about talent, gear, and practice? Share them in the comments, and let’s get a discussion going!

Lauren Lim

Hey friend, I’m Lauren! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I’m downright obsessed with photography, and love sharing it with super cool folks like yourself. When I’m not shooting, or writing, you can find me cooking (and eating!), traveling, and hanging out with wonderful people.

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Discussion

17 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Just what I needed to hear!

  2. Carol in PA says:

    I loved this article! Years ago I read this joke about a photographer who was invited to a lady's house for dinner. She marveled over his photographs and asked what kind of camera he used. After dinner, as he was leaving, he thanked her for a delicious meal and asked her, "What kind of pots did you use?" Thanks for the encouragement. :-)

  3. There are some people who see photography as a technical field driven by the camera itself – in that respect, it would be the camera that does all the work. And there are others who see it more as an artistic field. For those people, artistic vision and talent are almost decided from birth.

    Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle as photography requires an understanding of both the technical and artistic fundamentals. Some people have that artistic talent from the get go, or at least it appears that way. As you mention, it is practice that makes the talent blossom. Composers such as Mozart and Beethoven wrote a lot of stuff at young ages, but also started with music and were surrounded by it at a young age (2 or 3).

    Saying that we don't have talent or the right gear is another form of defeatist thinking that humans excel at. Overcoming that is a challenge and is an ongoing process.

  4. while I believe in the majority of the article I do feel that yes you can create great photos on the lowlyest of cameras, to become a serious professional photographer requires gear that can cope with the demands of the job. So do you ever see wedding photographers using pocket point and shoots cameras? No. They can take good photos? Yes. But can they allow the flexibility needed to gain results under pressurised conditions? No. You would never be taken seriously in certain jobs if you have anything less than a certain level of equipment. It's sad but true. Creativity can be expressed with all cameras but a living can only be made from a few.

  5. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…
    I'm doing the 365 day photography challenge at the moment – blogging one photo every day for a year – and I'm finding the accountability of blogging the photos (I've told my readers to pester me if I get slack) is great motivation to pick up my camera and practice every day. I'd totally recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their photos!
    As for the gear, while Dan is totally right about professional gear for professional photographers (though I have seen some shots James Day took while second-shooting at a wedding on a Fuji x100) I wanted to share this guy: http://tzekomah.tumblr.com/
    He's not a pro photographer, but his work is stunning and he only uses compact cameras. He blows me away!

  6. *@Melissa:* So glad you enjoyed it!

    *@Carol:* Lol, great joke! There's just something about photography that makes people attribute great work to the gear, I'm not sure what it is! So glad you enjoyed the post!

    *@Evan:* Right on. I totally agree, it's in the middle! Photographers need a nice blend of skills, and a whole lot of practice!

    I like your point about defeatist thinking. It's such a insidious thing, and happens so frequently I think we don't notice most of the time. Definitely something to be aware of, and work to overcome!

    *@Dan:* Good points indeed! I agree that if you are doing extremely time-sensitive work for a client (like a wedding that only happens once!) it's your responsibility to have gear that is reliable enough to ensure great captures.

    But "making a living" with photography is only one path that you could consider "success". Many folks have no desire to make their sole income from photography, but still are successful and skilled shooters.

    So yep, I definitely agree that sometimes a higher level of gear is needed to fulfill your responsibility to your client. But it certainly has very little bearing on what makes a great photo.

    For instance, a medium format camera can create effects that you just can't get with an iPhone. But the effects (perspective, depth of field) aren't what make a great photo. It's so much more.

    Also, I imagine many news photographers, journalists, fine art photographers, editorial shooters, etc. could make a living with a much simpler camera than a wedding shooter. Compact cameras are continually getting better, so someone could potentially make a living with a sub $1,000 kit. The barriers are definitely coming down!

    Thanks so much for the comment. Love getting a discussion going!

    *@Erin:* Right on for doing a 365! That's a big challenge, so props to you. So much practice, I'm sure you're seeing a big difference in your work!

    Thanks for sharing that link, that guy has some truly fantastic stuff! It really makes it clear that it's the photographer, not the camera.

  7. Thanks for sharing! I think that has a lot of truth in it. I'm a hobby photographer (love to take photos of my 16 month old son) but am toying around with the idea of doing photography as a part-time job some day… I appreciate your advice :-)

  8. Thanks for commenting Katelyn! Glad we could help :) Also your son is adorable! And those chocolate chip cookies look great!

  9. @Erin: I grabbed the idea of 365 a-picture-a-day and started one last weekend too! I believe it is a great idea for practicing! And practicing is mandatory as this article says quite rightly. The challenge will fuel motivation everyday…

    @Authors: See I also read the other article "We need to talk" ;-)

    Anyway, great site, really! Keep up the good work!

  10. I forwarded this post to my kids – it's about photography, but it's also about soccer, physics, getting into college, marriage, parenthood and everything else worth doing. Practice – but more than that, paying attention to what you're learning when you practice, is the key to so much. Thanks for reminding me that I can be as good as I have the drive and committment to make myself be!

  11. @Rob: It would have been awesome if you could have found and shown some great photos taken by smart phones, iPods, or even cheap entry-level P&S to reinforce the last section of your article about "Gear". Have you seen this video of an entire wedding shot with an iPhone? http://youtu.be/yviV-HB6poQ

    I once heard "a story" about two photographers interacting in a photography club comparing their photos. Photog A made a remark to Photog B that his high-end lenses and camera takes amazing pictures and that's why he wins the monthly photo challenges in the club. Photog B then said, let's swap cameras for next month's challenge and low-and-behold, Photog B wins the challenge again. :)

  12. Choice words and blogged at a perfect time for me! I've been walking that fine line between finding inspiration and becoming discouraged when I see other photog's AMAZING work on-line, and this was a great reminder to keep on keepin' on. 10,000 hours? I might be able to do that. :)

  13. *@Denis:* Lol, right on!! Thanks so much for getting the discussion going! I've never done a 365 but it definitely would be an amazing way to practice! Perhaps a good New Years challenge :)

    *@Ali:* Thank you so much for sharing this post! That seriously means a lot. And I totally agree. It applies to everything in life! You are right. It's all about how good you want to be!

    *@Melvin:* Good point! The photos I had in mind when writing were actually "iPhone images from the war.":http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/finding-the-right-tool-to-tell-a-war-story/ Should have linked! Thanks so much for sharing the iPhone wedding. I hadn't seen that, but it's definitely interesting to see how much photography is changing!! Great story as well! Love it :)

    *@Mary:* So glad this came at a good time for you!! I remind myself all the time not to get discouraged. Keep on keepin' on indeed! And if you haven't read "Outliers":http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0316017922?ie=UTF8&tag=gladwellcom&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0316017922, it's a great book! Goes more into the 10,000 hours concept!

  14. Need. To. Practice.
    I kind of wish I'd started counting at the beginning… I guess I just have 10000 photography-practicing-hours of fun ahead of me! yay! :D

  15. This link shows what an iPhone 4 not even the newer iPhone 4s and an app can create if you are creative in what you shoot and like to play with software. Sorry this is also part of the ad for the app but it is an example of the creativity of photographers at all levels.

    http://campl.us/posts/amazing25

  16. Prashanth says:

    I always have those two myths in my mind. Thanks you soooooooooooooooooooo much for deleting them from my mind.
    I like the statement
    "But you need to understand that it’s not talent that makes it happen. It’s extremely, intensely, unendingly hard work, perseverance, and persistence.
    "
    I love you guys….thanks for awesome article…

  17. This article was so perfect. I was ready to throw in the towel. I was feeling like I started off strong hut had reached my limit. That I had already done the best I could do and now there was no reason to continue…cause well I sucked. I guess pushing myself further and gaining that passion I had before is what is missing. Why am I not carrying my camera everywhere? I sometimes go weeks without picking up. I often see scenes that I think “that would be a gorgeous shot”. Ugh!! Thank you thank you thank you. Everything about your site has strengthened my resolve to be the best dang photographer I can be! Now, I just need to get off my lazy butt and practice.

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