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.
“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.
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.
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!
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!