How Important is Talent in Photography?

How Important is Talent in Photography?

With a multitude of components making up a successful photographer, what sort of role does "talent" play, and how important is it?

I recently wrote an article on the importance of passion to a professional photographer. This question remained at the back of my mind for some time, and today it combined an area I research regularly. I love to learn about people who are at the top of their field, and that truly can be any field. I'll read about everything from top basketballers and bankers, through to engineers and entrepreneurs. I'm obsessed with what it takes for a person to achieve greatness in whatever it is they do. My current book by a sports psychologist discusses what it takes for (but not only) top athletes to achieve what they set out to, with a particular focus on golfers and NBA stars. Working hard and working smart are large and crucial parts of this equation. Joining them, the right mindset, positivity, and belief hold substantial value too. But the third aspect the author almost begrudgingly admits, is talent.

Talent is a broad term that can be broken down in to many constituent parts of its own, but I believe if we focus the discussion on photography, the complications of physical attributes become so infinitesimally small, they are — for all intents and purposes — irrelevant. What you're left with is, for the most part, mental talent. The term "talent" still requires some unpacking, but as I am unwilling to roll out an Oxford English dictionary definition as that's always fruitless, I'll summarize it roughly: it's an aptitude for a particular task. That is, in this case, a person either starts as above average at photography, or learns much quicker than most. This is also often referred to as "having an eye for photography."

Afrojack making music in Paris.

So what sort of weight does this "eye" have? I — as I'm sure most of you have too — have seen terrible beginners blossom in to great photographers, and decent photographers stagnate indefinitely. It's difficult to really narrow down a metric, but perhaps the difference-maker is not the body of work the photographer creates at all; I'll expand. When I started out, my images were technically poor and compositionally poor, at least I believe so, looking back. However, the images from other photographers that I loved back then, I still love today; they've barely changed at all. The gaping chasm that lay between the photography I liked and the photography I created was a lack of experience, technical skill, and theories of color and composition. That is, they were all teachable skills. So is talent in photography in fact identifiable as recognizing great work, even if you lack the skill-set to create it?

If this were the case — and I'm not certain it is — then what sort of part does that play in the development of one's skills? Is it another skill hobbyists should learn? If a footballer can identify a fantastic player, that doesn't predict their own merit as a footballer, but rather as a scout. However, that brings physicality in to the equation, where as our discussion is purely mental. I would presume that being able to instantly pick out great photography when you are not technically proficient enough to create anything of that standard, would at least give the photographer a direction to becoming a talented photographer themselves. But then comes the looming question: can you teach yourself what is and isn't good photography?

In honesty, I am on the fence about the importance of the role that talent plays in photography, which is why I've opened the question to the floor rather than given a lecture on the answer. I've always been creative and seen pictures worth capturing, long before I owned a camera, but I have never considered myself to be naturally talented. Photography to me has always been a skill that I have worked on; if there was a style of image I wanted to create but didn't know how, I'd learn what it takes and practice.

What role do you believe talent has in photography? Is it important, or can you be a great photographer through work ethic and learning alone?

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Mike Ditz's picture

"Is it important, or can you be a great photographer through work ethic and learning alone?"


Kent LaPorte's picture

According to the neuroscience community the brain and body is prewired with certain attributes that allow it strengths in certain areas and deficiencies in others. They also maintain that a range exists that either diminishes or accentuates this natural talent based on external stimulus such as practice, coaching, etc. According to this theory ( which I am only stating and neither accepting or dismissing) you are partially correct that work ethics and practice alone cannot make you talented. However, the theory suggests that a hard working and practiced individual with less talent could be more successful than a very talented individual that is unmotivated or unpracticed. Something to consider.

Mike Ditz's picture

I think you are correct. There are a ton of variables for success, but at the top of any endeavor like photography, music, acting, engineering, race car driving, business, writing, basketball, politics the "natural talent" is the last 5%-10% that makes a superstar out of a star.

Timothy Gasper's picture

"How important...." depends on who you ask. Many 'photographers' with PhD cameras might say they are now very talented photographers, but put an old, all manual camera with a separate light meter in their hands and see how 'talented' they are then. Automation is a nice thing, but it also (and usually does) give one a false sense of proficiency and expertise. And it's not just the knowledge of using the's also knowing how to compose, use light properly, etc, etc.

mark wilkins's picture

Agree. Here's a real test. Pentax 6x7. Hand held meter. One roll of 220 film...CHROME film. 20 shots. You cant even print or proof chromes a few stops either way to manipulate them. What you what you GET. Try that test on a dozen "photographers" and you will see who really knows how to shoot. And the best of the best will prove who has talent.

Mike Ditz's picture

Loading a camera not a test of talent, but skill... I can teach someone to load a 6x7, take a meter reading and get a well exposed piece of film in about an hour. But shooting 220 may be a problem since it is no longer made. So maybe this is a trick question. :^)
I think a skill is something most people can learn. A talent is something innate, something that you are born with for lack of a better term.

mark wilkins's picture

I agree with the second part of your response. The point definitely isnt loading and using a's ....can you take great shots when you only have a very limited amount of shots to work with? The same test could be any 35mm camera with film. I shot models and actors for years with film...and you charged by the look and shot one roll per look. So you had to get what you needed with a very finite amount of shots. Doing that with chromes is twice as difficult as negatives...there is almost no room for exposure error. But overall it still comes back to the talent question. I think an innately talented photographer will have the eye to take great shots even if limited by the shot count on a roll of film. But I am coming from my own perspective and history. Im sure different genres could turn my idea upside down. Sports for example.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes. You could also include large formats. 4x5, 8x10, 5x7. My Fuji GX680 also has movements with no meter. How important is talent? Important, but without knowledge of how to use these pieces of equipment...well, it'll only go so far.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

So basically what you’re saying is to test everyone with old technology to see how good they are?

Timothy Gasper's picture

Not at all. It's not about 'testing' anyone. It's about the talents they currently possess. My grandmother was a very talented oil painter. She had no training whatsoever. It was a talent i feel she was born with. I can draw only stick figures. But in photography it is a bit different. You really need to know how light works and how to use it, how to compose, create emotion or evoke expression, etc, etc. Some of this might come naturally, but knowing the properties of light is a different issue. Talent is a wonderful thing. And now that we have PhD cameras, those who are talented may feel more embolden, and with false delusions. That's why I put it that way.

Mike Ditz's picture

I used to shoot pictures for a friend who puts on art and craft workshops/classes in US and UK and France. I used to shoot a lot things (products, crafty things) for her, but now with an iPhone and the nice light in her studio she does it all. And it is #1 exactly what she wants and #2 beautifully done.
She doesn't know the technical properties of light but sees it and knows how to use it to her advantage.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Thanks for proving my point. Take away the PhD phone/camera, give her an all manual camera, a light meter and she'll be calling you back for shooting. The article is about "talent". Where is the talent in using a high-tech, do-it-all camera/ phone? Not much at all.

Mike Ditz's picture

I think we just have different definitions of talent.

Timothy Gasper's picture

If your definition lies in the lady who bought an iphone to take her photos as being talent, then you're clearly missing the point. If you bought a car that drives for you, does that make you a good driver? Talent is definitely NOT found in a high-tech, do-everything phone or camera. Clearly don't know what your definition is.

Mike Ditz's picture

Can talent be learned or is it innate?

Timothy Gasper's picture you well know. When I was in gymnastics I was somewhat proficient at it. After 'learning' the techniques better, I became much more proficient. My grandmother,on the other hand, was a highly talented oil painter with no training. It must have come from somewhere. Oh came from within her. Now let's not belabor this issue any further.

Fred Teifeld's picture

I believe in many (certainly not all) cases that talent can be learned but thats more dependent on the individual. Many years ago a hobbyist with professional aspirations asked my opinion of a certain image he shot. It was beautifully composed but his lighting was so horrible that the highlights were blown out to a point that the only way you could tell that the model had a nose was by the two shadows where her nostrils were.

I praised his composition and then explained that as soon as he learned how to control light, he would be well on his way. His response was to use the rancid excuse of: "I meant to do it that way- Thats my style." I then explained to him that using an excuse like that was about as lame as it got and if he was going to continue to go down that road that he should no longer consider asking for my critique.

A few years later he developed a great talent because he learned how to properly control light and it showed in his work. I contacted him last year and told him how great I thought his work had evolved.

Fred Teifeld's picture

The first and most important thing that I learned a long time ago is that no camera is better than the eye behind it. Over the years I've seen the works of people who have invested a considerable sum of money in their gear and still cant shoot their way out of a torn paper bag and I've seen hobbyists shooting with phones or point and shoots that have an amazing eye, which to me translates into talent.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Exactly, that's what I've been trying to tell people who either don't understand or don't want to listen.

Fred Teifeld's picture

No matter what field/hobby/profession you're going to encounter people who dont get it, for whatever the reason. I banged my head against that wall so many times years ago when I was one of the few pros in a local hobbyist group that I finally realized that it would be easier trying to teach algebra to a dog.

The frustration goes away almost instantly after that and is replaced by a nice calm feeling.

Rod Kestel's picture

I know people who don't have any particular interest in photography but I can see they intuitively compose a photo.

It's the Nature / Nurture thing all over. You a person with no talent become competent if they try. Or a person with talent can go nowhere.

I taught myself to ride a unicycle (tho I started late). I would not say I have any natural ability but with persistence I can now do it! Will never be an expert, but not bad for a old fart.

Guy Incognito's picture

But can you ride your unicycle and make a great photo at the same time?

I have to ask: why did you decide to learn how to ride a unicycle? Did you unintentionally come into possession of one and decide you wanted to learn how to ride it? Did you just randomly decide "you know what would be cool? To learn how to ride a unicycle!"

I am sincerely interested.

Rod Kestel's picture

I dunno if I can take a make great photo off the unicycle.

The idea came from my quirky friend Julia (who herself is really talented tho not in photography). I developed a growth on my hand called Dupuytren's contracture which is caused or aggravated by by activities such as cycling. Get a bike with no bars, she said.

So I did. Cheap-as and a shirtload of fun, tho you have be persistent to learn it. Esp in your dotage. A great way to Happy to provide some tips if you want a go. A good way to meet people.

Mike Ditz's picture

That is one of my hidden talents! I haven't ridden a unicycle in years but I used to have one, sold it in a garage sale years ago :)

Larry Chism's picture

imho, the process for a creative is first learn the discipline of the art form. If you want to create paintings, learn to draw - the discipline of your art form. This only gets you so far, technical skill. It's the same for golf, for archery, for racing, etc puts you into the pack - yep, one of the pack. Talent, seeing in your minds eye the outcome and making it happen - no matter what. But talent is only 5% of the outcome. Even then your effort may fail, may go unrecognized.

Successful and talented can happen one without the other. My opinion, that and a dollar may not buy a cup of coffee.

Rod Kestel's picture

Yep. When I teach people about photography I start by suggesting they put the camera down. See the shot...Then take the picture.

Guy Incognito's picture

Sometimes talent is doggedness; someone willing to do what it takes to get a shot.
Sometimes talent is technical mastery; someone who can overcome a host of challenges to achieve shots otherwise thought impossible.
Sometimes talent is being good at whatever is popular at the time.
Sometimes talent is appreciated too late.
Sometimes talent is confused with commercial success.
Sometimes talent is commercial success.

The only thing that might be universally true is don't allow being talented to go to your head. Nobody likes a talented jerks or a untalented jerks who thinks they're talented. Which is worse is dealer's choice.

Mike Ditz's picture

I guess there a lot of different ways to define talent.

John Nixon's picture

‘I would presume that being able to instantly pick out great photography when you are not technically proficient enough to create anything of that standard, would at least give the photographer a direction to becoming a talented photographer themselves. But then comes the looming question: can you teach yourself what is and isn't good photography?’

Teaching yourself what is or isn’t good photography won’t help you to be able to produce good photography. However, teaching yourself to understand WHY good photography is good might.

Spy Black's picture

Soon they'll be the likes of a Honda Asimo taking your place, well programmed with AI to take all the 'right" pictures, and you'll be out of a job...

RT Simon's picture

Depends on what type of photos you make or take. Patience could be seen as a deciding factor into making great photos: just waiting for the best natural light will make all the difference. Is that talent? Or is it more about direction? In sports photography, better lenses and higher frame count may make the difference. Is it talent or perseverance? What about things we cannot see but the camera can freeze? Multiply by 20 frames a second and you have 20x the chance of catching the unseeable. Is that talent? Location? An old adage states photography is 90% location 10% talent.

yanpekar's picture

If you want to become a better photographer, forger the word “talent”. Many people use this word as an excuse. Example: “he / she is a better photographer than I am, because he / she has a talent”. What many people call “talent” in photography is a mix of very hard work, experience, huge amount of practice, good taste and developed feeling of aesthetics. Practice more, develop good taste and feeling of aesthetics and your skills will improve. Better than hiding behind the word “talent” and giving yourself an excuse of not being as good as “talented” photographers.

Matthew Eric Lit's picture

I tell my students this at the beginning of each new semester:

"You've got to have passion in the emotional response to what you're experiencing. If you don't all I can accomplish is teaching you to take a technically perfect, mediocre photograph."

In line with one of your comments Robert, I once had a student who was terrible. I mean her earliest images were just bad. I walked her through (classroom critique) what she was seeing and what she was trying to capture. Her final portfolio really blew me away. It was amazing! She had the spark all along and just needed to gain the technical prowess to let that shine. It also taught me an amazing teaching opportunity and newfound skill.