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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Previous comments
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...

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.

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.