Talent, Not Tools, Will Determine the Quality of Your Photography

Talent, Not Tools, Will Determine the Quality of Your Photography

Today, I state the obvious. But sometimes even the most obvious things can be easy to forget.

I got an email yesterday from a talented young photographer. The aspiring professional asked a very logical question, one that I myself would’ve asked when I was just starting out on my journey. How does one become a professional photographer if one can’t afford to purchase a top of the line camera? I responded to the question in a brief manner, stating that talent makes a photographer, not his or her tools. And while that may roll easily off my tongue like any other proposed words of wisdom, I thought it might be helpful for some out there if I were to go a bit further.

First off, yes, I am not an idiot. Or, at least not a complete idiot. I am fully aware that there are technical differences between a camera that costs $20,000 and a camera that costs $500. Yes, these cameras do different things and bring different skills to the table from more resolution to faster autofocus to a whole host of perks that justify the price tag. And once you get hired to do a job, you will need to be able to provide the product a client requires, which may mean adhering to particular specs. But what won’t happen, at least if your aspiring to be a commercial photographer like the young person who reached out to me, is for a client to hire you specifically because you own a certain camera.

To be sure, there are any number of reasons a client will select a photographer. Past relationship, a referral, reputation, and/or lucky coincidence of timing and availability. But, as you develop your career, you will notice that those who go far in the business, those who stand out from the crowd, do so because they can provide the market with something unique that other photographers can’t. Other photographers may have the same tools, but none have that particular artist’s voice. Or, as someone much smarter than me put it, pencils have existed centuries, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is suddenly William Shakespeare.

Brands need to stand out in the market to sell their products, whether that be a blender or a bottle of soda. In order to make their brands seem unique, they need to find photographs who can create artwork that is unique. Whether the images in the artist’s portfolio were shot with a Hasselblad or an iPhone is really besides the point. The question is: “Does the artist have a unique way of seeing the world?” And, further: “Is that vision cohesive to my brand and can it help me to sell my product?”  

Photographers worry about specs. Clients worry about results.

I realize this advice will be obvious to many readers of this site who are working professionals and have learned this lesson long ago. But since the focus of many articles, including my own, can sometimes focus on the joy of a particular piece of gear, I wanted to point out to others for whom said gear may not be in reach, that not having the most expensive equipment does not preclude you from pursuing your passion.

Chase Jarvis is famous for having stated that the best camera is the one you have with you. In his case, he was referring to early days of iPhone photography, but the point was clear. Don’t get caught up with the tools, get caught up in the image.

So, if the only camera you can afford right now is an old point-and-shoot that was handed down from your Uncle Larry, don’t waste time worrying about it not having the highest score on the latest lens test. Instead, put your energy into figuring out how to get the most out of that point-and-shoot camera. Composition and creativity are free. Maybe you won’t be able to rent a grip truck full of the latest and greatest Profoto equipment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still create a great image.

I was talking to a client three days ago about why it is that I fell in love with still photography. If you’ve ever read any of my previous articles, you can probably guess that my answer droned on for quite a bit. But one of the main points I always bring up when asked that question is that one of the best parts about being a photographer is that you can literally create art at any moment.

Prior to becoming a still photographer, I was wrote and directed motion pictures. While how well it did so may be a subject for debate, what is pure fact is that making a movie is a truly gargantuan proposal. I can write a script on my own in the calm of my home office. But, in order to turn those words into a finished film, it takes months, if not years, of planning, packaging, production, postproduction, promotion, and a whole host of words that start with a P just to be able to be able to tell a simple story.

Coming from that world, the main thing that drew me to still photography was that creating art was as simple as picking up a camera and walking out the door. All it took was vision, the ability to recognize a worthwhile image when it presented itself. And then, boom, 1/200 of a second later I had created a piece of art.

Surely the files I took with my early D200 were not on par with the files I can take today with my D850, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was learning. I was developing my voice and my skills as a photographer. I was even getting published in national magazines despite the fact that I was shooting with only a prosumer camera. None of my clients asked what I shot with. They only cared that I could deliver an image that would help their business. And by the time I got to clients that did require specific specs, they were also the clients with a large enough budget to be able to include a camera rental as an item line.

One last analogy to help cement my meaning. There’s a very good chance that a strong percentage of the people reading this article right now also have a Netflix subscription. Now nearly ubiquitous, Netflix has taken over the landscape of movie distribution and changed the way the entire industry operates. But there was a time when Netflix was the new kid on the block. There was a time when it was just the dream of some ambitious young kid who had passion, but lacked the financing to compete with the long established studios. Back then, Blockbuster was the king of the hill and online streaming was just a pipe dream.

Well, this morning I woke up and read that after closing two of it’s three final stores, there is now officially only one Blockbuster store still in existence. Meanwhile, Netflix just last week dethroned HBO by getting the most Emmy nominations of any studio. Furthermore, the well established studios are now merging left and right just to try to keep up with the financial war chest Netflix has now obtained. None of this was imaginable for most people when Netflix was just a young company struggling for seed capital.

So how did David slay Goliath? Instead of focusing on what it didn’t have, it instead found a way to use what it did have to its advantage. It didn’t have theatrical distribution or a century of relationships, but it had a unique idea and it recognized upcoming trends in the marketplace. It wasn’t big, but it was nimble. It wasn’t all powerful, it was flexible.

Just starting in your photography career, you probably won’t have the money for the most expensive gear. You aren’t likely to have decades of established relationships with potential clients. In fact, aside from Uncle Larry’s camera, your own creativity, and a willingness to put in hard work, it’s likely you won’t have much of anything at all.

But that’s enough.

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19 Comments

user-189304's picture

There's a lot to be said for aging cameras. I've seen the D300 with low shutter counts for a couple of hundred dollars.

you could buy my ex wife for that money. D800 series with 10-15k shuttercounts for 1000-1200 euro's. its from the weekend/holiday shooters. brand new D810, for less then 2k on ebay. how about a brand new lens still in its never opened box straight from nikon japan ? its from an old serie but still. great bargens can be found on ebay.

user-189304's picture

lol at ex wife.

Michael McCray's picture

There is a lot to be said about simply learning to master the tools you have and looking for the work that fits them.

Jerome Brill's picture

I just tell people to start off with the camera that fits their current budget. Put more of that money into a lens or two. If you're still taking photos after a year and you got your settings down, look into a different camera/lens that will better suit your needs and inspirations. Although you won't know what those are until you practice and study. Starting with a grand vision isn't a bad thing, you just have find out if you're willing to put in the work for the type of photography you want to do.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

That's good advice. It takes a while to find your niche. When someone is just starting, its better to focus on basics because you may not yet know what tools you will actually NEED until you figure out what you love to shoot.

John Gaylord's picture

I would add one other factor: the ability to gain access to the places / scenes / subjects that we want to photograph, since the creative act of photographing is largely a response to what one is able to find or arrange. So, it might be advantageous to direct more resources toward that instead of equipment acquisition.

Alexandra Giamanco's picture

Hands down the BEST article on Fstoppers.

Jorge Andrés Miraglia's picture

Isn´t there an editor that can help this guy write an article?... Someone who can actually write some proper English.

David Pavlich's picture

It's an article for a bunch of photographers, not a white paper for physicists looking for the Higgs Boson (which was found, by the way). Question is, did you understand his message? It was quite clear to me, but then, I'm not a master of the Queen's English, not by a long shot.

Please stop trolling, Jorge.

David Pavlich's picture

When people ask me about cameras, I first ask their budget and second, what their intention is toward photography; snapshots on the weekend or serious pursuit of the hobby/profession? From there, it becomes much easier to give guidance which is, buy what your budget will support in pursuit of your photographic goals, be that a simple P&S or a high performance pro body.

If someone has the disposable income and wants to buy a high end medium format camera to take pictures of his/her cat, why not? It's his/her money and the camera companies keep doing what they do. You can get from Point A to Point B in a Ford Focus, but if you have the money, why not a Ford Mustang GT? It's way more fun! :-)

Michael Yearout's picture

Very well said Christopher.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ultimately, both are limiters that depend on each other. No amount of talent can create an image that has requirements that the tool is unable to meet, while no tool can replace the need for talent and hard work.

This is why, at the top end of work, elite talent and elite tools tend to both be present on set.

That said, I still like to quote Scott Bourne: "90% of gear is better than 90% of photographers". His point was that unless you have the skill to actually leverage the benefit of the better gear, then it likely won't bring you any benefit. Rather, you would be much better off investing in education and experience until you push your existing gear to its absolute limit rather than wasting money buying better gear you don't have the talent yet to leverage.

It's always good to be reminded of this, to combat G.A.S. Thanks, Christopher.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

What a refreshing and sensible article. Thanks, Christopher. When I was [much!] younger, I used to go through the second hand shelves at my camera store, to see what I could afford. I had great fun with a range of second hand gear, ranging from pre-war (that's pre World War II - LOL) German "folding" cameras with a 6x9cm format to a Linhof 4"x5" studio camera (which I used in the field :) ). Later, when I was earning a decent income, I moved up to top quality 35mm stuff - and later still, to a top 6x6cm cam. And after 50 years of analogue, I've drifted into digital, so that I can do my own processing & printing with colour photography. Which is "better"? I hope the correct answer is "me" - and I'm still learning :)

Mark Niebauer's picture

I hate it when someone asks me what camera I use.