Talent vs Contacts: Which One Is More Important?

Talent vs Contacts: Which One Is More Important?

At some point of our career, we find ourselves wandering whether we should continue to develop our skills or channel our efforts into broadening our network to capture potential clients. The answer is more complex than just choosing one or the other. But to be able to compare both concepts I think it’s important to understand them well. They are not really the most ambiguous words, yet some ideas gain different connotations according to the situation in which they are used.


Talent is often understood as an innate ability to perform certain activities. However talent can be better comprehended as a potential easier to develop, which can be properly cultivated to become added value. The later, makes your product – in this case photography – better than others.

In other words, it is possible that someone is born with a higher sensibility or disposition for photography but if they don’t put the necessary efforts into developing that ability, it won’t do any good. So beyond the innate qualities that someone may possess, I think that when someone commonly refers to the talent of a photographer, i.e.. “What a great picture; It must be from a talented photographer,” it is likely they are appealing to the effort and dedication that it takes for a person to achieve a high-level image.

In summary we can say that talent is basically understood as how good you are doing what you do.


Being well connected today is not about how many people you know – or how many friends you have on Facebook – but rather about generating a list of contacts that complement your needs. You have to understand that is not just about gathering contacts of our own, but also being someone else’s contact so they can refer to you and what you do.

With that said, it’s clear that contacts are not just a bunch of numbers you have on your cell phone or even mailing lists in a worksheet. They are a well interlaced network of people who may require your services or lend theirs to achieve a great product. And like any network, the question is how to weave it well to make it sturdy.

Networking is not easy to develop and is the result of a thorough process of research and generating planned coincidences when meeting people. For example, if you want to meet art directors working in major agencies, it's going to be harder to accomplish if you only hang out with musicians or dancers. You should identify and frequent the places and circles where your potential clients are. While hanging out there, you could easily gain some business connections.

Contacts should be earned and once they have been established, you should evaluate how important they are to the workflow you have to thereby determine the frequency of interaction with one person or another.

Which One Is More Important?

In a way, both are. Talent is something that should be constantly cultivated and developed. Without challenges it’s harder to make mistakes, and without mistakes there can be no growth and learning. So if we understand talent as how good we are doing something, it’s clearly important to be really good.

Regarding contacts, it’s not really about going out and meeting people, or adding random people on social networks. It’s about who you know, and how that person can help you reach your goals.

In any case, my perception of the more relevant factor leans lightly on favor of the network of contacts. I’ve seen many colleagues and other creative professionals who excel at what they do, but their network is so limited that they don’t get – or rather they don’t generate – the opportunities to monetize their work. Opposite to that, I’ve met and actually worked with people who are not necessarily the best as far as technical or aesthetic skills go. Still they had some huge accounts, both prestigious and well paid.

Finally, I think that while the contacts are relatively more important, the first thing you should do is develop talent to the point of being good. Once you're there you can build a network of contacts that allows you work with bigger and better teams. At that point you can focus on developing both aspects simultaneously.

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David Vaughn's picture

I agree.

I know this is cliche to say, but, from what I've seen, being connected is more important than being talented if you are trying to make a living in photography. While talent will allow you to make a name for yourself in the industry, you'll probably go further in terms of employment if you are well-connected.

People like to hire their friends, as the saying goes.

Felipe Zabala's picture

True, I actually think it has something to do with customer service. Whenever you hire a friend or at least someone you know personally, you have more confidence to ask for a better treatment. Sometimes friends just get better service without really asking.

In that sense, the market is willing to overlook quality sometimes, as long as they get something else in return.

David Vaughn's picture

That's part of it as well.

I also find it interesting how, although this concept isn't new, the Internet has given it more clout. Thus is the reason why - I think - the amount of photography workshops has soared.

Also; if anybody ever figures out how the hell to use Linkedin effectively, I'd love to hear your thoughts, because I feel like it's just a social network for connected people to get more connected to other connected people so they can...I don't know...Talk about the weather while standing around a virtual water cooler?

Felipe Zabala's picture

I just got an account in LinkedIn and I've found some great contacts related to my market, and I've had an easier time trying to add them and message them. However this social/work network still puzzles me, I still haven't found an effective commercial use for it.

David Vaughn's picture

Yeah, I mean, I've connected with peers and contacts and stuff, and I've added a lot of resume stuff on there (before I forget it forever), but I'm not very...businessy. IE: suit, tie, corporate-driven. On Linkedin I feel like the guy in cargo shorts and flip flops at a neverending board meeting. lol

Ralph Berrett's picture

I will say it this way I have known a lot of talented shooters over the years but few have succeeded. If you want an example of this go to flickr. In professional wrestling they tend to break the talent into two categories works and gimmicks. Gimmicks are the guys who can talk and strut but are great showmen while workers are the guys who make the matches look good, but may not have great charisma.

Today's modern photographers are expected to be both workers and gimmicks. The biggest mistake most new shooters do that drives me nuts is that they start apologizing for lack of experience or gear to a client before they have fired a shot off. So they undermine the clients confidence and the client instead of looking forward to results of a shoot is dreading it.

Felipe Zabala's picture

Yeah, that's a real bummer for clients. I think that most "gone wrong" cases can be averted by focusing on public relationships and dealing with the client, rather than just perfecting the technical aspects of photography.

Ralph Berrett's picture

I will put it this way you can't expect a client to have confidence in you if you don't believe in yourself. I also have a simple rule never promise what I can't deliver. I am old school, I had formal schooling and knew the basics before I hit the market place. I come from the film days and manual cameras.

I am going to say something that most will not like. If a photographer does not understand the basics like exposure, lighting, flash and can not shoot manually when needed they should not be in business.

Justin Haugen's picture

Your talent is only as valuable as the people who covet it.

Spy Black's picture

You've left out the one binding element: business sense. While contacts leans more towards the latter, in running a good photographic (or other ) BUSINESS, you need to to have good business sense or, really, a business background, and the talent to give you the confidence you need to run that business. How you get "business sense" is irrelevant, as long as you effectively learn how to run YOUR business. This is really where most photographers fail. I know, I've been there. ;-)

Felipe Zabala's picture

That's true, I agree. I find business sense and skills a VERY important part of being successful as a photographer. Of course there are some that hire the business end of things and dedicate themselves to taking pictures, but that's something not everyone can do.

steven tippett's picture

i might get some hate for this but i think your talking von wong vs peter hurley on this subject, currently they are both at about the same level in my eyes... 1 von wong, just had pure talent and an eye worked from the bottom up to get were he is today on pure skill... peter hurley on the other hand start out as as sailor and model so he new everyone in the industry, so it was easy for him to break in, he said it him self he started in a small crampt tiny room doing headshots and had no idea what he had been around the people before so he knew how to talk and act as if... so both are at were they are because of photography but 1 made it because of stupid awesome skills, and the other just because he knew the right people to get his foot in the door... this doesnt solve the debate but it does prove that it could be both, so if you had the talent of von wong and contact of hurley, holy crap your made, you could be a top photog in like 3 months if you worked at it...

Felipe Zabala's picture

I'm not really sure I follow your point. The one thing I can say is that if like you mention, both of them are in the same level, they both have talent (they are good at what they do) and both have contacts now.