It's Work, Not Talent That Makes Photographs

It's Work, Not Talent That Makes Photographs

I would hazard a guess that most working photographers will tell you that talent has very little to do with a successful photograph. Somewhere along the way, you've probably heard the words “Genius is one per cent talent and ninety-nine per cent hard work.” It's that hard work that brings about good photography. Let's explore the roles that effort and perseverance play in our photography today. 

Let's start this discussion by asking ourselves when was the last time that the first image we took was the exact expression of an idea that we had envisioned. I'll be honest and say that it hasn't happened since I first began photography. In those days, the fact that I was able to focus the camera or make a photograph in low light were enough to make me believe I had succeeded. However, my demands on my images have risen, and my craft has had to follow. The only thing is, my craft always seems to lag behind and I see this a lot in others as well. I'm sure many of you can relate.

I began thinking quite deeply about this topic after running the Central Vietnam tour with Pics of Asia last year. Quite a few of our participants would see a beautiful scene, make a few images, and give up as if they could never make the image that was in their mind. I worked through several images with different participants who were on the verge of giving up on a composition. Invariably, sticking with it and attempting to photograph the scene in different ways led them to images that expressed what they had initially seen. That expression just needed work before it came to life. 

I have been working full time as a photographer now for almost six years. I have seen my technical and artistic abilities wax and wane, contract and expand so many times now. The moment I think I have something figured out, my desire for better images outpaces my craft and I start all over again. I believe, on a smaller scale, that this happens with every image we consciously make. The image starts with an idea or inspiration and must be worked in order to result in something we are satisfied with. Let's look at some ways that I make use of myself and offer to my workshop participants for solving the issue of expression.

Why Did You Stop?

This is one of the first steps I take when I'm struggling to express what I see. I take a metaphorical step back and ask myself what made me stop walking and begin to make an image. I find that my workshop participants struggle the most with this part. They've seen something that amazes them, but they struggle to express it visually. Usually, they're providing too much or too little context or not waiting for a moment. To solve this, I ask them to consider what made them stop, and then consider what is important in conveying that to their viewer. 

I spent a good 20 minutes trying to pick out characters in Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi before realizing that it was simply the chaos of the place that had made me stop. By redirecting my energy to what I initially felt, I was able to pick out people who were working quickly, moving goods from place to place. This gave me a new focus and eventually led me to slow shutters and panning to express the scene. We'll talk in the next section a little more about how a place feels. 

What Does That Feel Like?

The next logical step after defining what it was that made you want to make an image is to define how it makes you feel. By doing so, you're then able to consider how you could communicate that feeling to your viewer. In this way, you're able to deliberately create images that express what you want them to.

In this example, I absolutely loved the texture of the wall and chair. However, that alone wouldn't carry the feeling of the place. The constant traffic of the streets of Varanasi is what I felt from the place. Every time I knelt down to make this image, I had to stand up and move as a motorcycle, passer-by, or even a goat would be trying to get through the alley. So, I waited until I had just the right passer by to complete my image. In this case, the color combination and the bare feet of a local religious man conveyed the feeling of the place far better than a simple texture. 

Change your Position

Changing your physical position is a great way to work a scene for a better expression than what you're seeing currently. By moving around a subject, you are also changing the background and light that your camera will see. Not only that, but moving closer or farther away also changes how a subject is rendered in relation to its foreground and background. This combination of factors can result in very different expressions of the same subject very quickly. 

With this example here, I was drawn immediately to the old man sitting in front of the closed shutters. The grittiness of them and the characters on the wall spoke Hong Kong to me, but the resulting image was very two-dimensional. I wanted something more to give you a sense of space. So, I took a few steps back and noticed a bicycle that I could photograph through. It took only a few frames to get my composition and depth-of-field the way I wanted them before I could simply wait for the man to give me some sort of expression. 

Switch Focal Lengths

One of the more insidious boundaries to getting the image you want, especially for beginner photographers, is that the focal length you're using simply doesn't express what you're feeling. It can be tough to recognize this at first and so I always hint to my participants that there may be another lens that would express their feeling better. 

In this image of the Taj Mahal, I was working at 65mm on the GFX 50R and making a panorama that expressed the beautiful light that was hitting this ancient monument to love. However, I realized that it simply wasn't my experience of the place. I had come around to the other side of the Yamuna River to express the building from that side, but wasn't at all entertaining that perspective. So, I decided to switch to a focal length that would express where I was an how far away the Taj Mahal actually felt from here. For this job, I switched to my trusty Laowa 9mm f/2.8. Finally, after considering why I wanted this frame, how I felt, and changing my position, the focal length gave me a composition that I am quite happy with. 

In Conclusion

Arriving at a great, or even a good, photograph takes effort and perseverance. Very rarely to photographers get a great image on their first press of the shutter button. Just look at the famous book, Magnum Contact Sheets, for a whole book about this idea. Giving up a composition because you're unable to immediately express what you want is a defeatist way to approach photography and will rarely, if ever, result in successful photographs. Spend the time to work on your compositions and you'll see great improvements in the images you make. 

Although I'm looking at examples of candid photography here and discussing this in terms of finding compositions, you can apply these ideas to any form of photography. Rather than the found subject being physically in front of you, consider that as your idea. By doing this, you can apply these same thoughts to, for example, a studio fashion photograph.

We've talked about considering what made you want to make an image, how it feels, and a couple of ways to explore your compositions. What other ways could we change our approach in order to solve the issue of a composition that doesn't seem to work for us?

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13 Comments

With respect to the author, why do so many articles and discussions always centre around the idea that "X (photographs) isn't the result of Y (talent), it's Z (hard work)"? Surely it can include other factors like luck, access to resources, supportive friends and family, market and business savvy to be profitable, etc.?

JetCity Ninja's picture

because people who have it easy or got lucky always like to pretend they put in more effort than you.

no matter how hard you work, you can't make yourself a genius. that would fly in the face of the definition since a genius is born with their abnormal potential.

1. an exceptional natural capacity of intellect, especially as shown in creative and original work in science, art, music, etc. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/genius

that "saying" only works by substituting "genius" with "success."

As a manager responsible for hiring talented videographers/editors/producers, I appreciate the hard work required to achieve great images and stories. However, I believe it's a balance. No talent equals ugly compositions, poor use of color, and muddy messaging. You need both hard work and talent to be successful.
Do you take snap shots, or are you a painter of light?

It could also be attitude. If someone you were considering hiring came in to an interview and showed talent and experience but an indifferent attitude and aloof personality you might pass them over for someone less talented and experienced but more enthusiastic and engaged.

Ultimately, lots of factors result in success, especially one factor lots of people don't like to admit: luck. Right place, right time. Know the right people. Get seen by the right people. It's as true in the creative world as anywhere else.

I wonder why some people are dismissive of talent...
Work makes photographs, paintings, music, architecture, etc but work and talent makes photographs we like to look at and music we enjoy listening to over and over or buildings that we go around the world to see.

Hard work will get you only so far, maybe 80% is all many people can do (which is good enough for a lot of situations) but the last 15% is talent. That's the wow! factor, the why didn't I think of doing it that way? The last 5% is the unpredictable magic.

Xander Cesari's picture

I agree but I always looked at it in the opposite order. Talent isn't the last thing you need, it's the first thing you need. Having a bit of natural aptitude and a good eye means that you'll reap much larger rewards for putting in hard work. It's not the cherry on the top, it's a multiplier throughout the process. Being good at recognizing quality photography means that when you go out to practice you get much better and faster feedback on what you do that works and what doesn't. In that way, the hard work of practicing provides bigger and faster increases in skill level and multiplies your progress.

This is also why so many talented people say things like "talent doesn't matter". They've been working hard for their careers and they've seen that churn out great results but they miss that their natural abilities are why the hard work has paid off in the first place.

This is something I've seen across multiple fields beyond photography (ie, my day job) and it often leads to talented people being hard on those around them because they're not aware of the sources of their own success. That's not really a big deal in mostly solo pursuits like photography but it can quickly tear apart a team environment.

Couldn't disagree more. Talent is a word people fixate on to make excuses for why they're not able to do something. The reason "talented" people can be hard on those around them is because when they tried to be good at something, they discovered the truth for themselves: talent is BS and there is no substitute for hard work and dedication. Once you realize that, it's hard to feel sorry for people who talk a good game about wanting to be good at something but refuse to sacrifice anything to get there. It's especially difficult at a day job, where your (and the company's) success can be thwarted by some schmuck who thinks "I wish I was talented" but mentally checks out at 4:59PM. The secret sauce isn't talent, it's that you have to want it bad enough. If you want it bad enough, you'll find a way. Sure, there are cases where some people are genetically predisposed to having a better chance at being good at something, like being athletic, but that's still not the same thing as talent.

The simple fact is that it's easier to dream than do, and most people just don't want to work that hard. Also, most people don't realize that hard work is not the same thing as smart work. You can walk around all day long trying to take a good picture, but maybe the work that's required is a few hours of sitting at home studying instead of walking for 10 hours with no idea of what you're doing. Being good at something often has less to do with actually "doing" that thing, it's more about putting in the time to do all of the other stuff that's required just to "do" that thing (studying, thinking, analyzing, brainstorming, etc). In fact, I'd go so far as to say that what most people call "talent" is really just the mental work that goes into something rather than the physical work. But work is work; just because the mental work is tedious and less tangible doesn't mean it's easier or any less important.

Xander Cesari's picture

I think you may have misconstrued my comment. I never said hard work is unnecessary or talent can replace hard work. You still have to put in the time to get anywhere, there are no shortcuts.

I say all this coming as someone who's had a very successful career so this isn't me saying "screw those guys, I don't have what they have because they're just naturally good". I say this as someone who was naturally good at my job and also worked hard to propel myself ahead. But I've also seen others work just as hard as me and fall short because they weren't cut out for it.

It would be arrogant for me not to reflect on all the sources of my success instead of just puffing out my chest and bragging about being the hardest working guy in the room (even when there have been times that I was).

I wouldn't say misconstrued... my point wasn't about whether or not you think hard work is or isn't necessary. It was that I think talent is an imaginary concept altogether. Or, at the very least, it's so rare as to be practically irrelevant 99% of the time.

I'm not discounting that any given person may need to put in a different amount of effort than another person in order to succeed at something, but at the end of the day the success for either comes down solely to the effort they put in to reach that level, not the point from where they (or the other) started. You may have seen others work just as hard as you and not achieve the same results, but I doubt it's because of your "natural ability". You just likely worked smarter in some areas than others did. Effort needs to be as high as it is efficient; often one of those falls short and you're left with someone believing that it's due to a lack of talent (which they can't help) rather than a lack of something that's within their control.

I think the most important part of this idea is how inspiring it can be. How often do people look at a piece of art and think, "damn, that's CRAZY good, that guy (or gal) must be really talented"? I'd say that's a fairly common reaction. The problem is that it can become a self-imposed barrier. Next time, instead of framing it in terms of their talent, think about it this way:

It's been done, therefore it can be done.

That's empowering.

JetCity Ninja's picture

singing well is a talent. opportunity puts you on the stage. hard work makes you a roadie for the talent. a hard working talent can afford more hard working roadies.

just like talent or opportunity, hard work will only get you so far.

JetCity Ninja's picture

it's cameras, not work or talent, that makes photographs.

Persistent hard work, talent and passion walk hand in hand along the trail of success at the upper tiers/big gigs of stills and cinematography.

You can have all the technologically marvellous wonder boxes at your disposal and work your fingers to the bone-but if you don’t have a natural creative eye and aspire to greater things-you are at some point going to hit a brick wall.

What do all these masters have in common: Annie Liebovitz, Tom Mangelson, Michiio Hoshino, Mark Toia, Philip Bloom, Quentin Tarantino ?

They all consistently work hard, they’re all extremely passionate and they’re all remarkably talented.

Exactly, there has to be a mixture of talent and hard work, add in a bit of right time and right place as well.