I’m not sure if the premise of this article will incur the Wrath of Khan and perhaps it doesn’t belong on a site like this. But it made me think, which in turn made me write, about how easily the word ‘talent’ is bandied about in the photographic community. It has often given me pause when the word ‘talent’ is used in reference to a photographer, one who is undoubtedly skilled and capable at producing beautiful images. The idea that some people have talent where others don’t is a sure-fire way to make us feel insecure about our chosen craft and perhaps exploited into buying ever more product to compensate. But I believe we should not be so intimidated.
Talent is defined as a natural aptitude or skill, an innate gift for something; perhaps an unquantifiable ability that someone is simply born with. It is arguably easy to find true talent in other forms of art. Singers, painters, dramatists, sculptors, linguists, and writers are all crafts where innate talent can be recognised early on. But photography may be a little different.
Sometimes I’ll see some amazing photos and think wow, those are great shots. But before I assign raw talent to the photographer, I wonder how much of it was simply because they made the effort to be in the right place in the right time? How much of it was good processing, or even luck? At some point they had to choose a point of view to shoot the subject from and what position to be in, but isn’t even that something that can be learned, either through inspiration or trial and error?
Good photography, as a craft, requires a certain amount of skill for sure. Yes, of course, someone can have an innate ability to ‘see’ things, to recognise beauty in all its forms, real or abstract. Talented portrait photographers, for instance, can reveal the soul and character of their subject. One can be born with an eye for the picture. Perhaps someone has innately good design skills and can create artistic imagery combining in-camera techniques with skilful post-processing (arguably in such cases artistic talent is dominant over photographic talent).
But these skills can all be learned too. And isn’t that partly what makes photography so accessible to so many? Knowing that with a little learning and lots of practice, sooner or later one can recognise what makes a good shot. I’ve seen many wonderful images by many skilled photographers. But invariably they had each learned to become better. Macro photographers learn to use extension tubes and lightboxes and focus-stacking to make perfect close-ups; landscape photographers make an early morning start to find an already beautiful location in the golden hour so they can capture it on their camera. All of these things at some point required good judgement. Judgement is usually the result of experience. And experience, as Oscar Wilde put it, is the name we give to our failures.
I believe this is true of myself. I always feel like a fraud if someone remarks that I have any kind of talent. I sincerely don’t believe I do (at least not in photography, and of course you may well agree!). Most of the random images I’ve chosen here only demonstrate my range of photographic interests and are not at all indicative of any talent. They are largely the result of being in the right place at the right time, or plain luck, or just feeling that something looked worthy of a capture. That feeling developed over time with a lot of trial and error. Over time I was inspired to use different angles and deconstruct the image into simpler elements. Over time I developed a taste for monochromatic images, questioning if colour added anything to them. Over time I’ve tried to focus on revealing something about the subject rather than simply capturing it. That’s not talent; that’s acquired judgement.
Ok, maybe it helps that I’ve always seen the world in pictures, drawing cartoons on my homework at school or caricatures of my classmates, even making illustrations out of notes to revise from at university. Eons ago in my first apartment in Wales I drew a giant Spiderman swinging from a webline on the bare beige wall (the letting agent wasn’t as impressed as I was). When I write (non-photography) articles I use a lot of imagery, visualising a scenario before putting words to it. The other day my sister chastised me for doodling on her cereal packet while I was waiting for her to get ready. It was in front of me and there was a pen; what’s a guy meant to do?
Some people assess the world visually, some with emotion, some with sound and language. In reality it’s a little of all of those for each of us. Maybe I was born with relatively more visual awareness but that has developed over time too. I wasn’t born with a camera in my hand, nor did I take an interest in photography at an early age. Photography for me became an extension (and a more convenient one at that) of my desire to make pictures. I am still learning with practice what makes a reasonable image. Through photography I have a better appreciation of light and form and composition. Now when I shoot I can more comfortably rely on my instincts about what would make a good image.
My point is that this can be true of each of us. Photography is fortunately a craft where so-called talent is not an absolute requirement. We can learn to develop our skills and make truly wonderful images. We can find a niche that suits us best and realise an innate ability that we didn’t know we had. And I won’t write off the value of our gear since certain types of camera bodies and lenses help create a certain look and help acquire certain images (wildlife, sports, macro and portraiture to name but a few). Gear merely plays a part in our overall journey.
I believe with unrelenting practice, an effort to seek out worthy subjects and perhaps a little luck, all of us can develop our skills and produce magnificent work. Don’t be intimidated by striking images taken by someone else or cower in the mistaken belief that you couldn’t do produce something as impressive. You’re not supposed to replicate someone else’s unique vision anyway; you have plenty of your own. In fact, I’d argue your first obligation is to enjoy yourself; if that doesn’t happen then everything else is simply academic. I hope I don’t offend or upset anyone with this essay; my only wish is to encourage you to have faith that you can excel in your photography. Because if a simple, average nobody like me can learn to take a half decent photo there must surely be reels of hope for everyone else.