The relationship between talent, creativity and experience

Let’s start with some semantics:

Talent: is your innate ability to do something – it’s inborn, and for the purposes of this essay, you can’t change it. It’s fixed. Think of it as your starting point; you also can’t lose it.

Creativity: in the photographic context centers around your ability to construct a unique composition from a given scene. It’s a continuum; the more different your composition to anything that’s come before, the more creative you are. This applies for both the elements you can control (e.g. studio lighting, flashes, focal length/ perspective etc) and the ones you can’t – the subject, for instance. The amount of creativity a person has is generally fixed; however, unlike talent, you can train yourself to be more creative.

Experience: is the knowledge you gain from having done something (or something related and relevant) before – for instance, if you’ve used a fire before, you know it’s hot and you won’t put your hand into it because it hurts. In a photographic context, it could be something as simple as knowing that telephoto lenses work better for wildlife photography than wide angles, or it could be as subtle as choosing a thick carbon-fiber monopod over a thinner steel one for its rigidity and vibration damping properties to enable as low a shutter speed as possible. This is the biggest area of opportunity for all photographers.

It’s easier to understand where I’m going next if you have a baseline: I’ll use myself as a guinea pig, and score out of 10; 10 being the best and 0 being poke-your-eyes-out-with-a-stick bad.

Ming, in 2003 (Brand-new, wet-behind-the-ears hobby photographer. Doesn’t know the first thing about shutter speeds, finds aperture numbering confusing, and can’t figure out the whole perspective thing.) Here’s an early shot:

_DSC0633 copy
Random abstract.

At the time, I thought this was actually one of my better ones. Shocking, huh? I think nobody would question an assessment of Talent = 0. Creativity – hmm, harder to judge; it obviously isn’t really a standard shot, but at the same time…execution is lacking. I’ll be generous and say this merits a 5 on the creativity scale. It does tell us something about the experience rating, though: had I known better, I wouldn’t have overexposed, and I’d have used a tripod. I’d probably also have selected a more suitable exposure combination commensurate to the effect I was trying to achieve. Let’s give experience another zero.

Fast forward a bit to today.

Ming, in 2012 (Getty Images member, Nikon Professional Services UK member, Leica Camera-sponsored, veteran of countless pro shoots, etc…I’ll stop blowing my own horn now ;)

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Jaeger Le-Coultre Gyrotourbillon 2 escapement

I don’t think anybody would argue that this is an easy shot to produce. It requires advance knowledge and mastery of a) lighting; b) composition and visual balance; c) being able to see the unique in something not immediately visible or obvious (the frame covers approximately 12x8mm); d) post processing; e) familiarity with the subject itself; f) the ability to get one’s equipment to deliver exactly what is required.

So what’s changed in the last nine years? My talent remains the same: it can’t change, and it’s approximately still zero. My creativity has definitely improved; I’m both trying different things and executing them so that they manage to communicate my initial vision – that shot was supposed to give the impression of an x-ray view into the heart of a complex machine, which this particular watch absolutely is.

But the biggest improvement is experience: in the last nine years, I’ve shot more than half a million frames – some in the course of getting the shot for a particular assignment or location; some out of pure experimentation; and some just in the course of capturing and recording life as I see it. But each one of those frames has given me the benefit of being able to refine my skills incrementally more. Although the laws of diminishing returns definitely kicked in a long time ago, I’m told there’s still some progress going on. The way I shoot now is not the same as the way I shot even a year or two ago.

Shooting lots is one thing – but remembering what you’ve learned is even more important, otherwise you’ll hit diminishing returns pretty early on in the process. There are many times where I’ll do experiments concentrating on one particular aim only – for instance, refining my x-ray processing technique – and ignoring the other elements. Or perhaps it might be to master the use of lighting very small reflective objects at close distances. I probably won’t keep any of these experiments because compositionally they don’t work (and that wasn’t the point) – but it’s the experience and knowledge that’s important. And then when I *do* need to put it all together – the above shot, for instance – then I have confidence that my techniques and experience will let me pull it off.

There is no substitute for experience. There’s plenty of evidence to support that it takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master something – give or take a little depending on whether you do it continuously (benefit of not forgetting between sessions and having to backtrack or repeat) and your intellect. This means one task, continuously, for three years or more. And that’s why there were a) so few master photographers in the film days (practice cost a lot of time and money, and there was a delay between taking the shot and getting feedback, during which it was easy to forget what you tried) – and b) lots of ‘new talent’ emerging today.

Which brings us to the conclusion of this article: I’m often asked what is the one best tip I can give to an aspiring photographer: practice, practice, practice. I still do it, and I’m still learning. MT

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Comments

  1. Hi Ming:
    I’m currently preparing a short workshop on creativity and found your blog. In my attempt to distill a personal definition of creativity this is what I came up with – it seems we are coming from a similar place in our thinking: “Creativity happens when imagination and experience intersect.” Experience for me being all the input, conscious and unconscious, that we absorb through living providing the imagination with an unlimited supply of data to play with and puzzle out until new neural pathways form and Eureka happens. For my purposes I’ve taken ‘innate talent’ out of the equation because I am looking at creativity more broadly as anything form artistic pursuits to solving sophisticated mathematical problems. Although I do believe the interests we pursue in life are driven by that inborn ability.
    I look forward to future blogs from you.

  2. Fishnose says:

    Talent = 0? Nonsense, and you know it. You wouldn’t be where you are today with zero talent, that’s just false modesty. Since talent is, by your own definition, a value that can’t be influenced, you might as well just put it aside and avoid the problem of whether saying/admitting you have talent or not.
    Sure, half a million shots is a lot. But you’re only been at it for 9 years, if I understand you correctly – which is nothing in a longer perspective. Let’s talk again ín another 25 years, then we’ll see how you’ve matured and what you’re capable of. Life experience and putting a distance between yourself now and then (known in the old value system as ‘wisdom’) are far more important factors than one might imagine. I’m 56 now and I find I’m developing my abilities and my ‘eye’ or ‘ear’ (in photography and music and various other fields) at a FASTER rate now than I did when I was 20 or 30 or 40. Which means that you will be be even better in the future. Much, much better.
    The only significant thing that slows down with increasing age is the speed at which ‘muscle memory’ learns things. Like with guitar technique, for instance. All other things get better with age, believe me.

    • Certainly not when I started. In any case, it’s all relative – who’s to judge on an absolute scale if you’re talented or not?

      If I’m still running this blog in another 20 years, we’ll revisit this subject again then :)

  3. I like your comparisons between talent, creativity, and experience. I have been struggling really hard to figure out what it is I am good at so that I could possibly use that talent to make a living. Scott Edmund Miller has come out with a great book titled, “The User’s Guide to Being Human: The Art and Science of Self,” which has been a godsend. I now have a better idea of what my inner talents are, and how I can use these talents int he future.

    http://usersguidetobeinghuman.com/

    • Finding it out, knowing it, and then believing it so you can empower yourself to do something about it are very different things…the last part is the hardest.

  4. Robert Stark says:

    I don’t quite understand your self-described lack of talent — perhaps you keep it at zero for the sake of the argument so as not to detract from the other factors — and to give hope that anyone through disciplined hard work can produce great photographs. I’ve seen many works of art and works that are called “art” by a broad, sweeping definition of the term that leaves the term meaningless. From this experience I’ve had over many hours, over many years, I believe you have a great deal of talent though I don’t like trying to quantify things on a scale, as from zero to 10.

    I also think talent and creativity are connected. A person without talent can produce something different for the sake of its being different and the result is awful — even if it sells wildly, like the Emperor’s new clothes.

    Robert

    • True and not true, but I’m just judging from early and late feedback I’ve gotten on my own work – the early stuff was definitely hurting eyes. I think experience will lift the level for everybody, but talent gives you a higher platform to start from.

      • Robert Stark says:

        I’m not sure what you are referring to when you write “true and not true” and I don’t wish to quibble with you but I cannot let it pass that you have zero talent. I think you have a great deal of talent. There are indeed some very technically proficient photographers (and musicians) who can dazzle and make a lot of money with their proficiency but the ones that truly give you pause and whose work endures over a long time do have talent. And you give one a lot of pause and I think your work will endure. And I thank you for sharing your work here.

        Robert

  5. deedeephotog says:

    Excellent and inspiring. Always enjoy your posts. Thank you!

  6. I do agree – practice + practice + practice. But also need to mention – spend + spend + spend – to acquire better body/lenses/accessories/software/hardware. Then later – sell + sell + sell – to discard those has been idling too long in the cabinets. Another question to you MT, if you were to do it all over again – will you use the same approach back in 2004 till today ?

    • Probably not. I’d be a lot more disciplined in the spending and more liberal with the experimentation. Don’t buy stuff until you’re sure you need it, and make sure you actually buy something that does the job.

  7. Great subject!
    I could see myself when you wrote about experimentation and recording life as you see it. I think that’s the motivation to keep improving technique and some kind of sixth sense required in delicate moments when you don’t have time to think, prepare and can’t miss the shot.
    I have some friends that have more experience than me but only photograph for money, and it’s sad to see that they are not evolving. The pictures are always in the same level despite the gear used.
    By the way, here the “early image from 2004″ are not appearing.
    Thanks for the essay.
    (I have to read again the D800 tests to formulate some questions.)

    • Fixed the image – thanks for the feedback. Most of the world’s cameras are sold to the people who just throw money at it…but then again, that’s what gives the rest of us serious photographers choices. It’s not a bad thing.

  8. Thanks for sharing this. Makes perfect sense.

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