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:

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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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved