Talent, Tools, or Time?

This is another in a series of posts lifted from something I posted in a photography forum elsewhere. For some reason there has recently been a larger than usual number of discussions about the relative importance of “gear” versus other things when it comes to making good photography. I certainly do not think that equipment is unimportant, but I think that people often focus more on this aspect of photography than necessary, often at the expense of some other things that really have far more potential.

In any case, here is a lightly edited version of what I posted. (Do keep in mind that forum posts do not necessarily represent fully edited and carefully considered work – they are more like a sort of written conversation.) I’ll start with an italicized excerpt of the message to which I was responding. My comment follows that.

All the talent and the world and all the equipment in the world isn’t going to overcome a lack of time to practice… 

Absolutely true. This has always been clear to me from my background in music where a thing called practice was the most important tool for becoming very good and maintaining that state. And it was also very, very clear that no amount of “hardware” (e.g. – “better instrument”) was going to replace that or even make more than the tiniest, insignificant difference without that fundamental thing that results from practice.

Practice develops a whole series of closely interrelated attributes without which good stuff won’t be made with any consistency. Some of these attributes are fairly objective – in photography the ability to quickly and almost intuitively “know” the right way(s) to deal with a given situation, to a large extent based on making the technical and mechanical stuff almost intuitive. Others are highly subjective – the development of a style, a way of seeing, and a deep familiarity with what does and doesn’t work visually.

Gear is not unimportant, but its effect on the overall quality of what we do – in photography, in music, in cooking, in just about anything that involves the use of tools to produce something of affective value – is quite small relative to the giant, glaring thing that really does make a difference.

In some cases – perhaps too many cases in some circumstances – an obsessive focus on the “stuff” used by people who make/do interesting and cool things (cyclists, photographers, musicians, race car drivers, chefs, etc.*) reveals at least two things about those with the obsession, one of which is positive and one of which is potentially much less so. The positive is that the interest in the people who do those things and what they manage to do is evidence of a hopeful belief that each of us can be more than what we are and that we want to grow and change. The less positive thing is that we can be sidetracked by the superficial things that we take to signify such admirable people – their bicycles, their cameras, their musical instruments, their cars, their cooking tools – and divert our attention from what it is we really wish to experience or achieve, namely the powerful human quality of what they do. In the end, tools are just tools – only a potential means to that end. In and of themselves they have very, very limited value.

The only reason anyone cares about what Ansel Adams (who was quoted earlier in this thread) said about gear is because we care a hell of a lot about what he did with it. And the latter is the important thing to look at, wonder at, think about, and perhaps even try to emulate.

More attention to the tools will not get you very far in the grand scheme. Appropriate attention to tools is important and can make a difference at some level, but only in a significant way insofar as primary attention is focused on these other things that the tools allow you to do. In photography, that other thing is the nature and quality ofphotographs and how they speak to us.

(* Note: Some of the specific things mentioned in this post related to things mentioned in previous messages in the thread where I originally shared it.)

G Dan Mitchell is a California photographer whose subjects include the Pacific coast, redwood forests, central California oak/grasslands, the Sierra Nevada, California deserts, urban landscapes, night photography, and more.
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7 thoughts on “Talent, Tools, or Time?”

  1. Thanks for the comments, folks. There is perhaps a lot more to say about this topic – and eventually I may say/write some of it – but I’ll just say that I do photography because I like photographs and not because I like photography gear. (I don’t dislike it… ;-)


  2. Photography is one of those avocations (or vocation for a small minority) that has, at least in my lifetime, always had an aboundance of ‘gearheads’. I can remember going to St. Louis Photo in the 32xx block of Locust St in the early-mid 70’s on a Saturday am, and the place would be chock full of camera enthusiasts. You could hardly walk around the place w/o having to utter ‘Excuse me’ a whole lotta bunch of times. It was like an event every Sat. And I admit to getting swept up in it for a while.

    But the one thing you never heard anyone talking about was images. It was all about bodies & lenses, enlargers, and heck, even developing tanks would occasionally get debated.

    So, it doesn’t surprise me in today’s digital age with the ‘megapixel wars’ in full swing that there may be even more gearheads than ever.

    But I’m definitely with Steve S. on this one…..just give a box with that works.

    I’m also very inclined to think we’d still know Adams, Michealangelo, Picasso, and the rest whatever tools they used. We may not know them for the same reasons or for exactly the same pieces that we know them for today, but with their talent, they very likely have risen to the top in some way, shape, or form anyway.

  3. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers,” where he lays out the idea that a huge factor in success at most endeavors is putting in 10,000+ hours of practice and refinement at whatever craft or skill is being discussed. He noted examples of musicians, artists, athletes, etc.

    There’s part of all of us (or at least I think it’s all of us) that wishes there was some magic bullet of talent or gear that gets us past all the hard work. Thing is, it doesn’t exist. Even people we perceive as phenomenally innately talented – someone like Tiger Woods or the Beatles or Picasso – put in tons of time to get that good. Yeah, they had an initial aptitude, but they still had to build the skill.

    When it comes to gear, I think a lot of people mistake correlation for causation. More accomplished practitioners of any skill or art are likely to have higher-quality (and that nearly always means more-expensive) gear. It’s not the gear that made them good; it’s that they found the gear to make certain aspects easier, or gives them more precise control, or simply allows them to pull something out that lesser quality gear isn’t capable of. People see pros with expensive bodies and lenses, and think that’s what it takes to be good. When in reality, because someone’s good, they opted for better gear to make things easier for them to do.

  4. I with Steve on this one. (I actually shot with a Rebel for a time, producing photographs that I have sold/licensed.)

    Ryan, I think you are having an argument here with yourself. No one suggested that Adams should have used a Box Brownie, that Michelangelo should have worked in mud and sand, nor that Wyeth should have painted with a mop brush. I’m not sure what your point is.

    Take care,


  5. But would we know who Ansel Adams was if he was attempting to make those images with a Brownie? I highly doubt it. Would the name Michelangelo come up when discussing the great artists of the Renaissance if he had sculpted with mud and drawn pictures in the sand? What would Andrew Wyteh have painted if all he had was a mop brush? Tools are important too.

  6. If we were all made equal with say a Canon Rebel (or nikon, sony equivalent) no one would have any useless bragging rights about equipment. Give me a box that works, that’s all I need.

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