Famous Photographers: Nature or Nurture?

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 10,000, ƒ/2.8, 1/60 @ 7:07 am at the Chattahoochee Nature Center located in Roswell, Georgia.

Too many times when I meet people they assume that the reason I take good photographs is one of two reasons.

First they assume my camera gear is why I get great photos. The second reason is they assume I was born with this talent.

The one thing they rarely if ever talk about is how much work and study is necessary to make great photographs.

Nikon D100, 16mm, ISO 400, ƒ/6.7, 1/160

In my mind’s eye, I visualize how a particular… sight and feeling will appear on a print. If it excites me, there is a good chance it will make a good photograph. It is an intuitive sense, an ability that comes from a lot of practice.
Ansel Adams


Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams’ writings about photography, where he defines it as “the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure”.  You may see some people holding up an empty frame or even putting their hands together to create a frame to look at a scene before ever picking up a camera.

In the movies storyboarding was done to help visualize what would happen so that all those involved would be able to make it happen, from lighting, camera and blocking of the talent for example.

For me to make the photograph of the basketball players I had to visualize this long before it actually would happen.

When I was on staff at Georgia Tech I installed the Ultra White Lightning system. The Alienbees are what I put up once I started doing freelance full-time.

I arrived early and put four strobes onto the catwalk to light the court. I needed the light to get the depth-of-field necessary to be sure the players were in focus.  You cannot shoot this at ƒ/1.4 and expect that the player will look sharp.

Arriving early means getting to the venue early in the morning for a night time game. It takes about two to three hours to put the lights up and be sure everything is working. I really needed to do this when no one is on the court. Approximately a few hours before the game it is quite common for the teams to be practicing, so you must arrive early or you may not have enough time.

I had to also attach a remote camera behind the backboard. This had to be fired by a radio remote and also use a radio remote to fire the flashes at the same time. Framing of the image I knew from playing basketball for years. I normally get an assistant to do a few layups to help me make the frame loose enough to capture most any play on this side of the basket.

Then I had to wait until during the game the players would be in place for me to fire the shot. Now at the time I did this I could only fire the camera once every three to four seconds. The flashes needed to recycle and any faster would give me underexposed images.

I had to anticipate the moment that would capture the peak action. Too soon or too late and the photo is not as dramatic.

As you can see from this photo, I did not pop out of my mothers womb and just have the innate skills to capture this moment.

In the very first photo at the Chattahoochee Nature Center I had to get up before sunrise to capture this moment. Also, I knew the sky would look blue even tho it looked black to the naked eye. This is capturing something that your eye doesn’t even see.

Both of the examples I have given here are not what talent would see and just click a button to make it happen. Both took years of training and understanding about many technological gear to make them happen.

You don’t make the photo above in the middle of a parking lot in the dark with pure talent. You must know from years of experience where to place the lights to get this effect.  How do you get a Rembrandt lighting affect on a punk rock bank? You just have to know how to do this from learning how to make it happen.

What about nature?

There is no question that some people have an innate ability to see and create wonderful work, but for the most part talent that goes under developed is no match for someone with persistence and willingness to put in the time and effort.

If the opportunity avails itself then a person with talent will have a good chance to make an incredible image. However, from my life experience it is the person who anticipates that gets the best image.

Nikon D2Xs, 600mm, ISO 200, ƒ/5.6, 1/1500


The reason great photographs are made is because the photographer anticipated the moment. If you wait till you see it and push the shutter button then you will have missed it.

Sports photographers know the teams and players so well they can almost tell you the next play. They get into position that gives them the best opportunity to get the moment.

Many sports photographers will put up multiple remote cameras to anticipate that something or someone may black their view and by having it covered from multiple angles will have the game winning shot.

Even the portrait photographer will talk with the subject and get their reaction to something. Just mentioning certain topics with a subject can elicit a good moment. It is said that Yousuf Karsh grabbed Winston Churchill’s cigar from him to get that famous photo of him. He knew it would get a reaction.

Nature & Nurture

I believe it is the combination of nature and nurture that makes for the great photographers. What this means is that those who work hard and learn to plan for their photos will make some great ones, whereas those who just think they will just shoot whatever they see will rarely make great photos.

The Making of an Expert

According to K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula, and Edward T. Cokely published paper in the Harvard Business Review in 2007:

New research shows that outstanding performance is the product of years of deliberate practice and coaching, not of any innate talent or skill. Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born.

Trust your creative like you do your mechanic

Keeping the Ramblin’ Wreck from Georgia Tech running all these years requires tender care by mechanics.  The car has been rebuilt completely a couples times. 

If we worked with creative the way we get our cars fixed we probably would be more successful. The key is to find a great mechanic and when you do, you most likely will do everything to keep them–they are hard to find.

You have a problem with your car and you articulate your problem to the service person.  They listen and write down the symptoms and let you know they will check on it.  How many times do they come back and the problem is caused by something that surprised you?

You may think your transmission needs to be replaced because the gears are just slipping out.  They look at it and for about $50 they replace a sensor.  Other times you think it is something simple and they find a major problem.

To win races the car has to be pushing all the limits possible. To make this happen a mechanic must know more than the minimum, they must know enough to help think of possibilities to get the most out of the performance of the car.

What often are missing in the creative process are two steps I see every time I have my car serviced.  First, I articulate what I think is the problem. Second, they take the car without me over their shoulder and pop the hood and get a good look with computers hooked up to the car for diagnosis and much more sophisticated analysis than I can do.

If we did car repairs like we handle many creative projects we would just tell the mechanic to switch out those spark plugs and then just before they are finished we may say can you go ahead and give me a valve job.

We seldom have that first conversation where we are articulating our problem that needs solving.

We need more people calling us wanting our services. Then the creative knows they need to make the phone ring.  However, this often is stated as I want a brochure or I need a website.

After the client and the creative person have the sit down meeting to go over all the issues they need addressed the creative should have time to go away from the client, without distractions and come up with some solutions.

At this point the client can do just like they do with the repair shop.  Still get whatever they want, but now they have had the expert give them some of their advice.

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Guest Conductor Arild Remmereit and Sergei Krylov, guest violin soloist, answer the questions from middle school orchestra students after the concert. The students are listening to the creative experts and want to learn.

You have probably had someone ask you for something and it is much easier just to give it to them.  However, if you ask some questions like what are you trying to accomplish this can help both of you get better results.

The earlier you bring a creative person in on a project the more information they are privy to and this can increase the quality and improve the impact of accomplishing your goal.

What my clients get when they hire me

One of my clients knows that when he hired me he was getting more than someone who took photos.  Actually this is why he hired me. “Please don’t go home and think about this all night long–I don’t need it right away,” is something I hear from this client.

You see my clients get all of me when they bring me onto a project. My mind is thinking from the moment I get the job until even after I have delivered it. Besides my creative juices flowing about what can I do to make this unique, I am also thinking about all the other elements that go into the project.
Lasers are something that are not visible when you are in a lab, so how do you make them visible and cool?  That is one reason my clients hire me.
Some of the photo shoots require a great deal of technical knowledge to pull them off. A good example is shooting at a research institute like Georgia Tech, I must be able to go into the lab and get the photo. Some of the things like lasers are not visible to the naked eye. Making them show up in a photo helps communicate what is going on in the photo.  
Many photographers will do what they see on TV and spray a mist to make the lasers show up.  These photographers don’t get invited back, because the chemicals in that mist get all over the researcher’s equipment. Having to cleanup after a photographer has visited a lab is a good way not to be invited back. My clients like that I am thinking of not just getting the image at all costs.

This is a great example of having to think outside the box.  This composer had written software that used cameras to observe light and then create music. The audience was given flashlights to wave around and as they did they were creating music that the live orchestra would play. The problem is when I showed up in his office all the keyboards were just sold. All he had was the software on the computer which wasn’t that interesting, but he had a few shots from the audience.  I had him wave a flashlight to capture what the audience was doing.  For me the photo works–expecially because it had to be created out of nothing.  I had to listen and process to come up with the photo.

My obsessive behavior of not letting go of a thought until I can work it out makes me strange in many situations–but a blessing to my clients. Most photographers can photograph what they see in front of them and even light it to look cool. As you can see from these two photos is that the client gets a photo of something that didn’t exist.


Putting the viewer into the game is something I like to do. To make this photo I had to use strobes to light the entire court. I had to mount a camera behind the glass on the goal. All of the lights and camera had to have safety cables. I then had to be able to fire the camera with a remote that would not just fire the camera but also the strobes all at the same time.

The closest I got to playing high school or college sports was my freshman year in high school where I played on the golf team for a while.  I never played in a tournament.  In college I did get to photograph my college’s sports and at East Carolina University we had some incredible sports. Our football team at the time was great and so too was the women’s basketball team.

My love of sports has helped my clients get photos that tell a story and communicate the athleticism of their teams. This requires special equipment and knowledge of how to use it to capture those moments that make your team look like they should be in Sports Illustrated. Some of those photos for my clients did find their way to the pages of Sports Illustrated.

In sports you usually want to see the ball, both teams, peak action and the expression of the athletes for the best photos. While you don’t always have all the elements, you know this is what you are looking for to make the photo have impact.

When the client hires me to take these action shots they often need more than just the game shots.  They need head shots of the players for their sports programs.  They also need team photos or stylized images to use for the posters to be put up around town to help sell tickets.

The gloves were originally red, but in PhotoShop I made them yellow and let that be the only yellow in the photo. This was my idea and became the poster that Georgia Tech, the Yellow Jackets, used that year to show off their Heisman candidate Calvin Johnson. Again you can hire a photographer to shoot what you show them or they can take your idea and make it better.


When the Archdiocese of Atlanta needed to hire a photographer to photograph a military funeral the list of who they would use was quite short.  Because I had been to seminary and understood more than what was taking place visually but how to handle myself in this situation my reputation got me the job. I arrived early and let the family friend know who I was sent by to photograph the funeral. I asked for their permission and was willing to walk away if they said no. The client wouldn’t want to use the photos if I had gotten them any other way. Many photographers would not understand how not having a photo is better than having one at times.

Proven Track Record

Soulja Boy
Soulja Boy
Kid Rock
The Carter Center: Guinea Worm Eradication Campaign
Former President Jimmy Carter

What do pictures of Soulja Boy, Kid Rock and former President Jimmy Carter do for my clients?  Help them relax. I have heard it over and over when the person who hired me takes me around to meet their bosses or other important decision makers at their company they will name drop who I have shot for before and who I have covered.

Their neck is on the line often because photography is expensive. By letting folks know they had investigated me and that I had experience it not only helps them feel better, but relaxes them and this translates into great images for me. The people around them pick up on their mood.

When you hire the best you know you can relax and know you are going to get the best images for your company.

People Skills

Capturing moments that help communicate by using body language isn’t something that everyone is capable of doing. Many people just know how to handle themselves and pick up on the mood of others, but they do not know what those visual cues are always.

Children's Choir
Soubakamedougou, Burkina FasoPaul Ekman has inspired the latest crime series TV show “Lie To Me” by decoding the traits of liars for more than 40 years. That work concentrates on the meaning of human facial expressions, body movements and speech patterns, which Dr. Ekman, a psychologist, has researched and cataloged.

While I am not an expert, this is what my social work undergraduate degree helped me understand is important.  Through training and experience of using this to help capture those moments I understand how to use gestures and face expressions to help tell a story.

People understand it when they see it, but they might not even be able to tell you why the photo makes them feel a certain way. Photographers who want to make you feel and respond in a certain way need to understand body language in order to predict what will happen next so they can capture it, because if you wait till you see it you will miss the moment.

I actually took this as backup to the schools hired photographers.  They had strobes setup and I was sure they were getting better photos than I was getting.  Boy was I wrong. We were so thankful I took these because the backgrounds were all black and just didn’t capture the atmosphere.

My Network

When a client calls and needs me for something, I cannot always fulfill their request, but my client never has to look for someone. I help them find someone who can best meet their needs. The great thing is those folks I recommend don’t try and take my client away. This impresses the clients as well as me.

I am the member of American Society of Media Photographers, National Press Photographers Association, and Christians in Photojournalism. I have not only been a member of these organizations but served on their boards and in roles of leadership.

Each year I am part of a team that helps to organize the Southwestern Photojournalism Conference where photographers who believe this profession to be a calling come together for a few days to learn and fellowship with each other.

A few times a year I help organize the local chapter of Christians in Photojournalism in the Atlanta area to get together for meetings.

Due to these organizations I have developed a good network of professional colleagues.  I have seen their work and worked with them enough to know about their character and how they conduct themselves.  It is from this network I pull upon to help my clients find the best photographers for the job if I am not available.  Sometimes a client calls and I send them directly to one of my colleagues.  I want the best for my clients.

IMG_22When you hire a creative are you hiring the whole person or just someone to push the button? You may have thought you just needed a photo, but you are always hiring the whole person.  Are your creatives thinking about you even when you are not calling them?

My clients often will get emails or phone calls where I have thought about something they might be interested in doing. If your creatives haven’t called you with ideas maybe you need to find those who are going to do more than just show up and get what you tell them to do.