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.

Great communication products leave you hanging

“Mommy, why is the sky blue?” is one of the many questions we start out asking our parents.  
It is when we are about two we ask a lot of why questions. It really helped us get our bearings and understanding of how the world works.
A few years ago while studying theology in seminary I heard more questions coming from everywhere for the professors.  Surprisingly the response to these questions was met by questions.
Over time I started to see that the more you knew about a topic really meant you knew how to ask a better question, rather than you having all the answers.
When you hire a creative to produce something for you, the best creative will ask many questions.  One of the core questions should be why are you wanting this product?  What do you want to accomplish?
If your creative isn’t asking these questions I am pretty sure you are getting mediocre work at best.  What I do know is you are not accomplishing your goals most likely.  How do I know, well if the creative doesn’t know the answers to these questions then how can they meet the objectives.  Even if you outlined everything perfect for them, the creative will often ask questions even more targeted and helping you refine the product.
I believe the best question asked is the one we all started asking and never gets old—Why?
I believe the question why is the question of the heart and the answer to this is the motivating factor for an audience.
Funny thing about great photos is they ask questions.  Yes the best photos have your audience asking questions.  Who is that person?  The photo was strong enough to make you want to know. 
Where is this place? This is what a successful travel photo will do because your audience will want to go there if it is successful.
Great communicator understands that the key to great communications is questions.  Answers seldom demand a response from your audience, but a question does require response.

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.