Why Talent is Overrated in Street Photography

(Above photo from my “Downtown LA in Color” series, 2012)

I believe firmly in the idea that talent is overrated, not only in street photography but other facets of life. We look at those who are successful in their fields, and we clamor how talented they are– and how they must have some innate skill or insight that nobody else was born with.

After reading many books on talent and success including “Talent is Overrated”, “Outliers”, and “Image: How Creativity Works” the findings are quite similar. Hard work and “deliberate practice” is what makes people great in their fields, rather than being born with talent. Talent isn’t an adjective to describe ourselves. Rather, talent is a verb– something we must nurture and constantly work on over the years.

Introduction: The talent myth

Downtown LA in Color, Eric Kim, 2012

Whenever we meet someone who is really good at their field, we exclaim how talented they are at what they do (and assume it is something they are born with). However there are several myths about what makes us excel in a field. Here are some clarifications:

1. Experience doesn’t make us excel

It is often understood that the more experience someone has in a certain field, the more that they excel. This is not necessarily the case. Even though you have played basketball your entire life doesn’t necessarily make you a good player (although the best players have generally played their entire lives). Sure you may get most of your balls in the hoop, but you may not be able to pull of the moves that Kobe Bryant does.

The same can be applied to photography. Just because someone has been photographing their entire lives doesn’t necessarily mean they are a good photographer. A photographer can have “thirty years of experience” but might only take photos for an hour once a week. Not only that, but many photographers who are just hobbyists might just take snapshots at their family events for over thirty years, but still can’t make good photographs. Of course once again, generally good photographers have shot for a very long time (but it doesn’t meant that shooting for a long period of time will mean you are a good photographer).

2. Talent has little to do with inborn ability

Nobody is born out of the womb knowing how to be good at a certain skill. How can we be born with an innate ability to be really good at soccer (football for Europeans) and kick a ball into a goal? How can we be born with an innate ability to add numbers? How can we be born with an innate ability to take good photographs?

Ability and skill in a certain field is only developed and nurtured through years of sustained and deliberate practice. What exactly is “deliberate practice”? We will cover that soon.

3. Talent isn’t correlated with intelligence or memory

Although many people tend to think that having a high IQ leads to success in life, there is no scientific or statistic studies that seem to suggest so. The vast majority of studies done on IQ tests aren’t correlates with success (in terms of occupation, income, or social status). Some of the few traits that can predict success in life (from children at a young age) include self-discipline (refer to the marshmallow experiment) and the ability to delay gratification.

How to Improve your skills with “deliberate practice”

Downtown LA in Color, Eric Kim, 2012

Earlier I mention that the only way to truly excel in a field is through countless hours of “deliberate practice”. What is deliberate practice you ask?

Deliberate practice is practice that is designed specifically to improve performance. For example, they have done studies between successful violinist and average violinists for their practice schedules. These are some things that they discovered that successful violinist did (that their less successful peers didnt):

1. They spent more time practicing solo

For violinists to practice, they practice both in group settings and also have the opportunity to practice alone. If was discovered in the study that the more successful violinists practiced many more hours alone (compared to their less successful peers).

What was the reasoning behind the benefits of solo practice? Well if you have ever tried to study for a test together in a group, you can know how distracting it is. If you are by yourself, it is easier to concentrate on studying. If you are in a group, you might get sidetracked from studying by gossiping about a random friend or checking out funny YouTube videos together.

Not only that, but if you practice with others who aren’t as skilled as you, it will prevent you from improving. For example if you play chess, it is no fun to play someone who is far worse than you. It simply isn’t challenging and it is too easy. But at the same time it isn’t fun playing against someone who is far better than you either. Then it would be too difficult for you and you wouldn’t be able to improve as well.

I think in street photography the same concept applies. If you want to seriously work on a certain project, working alone will keep you from being distracted. Not only that, but you can shoot at your own pace without feeling rushed by others.

However that doesn’t necessarily mean that shooting with others is a bad thing. If you shoot with others that are on the same level as you (Garry Winogrand often shot with Joel Meyerowitz and Tod Papageorge together in NYC) and don’t interfere with them, that can help you challenge yourself to keep improving.

2. They practiced more in the morning (while fresh)

The most successful violin players would often do the majority of their practicing first thing in the morning, when they were will fresh. The less successful violin players would play later in the day, when they would be more tired and prone to losing their focus or getting distracted.

When you are shooting street photography, I recommend doing it when you are feeling energetic and refreshed. I know many street photographers who have day jobs but leave their house early in the morning so they can squeeze in 30 minutes to an hour of shooting before they step into the office. This allows them to shoot when they feel energetic, inspired, and without distractions.

When I was working at my day job, after a long day of work it is difficult to have the energy or willpower to shoot afterwards. One of the theories on willpower likens it to a gas tank: you start off with a certain amount of willpower but it slowly gets used throughout the day. Usually by the time you are off work, your willpower reserves are nearly empty.

When I was working at my old office job, the best time I often found was to shoot during my lunch break (I know many others who do this as well). Rather than wasting time picking up food and eating out, just pack a sandwich in the morning and quickly devour it right when lunch starts and go shoot. Another theory on willpower is based on glucose, meaning that if we are hungry, we have less willpower to go do things (never shoot on an empty stomach!)

If you shoot mostly on the weekends, don’t get caught up answering emails and reading blogs or shows in the morning. Rather, eat a filling breakfast full of protein and veggies (I recommend eggs, bacon, pound a coffee, and head out of your house and go shoot for the day (rather than shooting later on in the day).

3. They slept a lot

The scientists in the study also discovered that the most successful violinists slept much more than their counterparts. After all, hard practice is tiring.

I hate shooting street photography when I am tired. I feel less alert, less responsive, and less motivated when shooting on the streets. However days when I am well rested, I hit the streets full of excitement and enthusiasm.

This is a basic tip, but just try to sleep more. Trust me, it will make you take better photographs when you are out shooting (street photography is quite athletic and the workout). You can also try to take naps during the day to recharge (if you have the chance).

What counts as “deliberate practice”?

The City of Angels, Eric Kim, 2011

There are certain criteria that has to be included in “deliberate practice”, which is the type of practice that really helps you improve in a field. They include:

1. It is designed specifically to improve performance

When you go out and just take photographs of cats, that will not help your street photography. Whenever you are out hooting on the streets, you needed to be shooting purposefully.

What are you trying to work on? Overcoming your fear of shooting strangers? Getting closer to your subjects? Taking a step back and working on your layering? Trying to better incorporate color into your work? Working on a project?

Whenever you go out and shoot, try to have at least one goal in mind when you are out shooting on the streets. This will help you have focus and not stray from just randomly wandering the streets.

2. It is repeatable

Deliberate practice should be able to be repeated, and should be repeated often.

I take photographs everyday, and I recommend everyone else to do the same. Once again, I know how tough it is to shoot everyday (especially that we all life busy lives) but one thing I learned from my old tennis coach is it is better to practice everyday for 30 minutes than just once a week for several hours.

When we build a routine and practice something everyday, we become much more familiar with it, and accustomed. It helps our gears stay oiled and not get “rusty”.

I think one of the things that i face difficulty with is hesitation when you are out shooting street photography. I have missed hundreds of shots that I wish I wanted to take, but hesitated and didn’t take the shot.

However I notice that when I shoot everyday I have far less hesitation when shooting when compared to if I don’t shoot for even a few days or week.

I like to familiarize myself with the sound of my shutter going off. I try to force myself to her the sound of my shutter as much as I can when shooting out in the streets (of course when you take photographs). Don’t hate the sound of your shutter (as many of us street photographers do). Rather, embrace it. Love it.

The next time you see a great potential street photography opportunity, force yourself to Crete the sound of your shutter (which of course, will only be created if you hit the shutter button on your camera).

3. Feedback on results are available

To get better in street photography (and any field) it is important to get feedback. This can be done in several ways. First of all, it can be seen through your LCD screen (in the back of your camera), computer monitor, or through contact sheets or negatives. You want to know what kind of photographs you are taking, yet knowing how you can improve.

This is where it is important to have a teacher, mentor, or fellow street photographer to give you feedback and critique on your work. Without getting meaningful feedback or guidance that we are improving, how would we know that we are improving?

In street photography it is tough to see whether we are really “getting better”. What constitutes “good” photography? This is where it is important for someone who has seen tons of photography to give you feedback (as they have an informed opinion based on seeing many photographs or books).

Even Tiger Woods and the best sports players in the world have coaches. It is very difficult for us to judge ourselves objectively, without falling into self-confirmation bias.

4. It is mentally demanding

To become an expert in a field is mentally draining. In most studies done on experts in certain fields, they all required hard work and concentration. Based on studies, 5 hours of practice a day is our upper limit, in 1 or 1.5 hour bursts. The best violinists studied reported practicing about 3.5 hours a day, but intensely.

Approach your street photography in a similar manner. Although most of us don’t have 3.5-5 hours a day to shoot on the streets everyday, I would recommend trying to spend as much time as you can both studying and shooting street photography. I believe that not only shooting teaches us to be better street photographers, but studying photography books, checking out photo museums, and looking at great photography. So when you don’t have time to shoot necessarily, take a break and look at great photography online. I recommend LPV magazine, burn magazine, and Invisible Photographer Asia to look at great photography. And also check out my street photography book list recommendation for great photographers to study.

When you are out actually shooting, really shoot. Turn off your cell phone and don’t get distracted at the task at hand. Focus on the shooting, and don’t half-ass it. If you see a good shot that is about to happen (but may be a little too far away), don’t just shrug your shoulders–rather run or sprint toward the action. I have seen the best street photographers I know run across the street to get certain shots (but don’t get run over by cars).

Street photography is mentally and physically exhausting, so don’t forget to take breaks. If you feel your body and mind starting to numb, sit down at a cafe, grab a tea or coffee and have a snack. This will help recharge you when you go back to shoot.

5. It isn’t always fun

Another thing we know about “deliberate practice” is that it isn’t necessarily fun. For some of the best sports players in the world, they train like hell to get into the shape that they are–and to compete at the highest levels. They are so passionate about what they do, but I don’t imagine that running for miles upon miles a day, sticking to a strict diet, constantly working out at the gym, and feeling tired all the time is fun. But that is what it takes to be the best.

There are many days that you go out and shoot, you won’t feel inspired. I get it all the time. There are many days that you won’t even want to leave the house to go shoot (trust me, this happens to me all the time too).

However I have discovered that building a habit and routine in street photography is important. The best writers write everyday no matter what. One of the most famous writers in history (I forget his name) woke up everyday at 6am and would write for three hours straight until 9am, and wrote countless novels (all while holding a day-job as a mailman). Talk about dedication.

The days that I feel uninspired to shoot, I go out and shoot anyways. After walking around for a bit and snapping a few photos, I generally start to find my groove and end up taking a few decent photos. I think it is like the same thing as going to the gym. The hardest part is always getting out of bed in the morning. But once you are at the gym, it isn’t that bad.

Of course you should enjoy street photography because you enjoy it and it is fun– but in order to achieve greatness you must still practice and shoot (and research and learn) when it isn’t so fun as well.

How long does it take to become a great street photographer?

The City of Angels, Eric Kim, 2011

I have read lots of literature on how to become an expert or gain mastery in a field. There are different models that I have read (that are all quite similar). Here are the two main proponents I typically see (usually reworded in one way or another):

1. The 10,000 hour rule

This rule arises from Malcom Gladwell that after studying many experts in several fields, he concluded that one needs about 10,000 hours to gain mastery in a field. Assuming you spent 5 hours a day honing a craft, it would take 2,000 days or 5.5 years of daily practice. If you only practice an hour a day, it would take 10,000 days or 27 years. Needless to say, the more hours you put in the quicker you will get there.

2. The “10 years of silence” theory

In “Talent is Overrated” the author mentions the notion of the “10 years of silence” theory, which states that it usually took someone at least 10 years of practice in their field before they were able to gain recognition. Of course the years differ in professions. In poetry there were some painters who gained recognition and mastery in 6 years, while poets tended to take around 10 years.

Also in the book it mentions a professor named Howard Gardner of Harvard who wrote a book-length study (Creating Minds) of seven of the greatest innovators of the early twentieth century: Albert Einstein, T. S. Eliot, Sigmund Freud, Mahatma Gandhi, Martha Graham, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky. The same rule applied, it took them about 10 years to gain greatness.

Needless to say you don’t necessarily need 10,000 hours or 10 years of practice. Some people can do it quicker, and others take a longer time. Regardless the point still stands strong that time and hard work create talent, not innate born skills.

How to stay motivated

Downtown LA in Color, Eric Kim, 2012

To stay motivated in street photography, you need to have intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic motivation to achieve greatness. Intrinsic motivation is the drive and passion that burns inside (doing something for the sake of it) rather than extrinsic motivation (getting paid to do something). There have even been psychological tests which suggest that people actually enjoy doing something less when they are paid for it (compared to when they are happy to do it freely).

Therefore my recommendation is to shoot street photography for the challenge and the inner-drive of achieving greatness with yourself, rather than trying just to achieve fame or wealth.

The book “Talent is Overrated” also mentions that the wanting to “do good in the world” was a driving factor to keep people motivated. Don’t just shoot for yourself, but try to create images that inspire the world to challenge themselves to either do good in the world or think about their lives in a diffent way. Create images that help people challenge their own prejudices, to appreciate the beauty of everyday life, or to shock people into action (in the case of NGO work).

The reason I love writing articles like this and run the blog is to share the love of street photography with you and the rest of the world, and share some of the knowledge that I have learned from others as well. Of course I make a living from street photography from teaching, but it is my inner drive of loving teaching that drive my passion, rather than the money.


Downtown LA in Color, Eric Kim, 2012

Street photography is hard. Not only that, but it requires an immense of time, dedication, and steadfastness to create great and memorable images. Many photographers dedicate their lives to photography, yet have only about 1-5 photos that really leave their mark in history and burn themselves into the mind of viewers.

Keep your ambitions humble yet hustle hard. Put in the hours of shooting even when you may not feel like it. Spend every moment you aren’t shooting by devouring photography books, photos, interviews, articles, and taking classes. Invest in your self-education and always be hungry. I still have a lot to learn myself, and that’s why I try to invest all of my time, energy, and money into constantly learning myself through buying more photo books, books on theory, and learning of fields outside of photography (like sociology, psychology, and cognitive science).

Talent is a myth in street photography and every other field out there. There is no substitute for hard work, now go out and shoot!

Take your learning to the next level

Dark Skies over Tokyo, Eric Kim, 2011

Do you want to learn more about street photography on a deeply personal and one-to-one basis? I still have a few spots open for my upcoming 3-day workshops: Film Street Photography Workshop in Toronto (9/28-9/30), Introduction to Street Photography Workshop in Tokyo (11/2-11/4) and Intermediate/Advanced Street Photography Workshops in Tokyo (11/9-11/11). You can see the rest of my upcoming workshops here.

What else do you think makes a street photographer talented? Share your thoughts in the comment below!