Eric Kim has traveled the world championing street photography giving workshops, taking shots and exhibiting work. He is a passionate advocate of film and the magical qualities it delivers.
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.
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.
I work on improving my skills using ‘deliberate practice’. Deliberate practice 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.
Deliberate practice is repeatable.
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.
Getting feedback is important.
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.
Deliberate practice 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.
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.
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).
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!