Finding Your Special Strengths

Monterey Paintbrush (Castilleja latifolia) ©Mike Spinak

More than half my lifetime ago, I met a wonderful young lady, just as she was starting college. We fell in love. In order to be with her more, and in order to share the same knowledge and experiences as hers, I tagged along with her to all of her classes.

She double-majored in biology (with an emphasis on botany), and art history (with an emphasis on the Renaissance). And so it came to be that I inadvertently ended up with a fair education in these fields, too. While I found them interesting, I would’ve been hard-pressed to imagine any way that I’d ever apply this knowledge to anything.

Nearly a decade later, I took up nature photography. I now apply what I learned then to my occupation almost daily.

One of the great things about photography is that you can bring your own quirky background in other areas into your photography to create your own strengths and carve out your own niche. In fact, to become your best as a photographer, you must.

Rather few of the most noted photographers were formally educated in photography. Instead, they applied their idiosyncratic backgrounds to make their photos of the outside world reflect what was inside of them. Ansel Adams, for example, trained as a classical pianist. Adams’s foundation in music tinted his view of photography, and  he drew analogies between them, such as, “The negative is comparable to the composer’s score and the print to its performance”. If you listen to him play piano, it becomes obvious that he later came to treat tone in his pictures exactly as he first treated tone in his music. In the words of famed clarinetist Rosario Mazzeo about Adams, “I think that the subtle and wonderful tonalities of his pictures are echoed in his music. You listen to just a few phrases, something like the Bach Arioso or the flow movement from Moonlight Sonata and you’ll hear Zone System and everything else, right there.”

People tend to think of doing photography in terms of operating a camera, rather than in terms of making an image of something. Photography often demands additional areas of knowledge and skill, which have little to do with operating a camera, lens, and lights. Glamour photographers may need a keen fashion sense, skill at applying makeup, and good people skills. Food photographers may need skills in cooking, food styling, and decorating. Nature photographers generally have strong naturalist skills, such as the ability to track animals, basic knowledge of geology and meteorology, the ability to key out taxa, and so forth.

Photography serves as a vehicle for your special combination of abilities, interests, and understanding, which your background has instilled into you. When you tap into these, you’ll find your own special strengths as a photographer.

Blossoming as a photographic artist is predicated upon connecting these to what you choose to do with your camera.


Monterey Paintbrush (Castilleja latifolia), Point Lobos State Beach, California


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917. For workshops, please go to http://www.hteiw.com/

  • roteague - “People tend to think of doing photography in terms of operating a camera, rather than in terms of making an image of something. Photography often demands additional areas of knowledge and skill, that have little to do with operating a camera, lens, and lights.”

    These sentences bear repeating.

    Excellent article.ReplyCancel

  • Brian Harwood - Outstanding short article Mike.
    Everyone has a special something about them to tap into. I fail to see my own unique & special strengths. Your article causes me think & that makes for a great article.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Robert.
    Thanks, Brian.ReplyCancel

  • Matt Adcock - Great content amgio.

    My BFA in technical theater production and 3 years of professional experience in a management position building, lighting, and painting sets really boosted my ability to “SEE” a different world of light. I feel thankful to have had those experiences.

    PS, I love love nature photography amigo, your images are beautiful!

    thanks for posting this contentReplyCancel

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    I saw this really facinating post today….ReplyCancel