Becoming a Photopreneur: Finding Your Specialty

Becoming a Photopreneur: Finding Your Specialty

Perhaps it's only my opinion but I believe that one of the fastest ways to fail in business is to try to do too much, for too many people. Right behind that is producing a product that nobody wants, but we'll get to that beast later. When I talk with photographers looking to go pro, the first thing I ask them is what they intend to shoot. A solid 80% of the time their response is something like "well, some weddings, family portraits, maybe kids, and seniors too."

Then the remaining 19% are generally geared towards the commercial market, but with a similar sparse focus.

Oh, the 1%? They're the ones that come in and say "I'm going to shoot X, and nothing but X." It doesn't happen in my office very often.

The point I'm making here is that a massive portion of photographers seem to feel as if they should shoot any and every genre of work where they can make a saleable image. You can't really fault the thought process. We think that if we can take a little piece of all the pies that we will have more than if we snag a huge chunk of one. There is a flaw in this common stance.

To make the most you can of your career, you have to specialize, and in many cases hyper-specialize.

Think about it like this. Not too many years ago there was ONE guy you went to for hyper-realistic, almost illustrated images. Who was it? What about the fashion photographer always hired for his for incredibly polished and vivid fashion work? Who is currently the go to name for headshots?

In order:

Dave Hill
Mario Testino
Peter Hurley

Maybe you had different names in mind for each question, the point is still the same. You know them because of how well defined in their niche they are. You don't get there by doing a little bit of everything. You get there by being THE name people think of when it comes to the type of image they want. Is that to say that you can't shoot anything else? Absolutely not, just that you don't focus on, or market those things. Step one in getting ahead in this area is clearly defining your niche. What specifically are you providing your clients? What area of specialty?

This can be a very difficult thing to pin down. We are creatives and as such don't generally like to be pidgeon holed. However, I encourage you to look closely at your style and the things about what you do that you are truly passionate about. How do your personal beliefs and views fall in line with these?

I'll use myself as an example. My calling card is fitness photography. That's the genre of work I do. However, my niche is something more specific. I provide my clients a modern take on classic images of strength and beauty by choosing to ignore the stereotypical sexual approach. Nobody comes to me for T&A images because I don't/won't shoot them. So then we can say that my niche in the market becomes something like "fitness photography you can show your family." There may be a better way to say that, but you get the point. I want the people that want something classy. Spend some time determining the specific type of work you want to do.

With that set out there, we can move into talking about your target market. Although they often get used interchangably, target market and niche are not the same.

Target Market = the group of people or demographic you are serving
Niche = What specifically you are providing them? What area of specialty?

So using myself as an example again, let's break this down. I know the niche I'm passionate about now, so who am I going after? It could be individuals, magazines, fitness companies, gyms...anything in that industry really. Yet, I'm not going to be the best fit for every category. For instance, I love seeing my work in publications but they generally operate on the "sex sells" mantra that is counter to my niche. I won't be a good fit for at least certain styles of publication. When I consider that magazines are paying less and less for quality images, I can see that it may not be the best market to focus on for me. A small number of publications would use my work, and I wouldn't make much from the few that did.

We can break down each of the other options the same way. By asking ourselves which markets are already in line with our passions and beliefs we can begin to hone in on a target market segment that is not only a good fit, but one that we will love being in as well. Finding a good target market is a lot like dating. We approach it knowing pretty solidly the attributes in a partner that we don't want, and the ones we do. Think about your market the same way. What are you completely unwilling to put up with? What are attributes you enjoy or admire? Look deeper than "I'm not willing to put up with late payments." Do you want a client that micromanages you? What about someone that calls 5 times a day? Whittle it down into a picture of your ideal client. Then define your market using that ideal. I go after individuals and organizations that fall in line with my picture of a perfect client.

If you've looked at the books in the first segment of this series you will recognize this as the beginning of setting up what Michael Port calls "The Velvet Rope Policy."

The point is that we need to clearly define our ideals and translate that into a well defined niche and target market. By doing so we can allow ourselves to only take on the clients we fit best with, and therefore do our best work for them. It isn't possible to be at our best when we try to do little bits of everything that we can get our hands on. The statistic is that 20% of your clients will provide 80% of your income. So really, why bother with the 80% if they aren't within the ideal client image you've set up?

Am I saying that when you're desperate for cash that you should turn down work? Not exactly. I'm saying that the sooner you start seriously specializing and finding those right clients, it won't be necessary to take on the frivilous ones. We want to be happy working with the people that have chosen to hire us. We get there by knowing, pursuing and standing up for what we want from our careers.

As a bonus, when you are amazing in one area...people are far more likely to take notice. When you become known for that specialty, then it's time to branch out.

Doing so before then is counterproductive.

 

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20 Comments

David Vaughn's picture

It also depends on the market, however. Some markets can't support the luxury of having a niche.

David Bickley's picture

Do you have an example?

David Vaughn's picture

I grew up in a town with a pop. of 800. There was one photographer that basically satisfied all photographic markets in the whole town, because had they tried to niche themselves they wouldn't have enough work.

I went to college in a city with a pop. of 250,000. Even in this city, most photographers shot weddings, bridals, engagements, families, babies, sports, and commercial. And even then, some markets were generally non-existent, most notably: editorial, fashion, and photojournalism (to an extent).

And there is the argument that the best photographers travel if their local market doesn't have enough demand. But that's the thing. The best photographers travel.

As a rather poor college student who has to go to class and work, there just wasn't a whole lot of opportunity to really establish a niche. I made the best of it by going out and doing editorial assignments for myself, but those were still very few and they didn't put food on the table. The culmination of working around schedules, lack of money to travel, and small markets makes it difficult to specialize in much of anything. Yes, it can be done, but when people talk about cornering markets, well - Sometimes the market is all of 2 clients....And people have to eat...

However, I've recently moved to LA and the atmosphere is vastly different. There's much more opportunity for building a niche portfolio even if it's not from high-paying gigs.

That's NOT to say it's impossible, however. There is an editorial photographer in that city of 250,000 who makes a good living shooting for publications. However, almost all of his work is regional or national (and he was also mentored and is close friends with the Texas State Photographer Wyman Meinzer.)

David Bickley's picture

These are very good points and I certainly understand how time and finances affect travel. However, let me ask you this...is it unreasonable to think that if you are truly good in the specialty you choose, that clients would travel to you? Or pay for you to come to them?

I would argue that the photographer in your town of 800 still would have done better if (outside of paying the bills, obviously) they had locked in a niche and pursued it.

Truth be told my own position isn't that much different. I specialize in an industry that probably less than 1% of the population even participate in. That's not a lot of people, and even less when you consider that as of yet I am not omnipresent.

In the end remember that I said sometimes you will have to take the off client to make ends meet...but that doesn't last forever if you are dedicated to the process.

Brian MacLochlainn's picture

good article, it holds true for many existing pros as well as people thinking of turning pro. I am an architectural and interiors photographer and I seem to be working on a lot of kitchens currently. I started as a property or real estate photographer and only once I got to the stage where I was really happy with the quality I could produce did I start going after higher end clients and start dropping my property related clients. Having a niche does not mean instantly being brilliant at it, it just means moving in that direction.

David Bickley's picture

Exactly, we have to develop our specialty and go after our target market with it. It takes time, but it works. This isn't a "choose a niche and enjoy instant riches" situation. However, the work is more fulfilling and eventually the money comes in.

Good article! This line of thinking holds true in any business. I do think being able to specialize depends on your market and willingness to travel to a certain extent. I could make a living shooting only seniors in my city because it's big enough to support that. But an auto photographer is going to have to either shoot other things or be willing to travel.

Also, anyone who specializes in anything, regardless if you are a photographer or lawyer or construction crew, will end up making more money per client/job. This is one of my frustrations in life because it gets boring doing the same thing over and over and I feel that versatility should be rewarded, but people who do just one things earn more.

David Bickley's picture

Well said. This is where shooting personal work plays a big role. We all crave a bit of a change up every now and then. So, if you're THE photographer in one area of work...don't you think the freedom to shoot whatever you feel like shooting would come?

Freedom may come or it might not. I think there are a lot of variables to consider. Your specialty and what you're trying to break into both play a huge role. If your specialty is newborns, you're going to have a harder time getting into photographing military jets than if your specialty is cars. It has to do with psychology on the part of the client more than skillset.

David Bickley's picture

I think I failed in communicating what I meant. If your specialty is newborns and you are making a good living. You don't need a client to hire you in order to try something new in your own personal projects. So, let's go extreme and say do specialize in newborns...and you want to photograph a jet. You block out some time and find the people that can make that happen, then negotiate until it does.

Look at Fstoppers very own Mike Kelley. He's an architectural photographer...yet, he actually did photograph a bunch of planes as a little side project for himself. Not super difficult, just had an idea and tried it out cause he had the freedom to do so.

Good article! I've been working, but the styles and genres have been all over the place when I'm doing stills. City, product, event, architectural... You name it. But that's because I'm the in-house guy for a company that has all those needs. I've been wanting to do work for clients outside the day-job and transition to that full-time, so I've been struggling with this same question lately; trying to separate what I love shooting and what I'm going to do for work.

Looking at it in a more detached way helped me decide, so thanks David.

David Bickley's picture

No, thank you for reading! I'm glad you got something from it.

Chris Adval's picture

I don't think all areas has all markets all working in a healthy standing for even specialized photographers and known to be the best. i.e. Fashion/Advertising photography, you'd need to live either near the advertising/creative agency or live near the location of the agency's client, or near the location of what the art director wants like they want shots in the North Pole or whatever type of environment, in rare chances they'll fly you out depending who you are but in most cases they'll hire local if they could find someone that meets their needs. Other markets like non-commercial senior/weddings could be decent in most areas but much better in other areas. Even if you're the top dog in that area it doesn't mean you could do good enough to live off of that income, it depends on the area. I myself want to do advertising specialized in fashion photography, but I live in the middle of nowhere so chances of me getting actual paying clients is slim, maybe 1-2 per year at best unless I was in the areas of NYC or LA or other known areas that has a decent amount of good agencies. I myself am focused on creating some nice personal projects to get some target market attention but chances of me being hired over a guy down the block from their shop is slim to none depending on how much my photography style stands out of course. I myself shoot about everything to allow me to grow my equipment, props, and personal projects' funding. I still work at a day job that pays for my bills, but I cannot afford to use my day job to pay for my equipment, thats where my shooting weddings come in to pay for my costs to shoot personal projects that could build my fashion portfolio. Is that wrong?

David Bickley's picture

Chris, there is a lot here to address so let me try to make sure I get it all.

Local markets and advertising photography - To begin, everywhere you look there is a local business that could benefit from your work. In most moderately sized cities you will also find at least one advertising agency. You are correct that it often costs more to fly someone to a location that to hire someone there. You're going to have to trust me on the fact that companies still hire the person they like the most. Especially if you have targeted those ideal clients that mesh with you so well. (This is, after all, a relationship business)

Local markets and advertising focused on fashion - Without knowing where you are specifically it is difficult to help you see the options on this one. So, I'll give you an example instead:

The Kansas City metro area is ripe with "fashion" photographers. However, there is one guy, Brian Demint out in Joplin, Missouri (middle of nowhere) who is getting published all over the world. He's even speaking at Imaging USA. How?

He found his niche and went after it. Then people took note.

Shooting other work to fund the niche - As I've said in the article and in several other comments. I'm not advocating that you starve or live in a box over taking the jobs you need. You have to eat, that's a given. What I'm saying is to follow this process and become an authority in your specialty. Work on making yourself the person people think of when they think of your niche. As you acquire more clients that fall into the ideal, whittle down the ones that don't.

Chris Adval's picture

Thank You, that make sense to me. I had many conversations over on Digital Photography School's forum and many others kept telling me to strictly focus on 1 thing even if its costing me money, time, and energy from that 1 area. For example, I recently applied to a big company's in-house product photographer that pays over $40k/yr, I didn't get it sadly but my thought process it wasn't the type of job I'd be passionate about but I know the money will go towards my passion (advertising fashion photography). Such as equipment and other costs associated to personal projects, vs. a current day job that only pays over $20k/yr which barely covers my living costs and no room to invest into my photography. Me shooting weddings/seniors/etc. is funding all of my personal projects for advertising fashion photography.

Really great article, i'm just an enthusiast photographer, no a pro, but articles like these open me a new view of the business. My potencial future niche would be lifestyle or fashion. I like portrait also. I only have two pics in my portfolio here, I'll try to upload more in the future. Great level.
David, Congrats for your work, great sport images. Greetings from Bilbao. Basque Country. EU.

chris smith's picture

Good read. I had this same talk a few weeks ago. My take was that it is nice to be a jack of all trades, but you must specialize in at least one...Its nice to be mechanically inclined, but don't advertise that you are a train, aircraft, boat, motorcycle and car mechanic, no one will take you seriously.

David Bickley's picture

Exactly! It's not that you can't be good at a lot of different styles. It's that you will get more results if you choose one to be your bread and butter. Do the rest on the side if you have to...but market one.

Tiago Costa's picture

David, I have one question for you. I love history and documentary! With that passion, and the passion for photography, I position myself easily as a documentary photographer, using photojournalism and portrait as my niche, too include information on my creativity. And I think everytime that everything I do in this present will serve in the future for something good to the next generations. As a man searching for histories, I easily could find those stories everywhere. How can I talk about my 'target market'? I don't see it.

David Bickley's picture

Tiago, it's a bit difficult to understand what you mean to say your niche within documentary photography is. However, the question to ask when finding your market is: who would buy my images?

Then, of those options you choose the best fit for you and your work.