I’ve written extensively about it before, but, like most business lessons, the message bears repeating. In a marketplace simply inundated with competition from around the globe, it has never been more important for photographers to find their specific niche in the marketplace.
Of course, part of the reason it can take this lesson a long time to sink in is that deciding precisely what you want to specialize in is one of those things often easier said than done. We may have a vague sense of wanting to be a successful photographer, but for most people it is initially difficult to confine that interest and dedicate ourselves to a specific brand identity.
Personally, it took me years to find my own niche. No matter how many times my industry mentors would suggest it to me, my subconscious resistance prevented me from taking any meaningful action, leading to a number of years of scattered success stories, but no real meaningful momentum. It wasn’t until I finally gave in a picked a lane that my career finally started to move in the right direction.
Now, before we get started: the usual caveats. I am a commercial photographer and work in a major market which is home to some of the most talented, highest paid, and prestigious photographers on earth. I’m not trying to boast, nor am I trying to include myself among that bunch. Rather, I mention that because what is true in my market may not necessarily apply to your market. Los Angeles is home to many major ad agencies, clients, and potential high-budget targets. You may live in a smaller town where your major clients will come from a completely different industry. Or perhaps there is no industry at all, and few photographers, and you’ll be getting money from a wide assortment of individual clients. In that case, specialization may not be for you. But if you are in a major market, or looking to play in one, and want to book higher grossing clients, finding an identifiable niche is not a choice, it’s a necessity.
But exactly how does one go about selecting their niche? Unfortunately, it took me years to discover my own direction. Fortunately, I am also a pack rat. Seriously, to a somewhat ridiculous degree. I never throw things out. It's kind of a problem. But the benefit to my inability to let things go is that, from time to time, I rediscover items in the archives that prove helpful. This morning, it was the discovery of a document I wrote years back when trying to find my own brand identity and take charge of my future. In the brainstorming document, I ask myself eight important questions which helped narrow my focus and jumpstart my career. Hopefully the same questions can do the same for you.
What Do You Love to Shoot?
A simple way to start. What subject matter most makes you want to pick up the camera? What is the image you always had in your head that made you want to take up photography in the first place? Is it fashion, people, a particular sport, a particular place? Do you like to photograph dogs? Cars? Beautiful women? Beautiful men? Describe this for yourself. What really gets you going creatively?
Why Do You Love to Shoot?
What is it you wish to achieve with your photography? Beyond f-stops and shutter speeds, why do you feel your photography is important? Are you creating compelling photojournalism to hopefully inform the world and make it a better place? Are you creating powerful portraits that allow subjects to see accurate reflections of themselves through your lens? Or do you simply want to create beautiful images that relate a specific idea? The “why” is the most personal question of them all and can only be answered by you. But finding your “why” will ultimately lead you into finding a career path that is both artistically rewarding and personally fulfilling.
What Do You Not Shoot?
I hate shooting weddings. I’ve turned down more money over the years at times when I really could’ve used it simply because I really, really, really don’t like shooting weddings. To be clear, I in no way mean that as a slight to wedding photography. It’s quite beautiful and a serious skill. I just personally don’t enjoy the process of doing it. I also don’t like shooting landscapes. Or newborns. Or… Well, you get the point. Each of us has certain types of photography that we’d probably do if the paycheck was big enough, but that we have absolutely no interest in on a personal level. Identifying these areas in yourself can be just as important as identifying what you do like to shoot.
Think of defining your niche like sculpting a statue from a solid boulder. You begin with just a heap of options and gradually chip away at the material you don’t want to ultimately reveal the shape that you do want. This process of identifying the “no” will help reveal the “yes.” It will also help to streamline your portfolio. If you don’t like shooting images of people wearing purple, for instance, then don’t put pictures of people wearing purple in your portfolio. You get hired based on what’s in your portfolio. So, including things you hate just because you think the market like it will only lead to you going down a career path you don’t really want and won’t be able to sustain. Weed those things out in the beginning and you’ll find yourself pointed in the right direction.
How Do You Like to Shoot?
I love photojournalism. There is almost nothing I admire more than someone who dedicates their life, sacrifices their own physical well being, and takes the time to build real relationships with real people to change the world for the good.
That being said, I know that I am not the kind of person who could camp out in a rebel army tent for six months and run headlong into battle to get the right shot. I don’t have the personality to spend all day introducing myself to strangers in search of a new story. I wish I had that skill set, but I don’t. I’m much more of someone who likes to plan shoots in advance, create images, preferably in a controlled environment, and return home (or at least to a hotel) at the end of the day and sleep in a comfortable bed.
Obviously, we can’t always get everything the way we want. But as we are discussing building not only a career, but a life that you will find worth leading, it is important to ask yourself what type of life that is.
Take Three Images…
Go through your archives. Pick out three images from your body of work that you absolutely love. Study each image individually. Then, underneath each image, write down six adjectives.
Three of the adjectives should describe the image physically; the lighting, the color, the composition. What photographically defines the image?
The second set of three adjectives should describe how the image makes you feel emotionally. Does it make you feel happy? Inspired? Frightened? Sad? What emotions does that image communicate? Repeat this process for all three images.
…Find the Common Thread
Now that you’ve considered your images, what is the common thread that holds them all together? What is the through-line? Are there certain lighting styles present in all of the images? Certain colors? Certain subjects? Do they all lean toward the humorous side? More serious? Are they grand in execution, or more on an intimate scale? What do the images have in common?
Can’t find a commonality? Repeat the process beyond the initial three images. Eventually, you will begin to identify certain preferences and tendencies within your own work. We all have subconscious habits and make distinctive choices that define us as photographers and will ultimately define our work in the marketplace. Knowing those things that make us unique will ultimately help us to harness that unique skill set and describe to potential clients what sets our work apart. Once you identify these strengths, you can also double down on them, creating more work to add to your portfolio reinforcing your skill in a particular area. All this helps you break through the clutter and get a client's attention.
Put It All Together
At this point you will have identified what you like to shoot, why you like to shoot it, and how you like to shoot it. You have also identified what you don’t want to shoot and the career you don’t want to find yourself trapped in. You also have picked out some clues to your visual style along with some prime examples of the type of images that make you happiest to produce. First steps towards defining your niche are complete.
The Final Step
Breaking down your place in the market can be a long and complicated process, but ultimately it boils down to three things. Being visual people, the easiest way to describe it is to refer to a Venn diagram with three corresponding circles sharing a common meeting point.
In one circle, you have what you like to shoot. We’ve broken down in detail through this article how to identify what goes into that sphere.
The second circle is the most subjective. What are you good at shooting? We all like to think that we are good at everything. But, obviously, that cannot be true. If everybody was good at everything than nobody would be good at anything. This is the circle where you have to really do the deepest dive into self examination. Really look at the work you’ve produced. Is it really strong? Does it compare with other work in the marketplace in which you want to compete? Obviously, we are all in development, and where you are today won’t be where you’re going to be tomorrow, but take an honest look and try to identify what areas are your strongest and give you the best competitive edge.
In the final circle, you need to ask what does the market like to see you shoot. We may like every photograph we take, but over time judging by audience reaction, what people hire you for, portfolio reviews, etc., you will begin to notice which of your images seem to gain the most traction. If you take feedback and listen to reactions, you will likely find that most people respond more favorably to a certain segment of your work than others. Maybe your portraits get better reactions than your still lifes. Or you get more commissions to shoot fashion than you do to shoot architecture. The market will send you little clues about what it likes best. Try to find where this overlaps with what you like to shoot, and are good at shooting, and connect the three circles. That sweet spot in the middle where all three come together? That is your brand.
Trying to identify your brand identity and discover your niche is one of the most difficult but rewarding parts of a photographic career. These questions helped me, but they are far from scientific. The main objective is that you simply need to figure out what makes you happy, with or without a camera in hand, then try to build a life where you can pursue that happiness day after day. The more of you that you can put into your art, the better it is going to be. Know yourself and share yourself honestly with the world, and you will open up a world of possibilities.