Finding your specialty can be difficult for any profession, but the vague advice of needing a niche as a photographer — while important — is unhelpful in isolation.The beginning for a photographer is exciting; you're taking pictures of everything and everyone, and honing your new skills. This might be accompanied by a distant notion of wanting to turn it in to a career or a side hustle, but you're still at the diagnosis stage. There's no need to rush in to narrowing your focus; perform the exploratory surgery of your photography gradually. However, when you're ready, this is what I recommend you do.
1) What Are You Drawn To?
In my opinion and for the sake of longevity, your niche should seldom be decided by demand first, and rather that which you are habitually attracted to. For me, there were a few. I had and still have a love affair with portraiture. However, what got me in to photography in the first place was a photographer on an old car forum taking macro images of insects. I was fascinated and wanted to learn how to photograph things closely.
Try not to pigeonhole yourself too much as this stage. If you like portraiture and photography animals, don't immediately decide you're going to exclusively create fine art nudes of goats.
2) What Variations of This Genre Are There?
Firstly, there are more than you think. Secondly, there are more than you are even aware of. Sit down and write a list of every different way your favorite genres can be applied. If it's portraiture, there are headshots, fine art, fashion, editorial, photojournalistic, and so on.
My thought process was fairly straightforward. I enjoyed macro and had developed that skillset. What can you take macro photographs of? Insects. That's going to be a hard sell. What is small and has brands? Jewelry. Bingo.
3) How Can You Offer Value to This Area?
So many of us — and I used to be terrible for it — look at the working world to see what they can get out of it. Instead, you need to look at what value you can add to any area you choose to enter. Why would anyone pay you do shoot this niche you're discovering? If you can't immediately answer this question, don't despair. Sometimes even a niche requires further honing to find your angle, particularly if it's a competitive field.
For me, I love watches and have since childhood. I also knew a reasonable amount about horology and so felt I could combine that with macro and my macro stacking techniques to best show off the timepieces.
4) How Difficult is Entry to This Field?
Even if you instantaneously knew the genre you love, found the right variation, and are confident you have a valuable service to offer, you are some way off of being home and dry. The next step is finding someone to pay you to work within your niche, and this step varies in difficulty wildly due to a number of factors. How competitive an area is, will be one of the biggest obstacles to overcome, but each extreme is a double-edged sword.
If the market is overpopulated and there are photographers left and right trying to dominate the niche, you might find it hard to dethrone people or get any recognition. At the same time, it indicates that there is a good amount of demand and you just need to get your foot in a few doors. If there are very few photographers working in your desired niche, there's a chance with the right work that you can be the leader in the field. However, you need to seriously investigate why there are so few? Perhaps I'm naive, but I believe you can make most areas work for you if you're clever about it.
5) How Can You Secure Your First Job?
Now comes the step where there are as many pieces of advice as there are cameras. Some will tell you to do work for free, some will tell you to "fake it until you make it", some will tell you build a portfolio and get your name out there. Truth be told, no answer is demonstrably wrong or right. I took a path that weaves between and partially through all of these, and it's one that seemed the most pragmatic to me. It went like this:
- Create some images of your own volition so you have example work to show.
- Collect the details of small and start-up companies you'd like to work with.
- Work out a rate that doesn't preclude people from taking a risk on you, but isn't a waste of your time.
- Contact by phone and email all of the companies you found, and tailor a pitch to each one.
- Secure the first job and then use it as leverage to approach other companies.
I'll unpack these points a little further. Creating a small portfolio of high quality images to show companies is crucial. There's taking a risk on a new guy, and then there's blind risk. Prove you can create work of a desirable standard on your own dime, and it will pay dividends.
Searching for companies and small brands to approach couldn't be simpler in the modern age. Don't just use Google, use hashtags and location tags on social media too. Instagram is a fantastically powerful tool for this sort of thing, and DMs aren't unprofessional so feel free to use them too. Some may advise to "aim high" and approach the big companies. You're welcome to do this, and I did, but to get past their gatekeepers took industry connections, persistence, and social proof which all take time.
Working out a rate isn't as difficult as people make out. Do your best to work out how much time it would take you to complete your desired job, and fly close to it initially. If you're charging more than even you think your work is worth, you'll be found out sooner or later. You might pull in a good job or two, but it's unlikely you'll build a successful career bleeding every last penny you can get out of people.
The contact part is seemingly easy, but crucial you get right. If you ignore everything else I say, just heed the advice of this small paragraph. Tailor every single email, DM, or phone call to the company you're approaching. Research their story, their products, their market, their aesthetic and discuss it. If you can't be bothered to do this and you instead just copy and paste a message to every email address you can find, you won't get anywhere and frankly you don't deserve to. Be open and honest about being new to the area and wanting to establish yourself in the industry, and why you chose them. Pretending you're already and influencer is transparent and easily disproved by any thinking person.
It really does only take one. Someone will give you a shot sooner or later. I got very lucky and the first brand I spoke to hired me, and then so did the fourth. However, this won't always be the case and you have to have patience. One aspect of my niche I'm proud of is my response rate of cold contact. Because I spend the time to write personal messages that are well-informed to my prospect's image and goals, few people ignore it. In fact, I very rarely get outright "no" to my contact and my database suggest it has only happened around 4% of the time.
Finding a niche can not only make all the difference to your business revenue, but to how fulfilling your career is. It's great to be an expert in an area and for me and many other photographers I've discussed it with, the deeper in your niche you go, the more diversified you become.
I wish you the best of luck and if you have any questions, I'll make sure to answer them in the comments. If, however, you've developed your own niche, perhaps share your words of wisdom in the comments too!