Full-time photography is a dream many of us have considered fulfilling. What could be better than to get paid for what you want do? A pursuit of passion is often a difficult start, but there’s one critical aspect that I think you should consider immediately: specializing.
Whether you want to shoot glamour, cars, or insects, every market has its (paying) customers. By specializing, you become good at your specialty and increase your chances of getting noticed in today’s saturated market. A rise in skills and customers is on the horizon, but only if you stay true to yourself.
When you specialize yourself in a specific genre, you are likely to increase your skills in that area. So instead of being decent at many types of photography, you can now focus your attention on one thing that’s truly important to you. Ultimately, it’s much easier to stand out from the crowd in that area, especially amongst a mass of people who take pictures of basically anything. In today’s market, that’s critically important as well. About everyone in the western world has a camera of one form or another, and the competition today is murdering. When you become a skillful photographer in your genre, the competition isn't that hard anymore. You may even start to see your competitors as your colleagues.
By putting in the hours, you also become proficient in handling the gear that’s frequently used within that particular field. For professional macro work, there are rails, focus-stacking software, LED ring flashes, and of course the handling of the tiny world itself, which leads me to another reason why specializing is important.
You learn more about your subject. I bet you wildlife photographers know their subjects’ names not only by heart, but in more than one language. You learn the behavior of many different species of wildlife and know where to find them without binge-watching Animal Planet. The same holds true for astrophotography. I would never have learned the names of stars, constellations, and deep-sky objects if I hadn't expressed interest in taking pictures of them. Really, "just" the enormous costs of a good astro rig have held me back from shooting the stars more often.
Another great aspect of specialized photography is that you spend more time in the genre that you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I am advocating the comfort zone, and not just because I am an introvert. Doing stuff you like to do is good for many things. It helps you to unwind and prevents seeing photography as work.
Photography is also a good motivational tool to just do the thing you love more often. For example: If you like being around pets, pet photography is first and foremost a reason for you to be around cats and dogs more. As a professional landscape photographer, I make excuses to go on “holiday” to spectacular landscapes instead of investigating the beach side of life. My wife and I planned for our honeymoon to take place in Iceland, for starters. Landscape photography grew out of a passion for the outdoors. It's a tool to get me motivated to watch the sunset, the stars revolve around the night sky, and to be aware that our planet is changing. I can only imagine what the reasons for working with gorgeous models can be.
Work and Play
Contrarily, you may not want to do a specific genre of photography. I don’t care much for doing portraiture, so I refrain from ever pursuing that genre. Specializing makes sure you don’t get asked for gigs you don’t actually want to do. For many of us, photography is the pursuit of a passion, not a job you just rolled into. If there are chores that aren’t your game, don’t do them.
A Diverse Portfolio
Specializing does not mean narrowing your view. Within any given genre, there’s a ton of experimentation, diversifying portfolios, and lots of opportunity. Just in my field alone, there’s intimate landscape photography, seascapes, nightscape photography, the budding area of aerial imagery, and of course, taking pictures of the grand landscape in all sorts of environments. So don't limit yourself.
Of course there is every room for a diverse portfolio. I currently have nine galleries that containing a wide variety of work, with the microcosm landscapes of glowing mushrooms being the odd man out.
When you really do have a hard time picking or simply want to take pictures of more than one subject, it’s a good idea to consider putting them under different brands, but only if you pursue those genres professionally. There’s always room to just start shooting a different subject, but don’t put your insects among your glamour shots.
Targeting Your Audience
A specialty genre makes it easier to orient and concentrate your marketing efforts. As time spent within the genre progresses, you learn who your target audience is and you become better at knowing where they can be reached. Whether that be Facebook groups or the barbershop across the street, marketing becomes more apparent and natural when you pursue a specialized path of photography.
The most important artistic reason for specializing, though, is developing a personal style. A style in which anyone can recognize your signature photography and/or processing is much more likely to attract customers. Creating standout shots is not something that develops overnight, though. You can either decide that a particular image is your style or let it develop freely over time. Years, even decades can pass before you actually find your signature, though. but it helps tremendously when you spend more time in one genre.
Dark, dreamy, and dramatic. These are the three things I say to myself before I press the shutter button or decide to recompose. There's every room for subjects, editing, and emotion, as long as you adhere to your personal style.
Paying the Bills
Mind you that not all photography pays the bills equally. Landscape photography is something many people do, and it’s a difficult genre to become particularly well paid in. Commissions aren’t easy to come by at all. And the individual market is saturated with other photographers offering a piece on anyone’s empty wall. On the other hand, niche markets such as astro, fetish, or underwater photography can be hard to get into, either because of the requirement of advanced gear or contacts within that world.
My advice to you is: Consider which field you want to specialize in. Of course there is room to diversify once you are established, but getting established is going to be both the biggest challenge and the most fun if you stay close to your passion. But don’t take too long. Go out and take more pictures and be open to what feels good to you. The choice of what photography you want to pursue is a tough decision, and it’s likely one that will shape you as photographer and as a person. No pressure there.
Great article! Coming from an economics background I could not agree more with what you wrote about specializing and targeting your audience.
Cheers, Tobias! Glad you liked it. ;)
Awesome advice! Clients will respect the photographer more when there's a boundary on the type of work done. I've seen it countless times. It's like putting a PhD at the end of your name.
Haha, love the analogy! Thanks a bunch for the input. :)
very true... I had an idea I wanted to get into photography to do more ad campaigns (commercial portraits), and still do but with 6 additional years added to my experience I learned that ad campaigns I want to get into will require a ton of time, advanced gear and knowing the right people at the right time to get noticed. Hence why I went towards doing something similar which is fashion, and not fashion for ad campaigns since I live in an area that doesn't do that but more high school senior fashion. Started that venture fairly recent too so can't say for sure its working out, it'll be years until I can say for sure, but I know that it is my passion. I love fashion and love the creative process that goes into them.
In pursuit of your passion, it's hard for anyone to fail. After reading your reply, I'm sure you have made the right choice, Chris. Thanks for your input and experience on the matter.
Success is a gradual process. One of the caveats of self-employment is the perpetual chase of success and forgetting why you're doing what you do in the first place. Keep true to yourself and your clients will respect that. :)
I sure hope so... not anyone in my entire region truly specializes in just one specialty. At most I've seen family/life specialty where they shoot from newborn to weddings life events. Other than that no one has the guts to just do one all year round. I just started this specialty journey back in May and it takes time I know, but still scary...more scary if I was a full timer in photography but I'm not yet but that is my goal and dream to doing it full time.
I specialize in fashion senior portrait experiences... so I try extremely hard to not be compared and stand out from the crowd. Currently no one specializes in just seniors, and especially offers the portrait experience, as well provide a fashion photographic style too.
Great article. I think also that your best work comes from when you are passionate about something. I love pet photography and taking pictures of (mostly) my dogs. Some of the images I've captured are awesome (in my humble opinion). I was recently asked to shoot a wedding and although I'm happy with the images they don't blow me away like my pet photo's do; because my heart wasn't in it.
I feel you, Phil. It's a common occurence, though. You get into another type of photography and lose track of why you came to photography in the first place. Keep putting your heart into your pets and it will pay off in the long run. Thanks a lot!
I'd go as far as to say that specializing is a good strategy regardless of whether one plans to go professional or not. The problem is what to do when you like more than one types of photography. I used to take pictures of landscapes, and love doing so, but then I realized that I also love photographing architectural patterns, and the night sky, as well as bringing out people's expressions in portraiture. What if there are many types of photography that you love and it's hard for you to single out the one you want to specialize in?
I definitely see the merits of specializing but one thing you state which I would say is not necessarily a benefit is you talk about getting to stay in your comfort zone. Artistic growth happens the best when you push outside of your comfort zone. If you are a landscape photographer shooting portraits can give you a deeper understanding of the medium of photography.
Another reason I struggle with the concept of specialization is I would not want to close myself off from working on a project that comes up that excites me artistically just because it is outside of my chosen niche.