Picking a Lane: How Finding a Niche Can Help You Find a Career in Photography

Picking a Lane: How Finding a Niche Can Help You Find a Career in Photography

By narrowing your focus and promoting your specific skill set, you can grow your business and stand out in even the most overly saturated market.

It seems to be such an oxymoron. You spent your entire life working to develop your skill set. You're proud of your ability to adapt to any situation and wear that pride like a badge of honor. Fashion, fine art, lifestyle, portraits, you name it. Look deep enough into your archive and you’ve done it all. You’ve even done it all well. You’ve gotten paid for it all. Sure, maybe the paychecks weren’t consistent. But if someone paid for it once, there’s a good chance you can get someone to pay for it again. Right? So you’d be a fool not to show all of that success to anyone who asks. Right? After all, you don’t want to lose out on an opportunity simply just because they didn’t see that one shot you took that one time when you got hired by that friend of a friend. Who cares if it’s not “what you usually shoot?” Who cares if you even like it? As long as it pays.

No matter what genre of photography you focus on, I’m guessing one or all of the above thoughts have passed through your mind at one time or another. How couldn’t they? It’s so difficult these days to make a living in this business that it seems counterintuitive to cut off any avenue that may result in gainful employment.

So you continue to spread your creative battalion onto every possible battlefield. Taking one random fortified hill at a time. But never being able to establish a castle of your own.

But what would happen if, rather than voluntarily partitioning your resources, you instead allowed your entire skill set to march as one? It may require that you let the occasional skirmish pass by unconquered. Perhaps you wouldn’t always get to use the full force of your arsenal. But, if you were to focus the entirety of your power on a single target… Oh, with what force would you land such a mighty blow.

Now, before you are mislead into believing you’ve landed on a military strategy blog, allow me to mention that surviving the photography business can be a lot like combat. Lessons can be learned from those who have gone before. Each casualty tells a tale. Every move can lead to a different outcome.

Easily the most important move you will make during your career (perhaps multiple times throughout a career) is deciding on your direction. It’s likely advice you’ve heard before — and ignored.

But deciding on your brand as a photographer, then carefully cultivating that brand throughout all sections of your business is both one of the most difficult and most beneficial decisions you will ever make.

Why Is It So Difficult?

Let’s face it, you probably didn’t decide on a career in photography out of a desire for monotony. Like all artists, the entire basis of your hobby that became a career aspiration was more than likely the single trait that unites us all: curiosity.

An artist is curious about the world around them. A lot of different things interest us. I photograph people because they fascinate me. I love to learn about my subjects. I love to imagine stories, larger than life characters, and put together the pieces to move my imagination into reality.

But, probably like you, my curiosity knows no bounds. I’ve built my brand in the lifestyle, fitness, and advertising world. But over the years I’ve also done events, headshots, exhibited my fine art nudes, and even came very close to accepting a job with the police department (as a photographer, not fighting crime as that would suggest I’m much tougher than I really am).

But despite the fact that I’ve done all of these things, and done them all well enough to achieve a certain level of acclaim, I knew that at some point, even I would have to pick a lane.

It is the antithesis of a creative person to not be, well, creative. But as a professional photographer, you are also running a small business. And running a successful business means knowing your product, knowing your customers, and knowing how to connect the dots.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

—Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"

Know Your Market

I should start off by giving you a reference point. I am a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer. I create images that help people or companies market products to other people.

I don’t say that to drone on about my own services. But I do mention it so that you can understand the perspective of the advice to follow.  

Specifically, you can pick up from that short introduction that my customers aren’t usually retail clients (personal headshots, brides of weddings, etc.). So, instead of marketing to individuals who will likely be the subject of the images I take, I am marketing to companies that will hire me to create images they think will appeal to their customer base.

You will also pick up that I live in Los Angeles (although you could substitute any number of big cities from New York to Paris for our purposes). This means a number of things. On the positive side, big cities have a great deal of major clients. There is also an fairly inexhaustible base of on-camera talent to recruit from. The downside is that clients also have an inexhaustible base of photographers to choose from. It’s not a stretch to say that some of the very top tier of talent lives in my market. That means that every customer I pursue has the very viable option of going instead for any number of world-renowned shooters instead.

Now, if I were in a smaller market, the need to specialize may not be quite as dire. Or, at least not in the same way. In most cities and towns, it is not only OK, but perhaps required to take more of a generalist approach. There are less photographers in a smaller market. There aren’t as many large corporations shooting in town to base an entire career on one market. Different markets require different approaches.

But if you are in a larger market, or aiming for larger global clients, finding a niche grows from merely a suggestion to a near requirement. And even if your market does suggest a more general approach, the benefits of establishing separate brand identities will still have its perks.

Know Your Customer. No, Not the Brand Name, the Actual Dude. His Name Is Steve. Steve Is Awesome.

Steve is a busy man.

Technology was supposed to make his life easier. So, why is it he seems to have so much less time on his hands than he used to?

Well, while I am definitely not so far detached from a certain “get off my lawn!” level of curmudgeon, I would say that the ever increasing pace of technological advancement goes well beyond my own advancing age. In fact, I would first posit the theory that it is precisely the efficiency of technology which, like creativity, is both the cure and the cause of our overburdened schedules. Simply put, because we can do so much, we all feel we must do so much. And, for Steve, this holds doubly true.

Steve is the photo editor at a major magazine. He got into the business because he loves photography and dreams of nothing more than working with other creative people to help determine the look of those glossy pages hoisted high on the rack. Somewhere north of Sports Illustrated, but well west of the National Enquirer.

But the job just isn’t the same anymore. Sure, he gets to hire photographers and help them craft a cohesive vision for the images set to run alongside the rather lengthy article concerning the benefits of wearing white pants after Labor Day. But, these days, there’s so much more. So much more with so much less. He is working within a shrinking industry. The budgets are dwindling. The number of printed magazines on that grocery store rack are dwindling. There even seems to be a great deal more open space in the office floor plan. What was once a full office building, now downsized to a few cubicles and a partially stocked break room.

As a survivor, Steve is now being asked to wear more hats than ever. Part time sourcing talent, part time producing shoots, part time negotiating contracts. And maybe once is a while actually getting to do some actual photo editing.

At the same time his job duties are expanding, so is Steve’s inbox. Ever since the advent of digital everyone with a cell phone considers himself a photographer. And at least half of them possess enough Google skills to be able to track down Steve’s email address. Suddenly, he finds himself inundated with hundreds of emails a week from shooters from all over the world.

Guess what? A lot of them are really good. Who does he choose? And before the decision arises, the more pertinent question: How is he going to find you among the mountain of portfolios, websites, and Instagram feeds?

Establishing a Brand Identity

I remember sitting in a photography lecture some years ago, watching while a team of photo agents presented a series of images from a photographer who had caught their eye at a recent convention.

I’ll be honest. The images didn’t do much for me. There wasn’t really anything interesting about the lighting or framing. They didn’t reveal anything about their subjects in any kind of in depth. Truth be told, the entire series seemed to lack any sort of artistic consideration whatsoever. So, why did the series make such an impression on potential clients? Why was that photographer’s brand so “sticky,” as marketers are prone to call a memorable pitch?

Well, perhaps it would help if I described the series. It won’t take long. Every picture was virtually identical. The photographer had quite simply spent the past year photographing the back of people’s T-shirts whom she had met on the street.

Really, that’s it. There’s no more. Seriously, nothing else. There wasn’t even anything about the photography itself that would be beyond the reach of anyone with access to a lens and a shutter release. Or even a flip phone.

But here’s the thing. By the end of the conference, every art buyer remembered her. Why? She was the lady who shot the backs of T-shirts. They may not have remembered a single one of her images, but they remembered that she shot T-shirts.

So ask the question. If they are ever in need of a photographer to shoot a line of T-shirts, whose portfolio from the conference are they most likely to remember?

Now, obviously, this is a very simplified example. I dare say that the vast majority of people out there would find themselves at the end of a solid year shooting only the backs of T-shirts somewhere between the insane asylum and seriously considering going back to school for a career change.

But the point is still valid. By establishing a brand identity, she was able to create a sticky marketing message. If you need a T-shirt photographed, call this number.

How to Determine Your Competitive Advantage

OK, so now that we’ve established that the back of T-shirt market is well covered, where should you draw your focus? Having likely never met you, I wouldn’t even venture a guess. As a matter of fact, even if I did venture a guess, you would and should only take it with a grain of salt. Not because I don’t give amazing advice… Wait, why are you laughing?

No, the reason you should take direction advice in stride is simple: only you know what’s in your heart. Only you can decide what subjects interest you enough to probe deeper. Only you can determine the look and/or subject matter that you can stick with a produced over and over.

As I admitted earlier, it has taken me years to get to my current focus. First off, I just didn’t want to focus on any one thing. Why would I when (in my mind) I could do much more. Second, what would I focus on anyway? I enjoy shooting it all equally. How can I choose? I tried for the longest time to let the market decide, but I kept getting hired to do so many very different things. Which do I do best?

Of course, looking back at all the different areas I’ve sampled, it makes sense that they were leading me here. I began my career doing a lot of sports photography and had a background myself as an athlete. My fine art nudes were the first of my works to receive widespread exhibition. My lifestyle and dance work was the first to garner me awards. I already mentioned that my love of photography stems from my interest in people. Put all those together and you have a storytelling aesthetic that focuses on movement, athleticism, bodies, and personalities.  

These are all skills that I developed over the years shooting in all those different genres. And, if required by a client, I know I have all those skills in my back pocket.

But, in order to get into the door, I know I need to make Steve’s job as easy as possible. When a potential job comes across his desk for a portrait of an athlete, he doesn’t ask himself, “Who is the best photographer with the most diverse skill set?” He asks, “Who shoots portraits of athletes?” His inbox is way too full not to use some kind of filter. My job as a photographer is to put myself into the appropriate section of his brain. The minute an assignment comes across his desk that is related to fitness, lifestyle, and activewear, I want Steve to immediately think of me.

Sure, that may mean that he doesn’t think of me for the travel story in Argentina. But, once I get in the door through the sports portrait and establish myself in his mind, the types of jobs I can be considered for may expand. But first, I have to get in the door.

My ability to capture movement, understand and predict athletic motion, work with different personalities, and capture bodies in a flattering light can help to open that door. Those skills form my competitive advantage. The one area where I excel over the rest. Perhaps your competitive advantage is your knowledge of the fashion world. Perhaps your competitive advantage is your ability to pose large groups.

I have a good friend, Kevin Steele, who has built a booming business centered around adventure lifestyle photography. How did he get into it? Simple. He loves adventure sports. He would hang off that cliff even if he didn’t have a camera in his hand. And because of that passion, he can provide a client an insight into that market that no one else would be able to.

Presenting Your Brand Consistently

Now, the hard part is over. You’ve determined your competitive advantage and discovered where you fit in the market. Now, there’s only one thing left: discipline.

You not only have to know your brand. You have to show your brand. Everything from you personal website to your social media should speak from the same voice. Take someone that we all know, Chase Jarvis. He is one part commercial photographer and one part Tony Robbins. If you ever catch one of his videos on YouTube, you are just as likely to walk away inspired as you are to learn anything about photography. You'll notice that his homepage even gives equal weight to inspiration and actual photography. That’s not a slight. That’s branding. His brand is positivity. Taking your life to new heights. It is both evident in the photography he creates for his clients and his social media presence. But more than just rattling off platitudes to build buzz, his public persona (aka personal brand) serves to subsidize his professional brand. And visa versa.

Peggy Sirota has built an amazing career shooting lively, natural, and often humorous images of the world's most guarded and sought after celebrities. She doesn’t just shoot celebrities. She creates images that allow you to pull back the curtain and see the real fun-loving human being behind it. That ability to get celebs to relax separates her from the competition.

If you visit her extraordinary website, you are immediately greeted by a short music video comprised mostly of fun behind-the-scenes clips and images of celebrities appearing to be having an absolute blast. The vibe dovetails perfectly with the mood of the images she is hired to create. Her brand is fun. Her website is fun. Even behind the scenes, people seem to be having so much fun. So, when GQ needs someone to photograph a cover story on an up-and-coming actor and they need the images to be really fun and full of life, who do you think they call?

Find Your Voice. Let It Be Heard.

The examples are countless. But I think the message is as clear as an entire portfolio of pictures of the backs of T-shirts.

When you know yourself, you can know your market. When you know yourself, your market can know you. When the market knows who you are, they know when to hire you.

And most importantly, they’ll be hiring you to be yourself.

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