Should Photographers Specialize or Generalize?

The most important decision photographers have to make is whether to specialize or generalize. While generalizing may increase your chances of work, it can also harm your reputation. The good news is there's a clever way to do both.

I completely understand why photographers may want to dabble in various different areas of the industry. First, it's more interesting, and second, it can open up many more revenue streams. The real downsize of generalizing is the negative perception that some clients and customers can get from it. Many of these people won't think you're doing lots of things because you enjoy a variety. Instead, they will jump to the conclusion that you're casting your net far and wide because you're desperate. When someone wants a problem solved, they'd rather get a specialist. I'm sure if you had a bug infestation in your house, you'd be more confident hiring the professional who does the job day-in, day-out over the guy off Craigslist who seems to be doing all sorts of random stuff to get by?

This very topic is the subject of The Futur's video this week. Chris Do, the founder of the Futur, explains in detail the issues with both specializing and generalizing and offers the best solution I have heard in a very long time. Thankfully for us "variety is the spice of life" kinds, we can actually do both. The important factor to note is how you present what you do to the world. Do stresses the importance of specializing externally, so clients and customers think you are a specialist, while still generalizing internally, so your practice is enriched by all those different creative avenues.

The video goes on to talk about the halo bias and how this concept comes into play when specializing and how opportunities may come as a result of this. The video is just under eight minutes long and is well worth a look if you're at a crossroads in your photography career. You really can have your cake and eat it too; just be sure your clients don't see any unwanted crumbs on your chin.

Lead image by Lê Minh via Pexels, used under Creative Commons.

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11 Comments

Blake Aghili's picture

Specialize .. BUT have multiple sources of income in that special area ( for example selling tutorials, workshops , etc )

In all fields of work, I know people that have to specialize to stay focused, and I know people that are more comfortable with multi-tasking. Do you want to be a heart surgeon or a general practitioner? I think that is a choice each photographer has to make.

Specialize if you want to make money. Generalize if you want to enjoy photography. Doing the same thing over and over and over and over again gets boring after a while.

On a level I suppose yes. But actually show them something you are good at, they will think you are good at all, is kind of a good perspective. I think when clients want a photographer, they just want a good one, or often they want a cheep one:) Unless it is some high end project. So better look at the marked and do what can create an income, and love one thing more:)

The photographer should... get paid.
"In the long run, we are all dead" may be true but everyone needs to survive in the short run.
Survival is critical to the realization of long term goals.

Specializing can be a great thing for the right person. For me, I specialize in architecture and can get paid handsomely for it but I still enjoy product photography, commercial photography and editorial portraiture.

Those incidental interests allowed me to make ends meet until I could get my career to a high enough profile to be able to say "I am an architectural photographer.

In a small market generalize, in a larger market I think you'd need to specialize.
Early in a career I would generalize until I find what I want to specialize in.

Dan Howell's picture

I have fundamental disagreements with the line of reasoning presented in the video when applied to photography as implied by the headline based on my practice as a photographer AND my observation of and discussion with other working professional photographers in different markets and sub-markets. However we really don't know what the business environment will be like once/if we return to normal.

First the idea of specializing externally and generalizing internally is backwards when looking at real world opportunities. I can point to numerous photo business consultants advice to present both commercial and personal work in their portfolios. The idea being that the industry demands breadth but it also values personal vision. The personal vision is the specialization.

Secondly, most photographers want to specialize in areas that don't have a market. Seriously, there is virtually no market for shooting girls in bikinis sitting on cars or motorcycles, for example. There is a ton of interest but no appreciable market compared to the number of photographers who would want to specialize in it. Double that for nudes.

Unless you are talking about defining specialties as categories like 'people' or 'still-life', you have to accept the concept that further specialization limits potential markets. In discussing this with fellow professionals I get push back, but I think any realistic professional will understand that there is a inverse relationship between specialization and opportunity. It is incumbent on the professional to find at what point in that relationship they are comfortable limiting themselves.

I would have rather seen the presentation present a graphic representation of that inverse relationship and tell the young designers that they will likely never be on either end of the scale and it would be better to understand that relationship than worry about the far edges of the spectrum.

I have personally found that not defining myself more specifically than a people photographer. I have had successes in some specialties like kids fashion and bridal fashion, while at the same time shooting editorial/conceptual portraits. What I found is that successes tend to bring resources. Resources found in one area might have benefits in another area. The trick is to having 'multiple specialties' is to be prepared to market differently to different clients. BUT that is a whole other topic.

I would note that even those who have "specialized" still shoot projects outside of their specialty for a lot of reasons.

Dave McDermott's picture

This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Most professionals in my area seem to generalise. Some only do a few different genre's that are somewhat related, while others have portfolios with about 10 different albums of various genre's, and as a result, their websites are a bit of a mess. I think its important to have a brand that is coherent and recognisable.

Don Risi's picture

I generalize. Because of that, I work as much or as little as *I* want, and am not subject to the whims of any market, political situation or anything else (except this unfortunate pandemic). It has always been this way, and I make enough to make me happy.

Having said that, we're talking photography. You want to talk about medicine? Yes, I would prefer to have a cardiologist operating on my heart, instead of my GP. But in a life-or-death pinch, I would not complain about the GP cutting me open.

We can take this to any expreme we can think of. I had an appliance repairman work on my dishwasher. In the process, I told him that I needed to have a plumber out because the valve that turns the water on and off to the DW needed to be replaced. He said, "I can do that." And he did, and did an excellent job. Saved me a lot of money.

The difference between the Jack of All Trades and the Master is that while Jack and Jill may not make a lot on any given job, s/he's not likely to be sitting at home, wondering when the phone will ring.

Generalize. You'll never be out of work.

When I generalized I worked a lot on many different type of projects, like product and catalog work, location portraits for editorial and copy work for artists. Worked regularly for good money. When I eventually specialized in automotive work the jobs were bigger and fees usually had another zero but were not as often, now that market is hurting for a few years, so I sort of wish I kept generalizing!