To Specialize or Generalize? 3 Tips to Find Your Direction as a Photographer

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I have always associated a romance with being a specialist photographer, whether this be in the area of weddings, fashion, automotive or dreamy tintype portraits. You are valued as a master in your field and people want you for the style that you create. On the other hand, there are positives in working in multiple industries as a photographer. You rarely get bored due to the variety of work you do, and it’s fun to learn new skills and adapting to various situations. You might have to manage different “identities” but that suits you fine because you love the challenge conquering different fields.

Which one are you? Which one do you want to be?

Specialization vs. Generalization

Most photographers will start off being very general in what they shoot and this is a good thing as you don’t want to be pigeonholed early in your career before you even know your own strengths. Being a generalized photographer may not mean that you have to cover everything but you will have a number of fields that you are passionate in. There is less chance of your work slowing down in a quiet season as there is always something else to do. The disadvantage is that you might not get known as an expert in any of those fields and the rates you command for your work may not be as high as someone who specializes in it.

Working as a specialist photographer can allow you to rise in your field, become well known and gain a reputation as an expert. This can allow you to work within your strengths and build effective networks within your industry. You have room to explore markets within your field, or you could further specialize within your field, e.g. being a wedding photographer who just shoots tattooed couples. However, you can also be at the mercy of shifting trends and you may find yourself boxed in and unable to find new markets.

I’ve known photographers who drift between these approaches, but perhaps it is a good idea to be certain about which you want to be, as it will help in retaining your passion for this vocation, and hopefully land you more work that you are happy to do. Here are a few thoughts that can help you navigate this.

1. Shoot to Know

Look back at everything you have photographed so far. Do you see yourself drawn to a specific style or subject or do you have a broad range of interests in photography? Are you able to sustain projects for long periods of time or are you easily bored and just want to shoot something different? 

Be honest with what kind of work you want to do as this will be the fuel that sustains you professionally. This is where you will be most productive. Some photographers are happy to spend their entire careers shooting a specific subject and remain just as passionate while others constantly seek new challenges and experiences for fulfillment.

If you don’t have enough work to help you make this decision, then perhaps that is the problem, and you need to keep shooting and experimenting to find out. Shoot everything all the time, say yes to insignificant jobs, create personal projects, learn about what you love and what you hate. In doing this, certain photographic experiences and jobs will move past being a novelty and become something that you will either connect with or not.

2. Diversify Your Websites

You may already have a great website that features a range of your work, but perhaps you can try breaking up your site into multiple sites, each focused on a specific area of your photographic work. Believe it or not, this can be useful for those who want to specialize or generalize.

I have a commercial / fashion photography site as well as a wedding photography site. I’ve found that targeting my clients with a clear message about what I do helps me get hired more. I am considering splitting up my fashion and commercial work into separate sites and I’m even planning on creating an education and automotive site. From here I can choose to sustain all these sites, as I love the variety of work I do, and build up a range of industries I can work in. Alternatively, I can see which sites gain the most attention, phase out the others, and begin to specialize in the service I offer.

It is not uncommon for photographers to run multiple sites at once, and don’t worry if one is more successful than another. Use it as a learning exercise to see which areas you want to work in the most. There are many web building sites that offer fantastic services and you can quickly experiment with different directions in your work.

3. Follow the Money

It might sound cynical to base our decisions on financial reasons, but as photographers we need to update our gear, feed ourselves and look after those in our lives, which all takes money. Whether we specialize or generalize may depend purely on the demands of the market that is around us. A photographer may have found financial success in the moody dark portraits they create or they may have found this by saying yes to every job that comes their way. However, wherever we find ourselves, this may not be where we want to be.

Rather than letting money rule your destiny, excel in whatever work you are doing and use your financial earnings to create opportunities where you can reassess your priorities and strengths. Not stressing about how you will pay your bills will allow you to make bolder choices, take chances that will move you into areas you have always wanted to try, or let go of the jobs that make you miserable.

Being successful in one field can also give you an advantage to move into another one. Clients who love your work would gladly recommend you to other clients not necessarily related to their industries. Don’t despair if you find yourself being a photographer in an area you don’t love. Do it well and when the time comes you will earn the chance to move on and diversify.

 

Defining Success

Succeeding as a photographer today might mean needing to be more flexible and adaptable to our fast changing society. Even if you are a rock star in your area of photography, it doesn’t mean that trends, styles or demands will stay the same. It is certainly not a fixed position. Constantly looking around at where the industry is moving and regularly reviewing how your work is evolving is essential in sustaining a long and prosperous career. 

The truth is, many of us will go through periods of being specialized and generalized photographers. Having a few strategies to figure out which direction we should to take will help us stay engaged with the work we love. I often remind myself though, that even doing the most mundane photography job is better than many of the other jobs I’ve had in the past. I get to be a photographer, and I am constantly grateful for this.

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8 Comments

Brad Delaney's picture

Nice work there Jason, hit the nail on the head. If your market is small you also have to generalize to some degree because there is a commercial reality to life. I have a family to feed as well so, although sometimes i find myself shooting stuff I wouldn't normally choose to shoot, I get to be a photographer everyday of my life and I wouldn't change that for anything !

Chris Adval's picture

Exactly my thoughts and goals right there, thank you! But heck colleagues in the industry tell me the complete opposite even though I am a starving artist and need to be a generalized photographer [right now and for now]. But I have already built up my specialized website specifically for fashion advertising and headshots from all-in-one website (which I still have up on photoshelter just working off it slowly as that site has the lowest bounce rate on google analytics).

Thank you soo much for this article to help motivate and confirm myself even more I am okay with doing this and not just specialize in 1 or 2 areas, period, right now, as I am not ready to do that right now.

Ralph Berrett's picture

I learned a big lesson during the Great Recession of 2007. I had friends who were wedding shooters. Personally I way over charge for weddings because they are a pain to me. But my friends were hit with a double whammy 1st the Recession, which cut wedding budgets and reduced higher end clients 2nd was the flood of people who decided to become wedding shooters after their job loss.

I remember listening to TWIP and tall they talked about was the wedding market. I knew that it had reached a saturation point The basic effect of this wedding profits went down and there was less weddings to shoot.

Some wedding shooters i knew expanded into family and senior portraits, others changed careers. What I walked away with it is alright to specialize but be flexible to adapt to changes, otherwise you are a dinosaur watching meteor fall.

Savi You's picture

I'm curious how increasing your rates worked out? Are you actually booking clients?

Ralph Berrett's picture

I shoot editorial, sports, news and commercial. I also do video. A big part of my work load is EP and formal portraits. I used to work for daily papers. I shot weddings mainly to buy gear and pay for school. I shot my first wedding at 16 for $200 in 1983.

I do maybe 2-3 weddings a year and charge way to much and half the time recommend other people. When I shoot weddings I promise quality not quantity. I also turn the images around in about a week,

If it is choice between a wedding or going to a homicide i will take the homicide. ;)

Maciej Szymula's picture

If you are a person able to specialize in one filed of photography there is much more chane you become 'recognized'. However, I run photography studio for about 10 years and found that for me specializing means getting bored and tired by shooting the same subject all the time...

Randy Smith's picture

I havde a company name that is not my personal name...How do you think I should go about diversifying? I do both video and photo. I shoot all kinds of things.

On the video side I do everything from corporate videos to music videos. And for photography I shoot weddings, sports and even real estate. But I find I have no niche.

Should I create multiple websites with multiple names? Multiple social media accounts?

I often get asked what I do...Which is not good.

Jason Lau's picture

Hey Randy. I think you should only take action if what you are doing is causing you problems or limiting growth. If you are doing well, then keep doing it! Managing different "identities" can be quite time consuming if you don't have the flair for it. Probably best to focus on what kind of work you enjoy doing most and are making a profit from and focus your business/website that way, but still be open to doing other jobs when called for.