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.
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.