The Jack of All Trades Photographer: What’s the Problem?

The Jack of All Trades Photographer: What’s the Problem?

They say variety is the spice of life and in the world of the freelance photographer, a broad and knowledgable skill set goes a long way. So, why does knowing your way around a multitude of photographic genres breed so much disrespect in the professional world?

Like many of us, I started my career flat-broke and searching desperately for any kind of photographic project I could get my grubby hands on. I wanted it all, and I said yes to everything. There were one or two disasters in those first few years, sure, but I cut my teeth learning interior and architectural photography as well as food and drink.

I shot on location using natural light and hired studios for product and still life when needed. I became literate in handling strobes and modifiers, using wide angle lenses, and understanding distortion at wider focal lengths. My name was banded around for wedding after wedding, the odd one of which I still take on to this day. It was busy, it was varied, and I loved it!

Looking back on those days, I was completely content. A sprite, curious, busy photographer racing his way around Manchester for a property shoot, a menu shoot, or a homeware product shoot in the studio! Walking the length of the city's inner ring road shooting billboards (ok that was a mistake, certainly a low point, and I bailed halfway around, but you get my point). What then, is the beef? Is Jack (let’s call him Jack, as I can’t be fussed to type Jack of All Trades every time) stepping on too many a photographer's patch? Is he unwelcome without his 105mm macro or a portfolio of #yolkporn shots? “His tripod’s not even Manfrotto, though.” 

The short answer is, there is no problem. I’m clearly overplaying it for comedic value. No one that matters cares. If you do what you do well and consistently throughout, you could probably happily “Jack” it up all year round and make a decent living from it, just as I did! However, there is a more complex argument to counter the frivolities above. If you’re looking to take the next big steps in your career as a photographer, then spreading yourself across a multitude of genres can have implications. Let’s take a look at a few.

Portfolio Consistency

The Portfolio. Every photographer’s Magna Carta. The document so sought after in its subjective perfection that you can have 10 of the things knocking about depending on who you’re sending it off to. It has to be consistent with either a certain style or, more generally accepted, a certain genre. Bend the lines a little here and there, yes, but stuff your “bridal prep” edits in with your “gut-buster buffalo hot wings” and things may look a little, well, off. Consistency of work leads to reliability and trust from a client, so regular work is more likely. 

When I was shooting across the board, I had friends and contacts that name-dropped me, and so, I was able to work within a different genre for different agencies, based on word of mouth. Lucky me, I know. A quick move to the nation's capital, and suddenly, no one knew me, and I was one in thousands upon thousands of guys and gals doing the same thing. Name drops were gone, for the most part anyway. What’s my point? Portfolios matter.

Like I say, you could have countless variations! If you want to keep fingers in pies and it works for you, then keep those genres going and have a few portfolios to show for it! I, for example, have a food and lifestyle portfolio that I send out to agencies and potential bookings. This is a concise round-up of my photography and what is more largely available on my website. It encompasses a familiar style across what I like to think are crossover-genres: food, food culture, and the lifestyle that embraces. This inevitably means a little interior creeps in, a little destination or travel work, or some nice still-life studio imagery. It’s nicely curated and flows image to image, page to page. 

I also have a far more concise and consistent food and drink portfolio that I’m constantly working on. I pester photographer agents with this document every few months, in the vain hopes they’ll stop ignoring me, but that, my friends, is an article for another day.

Career Uncertainty

Ever get that dread that you’re getting older? That the sands of time are sliding faster through your fingers? Yes, you’re 35 now, but blink and you’ll be 40. Do you want to still be running all over town for different clients? Isn’t it time to get a studio and let the work come to you? Shouldn’t you be setting yourself up for a comfortable retirement in 103 years' time? Just me then? Ok. 

Hyperbolic though it is, the uncertainty of what’s to come is an important factor in how you endeavor within the photographic world. Having a niche or a specialization and a style in which to call your own will build far more of a foundation than not quite knowing where you sit, or worse, having others unsure of it. Flitter and flaunt as much as you like as you’re starting out or simply when you have the time and the energy to do so, but eventually, mortgages, spouses, and children come into the mix, and a little more solidarity and security are needed in order to prioritize a personal or family life. Honing that specialization is key to forming and solidifying bonds with the right people in the industry so that you can continue to work without quite as much uncertainty.

Master of None?

Horrible, isn’t it? A nasty little phrase banded around in an already difficult industry. And in a world where to be seen and heard is so easy that your anonymity actually rejoices with every post! We chase algorithms like lame greyhounds after a rabbit, completely unaware that it’s just a sock on a stick. Sorry, got a little sidetracked posting to Instagram.

That being said, it certainly can be true that taking on too much at once — or perhaps more appropriately, diversifying your work too much over time — can lead to either a decline in the overall quality of work or a lack of concentration on trends and creative shifts in one of those genres at its higher commercial levels. Most important, however, is that you run the risk of coming across as scatty or simply too varied to those viewing your work looking for sturdy, steadfast imagery. 

I’m a firm believer that one photographic genre can inform another, which is why I bleed food and drink into lifestyle, but I’m absolutely guilty of allowing unrelated images I’m too proud of live rent-free on my website. I know the end is near, but I can’t bring myself to taken them down to banish them to the HDD that never sees the light of day!

You simply don’t see photographers at the height of their commercial game shooting front covers for The Sunday Times food supplement as well as editorials in Vogue. You may well, however, see photographers shooting recipes for a notorious restaurant's cookbook as well as interior lifestyle setups for a piece on “Veganuary” in Country Living. It’s a subtle but important difference that needs to be understood so that one's work can be viewed and understood objectively by prospective buyers.

Je Suis Jack

Whatever the case at the top of the tree, it is crucial that Jack still gets his or her kicks before settling down, so to speak. Play that field! Shoot the bands for that local music paper and get free gigs out of it. Do your mates' headshots for a pint. Shoot student flats for your first official day rate and be thankful for all the cool products you got to keep that were sent in the post by the small gift hamper company or in the studio with those lovely guys from the ethical toiletries startup.

I love the variety of my work. It gets me exploring the brand new city I’ve moved to, rather than commuting to the same place every day. It enables me to write creatively, from bed on a filthy wintry January morning. It’s given me the scope to take on exciting and fresh briefs for people that I want to impress and thoroughly enjoy working alongside. It’s also given me the confidence to say no to work that isn’t particularly worth my time and skill set. 

Nevertheless, it’s been refined over the years. It’s been chipped, sanded, planed, and varnished to resemble something a little more streamlined and concise, and I dare say will continue to do so for many a year! But never, for one second, will I ever regret the days of Jack. Jack lives in me. Jack lives in all of us. Embrace Jack, give Jack a chance. Je Suis Jack. 

Michael Barrow's picture

I'm a food and lifestyle photographer, currently living and working in London.

I’ve worked as a writer and educator in photography and maintain a deep and unhealthy relationship with food and cooking. As such you’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties.

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You had me at giant BLT.

You should see my #yolkporn

Hello, I'm Jack 100%... and I have so many baskets of eggs, I don't think they'd all fit into just one basket. I really wish one genre would stick out and yell at me to stay with it, but in the last year I've shot real-estate, commercial architecture, product, food, sports portraits, event, landscapes, travel, drone, wedding, senior, baby, pet, still life, and video. Not one of them called to me like a siren sitting on the rocks... and I truly tried to listen. Instead they each are one of my horcruxes and a part of my photographic soul where I would have to destroy it to truly feel ok with pursuing another. If you have any extra advice for finding the money-maker, I'm all ears. I've heard... start with something you are passionate about, like mountain biking- and photograph that- the clients will follow... but that's the thing; my overwhelming passion, hobby, and day job (I teach high school photography), is unmistakably photography. It's a bit much- practically a major part of my personality at this point. I'm coming to terms with the idea that I might never find my niche, style, or specialty... and don't know right now that I hate that idea. I suppose if I really wanted to make photography my breadwinner and not my self-sustainable hobby- I might change... But for now, I'm Jack.

Really good points Jayce. Sounds to me like you're smashing it out of the park but I understand your frustration. You can happily play the numbers game and keep a steady(ish) flow of income but it can be time-consuming and have you all over the place! Maybe first try condensing down the extensive list above? I found that my reliability and personable attitude (trumpet well and truly blown), had a real impact on Wedding photography especially. If you can impress in that world then brides, grooms and mother-in-laws will be name-dropping you like a hot potato and the work should snowball. I make no excuses for shooting weddings sporadically because they're an insanely good money-maker and they tend to come to me, so little effort or marketing.

Try making just a few of these genres something you do in your spare time also. Try putting together a concise portfolio of each, just so you can compare on contrast. As a teacher, I'm sure you have a critical approach to your own work so separating out the genres should show you where your strengths lie and where you need to either drop a genre, or work a little harder?

This was my first article on FStoppers and it may help!

At least in the commercial world, there is a rationale for wanting uniform portfolios; people wanna hire someone who produces the kind of images they want consistently.
My frustration is with gatekeepers in the Art world. I’ve been turned down from things like renting a work space, or even just taking part in group shows because they found my commercial portfolio and said I wasn’t “a full time artist”.
Here’s the kicker : I live in one of Europe’s smallest capital cities, we have a grand total of 3 galleries dealing exclusively with photography, and the biggest of the three doesn’t even carry local artists, just international big names… In other words, I doubt there are ANY full time fine art photographers in my city. But the gatekeepers prefer people who are independently wealthy, or artists who support themselves working in coffee shops rather than photographers who debase themselves by *gasp* taking clients!

Amazingly good points Nicholas! I studied Fine Art and a postgrad in Photography, both heavily weighted in the contemporary art world as you'd expect. I found it enlightening and super inspiring but aside from the odd small exhibition or selling prints, never ventured too far into that world. It must be incredibly frustrating essentially being typecast in the art world simply because you're talented enough to make ends meet in the commercial world.

I find walking away from the day-to-day now and then to reconnect with art and culture simply by gallery hopping, really informs my work and is refreshing when things get too much. Having said that London is awash with incredible galleries and museums. I can't speak for Oslo, but always wanted to visit!

One of the most mis used quotes out there too;
“jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one” is the full quote

"Jack of all trades" appears to be the original. Then, the other two were later added.

a) "master of none"
b) "though oftentimes better than master of one",_master_of_none

Every day's a school day!

I get the idea behind having a consistent portfolio, but at the same time there's no reason all of someone's work has to live in the same place. For example I have different IG accounts and websites that I use for different types of photography. When people reach out or I'm reaching out to potential clients I simply direct them to my portfolio that makes to most sense based on their photography needs.

Great point Amara. Simply sectioning off your workflow shows that you're able to work across disciplines and keeps the visual element nice, neat, and concise!

It's great to try a bit of everything when you're a new photographer but the problems come later because it's harder to increase photo fees. Clients that hire generalist photographers usually want more for less or they think they're getting ripped off. Meanwhile, clients that hire specialists tend to consider higher fees to be a sign of quality.

Specialist client: "The photographer only wants $2500 for the shoot which is half the price of the most expensive photographer. We're getting a bargain!"

Generalist client: ""The photographer wants $2500 for the shoot but my cousin's friend has a nice camera and only charges $500. We're getting ripped off!"

Couldn't agree more, Michael. Pricing your work is another huge issue in this game. I truly believe there is a comfortable 'middle'. But even getting there requires honing a style and separating what it is you offer from what you like to shoot generally.