A Beginner's Mistake in Photography That Can Last a Career

A Beginner's Mistake in Photography That Can Last a Career

I have likely made a great many mistakes over the course of my photography career, but one could well still be impacting me today. The question is, are you making it, and if you are, should you do anything to change?

There are photographers out there that pick a genre and then do nothing else for the rest of their lives. I admire these people, and I suspect they have the highest likelihood of becoming truly great at whichever genre they became a dedicated disciple of, but I am not one of them. I began my journey with a camera off the back of a burning curiosity for macro photography, but it didn't take long before I wanted to try every genre of photography I could find. In fact, in the first two years of owning a camera, I tried macro, wildlife, landscape, astro, portraiture, fashion, pets, products, sport, and I suspect several others I can't recall.

In lieu of moving to a country with more interesting insects, I bought and cared for my own. This is Jeffrey, the Giant Asian Praying Mantis. He was a good boy.

In the very first stages of a photographer's career (by which I mean taking photographs as opposed to photography as a job), experimenting as much as possible is crucial. As is the case with so many things, the view from outside a craft or hobby is usually a decent amount different from the experience within. That is, you might think you adore portraiture and they are the type of photographs you want to create, but then when you're face-to-face with a subject and directing them, perhaps some of the magic is dispelled. For that reason, to people who have just bought their first camera and message me for advice, I will always prescribe trying anything and everything; from different genres to techniques.

However, once a beginner has got a lay of the land and a sense of what they do and do not enjoy, what is the next step? For the maximum ability gains and enjoyment as a photographer, how should one proceed? This is where I believe I made a mistake. I continued to experiment with every genre as often as possible, and in all honesty, I still dabble with a broad range of shots; I enjoy photography and don't want to be limited. Nevertheless, as someone who wanted to become a great photographer (a pursuit I have not finished and likely never will), I needed more direction. To improve the quickest, I needed to practice one or two genres of photography persistently, as opposed to shooting anything and everything.

There have been a few times in my career where I have become truly focused on one genre and the outcomes were important. The first instance was with portraiture, the second was macro, and the third (which is connected closely with both of the others) was with the niche of watch photography. Not long into my time as a photographer I discovered the images I wanted to look at — and would spend hours looking at every single day — were portraits. They weren't my original intention in photography, but they quickly became an obsession, and I don't use that word lightly. For years I picked a "portrait of the day" and published it — every single day. There are around 1,000 on the Pinterest board which you can find here. I genuinely could not get enough of looking at portraiture and I was taking as many portraits as I could too.

The second was less of an obsession and more of a consistent urge. I loved wandering around nature taking pictures of insects and I would do it most days for at least the first few years as a photographer, despite living in a country where interesting subjects are few and far between! I have a hard drive full of pictures of bees, hoverflies, wasps, ladybirds, and the occasional run-of-the-mill British spider. I did, however, buy a Giant Asian Praying Mantis as you can see above and he was with me for nearly 2 years!

An editorial image created for Swiss hybrid smart watch brand Impera.

The third was watch photography which combined macro and a brand of portraiture. It was born of a lifelong love for watches and wanting to capture them in ways that showed what I loved about horology; the craftsmanship, the materials, the intricacies, and so on. But, why does this matter? Well, I never improved more, reached a higher standard of shot, and achieved more consistency than when I was in these states of tunnel vision. Direction and focus increased gains exponentially, and I ought to have identified and harnessed that knowledge.

To master a genre, a photographer needs to consistently pursue it, seeking to improve at every step. While I was keen to improve, the diverse range of shots I wanted to take detracted from the ultimate goal of becoming great at a genre. Looking back at my goals when I first started, this was a mistake. I could have still dabbled, but I needed to have more discipline and spent the vast majority of my time on one genre (or at a push, two.) But, looking back over the last decade of photography, would I change anything?

I have put a lot of thought into this question — probably too much — and I'm not sure I would. I have no doubts that more direction and discipline in a particular genre would have rendered me a better photographer of whatever genre that was, but at what cost? My love for photography is tied up in the diversity of the craft and in that, I rarely get bored of it. There is also no guarantee that I would have been much closer to greatness, or that the areas I improved in would have yielded worthwhile results; more money, more success, and so on. Nevertheless, it's a path not taken, and it's one I can't help but wonder about.

Have you narrowed your craft down to one genre? Did it pay off for you? Or, do you regret not being more disciplined in your direction? Share your experiences in the comment section below.

Lead image by Luis Quintero via Pexels

Robert K Baggs's picture

Robert K Baggs is a professional portrait and commercial photographer, educator, and consultant from England. Robert has a First-Class degree in Philosophy and a Master's by Research. In 2015 Robert's work on plagiarism in photography was published as part of several universities' photography degree syllabuses.

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This is an incredible article, Robert. For me personally, I look it at it that I don’t have a genre, I have a camera. So anything I can put in front of it to accurately express what’s behind it is a worthwhile photograph. Particularly since I’m too new in photography to decide what is the best way of expressing that, I’ve enjoyed the process of exploring and seeing what is out there.

I suspect that your work is informed by all of your experience- as with each of us.

The best photographer at my camera club has won national and international competitions and that's without picking a genre. Their secret, in the days of film, they'd get through 10 rolls of film to the average club members one. They still take more photographs per club outing than the next 5 members combined.
The idea that you can pick a genre and become such a master of it you don't need to take a lot of photographs is misleading at best, but we all seem to have that idea.

I have primarily shot fashion, wildlife/nature, some news, and now sports in the 25 years that I have been a photographer. Specifically, endurance sports - cycling, triathlons, and so on. And it wasn't until I got into this niche 5 years ago, since I am obsessed with cycling, that I found financial success. Yes, I work hard at learning new techniques and finding new points of view out there, but I think it's mostly because my heart is fully in it.

So I would say to try everything but when you find what really gets you going, specializing is OK. Just don't be in a hurry to get there, because it's great to be well-rounded. Be open to whatever gets your interest, and attack it from all angles until you're satisfied. If you are never fully satisfied but you want to keep at it, and you're good at it, that might just be your thing.

I love this article Robert. I know exactly what you mean. My career has had similar questions to answer. About 2 years ago I was offered to be represented by one of the biggest agencies in the US. The catch: they wanted me to be ONLY a sports photographer. They have contracts with Nike, Under Armor, DICKS etc. They wanted me to remove EVERYTHING off my website except sports. The agency felt that the rest of my work wasn't good enough to compete on a national level- but my sports work definitely was. As I was agonizing over the decision, I was pitched for a contract with Aveno skincare. Wow. I didn't get it, but it was a reminder that I love working in various fields. My approach has been to focus on a *limited* body of subjects: sports, cosmetics and food/beverage and have a recognizable style across subject matters. Would I be a more famous sports photographer had I accepted the offer? Surely. But I love how I wake up and every week holds different challenges for me as an artist. Last week I was working with lip-gloss smears and vellum paper for a vegan line while finishing up a series for the Senior Games where I had photographed the first woman in history to run the Boston marathon. Her illegal running led her to help charter the NCAA for women in sports. I feel good about my decision. Every week challenges me in different ways.

Your story is very inspiring and I love that you stayed true to yourself despite the huge opportunity offered to you.

Ty! We'll see if the choice was the right one. At the end of the day I think I would rather be mentally and artistically challenged everyday than to have bragging rights that flatter my ego.

It's difficult isn't it? I think we have to just assess whether we believe the trade-off will be worth it. I have undoubtedly lost opportunities too, but my fulfillment and enjoyment of the craft is higher for it — or at least I hope!

I'm genuinely curious if that focus has as much to do with getting noticed, which hopefully leads to more work – or does that focus truly improve your work and you stand out because of it? I'm in-house at a branding agency and I tend to need to shoot all sorts of video work as well as photography, from portraits, to buildings, to product photography. And I feel like some work influences other aspects and makes me better... there's CLEARLY no focus and I know it. I struggle with this question to focus more or not.

What a great article. I've struggled for years to fit myself into one niche, creating 100 different websites related to various genres. I realised that I'm a creative and can't lay my camera down. I love to take my camera on holidays, do travel photography, create fine art photos of flowers, shoot fashion, and more! I'm a desperate cause who will not make myself fit into one area. I'm a creative artist and at the end of the day, I create whatever comes to mind. One thing I am sure of is the need to create!