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 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!
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.