Jack of All Trades Versus Tunnel Vision Photographers

Jack of All Trades Versus Tunnel Vision Photographers

When it comes to photographers, there seem to be those that dabble in a bit of everything and there are those that shoot one and only one genre. It's a difference of mindset and of perspective, but is either better than the other or does it boil down to a matter of preference? Is there a clear cut benefit for either stance? I'm a one-track mind type of guy and I'm here to tell you that it doesn't bother me one bit.

The jack-of-all-trades photographer pursues bits of everything. He or she is a wedding photographer, portrait, street, food, still life, real estate, and everything-in-between photographer. Their bag of gear is as varied as the pursuits themselves, owning lenses for each and every job and client that they may encounter. Is this the type of photographer who masters a craft, or is this the pursuer of all but master of none?

The tunnel vision photographer pursues one genre or one style with almost absolute exclusivity. He or she owns few lenses beyond the ones they need for their craft and their gear bag is often a simple one. Their pursuit is mastery of one thing and one thing only. This single path may lead them to excel and master one aspect of photography, while leaving them less skilled or knowledgeable about areas not related to their single pursuit.

Both have advantages and both have very clear weaknesses. The jack of all trades may be skilled in many areas, able to shoot decent, even great images across many genres. But as they spread themselves across all their different interests, can they ever achieve mastery of any single aspect? The one track mind may master their genre, being able to create genuine master piece images, all while finding themselves helpless to shoot work outside of their expertise.

Is it just a matter of mindset or is it something deeper in each of us that draws us down one path and not the other? Some people have genuine passion for everything related to photography and will spend a lifetime shooting everything that ends up in front of their lens. Others find their interest are so narrow that their career will consist of only one stream of content. Do you know which type you are? Are you able to recognize your strengths and weaknesses based on which category that you fall into?

Every genre will be full of both types. There are wedding photographers who are the genuine crème de la crème, the absolute best in their field, able to command any premium that they set for themselves. Passionate about people, and moments; a single smile or kiss. The same is true for portraits, real estate, food, sports, video, street, and everything else you can think of. There are also wedding photographers capable of taking wonderful images that bring people immense joy and happiness who are just as content to shoot images of your pet.

When it comes to myself, I know that I am the type with tunnel vision. I pursue mastery and though it may take me my entire career, my determination is limitless. I may never even get there, but as long as my goal remains to someday look back and be able to call myself a master I don't care. If I'm not the guy to take wedding photos, so what? It doesn't bother me that I don't own a lens that would make for great real estate images. Concerts are not my jam (no pun intended) and I'm not the guy you're looking for to shoot your live music event. For me, I find that the path to improvement is a path faster traveled when it's the only path I am walking on.

Let me know in the comments a few things about yourself. Are you one to shoot it all or do you only want to shoot one style? Maybe you disagree with my whole premise; Do you think think that it is possible for a person to master multiple genres? Could you be both a true master of weddings and a master of automotive or still life? Know that whatever you consider yourself, this is not meant to put any type of creative down. I do not believe that either is better than the other, rather that they are different just as people are different. I also believe that there is value to be had in identifying and quantifying things about yourself. So tell me, who are you?

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Anonymous's picture

Hi Evan. There is no right or wrong answer of course when it comes to this question.I first got attracted to landscape photography, then our pet cat, then our children, then family, then weddings,then birds and wildlife, then teaching photography. Also throw in a similar journey with video. Now I am retired the weddings have stopped due to the physical limitations I now have but I still have an interest to see what people are doing these days in weddings.
In a film lab I used often for weddings, now not so often, in picking up my order, another man with a similar name, had his order confused with mine. That was about 20 years ago. In visiting the same lab a couple of years ago I discovered he was still photographing the same singular subject 20 years on.He had a definite one track mind for whatever reason.I have recently been getting involved in some of the social media photography sites and I am staggered at the number of really good all rounders. Then there are people like yourself who specialise.I have no doubt you could be good at whatever genre you chose but " to each his own".I don't know who said that but sounds like a familiar quote.I simply love photography but there are some things I won't shoot. Maybe that would be a good post subject.The type of shots you have shown here are great and this used to be part of my wedding photography experience. Do I think it is possible to master all genres? Once when scientific knowledge had not increased it was possible for some clever people to have great skills in all areas. Now that's very different. I guess Leonardo Da Vinci is the best example of the master of everything. Reading some of his notes you can learn much about photography and light. All the best for your photography and your ongoing life.

Evan Kane's picture

Hi Geoff, I think that we can absolutely agree that, "To each his/her own" is always going to be applicable!

Anita Zvonar's picture

Maybe the better question is "Which answer will more attract your potential clients", if your goal is for a serious photo buisness. My own opinion is for tunnel, since clients want to hire experts. But feel free to still explore on the side other avenues and expand your own creativity.

Evan Kane's picture

Definitely nothing wrong with expanding one's own creativity Anita. Good point about clients, though interestingly, it seems fairly common for people to shoot one thing for the dollars even though their heart and passion is for something else!

user-88324's picture

My experience has been that if a person wants to make a living with a camera then the decision to specialize or not depends on the size of the intended market. Generally, the smaller markets have less work available and demand more diversity which is great for a jack of all trades. Meanwhile, the larger markets have more work and the best way to stand out to clients is to specialize with a certain look. The middle sized markets, like cities of one or two million people, tend to reward photographers that only partially specialize and exclude certain kinds of jobs but still shoot more than just for a small niche clientele.

If a photographer is trying to stand out on the internet, in the global art market, in a megalopolis or in the global print world then it's probably best to focus on a niche. If a photographer lives in a town of less than 1,000,000 people and wants to have a good business presence in the community then he should have a portfolio that shows everything from weddings, architecture, portraits, small product photography and corporate group shots etc. If a photographer lives in a mid sized city then he might want to semi-specialize and only shoot for commercial clients or only shoot people and nothing else.

These are just some general observations that I've noticed time and again to have worked in the business world. However, there are always exceptions and hobbyists probably shouldn't even concern themselves with a market at all when they make the decision to specialize or not.

Evan Kane's picture

Great point about market size Mike. I think that you're right when it comes to the client/market balance. Also great point about the internet being effectively the global market.

Christian Santiago's picture

I live in a mid-sized yet highly saturated market, and there just isn't enough work to go around for specialization, I don't think I could make a living if I only did "one thing." I shoot architecture, portraits, lifestyle, and fine art landscapes (with the intention to sell prints). I also run and operate a Video production company and am a FAA 107 licensed drone pilot. My bag of gear is as varied as the food options at Epcot. Some may look at me and think "my how he spreads himself so thin." Personally I wouldn't have it any other way, and I can't imagine why one couldn't master several genre's of creativity if one were inclined and driven to pour everything one has into that pursuit. I personally would go crazy if all i did was one thing. I would get bored and frustrated. It's just how my mind works. I just absolutely LOVE the different genre's of photography I am involved with, and I couldn't imagine abandoning one altogether. It'll be my life's work to excel and get as close to mastering them all, and even if it doesn't happen, it'll be a life well spent. I have nothing else in my life that'll keep me from investing the sweat and effort required for this goal.

They say "jack of all trades, master of none." Malarky. I wanna toss that quote in a furnace.

Evan Kane's picture

You're clearly very passionate Christian and that will no doubt serve you well on your journey!

Elan Govan's picture

Excellent photos.
Before I took up photography, I was a member of the medical profession where the phrase "jack of all trade" was a regular reference point which is unfortunate. In reality, I think we need both, the specialist in their area of expertise, post qualification, and the "all rounder" who can pick up where the specialist is unable to venture.
I am landscape photographer, but it does not stop me taking images at a F1 races where shutter speed rules. Its adaption of skills more than anything else.
I was recently offered an assignment by the owner of a gallery purely based on her observation how skilled I was in handing my DSLR. Good day and enjoy your photography.

Evan Kane's picture

I agree with you Elan that both types serve a purpose. Also, even the tunnel vision type should never feel like they can't branch out or try new things. I'm sure that photographing an F1 race is a rush haha!

Joao Camilo's picture

Nice thought!
I enjoyed your point of view!

Personally, I'm a AK47 type of photographer.. If it's in front of me, I'll shoot it! Even behind if I glance at it for a second or two!

My first passion in photography was the technique. How to control everything to achieve a thought. And my thoughts were mostly related to light and depth of field.

12 years since I found photography, and almost 10 working as a professional photographer, I'm still in love with almost every area of photography...

Except perhaps photojournalism and war... Anything related to gossip and crime is a no for me!

Everything else is either a new challenge, or a new opportunity to try out a few DIY gadgets I create to enhance my style...

Instead of having an area of expertise, I try as much to include my style in all the different jobs I do, from weddings, to antiques, travel and portrait, kids and pets, real estate...

I believe a person can be good at multiple areas...

Think about people who practise extreme sports, and play musical instruments and blogging! They are able, just like most people, to have a diversity of interests, even in the same field of work, and are still good at it!!

However, having a broad portfolio might give you some inspiration, but it doesn't give you as much time as perfecting a single craft, in my opinion.

There isn't an absolute Right or Wrong on this. It depends on each individual to pursue their own vision and passion!

Evan Kane's picture

Pursue your own vision, very well said Joao!

There are many genres of photography where specialization requires separate set of (not only photograpic) gear and skills. E.g. newborn photography or mass photos for ID's. Family photographer can easily shoot people of most of ages, in most of situations, but would rarely have all these cute props, branbags, heating pads, and printer to deliver a photo of exact size conforming to all standards 3 minutes after client walks in (without any warning :))

Rui Bandeira's picture

I think that as a photographers we are alwais a tunnel vision photographersbecauseweonly nead to master one thing...Light!
It can be natural ligh or flash,but light istheonly thing thatwe realy nead to master.
then we can shoot all kinds of images, wedingsportraits still and wejus tnead to let our stile come out

Evan Kane's picture

Thanks for the comment Rui. The mastery of light, wow. . .that is a subject that a person could write about forever. Definitely a pursuit in and of itself

Rui Bandeira's picture

Mastering light will probably be a never ending task, but i think that this should be our goal, not mastering weding photography, or mastering still lifr photography, or mastering portraitre photography, weshoud try to master light and usit on photography that its our language .

Evan Kane's picture

Lighting is the other side of the same coin in my opinion. It's completely tied to what we do, but also stands apart from the genre itself if that makes any sense.

Been haunted by photography for about three decades now. I pay my bills with Real Estate Photography, this gives me the time to practice and have fun with the other genres within photography. For the exception of weddings. I've only shot six weddings and it nearly killed me, props to those photographers!

Evan Kane's picture

I agree David, props to the people out there who love weddings!

Josh Bryant's picture

I see myself somewhere in-between. I'm into multiple genres, but not all. I enjoy Landscapes, Architecture, Nature/Wildlife, Macro, and Astrophotography. I generally dislike having people anywhere in my photos, so I tend to avoid portraits, wedding, and street, but I've done a bit of each as well. I do portraits of my immediate family and try to get better at it, but won't do portraits for other people. I was asked to shoot my sister-in-laws wedding, and will likely never shoot another wedding again. I've tried to push my boundaries and step out of my comfort zone to do street photography a few times, and may continue to do that, but it's not my focus. I did real estate photography for my own home because I didn't like the photos my real estate agent took and knew I could do better, but I have no desire to do that type of photography for anyone else.

Evan Kane's picture

I think that it is great to have multiple fields that you enjoy. While I consider myself to only be a portrait photographer, I have always loved seeing macro images. Something about the extreme closeup textures of plants, insects, coins, and other random objects is really fascinating.

I'm in a niche within a niche. I photograph product and specialize in jewelry.

I pondered for a while on the bigger product market and thought I was limiting myself and wondered if my business would be bigger if I did.

But I decided to stick to jewelry because it was hard to shoot and fewer people did it well. And the broader product market had so much more competition that I figured it would be too hard to compete.

It's more about perception though. I could have 10 businesses each in a different niche and to the potential client, it would seem I'm an expert in each niche.

So I guess it's about what will bring you more clients + what you're able to do well.

I decided on tunnel. But I'm thinking about tunnel #2, which will have its own site :-) I hope I'm not creating too much overhead for myself by managing multiple websites, marketing etc.

Evan Kane's picture

I think there will always be a benefit for those who can further narrow and hone their skills. Specializing in jewelry for example sounds like a great way to do just that.

Finally, someone who isn't pushing the "specialize or die" idea down our throats!
I've always been someone who needs variability. I get bored quickly and want to explore many topics. I'm a photographer, engineer, craftsman, outdoorsman, ski instructor, etc. But I can certainly see where people are coming from when they love to specialize. Mike Moss made a great point about market size. Luckily I'm in a small market so being a generalist helps a lot.

I wanted to add a point about learning. I believe by chasing multiple genres of photography, I've been able to excel very quickly. I learn lessons in weddings (which by themselves are a variety of genres) and apply them to other genres. Learning to light in the studio has helped me understand light in general, and has made my outdoor portraits much better. Each has it's differences, but in the end it's knowing light and knowing clients.

Plus, much of my business is repeat clients in different genres. You know what they say - It's much easier to keep a client than to get a new one. Seniors become brides, brides become moms, and husbands become business professionals that need commercial work.

I do keep my family/wedding/portrait brand separate from my commercial brand, so I don't appear to be spread thin.

Evan Kane's picture

Hi Alex, I think that is a really interesting point, about improving quickly. For me, I feel the opposite about my own experience. I feel that my focus on portraits has helped me to improve very quickly. Though I think that you're right about lessons from different fields having overlap.

charles smith's picture

I live in a small market city. Specializing in a niche didn't put any money in my pocket and my interest have always been wide so shooting weddings, portraiture, news and sports was the best route for me. I see a lot of younger photographers specializing in this small market and the work they are producing is really good. They are really succeeding in clicks on social media pages but I wonder if this is turning into careers for them. The world of photography is constantly evolving so I'm looking forward in seeing where this will carry them.

Evan Kane's picture

You're right about the ever-changing photography landscape. It's impossible to say what the future holds mainly due to social media. With "influencers" effectively being paid to dictate the popular image climate who knows what is actually career viable. Definitely food for thought.

Michael Coen's picture

I think the question this article poses creates a kind of false dichotomy. It is assumed that a photographer must either be dedicated solely to one genre of photography to "master" that genre, or a photographer shoots across many spectrums without ever really mastering one. I can't speak for everyone, but for me I can have a primary focus while still tinkering in other areas. I started off as a hobbyist landscape photographer, but found my true passion in portraits. Most of my time will certainly be dedicated to practicing, honing, and really becoming adept at photographing people, but that doesn't preclude me from pursuing landscape photography and eventually becoming just as fluent in that realm. Time is certainly an issue, and what time is spent in one area is not spent in another. Everyone is certainly different, and I know photographers that dedicate their time completely to one facet. On the other hand, though, I think it's good that you bring it up because there may be photographers who believe they must necessarily belong to one group or another, but I don't think that's the case.

To be a bit more concise, I don't think that photographers necessarily belong to one group or another.

Thanks for you article, Evan :)

Evan Kane's picture

Fair points all around Michael. I'm not sure either that a person must be either one or the other, though in my experience, I have often found that people do end up falling into one category or the other. Hopefully I was able to stress the point that while I firmly believe both exist and that photographers often will be one or the other, I don't think that either is "right" or better than the other.

Thanks for the comment!

Matthias Dengler's picture

Hey, I am not quite sure about the purpose of this post.
I was really curious if you come up with a conclusion, as I am asking myself this question: Is it good to be the Jack of all trades or should focus on one genre only. Where I disagree, is the point of the gear bag that grows when you shoot different genres. But let's talk about that later.
First of all, everyone starts off with shooting "everything" to find out, what he feels attracted to and interested in. Then you start to improve your skill in that genre. For me, that was landscape photography. But after a while - and after visiting and photographing my dream destinations - I simply got bored of doing all the time the same. I felt good at it and technically nearly knowing everything about landscape photography, I thought I needed to know. In the end, it was just a matter of travelling. The other thing about landscape photography that started to annoy me, is that "good landscape pictures" are always taken from the same spot, just different weather. The creativity level is very low. It is super repetitive and made my creative soul die.
That is why I decided to follow my inspiration and shooting with one girl with urban streetstyle. I asked her for a portrait session and I just loved the result and working together with people. So I started and continued that. But also does it bore me to shoot only portraits. For me, variety keeps me inspired and going, because monotony bores me.So I always just go with the flow and follow my instincts.
No I shoot basically everything and since then, my portfolio improved so much. It's way more creative.
So I'm a big believer of not limiting yourself to grow as an artist. And who really tells you that you are the master of a genre? And are those small improvements from 95% to 100% of "perfectionism" really that visible? I'm not sure.
In the end, it's up to everyone personally.

Speaking about the gear bag.
I own two lenses:
Fujinon 16-55 F2.8 and Fujinon 23 F 2.0
And I shoot with that:
Landscape, lifestyle, portrait, interior, architecture, close-up and whatever else comes up...

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