Professional Development

Professional Development

Becoming a Photographer - Why You Should Specialize

Photography is a broad career field, and there are many creative approaches that will lead to your success. But, should you specialize in one area of photography or not? Will you be happier and find more opportunities if you generalize? If you specialize in portrait photography, for instance, which area do you concentrate on? Newborns, families, maternity? Or does it matter? Of course, choosing an area to specialize will allow you to target your education as well as channel your efforts. But, if you specialize will you miss out on opportunities outside of your chosen field? These are all good questions that should be considered when becoming a photographer, and a topic we hope to explain.

 

SPECIALIST VS. GENERALIST 

A generalist tends to have a broad range of skills and experience across a wide range of disciplines. On the other hand, specialists invest their time and efforts in becoming the go-to person in a certain niche.  As a generalist, a photographer also has more competition from other photographers, all competing for the same assignments, contracts, and positions.

Many people believe that casting a wider net as a generalist will attract more clients.  Other’s believe that by casting too wide a net a photographer might be good at many things but not great at any one thing.  You’ve heard the saying, “A jack of all trades a master of none.” 

But, as a specialist, you become more attractive to many clients who are looking for a specific skill or ability. Plus, the more specific your skill-set, the less you must sell yourself as an expert in that particular area.  Specialization creates differentiation, branding, and brings a unique value to a project.  On the other hand, specializing is typically less flexible, and has the potential to be less adaptable to cultural shifts, new techniques, and job opportunities outside your specialty.  So, what do you do? 

Consider this scenario. A client is looking for a photographer who can shoot a series of action photos using natural light.  The client must choose between a photographer who has all kinds of photos on his or her website showing a variety of techniques and styles, or a photographer who has hundreds of photos of athletes and high-speed vehicles adorning their portfolio. Which photographer would the client choose?  Short answer; the specialist always wins. 

There are several reasons to specialize.  #1: most clients are looking for people who are good at what they do, or great at only one thing.  Clients also appreciate the sheer amount of time and energy it takes to specialize and become an expert in one area.  Malcolm Gladwell stated in his book, The Story of Success, ‘that to become an elite master of anything requires 10,000 hours of practice.”  That equates to about 20 hours per week of practice for every 10 years, or 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 44 weeks a year, for 5.5 years. There’s little doubt that shelling out that much time into a skill will equal success.  After all, common sense tells us that the more you put in the more you get out.  Specialists also have a unique value proposition.  It’s infinitely better to be the one in a million than to be like a million others. 

There are also several traits of most specialists, including hard work, creativity, commitment, diligence, and focus. Not that generalists don’t also share many of these traits.  It’s just that when a photographer specializes, they must work much harder at just one thing, and each of these traits becomes their focus and opportunity for growth. Besides, when a photographer specializes or even burrows down further within a specialization to find a niche, clients know exactly what they are getting. For instance, if your niche is plant and insect macro photography, a client who needs a wedding photographer will look elsewhere, but a botanist or entomologist will be confident in hiring you because they know exactly what you do. 

While it’s true that some scholars argue that specializing allows workers to get ahead, others argue that having broad experience is the only way to be truly exceptional. But, in a study of the role of specialization in worker’s careers by Stanford Researchers, it was concluded that “a diverse work history hurts one’s chances of promotion,“ and that specialization will lead to a longer more productive career.

 

TIPS FOR CHOOSING A SPECIALTY 

Tip #1: Do What You Love 

Many people go to work every day disliking their job.  In fact, a recent Gallup poll showed that upwards of 70 percent of workers surveyed ‘either hate their jobs or are completely disengaged’. That’s alarming and why it’s so vitally important to do what you love. That, in itself, should be your specialty.  Are you most comfortable being around people and animals? Or, do you feel happier shooting weddings and landscapes? It’s important to understand what type of photography interests and excites you most and pursue that as a specialty. Keep in mind, however, the salability of your specialization. While hard to predict, choosing a specialty that’s currently popular or trendy may mean it will soon disappear and may require you to reinvent yourself or find another area that excites you before your chosen niche even pays off. 

Tip #2: Shoot Everything 

That may sound like a contradiction to what’s been said, but shooting everything from landscapes to babies is the only way to build experience, and more importantly, gain a better understanding of your strengths. This also doesn’t mean you should stop experimenting with all sorts of different techniques, but it does mean that you must not show expertise in too many areas or you might run the risk of confusing potential clients. 

Tip #3: Play on Your Strengths  

It’s far easier to choose a specialty that accentuates your best traits. Or, to put it another way, it’s much more satisfying to shoot what you like. For instance, if you’re shy or you consider yourself an introvert, you may not like becoming a wedding photographer. But, if you’re outgoing and drawn to action, becoming a sports photographer and specializing in racecar or extreme sports photography may be exactly what you find most enjoyable. 

Tip #4: Find a Niche  

Do you define yourself as a nature photographer?  If so, then what is your niche within this specialty? Is it birds? Marine life? Urban landscapes? Or even more specifically, nature macro-photography? Choosing a niche is probably less important early in your career, but as you will accumulate skills and discover what you love most, finding that niche will become indispensable.  When photographers find a niche, they are immediately recognized as an expert and very often find that it was worth all the hard work to discover that one thing they do very well. 

Tip #5: Conduct Market Research

Choosing a specialty and discovering a niche, finding your passion and realizing self-fulfillment are all great, but they will only take you so far. You may want to shoot old buildings, but if there’s not a market for your work you will probably have to find another way to pay the bills. Also, if you plan to submit resumes to several companies, research if the employers are hiring photographers with your specific skill set and abilities? Do you want to branch out on your own and freelance or start your own business? Before you do, research how to attract clients.  In photography, building relationships with prospective clients, providing value, being a good listener, and making sure you’re qualified is important. Networking while in school and maintaining the contacts you made with professors and other students can also be helpful. 

Tip #6: Highlight Your Specific Skills

Maybe you like more than one type of photography. For instance, maybe you like shooting weddings, but also have a passion for shooting wildlife. Or perhaps you’d like to find a niche that combines more than one specialty. No one says you can’t be a specialist in more than one area of photography. But, keep in mind that as you cultivate your brand and marketing materials, you will want to highlight specific skills, as well as separate skills and abilities. This may mean you have more than one marketing plan, website, resume, and portfolio. One portfolio will highlight your talent shooting weddings, and the other will highlight your artistry in wildlife photography. Depending on the client, you choose which portfolio or website to show. This also will ensure credibility in each area.

 

EXPLORING PHOTOGRAPHY SPECIALIZATIONS

It’s a fact that photography is a multi-faceted field with different clients and industries requiring photographers to specialize in one, or many, areas. However, it’s your unique style of work that will set you apart from the competition and close the deal in the end. But, no matter which road you choose, staying on top of new technologies and techniques is imperative. And, if you want to remain viable, choose a specialization that makes you happy, highlights your unique skill set, and remains marketable for the long haul. 

As the demand for professional photography increases, aspiring photographers are zeroing in on specialized photography techniques and areas of concentration, which include:

Advertising Photography

Photographers in this field may work for advertising agencies, public relations firms, marketing firms, photography studios or freelance.  They take photos of products and/or services intended to illustrate a marketing idea. Some advertising photographers will specialize in an area, such as food, cars, furniture, or financial services.  You will need to meet strict deadlines, often set by the client or art director, work well within a team environment, and take direction. 

Celebrity Photography

Celebrity photographers take pictures of celebrities and other notable people.  They work for online and print publications, as private portrait photographers, and at special events, like the Academy Awards.  If you want to succeed in this field, you will need to be outgoing and assertive. Networking is crucial and working overtime and traveling to photo shoots is a given.  Portrait photography is the best specialty to pursue. 

Photojournalist

A photojournalist tells a visual story through photographs. They may be on staff at a newspaper, in combat zones, local civic and political events, and more. They are often on-call, so they are ready when a story breaks, and have news reporting, interviewing, and editing skills. If this is a specialization you choose to explore, check out the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). 

Underwater Photography

These photographers explore life under the seas and oceans of the world. They may work for marine and life science agencies, travel and leisure publications, advertising agencies, and in ocean exploration.  Obviously, you will need equipment that will survive underwater for extended periods of time, as well as diving and swimming skills in even the worse conditions.  A knowledge of sea life is also a huge part of the equation when considering a job in this field. 

Wedding Photography

Wedding photography is a growing field. Very few people get married without a book of picture memories to look back on from time to time.  You may be self-employed, own your own business, work for a photography studio, at wedding planning and event companies, or at a resort.  Besides taking photos the day of the big event, you will also typically be required to take photos for the couples wedding announcements and engagement. 

Aerial Photography

If you’re not afraid of heights, then a career as an aerial photographer may be a good choice. You will work for government agencies, cartography companies (map-makers), for land surveying companies, real estate developers, the travel industry, and freelance.  You will be required to take photos when events happen with split-second accuracy, so expertise capturing motion in photography is a must. 

Wildlife Photography

Wildlife photographers capture wildlife in their natural habitat and document animal behavior through photography. You will work for nature and life sciences agencies, travel and adventure publications, wildlife and conservation agencies, and freelance.  Understanding that you will be working out-of-doors in all kinds of weather is a consideration not to be taken lightly. You will also be required to travel and may need to carry heavy equipment for long distances. It is an exciting and growing field as environmental issues continue to make headlines. 

There are dozens of other areas to explore in the world of photography. All you need to do is look outside at the world around you to understand the magnitude of this field. Check out the 100’s of other art careers, find tools to develop your skill set, follow the many experts in your field, and research schools at The Art Career Project.

  • Kathryn Pomroy
    Kathryn Pomroy

    Journalist, Artist & Lover of Puppies | Kathryn is a writing junkie and coffee aficionado who attended Arizona State University where she earned a blue belt in Shotokan-ryu Karate, graced the local stage as a ballerina, and graduated with honors with a degree in journalism.