2008. Sleeping on the train to Tunis, Tunisia. Or Sfax. I can’t recall now. Photo credit: The Legendary H.
On Friday I posted a letter from a photographer asking a very pointed question about his future in the craft. I put the note out there and invited replies from you, and boy did you ever step up to the plate! If you’ve not read the email, or the replies contributed by this community in the comments, you should do that. Thanks to all of you for the diversity of perspectives.
One of the reasons I gave, tongue-in-cheek, for not replying immediately was that y’all would just read what I wrote and say, “Yeah, what he said.” The irony, of course, after reading all your replies, is that I’m forced to do the same. There’s not much more I can add. The other reason, unstated, was that I was short on time, and throwing it out to you seemed like a good distraction. Again, the irony is that it forced me to read through over 70 comments. Next time I’ll just answer the darn question
The question, as far as I could see it, was from a photographer really wanting to know whether being a generalist, as opposed to specializing, would prevent him from becoming a successful working photographer. Those were the broad strokes I took from the question. Some of you followed this tack, other picked up on other subtexts. Here’s my reply to the question as I understood it.
Dear Doomed(?) in Duluth,
While your question begs for you to define your terms, I think that your situation comes with both potentially strong advantage and disadvantage if what you’re after is to make a living in photography, in addition to just doing it for the sheer pleasure of it. You alluded to being easily distracted. Sounds like you photograph people for a while, then move on to animals, then to landscapes, then someone shows you HDR and you’re off running in another direction. If that’s what is going on, keep at it. Follow your inclinations in every direction they lead. This is part of you and you need to be true to that. One of two things will happen; you will remain easily distracted for the rest of your life and your life’s work as a photographer will reveal a person who was insatiably curious in a limitless amount of things, or you will one day find one thing that you love to photograph so much that you slow down, and begin to focus a little more specifically in one direction. Nothing wrong with that.
That’s the advantage. You will learn so much from so many different areas, and each new thing you learn will bleed over into other things you photograph, and that’s a strength.
The disadvantage is that it’s very hard to market that if it remains so all over the map. However, what some people neglect to consider is that choosing a niche market, like being a wedding photographer shooting destination weddings in the arctic, doesn’t for a minute mean you need to limit your creative efforts or photographic exploration of other subjects or other disciplines. Shoot the weddings, get paid well for them, then come home and shoot long-exposure abstracts of hummingbirds with a pinhole 4×5 camera to your heart’s content. Elsewhere I encouraged photographers not to the let their marketing niche become their creative rut. The inverse is also true; there’s no reason your love for photographic exploration of a million different subjects should exclude you from marketing to a niche and being seen as a specialist in that market. One need not define the other and that’s one of the great things about a healthy disregard for “it’s always been done this way.”
Marketing to a niche is not the only way to do things. I wouldn’t choose to do it any other way, as marketing is really just communication and it’s a much, much harder task to talk to an undefined audience about an undefined subject. Niche marketing allows you to pick your topic and your audience and to speak with authority. Explore to your heart’s content, follow that next shiny thing, whether it’s a subject, a technique, a new piece of gear, if you must. But if you want to make a living, you’ll have a much easier time if you pick one area to which you can direct your marketing. Do it well, charge well, and you’ll have plenty of time to pursue your hummingbird project or photographing fire hydrants with your iPhone in your spare time.
Most importantly, as others pointed out, shoot what you love. Enjoy it. Strive for excellence. If you want to make a living at it, find a niche and make it yours. Don’t sweat the rest.
Got a question that needs some group-therapy applied to it? Drop me a line via the contact link at the top of the page. I can’t promise to reply to all of them, but from time to time it might be good to sit around and bounce the ideas back and forth like this.