Should You Specialize?

In Pep Talks, The Craft, The Life Creative, Thoughts & Theory by David58 Comments


In the long list of pieces of photographic advice that gets foisted on newer photographers by well-meaning and more experienced photographers is this: you’ve got to specialize. And, like all advice, my reaction tends to be, “Well, yes and no.”

One-size-fits-all advice will be extraordinarily helpful to us the moment photographers (and people in general) come in one size. We do not.

We don’t photograph for the same reasons. We don’t want the same things. And the moment anyone comes rushing out of the shadows at me wielding advice that implies I should or must do one thing or the other, I get justifiably jumpy. I hate it when people should on me.

But the question came up again recently. Must I specialize? What if I want to photograph everything? And because I know the photographer who asked me this isn’t the only one wondering how much of this traditional advice applies to them, I thought I’d give you a glimpse at the issue through my own heart and mind.

First of all, there is nothing you must do. Picking up a camera to enjoy this craft obliges you to no code, and it makes you responsible to no one more than you were the moment before you decided to start making photographs.

This is not a secret brotherhood. It’s not the Sisterhood of the Traveling Photo Vest. So be suspicious when the guy who’s been photographing for all of five years prescribes for you the same path he took; you’re probably going different places.

Any advice, to be useful, is probably most helpful when given in a form something like this: if you want to accomplish ________, then you might find doing ___________ is helpful. But it never is, is it? It’s always snappier when reduced to a sound bite. Do this. Don’t do that. But like I said, what if we all want different things? What if I want to do this professionally and all you want to do is photograph everything you see because it brings you joy and makes you feel more alive?

The choice to specialize as a photographer is a powerful choice, especially for (though not limited to) those who want to do this in a professional or semi-professional way. Specializing gives your work focus, and it gives others a handle to put on you and your work. It’s easier to remember Ansel Adams as the guy who did high contrast monochrome work in Yosemite, or Yousuf Karsh as a portraitist. Say the names Steve McCurry, Elliott Erwitt, or Vincent Munier to people who have a passing knowledge of who they are, and images, or types of images, immediately come to mind. That’s an advantage to the photographer looking to make a name; to them, it will be important, even necessary, but it’s not the only advantage.

Specialization, or a narrowing of focus in terms of the subjects we photograph or the themes we explore in our work, allows us a deeper intimacy with those subjects and themes that the generalist will never know. The generalist photographs everything, but in doing so, loses the depth of familiarity with the subject that the specialist photographer will use to their advantage. The photographer who knows not just wildlife but arctic wildlife (Vincent Munier) or marine wildlife (Paul Nicklen) will have an advantage over the photographer, like me, who gets in the water or in front of bears only a couple of times a year. The specialist will know the behaviour. They will know what has or hasn’t worked before, allowing them to anticipate moments. They will understand what they are doing in a way the more casual photographer will not. The same with those who focus on portraiture, or landscapes, or, uh, poodle boudoir.

Specialization is not a badge of honour; you don’t get bragging rights. You get the possibility of intimacy and experience, and eyes that will see things the less experienced eye will never notice.

You’ll probably also know the specific gear better too, and be more familiar with relevant techniques and specific challenges and their corresponding solutions. These are all strong advantages. But only if you’re happy with that focus and you’re not, by virtue of excluding other subjects and themes from your work, desperately wishing you were doing something else.

Yes, the photographs made by photographers who specialize in fewer areas of interest are probably stronger. Over the span of their careers, their photographic work will be more nuanced, they’ll have more time to make mistakes and get those once in a lifetime shots when it all comes together, and they’ll have the eye and skill to do so.

But some of us photograph for different reasons. Some do so purely as an excuse to travel. Some do it to see what the world looks like when photographed. Some for the joy of learning a new skill. Some for the thrill of just making something unexpected, something they didn’t know they could make. Some do it because it just feels good, or makes them more mindful, and God help the photographer who blunders into someone experiencing that kind of joy and gives blanket advice to do otherwise.

Photograph what you love. Unapologetically. Do it all day long and poke anyone who tells you otherwise in the eye.

There are few enough things in life that give us joy, that bring meaning to our days, that help us be more alive. And if what you love is bears and all you want to do is photograph them, know that your focus will have some very real advantages. Or it might if you’re paying attention. And if you want to photograph puppies and people and ponies and Paris and pomegranates on purple paper, then you’re my kind of weirdo and I love you to pieces. Although your photography might not remotely stir my heart, it’s clear that it stirs yours, and I will do whatever I can to give you more of that kind of joy, not less. And maybe, in a way, you’re specializing in your own thing, I don’t know. But I know this: the thing photographed not with indifference but with love—the thing we truly give a damn about, whether it’s only ever bears or everything you can find that starts with the letter “p”—those photographs and the act of making them will mean something important to you.

Specialize, or don’t—it’s optional. It might be truly beneficial and important to you (as it has been for me), or it might not.

Photograph something you love in a way that gives you joy or challenges you or wakes you up to how amazing life can be, because if you don’t feel it, not only will no one else feel it, but what’s the point?

For the Love of the Photograph,
David.

PS – Want to chime in or just say hello, feel free to leave a comment. I’ve moved off social media so this is the best place to get me for a quick hello or a question.

Comments

  1. Always love and appreciate your advice. This was no exception. It is something I have had on my mind for the last couple of years and your explanation was awesome. It helped me to clarify my own feelings on this subject. I’m a landscape photographer and I had tried for a long to time to not feel like I was being put into some sort of box but the truth is, that was just my own insecurity talking. Specializing is not boxing me in, it’s opening up my mind to the beautiful possibilities that exist within my reach. Thank you!! I do have a question…you mention that you are moving away from social media and I’m curious as to why? I am wondering because as I plan for 2021 I’m trying prioritize and social media is something I am trying to understand and decide if it’s a valuable resource or supreme waste of time? 🙂

    Thank you again for sharing your honest opinions!
    Tina

  2. Thank you for writing about this topic. I think about whether I should or should not specialize frequently. I began photography with a specific focus but as my passions in life have grown and changed my photography has followed those passions. I could specialize but then I would leave out all these subjects I care about. Your advice to photograph what we love and care about finds its mark with me.

    Sincerely,
    Kyle Reynolds
    https://krnaturalphoto.com/

  3. Sisterhood of the traveling photo vest? I might apply for membership in that group. I’m not so specialized, so I hope the sisterhood might accept a brother! And yes, I absolutely want to photograph puppies and people ON ponies eating pomegranates on purple paper in Paris. I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon.

    Jokes aside, David, thank you for this post. We’ve discussed this in a different context on another platform, but given the disturbing times we’re all going through, photographers are increasingly looking for new ways to satiate their creative appetites. Wedding photographers, for example, might not be able to pursue their art because of social distancing and the fact that wedding plans are getting indefinitely postponed. Travel and landscape photographers are unable to take pictures because of pandemic-related travel restrictions. This is a good time for all of us to pick up a camera for the reasons we first picked it up all those years ago in the first place. For the joy of photography. Not because we are [genre] photographers. Your post is a gentle reminder to be a child again and play. Children are not footballers or cricketers or tennis players. They just play. They may find later in life that their skills are better suited to tennis, and they’ll specialize accordingly, but the joy is in going out, exploring and playing. And I’ve realized through this pandemic, that playing is just what is needed for my photography.

    1. Author

      Ah, Sid, always a voice of sanity and grace. 🙂 The idea of play is such an important one. How much happier would we all be if we allowed ourselves to be more playful? I suspect most of us would learn faster, and be less neurotic as well. 🙂 I hope you’re well, my friend.

  4. Hi . Mr duChemin, thankyou for your latest email, it inspires me to continue to photograph the things i love.

    I have been hestitant in posting my more unusual photos online but have done so lately, with the inspiration from photographers such as yourself.

    I have since posted a small segment of one of a few an ongoing series I have been working on.

    In doing so i removed some of my everyday life photos i shoot as well. I did this because of articles I have seen posted stating that a photographer should be more direct in the types of photos he/she is posting and to not post many catagories of photography as the viewer may get confused as to what the photographer is focused on or trying to convey. I really struggle with this concept because my night photography is vastly different from my day photography I photograph both.

    I also struggle with issues such as, should I watermark my photos or to not watermark them and what proper copyright protection is required. I have not posted my photos on my instagram yet I read some fine print whereas they have certain rights to the photos you post online. I often ask for help on this issues online but never get a response or link to actual help that is easy to understand. I would also like to print some of my photos soon. Having said that i have been taking more photos this summer and fall outdoors then spending time online.

    I appreciate the invitation to your blog and I am looking forward to being inspired even more. Hope you have fun and great adventures thankyou

    1. Author

      Hi Bev – Thank you for chiming in. The question of watermarks, social media, and copyright is a long and complicated one, but here’s my own perspective. First, watermarks are easily removed and most of them are ugly and detract from the photograph. So I don’t use them. When I have used them I’ve subtly placed my website URL on the bottom corner so others can find me but I can’t remember the last time I did that. Copyright is yours in most places simply because you made the image. You can register them in the US. I never have. If (when) someone takes my image it’s unlikely I’m going to spend the time and emotional energy in doing anything about it. That’s just me. There might yet be circumstances in which I pursue it, but so far it hasn’t happened. Life is too short. And finally, social. Yes. Post it to social and the terms of service are pretty clear – they can use that image to do pretty much whatever they want. Will they? Probably not. But they can. So it all comes down to why you make photographs and why you want to share them. I put my work into the world as a gift. I know there’s a chance it’ll get stolen or shared more broadly than I expected. I’m OK with that. By the time that happens I’m on to making other photographs. The alternative is not sharing them at all and that’s just not me. I don’t know if this perspective helps. I’ve been called naive for my thoughts on this stuff, but there’s a lot of freedom in it for me.

  5. Thank you, thank you, thank you David. You have made me improved a lot for the last 2 years. Photography, as any art, is a lifetime learning process and I love that; otherwise would be boring.
    Thank you for sharing your pictures. Just looking the Tonga ones. Beautiful composition, perspectives. That’s something sometimes many specialized photographers miss. They just wanna get close, sharp, and snap one activity.
    This Friday will go out to photograph humpback (from the boat). I may use a wide lens 😉 Thank you!

    1. Author

      Say hello to the whales for me! Where are you watching them? Australia? Monterey? BC? Lucky man to be able to go out to see them. Tell them I miss them! 🙂

      1. Probably they remember you. I’m going to Merimbula; 6 h driving south from Sydney. As of today we can travel only within the state. Will say hello.

  6. A big thank you for this, David. I get a little something from every one of your articles but this one really resonated with me. At a recent photography workshop I mentioned in the group that my favourite workshop ever was at a botanical gardens photographing flowers and gardens for a whole week, and honestly, I didn’t want it to end. The instructor’s reaction (dismissive) made me feel like I had to apologize. So it is validating to me when someone of your stature encourages doing what brings you joy (however weird that may be to some). This is absolutely the best message you can deliver!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Donna. You know, I hear this more and more from people who’ve been at a workshop and experienced more discouragement than encouragement. I just don’t get it, though I look back at the last 12 years of teaching nervously and hope that I never unintentionally did this. It’s easy when we’re passionate about one thing to be dismissive about others. Regardless, since I think education is as much about lighting fires and helping people take the next steps that they uniquely need to take, as it is about supplying information, you’d think there would be fewer of these stories. We should all take ourselves (as teachers) as little less seriously as guardians of information and technique and take more seriously our roles as guardians of people’s hearts and minds. Your note reminds me of this and gives me hope that my efforts to do this are maybe more hit than miss. I hope so. 🙂

      1. David, I’m pretty sure you’d never set a foot wrong because you are sincere and believe in creativity, whatever that means for individuals. Lest you think this experience was typical, it was the first time it ever happened to me! And I’ve been on many photo tours and workshops (sadly, none of yours yet, but it’s on the list) where special photographers like you provided all the encouragement I could take. Thank you again.

  7. Hi David. I became interested in following you when you offered your latest video class. I can’t afford it right now, either $$ or timewise, but I decided to follow your Contact Sheet, and have enjoyed reading your posts. I decided to start backwards, and so far have read about deadlines, saying Yes to No, and the balance between boredom and burnout. You are so good at putting your thoughts into words, and making me think about this process called photography. Thank you for sharing your expertise, your thoughts, and your love of photography.

    1. Author

      Thank you for that, Cherie. You keep reading and I’ll keep writing. When the time is right, the courses and other resources will be there for you. Thank you for taking the time to reach out. The encouragement means the world to me.

  8. I’ve always been a generalist, and the world offers up such myriad forms of beauty that I can’t see specializing as an hobbyist photographer.

    Are you familiar with the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein? In a 1973 book, one of his characters answered your question like this:

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.“

    One might argue with the specific skills, but I’ve always appreciated the mindset.

    1. Author

      Hi Ron – I love that quote! For a guy who always wanted to be something of a renaissance man, it resonates strongly!

  9. Hi David,

    Thank you for making the monographs available!

    I loved them all but especially the Humpbacks of Tonga!

    I’m so glad you got the opportunity to return to Tonga and reap not only the reward of many more great experiences but also some very exceptional photographs! (Sorry master, I don’t find them “unrewarding, even frustrating, photographically” at all.

    Thank you for the sacrifice of enduring “the distraction of the camera” to be able to share the fuller experience with all of us!

    Although you unquestionably paint a pretty full and wonderfully detailed picture with your expressive words and yes, that “joy” you hoped was there was definitely reflected!

    Actually, it positively shown!

    Say hi to the muse and take care my friend!

  10. Welp…I’m one of those that likes to photograph whatever catches my eye. It brings me joy and keeps me in the moment. That is important more these days than any other time. I’m not professional, but I don’t care to be. I just want to get better at my craft. I love the joy of creating the photo, and have no desire to please anyone regarding the choices I make; nor to I take photos to please anyone but me. I hope they give meaning to someone else, but I don’t lose sleep over it if they don’t. I started to look at going pro, whatever that means, and it took the joy out of it for me. I improve because I keep doing it. Now, I can’t STOP doing it. So while I agree if one area brings you the joy you are seeking, that’s awesome. I will enjoy looking. My voice is small against a world of photographers. However, I have told a lot of my story through the photos I take. THAT is the fun of it. My kids and family will have a legacy to remember to remember me by in just by looking through my photos. Thanks David for all you do to encourage and make us think about what it is all about behind our cameras. It takes lots of time and effort and I sure appreciate it. Blessings!

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for that, JoAnn. I think as long as we understand WHY we do the things we do we’ll be a little more impervious to the pressures to do what we do as others expect it to be done. I’m pleased my words are helping in some way. Thank you.

  11. David,

    You’ve been a great help to me in evolving my craft. Thanks so much.

    Chris

    1. Author

      That means the world to me, Chris. Truly. Thanks for taking the moment to say so. 🙂

  12. I love travel, but I can’t travel every day of the week so I’m thinking I want to learn portraiture too – and I might even be able to combine them!
    If I do specialise in these two genres it could release me from 3 or my 7 lenses. But, then I think, what-if I do another safari and need that long lens, or what-if I see some amazing buildings on my travels and need that wider lens, and finally what-if I see some beautiful flowers and need that macro lens.
    Oh, I wish I could specialise and just have no more than three lenses. Thank goodness my system is micro four thirds and I don’t have the weight and expense of full frame.

    1. Author

      Hey, Steven, you know if the worst problem we have is a couple extra lenses, then we’re probably in good shape. 🙂 Of course there’s no harm in leaving a few of them at home no and then. Constraints help creativity more than they hinder. 🙂

      1. Yes, you are right about constraints. On a day out locally, I nearly always go out with just one lens (2-3 if on vacation). But, I’m not sure I’d like to give up owning them, because it isn’t always the same lens that I take out LOL.

  13. “Sisterhood of the Travelling Photo Vest” 😀 😀 😀

    Absolutely agree: specialization is not required. Focus is helpful if you’re trying to run a business, so that you can clearly define yourself. But that shouldn’t preclude other subjects as they appeal to you.

    I think it’s worthwhile to point out that interests may change over time. What floats your boat today may not be your passion area in 5 or ten years.

    So, yeah: photograph what you love.

    1. Author

      “I think it’s worthwhile to point out that interests may change over time. What floats your boat today may not be your passion area in 5 or ten years.” – Yeah, isn’t that the truth! Being open to new things has led me to whales and sharks and more and I LOVE it!

  14. I found your latest bit of encouragement to be right up my alley! I started making pictures when I was just a little boy. It was a distraction for me from the endless doctor visits and bouts of sickness that I had to put up with during those years. When I was allowed to use the camera, I often photographed trees, flowers, wild plants, and my dog, a golden cocker spaniel named Hedy. Later, I made outdoor and indoor dioramas and photographed them. As an adult, I captured a great number of street images. Well over 90 percent of what I shot was in monochrome. After two careers and over seven decades I still prefer monochrome over colour and intimate nature images over anything else I may capture. Thank you for making my normal more comfortable. Don’t mistaken me for a maudlin old fool. I enjoy most aspects of photography and still spend time experimenting with new equipment and new ideas, but my first love remains intimate portraits of wilderness in monochrome!

    1. Author

      Thank you for that, Richard. I love that you’ve got such long memories of a craft you love. Isn’t that just the beautiful thing about photography? There’s just so much to love, so many directions our affections can flow, so many paths for our curiousity to follow. My first love, like yours, will always be monochrome.

  15. I like your final sentence so much I reprinted it (with the attribution you requested, of course) on a Sunday blog series I’m experimenting with. It applies to much more than photography and reminds me of what George Mallory said was the reason to climb Everest. Paraphrased, he said it was sheer joy, and joy is the point of life. Thanks for all you do.

    1. Author

      Thank you for that, Charles. Feel free to quote me anytime if you’re going to put me in the company of people like Mallory. 🙂

  16. First, Congratulations on cutting the chain of social media! Thank you for up keeping your blog and your podcast. Your podcast is truly delightful, helpful and uplifting. Thanks for sharing all the places that you tripped, slipped, and otherwise learned. I learn well from examples like yours.
    This piece is lovely too, because it pointed out to me many places where I hadn’t quite figured out frustrations in my own photography.

    I so appreciate you putting words to the things that I have not quite formulated for myself yet, even after 35 years of photography. Keep on!
    With gratitude,

    1. Author

      Thank you, Erika. Cutting that social media chain took a little longer than it might have but as long as I maintain these kinds of connections on my blog, it’ll be worthwhile. Thank you for taking the time to reach out with this encouragement. I’m so glad I can help people like you find the words now and then.

  17. I so needed this right now as I am being pulled in so many different directions.

    I just needed the reminder to pursue life; that which brings light, love, peace & joy. The remainder will take care of itself.

    I am so grateful for your calming influence in my life. Your voice that tells me I am not alone and that I am not going to some arbitrary place reserved for “those people” as judged by the ones too afraid to try. (I hope that makes sense.)

    Thank you for all you do.

    1. Author

      You’re welcome, Gale. I’m honoured to be allowed to be part of your journey. “You are not alone” is becoming a rallying call for me, in part because the more people I tell this to, the less alone I feel myself. 🙂

  18. I love the recognition that we all can’t specialize in the same thing. I’ve been on many travel workshops and many travel tours where my personal creative vision was so stymied by not being able to fit the square peg into the round hole. Thank you for this reinforcing blog!

    1. Author

      “I’ve been on many travel workshops and many travel tours where my personal creative vision was so stymied by not being able to fit the square peg into the round hole.” – The amount of times I hear this same thing from others is heartbreaking. Teachers should be helping others bore their own hole, not change the shape of their peg! You do you, JoAnn! Thank you for taking the time to leave a comment.

    1. Author

      And so much harder to photograph whatever is behind you. Am i right? 🙂

  19. Perfect in it’s imperfection.. thank you so much for writing this recent blog.. I have met a wonderful group of “newer Photographers” and it is so interesting to hear them question certain things,, and ask me advice… I always have the same answer,, fall in love with your camera, understand how it works,, but know that you need to find something that you are passionate about to photograph, not what others believe you should be photographing… i have all your books, your articles, and some of your workshops.. love the Start Ugly.. i find that your words ground me.. bring me back to why i love photography.. gratitude..

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for that, Ellen. “fall in love with your camera, understand how it works,, but know that you need to find something that you are passionate about to photograph, not what others believe you should be photographing” – this is such great advice. Thank you so much for your support. I’m honoured to work for people like you. 🙂

  20. Begs the question…what is your joy in making an image?

    “Although your photography might not remotely stir my heart, it’s clear that it stirs yours, and I will do whatever I can to give you more of that kind of joy, not less.”

    Who do you look to do whatever they can to give you more of that kind of joy, not less? You are always looking out for your readers. What about you? It might not “stir my heart” but maybe I can help bring you more of that kind of joy.

    1. Author

      Oh, my joys are deep and diverse, my friend. Sometime it’s just the exploration, the discovery of new things. Sometimes it’s taking the time to see something – truly see it – in a way I hadn’t before. And sometimes it’s the joy of polishing something into its fulller potential, or sharing that photograph with others. The people that read my books light a fire under me to keep my joy fire burning, and very practically, buy supporting my work by purchasing books or taking my courses, you help keep food on my table, and (back when we did this kind of thing) helped keep me travelling and exploring. Thank you, Steve!

  21. When I first started in photography, I called myself a “landscape” photographer. I soon found that too narrow and too limiting. I guess I am what some call a “generalist,” but I feel it is just a prison to trap oneself in one form or another. Here are three quotes by Picasso that really resonate with me.

    God is really only another artist. He invented the giraffe, the elephant and the cat. He has no real style, He just goes on trying other things.

    Style is often something which locks the painter into the same vision, the same technique, the same formula during years and years, sometimes during one’s whole lifetime.

    Style is besides the point. Nobody would pay attention if one always said the same thing, in the same words and the same tone of voice.

    I will always capture the “present,” meaning what I am experiencing, here, now, at this moment, no matter where, the time of day, the light, etc. To me it is all interesting, and will all that is available to us now in post precessing, I can always find a way to express my vision. Sure, if you keep to a certain “style,” it may make it easier for clients, or gallery owners, but hey, the people I want to reach are the ones who value creativity in an artist.

    Now saying all this, if you are going to work this way it is very important to develop your skills to show all your work, no matter how varied in the best possible light. You may have to work harder, since you won’t have and established “work flow,” but for me, that keeps the creative juices alive.

    I want to do my own work, my own way. Not that I don’t value the viewer/client, because I do, it just that there are many different people, with many different likes and dislikes, so I know you can’t please them all, but I always strive, no matter how many years I have worked, to become a bit better each and every time I create a new image. I have found that if you work honestly and professionally, your audience will find you if you can manage to get your work out into the world.

    1. Author

      Tom! Always nice to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well out there! Thanks so much for chiming in.

  22. This 85 year old photographer has learned much from your books and blogs. I concur – if there is no joy in what you do, why bother? Thanks again, David.
    Eric Lohse

    1. Author

      Thank you, Eric! I get more and more comments from people, like you, with long life experiences and it inspires me to keep learning until my last day. What a gift to be able to keep that spark going for so long. 85 years would be a long time without joy. Long may you run, my friend.

  23. Thank you for this essay – I needed this pep talk and affirmation. I have been exercising an ADD version of photography – shooting everything I think I “should” photograph and not finding connection (or love as you say) in any of it… I am still seeking. But I now don’t feel so bad that I love the pictures I take of my cats. I am not going to give it all up and only take pictures of cats but I am learning a lot about light and moment from watching and photographing them. All part of the journey . Thanks again for all you do for the photographic community. I have two of your courses (Compelling Frame and Travel course) and I watch and re-watch them a lot. Never stop learning. Cheers, Amy

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for this, Amy. It means so much to me to know that my words land in some good places. 🙂

  24. I just downloaded the Venice book. I love it. It really gives me some ideas what I should be doing with the photos I have been taking and the feelings generated during this pandemic.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.