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,
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.