Specialist or generalist? Do you struggle with this question or distinction in your own photography?
I know many of us do. As we learn and grow in our photography, we are sometimes told to pick one thing, pick a niche and focus on it. It would be better to be more focused especially if you are trying to set up a business.
Recently one of the members posted this in a photography group I’m in:
“I have the pleasure of reviewing the work of some outstanding photographers on this platform. Many of them have settled on a particular photographic style and are masters and mistresses of their craft. I do recognize their work at a glance.
“Looking back in my archive now, I don’t see any such specialism, just random attempts at different styles. I don’t make anything that is instantly recognizable as my work. This is after at least 20 years of clicking camera shutters.
“So I would appreciate it if you think about specialization. Do we have to naturally and inevitably grow into a specialty, or is variety really the spice of life?”
My answer – specialist or generalist?
This is something I constantly struggle with. People always say they recognize a “Lauri” image when they see one, but I have no idea what that really means.
While I’m somewhat known for my architectural work, I photograph a lot of things. I love architecture and always have and not just from a photography point of view. It is an interest that has existed for a lifetime. So it was natural for me to switch to architectural photography.
That doesn’t mean that’s the only thing I want to photograph. I also have a deep love and need for travel. That is much more a part of my soul than architecture. Yet my travel photos don’t seem to attract the attention my architecture gets.
I once wrote in an article that I consider myself an opportunistic photographer. If the opportunity arises, I will take the picture. Whatever catches my attention. Garbage can shadow, a squirrel, building, person, etc. I SEE. I SEE the world around me and have a passion for showing others the things I don’t see.
Because I’ve been trying to sell my work, I’ve been told over the years to specialize. Do one thing, show one type of work, find your niche. We have been conditioned to believe that people cannot excel at many things, so they must focus on one thing in order to be excellent at it. I’m not buying into this and it keeps stopping me from moving forward. Sometimes I put my camera away and it stays there, unused, because all this makes me wonder what I’m doing, why am I even bothering. Thinking about all this paralyzes me.
Life is a learning experience. Period of time. Photography is no different. How can you learn and grow if you keep doing the same thing? That is not possible. So experiment, play and shoot whatever takes your fancy. If it appeals to you and you can show in your images that it appeals to you, others will see that passion reflected in your work. It doesn’t all have to be the same or have the same look and feel.
In the end, we have to shoot for ourselves, make art for our own enjoyment. If others want to buy it, or enjoy it in some way, that’s an added bonus.
Variety is indeed the spice of life. Don’t allow yourself to get bored or forced into something that society thinks you should be or do.
I hope this helps somehow. It helped me to just write some of it down.
Other comments and answers from photographers
“I guess like you, I’m a generalist, I like trying new things and taking different types of photos. While I hope that when someone sees one of my compositions or my Playmobil photos, my work will be recognized, I still prefer to have fun with different styles nestling in one nest.” -SM
“Thanks for your opinion. Sometimes I start to think I’m missing something by not trying to specialize and other times it seems limiting. Maybe specific projects are the way to go.” -ST
“I think you try different styles, but I actually associate you with great wildlife macro photography and to me that’s where your work really shines. So maybe you subconsciously have a specialty?” -ED
“Interesting. I love all things nature and macro photography, but when I look at the work of other macro photographers I don’t think mine is much different. I think the reason is that with this style I aim for a realistic copy of the subject. There is no artistic interpretation. Some of the specialist’s work I am referring to, particularly abstract, faded and ICM, very much has its own ‘stamp’ on it and is therefore easily recognizable – in other words , they stand out from the crowd.’ -ST
More comments and reactions
“I agree that I associate you with nature and macro photography, but I’ve never seen you do just those genres. I think you are a generalist and I love that. I’m just an enthusiast, I do what I feel like. And I’m OK with that. I tend to photograph what I see when I’m out and about with my camera. I like to take pictures for all occasions and I would like to be as good in nature as you are.” -NM
“I like your approach to doing what you want. Recently I started out with a ‘plan’ that sometimes determines which lens to use. Of course, when I go out, my plan goes haywire and I try to shoot the wrong things for the chosen lens!” -ST
“I think we all have a certain tendency to enjoy certain types of photography, but I don’t think we should deliberately go in a certain direction. For me, variety is the spice of life, although I’ve found myself incorporating what I’ve learned before as building blocks as I experiment with new techniques. As long as you enjoy your craft, keep clicking and we’ll enjoy seeing your art! – CM
“I completely agree with our tendency to enjoy certain types of photography. For me, being in the countryside or by the sea makes me happiest, so I prefer shooting in those environments. I do not consider this work as a specialty, but as a preference. I think a specialty is quite narrow in the choice of subject and/or technique, and a chosen combination of these things defines the work, making it easy to attribute to the creator – maybe I’m wrong? Is the urge for an ‘identity’ necessary? I think your last point is telling.’ — ST
Specialist or generalist, and the importance of the conversation
I’m sharing all of this because I’m pretty sure this is one of the things many of us struggle with from time to time. Perhaps those of you who run a specific photography genre related business don’t have these questions. Once you’ve decided you’re a portrait photographer, wedding photographer, real estate photographer, or any other type of photographer, that’s it. You know what you are doing and what you want to do.
It’s good to be able to have these kinds of conversations with other photographers, people who understand. I also appreciate hearing different opinions and points of view on this.
And you? What are your thoughts on this? Are you a specialist or generalist? Please share it in the comments. The more we can talk about this, the more we can help each other and ourselves.