If everybody is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going exactly in the opposite direction. —Sam Walton
[Ed. note: We are traveling again this morning, so I’ve reached back into the archives for something of interest. This article was originally published January 12, 2008. I’ve had to update a couple of references and clean up some grammar references, but the rest of the article still holds. If anything, the question now might be whether one needs to expand outside photography as well. Either way, this is still good conversation fodder.]
“What kind of photography do you do?”
Some form of that question follows most every introduction of a photographer. The question is hedged in some anticipation that the answer might bring exciting stories of wonderful places visited or exciting adventures behind the camera. General expectation is that no photographer is simply a photographer; some definitive adjective must precede the noun so as to give one’s audience a reasonable concept of one’s range of work.
Socially, such labels help avoid confusion. A wedding photographer hardly desires to be confused with a pet photographer any more than an architectural photographer wants his work to be labeled as landscape photography. However, as digital photography continues to revolutionize the industry, one does well to question conventional wisdom regarding the value of declaring too narrow a niche.
Not all that long ago, niche photography was a matter of practical and economical necessity. Different styles of work required unique and often specialized equipment, much of which required considerable investment to produce professional quality work. Different types of film, some of which were quite expensive, were necessary for some types of special work. To maintain an inventory of such a wide variety of equipment and film makes little to no sense for most photographers. Rather, it has been more reasonable to select a specialty that one enjoys and pursue that field specifically.
Digital capabilities challenge the equation somewhat. What once was only reasonably shot with a medium- or large- format film camera can now often be more than adequately photographed with high-end digital equipment, equipment that, with the mere switch of a lens, is just as appropriate for taking pictures of a nephew’s bar mitzvah. Even projects requiring extreme enlargement, projects which ten years ago might have required the construction of a special camera and expensive, proprietary film, can now be shot with Canon’s newest 50+ megapixel 35mm camera.
What declaring a niche unquestionably does is allow a photographer to seriously focus on the methodology and styles of a specific genre. Architectural photographers need to stay abreast of changes in that industry just as fashion photographers are constantly watching the latest clothing styles and designers. Focusing on a specific specialty allows one to excel in that area, rather than being mediocre across a wider range.
Niche photography also allows one to more narrowly focus one’s marketing initiatives. Wedding photographers need exposure at bridal shows, landscape photographers don’t. Wildlife photographers don’t need the attention of editors at Sports Illustrated as does a sport or swimwear photographer. Marketing is expensive and can consume considerable time and resources. The more narrowly one can target their primary customer, the more effective the marketing effort.
A photographer chooses a niche based on the type work one most enjoys doing. Sports photographers are every bit as passionate about getting that one-in-a-million touchdown or slam dunk shot as a landscape photographer may be regarding the perfect sunset, or a wedding photographer capturing the perfect moment in a newlyweds’ kiss. If one is not enjoying what they are doing, it is questionable whether there is any real value in even picking up the camera; not that every moment is full of wonder and bliss, but that the passion for the work exceeds the pain of the downfalls. Taking pictures simply for the paycheck inevitably results in modest photography with little to no real lasting value.
Countering the philosophy of niche photography is the very real fact that more people than ever are picking up reasonably professional cameras and attempting to make a profession of their endeavors. On one hand, anyone true to the art of photography must be excited to see what has previously been a fairly exclusive field become more open to creative and experimental minds, especially younger photographers whose imaginations have not yet been completely shut down by reality. At the same time, however, the general accessibility of digital photography combined with the repairing and reconstructive capabilities of software have dramatically decreased the demand and value of professional photographic work. Metaphorically speaking, there is less pie to be shared at a time where there are more feet under the table. Such dilution brings into sharp questioning the validity of limiting oneself to a specific niche.
The artistic and marketing benefits of niche work have not gone away, mind you. What has changed is the fiscal viability of such limitation. Whereas one might have previously made a quite comfortable living as a wedding photographer, the field has been besieged over the past few years with newcomers who view the field simply as a way to pick up some extra money on the weekend. These “weekend wannabes” charge considerably lower prices than full-time professionals because they do not value their weekend hours as does one whose whole income depends on the work. Given that brides are always on a budget, the lower prices are attractive to customers who may not be especially quality-conscious.
Similar gluts have damaged the fields of fashion, glamor, travel, portrait, family and many advertising-related niches. Adding to the dilution is the increasingly prevalent use of online stock photography, which is generally cheaper and ready on demand. All these factors combined make economic dependence on a single niche of photography extremely difficult. As a result, one must seriously question whether limiting work to a narrowly defined niche still makes sense.
Expanding one’s range is a difficult and challenging decision, but may be one photographers can no longer avoid. Despite public opinion and casual observance, there is a considerable difference to be found between shooting weddings and photographing models. Family photography may seem tightly connected to infant photography, but the lighting and elemental differences between the two are dramatic. Just because a photographer is gifted in a specific area does not make them equally capable in others.
Photography instructors have long challenged students to shoot a wide range of subjects. Indeed, when someone asks me how to get started in photography I pass along the same instruction given to me by a grizzled and war-worn journalism photographer: grab a camera and shoot dirt. The basic lessons of light, focus, and depth-of-field are not subject dependent. One learns and develops most readily by simply keeping camera in hand and shooting life as it occurs. As one develops more fully in the craft, one then learns how certain elements react differently to changes in light, diffusion, and reflection. Keeping a wide-open perspective on the craft enables one to deepen both knowledge and appreciation.
Perhaps the time has come for the professional photographer to more widely apply that universal approach to their work; not advocating that one abandon their niche, but to expand intelligently upon one’s area of expertise, exploring secondary areas of interests as they apply to one’s own personality, background, and resource availability. Still vital is the notion that one must, unquestionably, hold some passion for their work, but just as a couple may expand their love for each other to their children without diminishing the original relationship, so can a photographer find pleasure in more than one niche without sacrificing expertise in their major field.
Another concept more photographers might do well to consider is to form more photographer’s cooperatives, such as the famed Magnum Group. Formed in 1947 by four war-weary photographers (Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Roger and David Seymour), this member-owned agency has grown both in terms of scope and prestige. Over the ensuing years, the prestigious list of names has expanded dramatically, as have the enviable accolades and awards, ultimately bringing success to Magnum’s members that they likely would not have achieved on their own. Such cooperatives well serve a photographer’s ability to maintain focus on a particular niche while benefiting from the combined marketing effort and reputation of the group. Cooperatives require extremely careful pairing of personalities, however. Members must be more committed to the camaraderie of the group than serving their own egos. Roles and responsibilities must be carefully considered and well defined. More cooperatives have failed than succeeded in the past. Yet, this may well be a time when membership in such a group is the best way for a photographer to maintain viability.
Photography is a tremendously wide-ranging field and the opportunities within it are enormous. Those who excel will always be the ones who have an undying and unalterable passion for their work. Just how narrowly one defines that passion, however, is a matter worthy of careful and studied consideration.