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To Specialize or Not Specialize? That is the Question

By Michelle Ford on May 15th 2014

Photography is one of those careers where the term is such a broad stroke and realistically you should select a field to focus on. Even if you were to define yourself as a fashion photographer you can be further categorized as runway, catalog or editorial. Portrait photographers can specialize in maternity, family, newborn, etc. There’s a multitude of possibilities to aim my camera at and my business to conquer, but you can’t always be everything to everyone. Choosing a path allows me to channel my efforts, money and decisions onto a targeted market. But sticking to that path has been a challenge.

I’ve realized these last few weeks the reason why I had a hard time focusing on just one genre of photography. It’s because I’m a wedding photographer and shooting weddings has primed me for a multitude of possibilities…oh and because I need to pay my bills.

[REWIND: QUITTING THE WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY BUSINESS ISN’T EASY]

I’ve Had A Little Taste Of So Much

As a wedding photographer, I’ve had to learn family portraiture, beauty, editorial, boudoir, journalistic, product photography, event photography, food photography and architectural photography to name a few. I’ve used natural light, strobes, ambient light, soft, hard and quirky. I’ve survived the pickiest of art directors (aka bridezillas and their moms) in the most high strung and chaotic environments. I’ve had to make something out of nothing in the least desirable shoot spots, but I’ve also had the privilege of shooting the beautiful, exotic and inspired. Wedding photography has introduced me to so many possibilities. It’s like the general ed of photography and all that exposure makes me think that I can do it all. And that right there, is part of the dilemma.

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new_born_photography real_estate seniors

Paying the Bills

My photography mentor once told me that in this industry, we do what we need to do to survive. During the low season, you make the deals that you have to make in order to meet your monthly financial obligations. Once that base is covered, you can go back to sticking to your guns, your selected niche and your prices. And he’s right. Our industry is on the side of unpredictable and even the best of the best worry about making their numbers. Nobody ever rests easy and competition is stiff. For some, the way to financial peace is foraging through the low hanging fruit of other arenas in photography. And that, is the other half of the dilemma.

event_photography editorial

I know the argument about specializing. I know it well. I also know what it’s like to have a dry spell and wonder how you’re going to make your bills. It’s easy enough to run a quick two day marathon special of family photos to make the equivalent of one wedding in profits with less work and headache. One successful run and you start questioning why you don’t do it more often. I’ve only successfully run 2 specials a year by the way, any more than that and I’m hearing crickets. But other opportunities open up all the time. Inquiries come knocking on corporate events, head shots, maternity and newborn for last year’s bride, real estate photos for the groom who’s in the industry and so on and so on.

This isn’t a rant piece. It’s not an opinion seeking piece. It’s an empathy piece. I want the rest of my fellow photographers to know that you’re not alone in this dilemma. So … should you turn it down? Give it a try? How much do you charge? More decisions! And honestly, every time I dip my toe into any one of those fields, my conscience gives a tug. I feel guilty for undermining the industry. I’m not charging enough because I don’t feel like I’m well versed in that arena. I feel guilt for myself and not believing in my abilities enough. I feel bad for the client who I know deserves the best from someone in that specialized field. But then I balance the books and the voices in my head say “shuddup, you NEED this.”

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Conclusion

So, let’s settle the debate. Should you specialize? It’s a good exercise to focus your energy in your chosen path. There’s a lot of benefits to specializing, but if your doors are about to close because your specialty didn’t bring enough business in that month then you need to move your toosh off that specialty chair and do something about it.

How much do you dabble outside of your chosen niche?

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Michelle is a Southern California Portrait and Wedding Photographer. When she’s not geeking out with a camera she’s nerding out in her IT world. All other moments in the day are spent with her two wonderful children.

See her work on The COCO Gallery
check out her blog at frexNgrin

8 Comments

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  1. David Hill

    I love the fact that I get asked to do all kinds of things and people seem happy to pay me for that. I love the challenge of being involved with different genres. I love the variety too. A wedding shoot recently followed by a product shoot. Great….It gets the creative juices flowing and makes me research different genres so I love the learning experience too. But that suits me. Not everyone!

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  2. Jenna

    I have this discussion with myself all the time. I would love to specialize. Senior Portraits and Maternity are my favorites…. but living in a small town, on a small island, in the middle of the Pacific has caused me to remain “unspecialized”. My market isn’t large enough to exclusively do one area. Maybe one day… :)

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  3. Tyler Lindal

    I have the unique situation of having been a fine art photographer for many, many years. When all other industries failed me, I decided to start doing photography as a hobby to make ends meet. I’ve been hired to do Real Estate, weddings, head shots, portrait, print sales and more. None of the specialities were to my liking beyond a paycheck. What I love, what I’m good at and what I will always consider myself as, is a fine art photographer.

    But I’ll never stop taking photos for money when there’s money to be had. So I combine my fine art skills to every other speciality. Vivid landscapes with wedding. HDR with portrait. Wide angle with family photos. It’s worked, so why stop.

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  4. Alexandra

    I think specializing is very important. You wouldn’t go to a dentist who moonlights as a podiatrist! Or an accountant that moonlights as a truck driver!

    The more you specialize, the more you create a name of yourself in said field. Photography is no different. I rather be good/awesome at one thing than be “meh” at many others.

    The camera can shoot everything, but it is what you shoot/specialize in that really matters. I rather pay the bills doing something completely unrelated than compromise on my specialty.

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  5. nlt

    I think PART of the reason photography’s value is diluted is because every photographer tries to be every type of photographer and I don’t think you can be great at everything. I think photographers need to self monitor. We know what our strengths are as much as our weaknesses and we need to be honest to ourselves and our clients about what we offer them. Just because we could doesn’t mean we should…all the time.

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  6. Kevin

    “So … should you turn it down? Give it a try? How much do you charge? More decisions! And honestly, every time I dip my toe into any one of those fields, my conscience gives a tug. I feel guilty for undermining the industry. I’m not charging enough because I don’t feel like I’m well versed in that arena. I feel guilt for myself and not believing in my abilities enough. I feel bad for the client who I know deserves the best from someone in that specialized field. But then I balance the books and the voices in my head say “shuddup, you NEED this.”
    by Michelle

    Mod, please sticky this :).
    I heard you and know exactly what you are talking about Michelle!!! Happy Fri.!

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  7. Chuck Navarro

    I decided to specialize in weddings due to mainly booking that type of gig. It’s helped me sell to my clients. I don’t take baby or family portraits. I’m actually considering branching off a trained photog just for that. I think it’s good to let your clients know what you do well. On the other side, you need to do what you have to if you need to make ends meet. I’m certainly not against it.

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    • Rama Sivamani

      Do you feel you lose out on the learning opportunity that would come from shooting family and baby portraits then? Obviously if it conflicted with a wedding you had already booked that would be one thing but if it didn’t I don’t see the reason not to do it. I understand from the business perspective you stick to your specialty but from the perspective of photography being a lifelong journey of learning I don’t see the benefit of not branching out of your comfort zone. 

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