To Specialize or Not to Specialize – That is the Question

The question posed was whether it is advisable to focus, as a photographer, on a niche, or to not specialize at all.

Depending on who you are, where you are at the moment, or what you prefer to do or dislike doing, this is a question that only you can answer, but let me share our own experiences to help you analyze if you should focus on a specialization or be a generalist. Maybe it’s not just one or the other, but maybe it’s possible to combine both.

Let’s put that question aside for a moment and let me ask you to consider a more challenging question, “What can you do in your career as a photographer such that, for some time, or hopefully for a long time, you would be the only one doing it?” In other words, instead of just hoping to be one of the best, why not work towards being the only one who can deliver the kind of photography that you like to do?

To tell you how John’s photographic career started in 1970 and developed through more than 40 years would answer your questions, but that’s a long story. Suffice it to say, that in the beginning, we were not choosey. Not having equipment, skill, studio, knowledge, experience, contact, clients or connections, we really did not have the right to be. John simply told me that all he wanted to do was shoot, so I looked for and took on any job for him – doing IDs of company employees, reproductions, slides, product shots, photo coverages (what you now call event coverages), cars involved in accidents for insurance claims, food, CEOs and board members for annual reports, industrial shots, even photographing a fashion model while trying to hide his nervousness at doing this kind of a shoot.

He tried many things. He never said no to anything.

Then, with each negative experience, John began to define what kind of photography he preferred to do.

After finding out that none of his shots of a friend’s wedding came out, he decided that wedding photography was not for him.

After being bawled out by an impatient CEO, he told me he just wanted to shoot products. They don’t need to be talked to, they don’t become impatient and they don’t shout.

After being ribbed by a client who recognized him doing events coverage, he told me not to accept any more coverages for him.

As the first few years went on, and with greater confidence, more opportunities, better contacts, bigger investments in equipment, more wisdom perhaps, he began to articulate what he liked and what he did not like, and to target the companies that could give him his preferred assignments.

Since he enjoyed long drives, but didn’t have a car, he aimed to shoot for a car company, which in the mid1970’s, was General Motors. He also aimed to get a free car.

He liked the challenges of industrial photography, going down 3000 ft. underground for Benguet Corporation, or climbing construction structures for Engineering Equipment, Inc., or doing aerial photography for various industrial accounts.

When things were quiet – or when there were long weekends, then off to Banaue, Ifugao he went, doing documentary photography.

He did not mind doing product or food shoots in the studio, but if he read something in the newspapers that excited him, that would send him trying to be a photojournalist. He just could not stay put.

Then, his biggest and most challenging break came in the 1990’s, when he was asked to do car photography, not just on location, but in a studio – first a studio that clients rented out for us, and eventually, our own car photography studio in 1992.

We were not the only ones doing studio car photography, there were at least two others, but John’s biggest advantage was that he was the only one with his own car photography studio. He therefore became known as a car photographer.

However, the Philippine market for car photography was not big enough, and we could not be shooting cars everyday. We continued to shoot products, food and beverages, special effects, large set ups, as well as industrial and architectural photography, and with G-nie Arambulo joining us in 1992, we entered the highly competitive field of fashion photography (for her, not for John). Plus, she enjoyed photographing people – corporate, lifestyle, travel and quickly learned to excel in the other specializations that John was known for.

Again, this is our photographers’ choice and may not be what you want. It was a conscious decision for them – to do different photo assignments, and not to limit themselves to one kind. Like food, our photographers craved for variety. We had to have a good mix of studio and location shoots. Even when we would have many assignments of the same kind, we would break them up so that we could do a day of food photography between days of car shoots, or a fashion shoot between days of shooting products. A challenging special effects shoot is always a welcome break, and takes away the routine of doing studio shoots.
To go back to offering a photography service that nobody else is doing – that seems to provide the ultimate advantage. But it is not an advantage that will last forever.

The bold move that we made in 1992 to pour life savings into building a car studio gave us a competitive edge that did not get replicated by a close competitor until five years later. In advertising, five years offer a big headstart. Through hard work and God’s grace, we’ve somehow managed to stay a step ahead.

But one of the important things I’ve learned in business is that you can’t be the only one, or the one at the top, forever. Whether it’s the way your studio is built, or the style with which you shoot, or the special equipment that you are using, I know that there are a few other photographers, or maybe a hundred or a thousand more (now that it’s digital) following in your footsteps while hoping and trying to overtake you.

A word of caution: While there are competitors out there, learn not to focus on them. Focus instead on pursuing your passions, following your heart, what you like and what you don’t like. This should be the basis of your decision as to what field or fields of photography to pursue, to specialize on.

Could it be that for photographers, the operative meaning of “specialization” is not the verb “to specialize” if what it means is to limit oneself to one field of endeavor or one genre of photography, but the noun, “specialist” which means to be the most knowledgeable, experienced, capable in your field?

Years ago, someone in the audience at the Filipinas Heritage Library seminar on photography asked the same question you asked, Alan. Should he specialize or be jack-of-all-trades? Does not being a jack-of-all-trades make him a master-of-none? How come, he asked, that John Chua is not “master of none?” The AIM business professor who was the speaker before us then clarified that John is not what you would consider a jack-of-all-trades. “John is a serial specialist. He learns one and masters it; then he moves on to another, and masters it; and so on. It can be done. You, too, can do it. Just give yourself time.”

Maybe it’s John’s, and G-nie’s personality and their varied interests, their long years in the profession, or maybe the fact that John can’t stay put – it’s all this that drives them, not towards one specialization, but to being how that AIM professor called John – a serial specialist.

To give Alan more definitive answers, here again are his questions:

How important is it to establish one’s self in a certain niche of photography?

Yes, it would be nice to be known for a certain niche of photography, so that your name is top of mind for that kind of photography. But unless you’re at the top of the heap of photographers in that field, and maybe even if you are, it may not be wise to limit yourself to one specialization. A few photographers who limit themselves to one specialization – like putting all eggs in one basket – may succeed but they must be quite fantastic guys. For the rest of us mortals, especially young professionals, diversifying might help keep us in the running, and the cash register ringing.

Or should one do as much photography in as many fields as he can until he finds a niche/area that he/she will be successful in?

Only in the fields of photography that you are interested in. You may be spreading yourself too thin if you tried to be in too many fields, especially those that you are not happy doing.

(If) you want to be a successful fashion photog, must you turn away wedding or event photography projects even if you are just starting?

I know many wedding photographers who do well as fashion and portrait photographers – they seem to be complementary fields – since they all involve photographing people.

Event photography assignments could lead you to many prospective clients. But do develop your interpersonal skills so that you can talk and direct them, and not just shoot them. Photograph them in their most flattering poses. (My two-year old granddaughter reprimanded the photographer at her school: “Don’t shoot while I am eating.”) Events photography is not just a photography job – it offers marketing, networking, prospecting and socializing opportunities.