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’re sometimes told to choose one thing, pick a niche and focus on that. It’s supposed to be better to be more focused, especially if you’re trying to create a business.

Recently in a photography group that I’m in, one of the members posted this:

“I have the pleasure of viewing 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. Indeed, I can recognize their work at a glance.

“Now, when I look back through my archive I see no such specialism, just random attempts at various styles. I don’t produce anything which is immediately recognizable as my work. This is after at least 20 years of clicking camera shutters.

“So I would appreciate your views on specializing. Should we naturally and inevitably progress to a specialism, or is variety really the spice of life?”

-ST

My reply — specialist or generalist?

This is something I continually struggle with. People always say they know a “Lauri” image when they see one but I have no idea what that really means.

While I’m somewhat recognized for my architectural work, I photograph many things. I love architecture and always have and not just from a photography standpoint. It’s an interest that has been lifelong. So it was natural for me to veer toward architectural photography. 

generalist or specialist

That does not mean that is the only thing I want to photograph. I also have a deep love and need for travel. That is part of my soul far more than architecture. Yet, my travel images do not seem to garner the attention that my architecture does.

I wrote in an article once that I consider myself an opportunistic photographer. If the opportunity presents itself, I’ll take the photo. Whatever catches my eye. Garbage can shadow, a squirrel, building, person, etc. that I SEE. I SEE the world around me and have a passion for being able to show others those things I do see that they may not.

As I’ve tried to venture into selling my work I’ve been told over the years to specialize. Do one thing, show one type of work, find your niche. We are conditioned to believe that people cannot excel at many things so they have to focus on one to be excellent at it. I do not buy into this and it continues to stop me from moving forward. I sometimes put my camera away and it sits, unused because all of this makes me question what it is I’m doing, why am I even bothering. Thinking about all of this paralyzes me. 

Life is a learning experience. Period. Photography is no different. How can you learn and grow if you do the same thing over and over? You can’t. So experiment, play and photograph whatever you feel like. If it speaks to you and you can show that it speaks to you in your images, others will see that passion in your work. It doesn’t all have to be the same or have the same look and feel.

In the end, we are supposed to be photographing for ourselves, creating art for our own enjoyment. If others want to buy it, or find joy in it in some way, that’s an added bonus.

Variety is the spice of life indeed. Don’t allow yourself to get bored or be pushed into something society thinks you should be or should do.

I hope this helps in some way. It helped me just writing some of this out.

Other photographer responses and replies

“I think I’m like you, a generalist, I love to try new things, and make different types of photos. Although I hope when someone sees one of my composites or me Playmobil photos to recognize my work, I still prefer to have fun in different styles that settle in one.” -SM

“Thanks for your views. Sometimes I get to think I’m missing something by not trying to specialize and at other times it seems to limit. Maybe specific projects are the way to go.” -ST

generalist or specialist
An image from one of the projects I’m personally working on

“I think you do try different styles but I actually associate you with awesome nature macro photography and for me, that’s where your work truly shines. So maybe subconsciously you have a specialism?” -ED

“Interesting. I love all things nature and macro photography, but when I look at other macro photographer’s work, I don’t think mine is much different. I guess the reason is that with this style I am aiming for a realistic copy of the subject. There is no artistic interpretation. Some of the specialist’s work I am referring to, in particular abstract, blurs and ICM, very much has their own ‘stamp’ on it and is therefore readily recognizable — in other words, they stand out from the crowd.” -ST

More responses and replies

“I agree that I associate you with nature and macro photography, but I have never seen you only doing those genres. I think you are a generalist and I love that. I am just a dabbler, I do whatever suits my fancy. And, I am OK with that. I tend to shoot what I see when I am out with my camera. I love taking pictures for all occasions and I would love to be as good at nature as you are.” -NM

I like your approach of doing whatever takes your fancy. I recently started going out with a ‘plan’ which sometimes determines what lens to use. Of course, when I get out there my plan goes out of the window and I try shooting the wrong things for the lens chosen!” -ST

generalist or specialist
An intentional camera movement experiment

“I think that we all have a certain tendency to enjoy certain types of photography but I don’t think that we need to intentionally move in a certain direction. For me, variety is the spice of life although I have noticed that I incorporate what I had previously learned as building blocks while experimenting with new techniques. As long as you enjoy your craft, you will keep clicking and we will enjoy seeing your art!” — CM

“I totally agree about our tendency to enjoy certain types of photography. For me, being out in the countryside or by the sea make me happiest, so I favor photography in those environments. I don’t count this work as a specialism, just a preference. I’m thinking a specialism is quite narrow in the choice of subject and/or technique, and a chosen combination of these things defines the work, making it readily attributable to its creator — maybe I’m wrong in this? Is the drive for an ‘identity’ necessary? I think your final point is the telling one.” — ST

Specialist or generalist, and the importance of the conversation

I share all of this because I’m pretty sure this is one of the things many of us struggle with this from time to time. Maybe those of you who run a specific photography genre-related business don’t have these questions. Once you decide you’re a portrait, wedding, real estate, or another type of photographer, that’s it. You know that what you do and what you want to do.

It’s good to be able to have these types of conversations with other photographers, people who understand. I also appreciate hearing different opinions and views on this.

How about you? What are your thoughts on this? Are you a specialist or generalist? Please share in the comments. The more we can discuss this, the more we can help each other and ourselves.