Types of Photography Specialties
Most professional photographers recommend specializing in a specific photography niche. Children’s photographer Vik Orenstein explains, “If clients suspect that you’ll shoot anything, you might seem desperate to them. They are looking for a photographer who feels as passionate about their subject matter as they do.” Specialization may happen naturally for you if you feel passionate about a particular subject, but some photographers have to experiment a bit to find out what they love shooting best. There are many types of photography specialties, and Orenstein discusses many of them, including portrait photography, food photography and nature photography, in her article “Finding Your Niche.” You can read the complete article on types of photography specialties below. Check out the 2014 Photographer’s Market for more great photography tips.
Keep creating and good luck!
Finding Your Niche by Vik Orenstein
Here’s another paradox, in a field fraught with paradoxes,” says wedding/portrait photographer Bob Dale. “You should start out shooting everything. You should be a generalist. That’s how you learn. But then you have to narrow it down. The market demands that you choose a specialty.”
Says commercial/fine art shooter Leo Kim, “You have to find your own personal style before you can select a niche. You will start out emulating the visual styles of others whose work you admire. But sooner or later, your true self comes out. It has to. Then you will choose your niche accordingly.”
In the good old days, when markets were smaller, a photographer used to be able to be a generalist. He could shoot a little tabletop, a little fashion, a little food, a little architecture. He was considered perfectly respectable if he shot a portrait in the morning and a building in the afternoon. But now in order to be successful, he has to specialize. If you’re a food photographer, you shoot food. If you’re a fashion photographer, you shoot fashion. Period. Nowadays, markets are larger and there’s room to support specialty shooters, so if clients suspect that you’ll shoot anything, you might seem desperate to them. They are looking for a photographer who feels as passionate about their subject matter as they do.
“I don’t want to hire someone who shoots candy and girls,” says an architect who often hires photographers to shoot his building projects. “I won’t hire anyone who has anything other than architecture in his portfolio.”
Says Patrick Fox, “We’ve been forced to specialize to a ridiculous degree. It’s come to the point where you’re not just limited to one specialty, you have to shoot one look or one technique within that specialty.”
In smaller markets, your neighborhood generalist is probably still respected. But the larger the market you shoot in, the more specialized you’ll be forced to be. So when choosing a niche, consider what you like to shoot. Who and what is your lens drawn to?
“You have to shoot selfishly to be successful. Shoot what interests you,” advises Doug Beasley.
Jim Miotke, author, photographer, and founder of BetterPhoto.com, agrees, “Follow your bliss, and the prosperity will come. It’s an organic process. You learn about yourself as you learn to shoot, and ultimately it all comes together.”
The sentiment is shared by Patrick Fox, who adds, “You have to love what you do—this business is too tough and too stressful if you don’t.”
But don’t you have to consider your market, too? What if you want to specialize in baby portraits but you live in a retirement community?
“Then you move,” says Patrick.
“You have to create a balance,” says Lee Stanford. “You have to weigh your interests against your market and figure them both together when you’re deciding on a niche. Because, yes, you’ll be miserable if you choose an area you dislike to shoot in, but if you never shoot because there are no clients who need your work, then you’ll be miserable, too.”
Personally, I like to advise aspiring photographers to “shoot what you shoot”—in other words, to find a niche in the area of specialty in which they shoot for their own pleasure. For instance, I love to travel, and I love architecture, and I love nature. But when I went to Thailand for the very first time in 1994 and immersed myself in awe-inspiring temples and wildlife and landscapes, 70 percent of the images I came home with were of children. In the market, in the street, in the airports, at elephant camp, I’d taken more images of kids than of anything else. My travel companion commented, “I’m so glad for you that you’re in the right career! But a few more landscape shots would have been nice.”
But Jim Miotke advises not to be afraid to pay your dues. “Even Ansel Adams had to shoot portraits,” he points out. “Avedon, Warhol, all those guys started out shooting portraits and commercial stuff.”
So while you’re busy following your bliss (swimsuit models) be realistic about your market (executive portraits). Assist, interview or observe people from different disciplines.
Personally speaking, I love shooting portraits so much I sincerely doubt I’d still be in the business if I had tried to force myself to shoot something else. I have assisted architectural photographers; I shot a little product (not very well) when I was starting out and afraid to say no to any kind of business whatsoever; and I shot actors’ and models’ head shots for several years. But none of that stoked my passion like portraits, especially portraits of kids and their families and pets. I believe I’d be long gone from the industry had I tried to make myself shoot anything else. It’s not that I don’t love looking at all types of images. I am deeply moved by the amazing nature, travel, photojournalistic, fashion, and other images my colleagues make. But when I shoot, I shoot portraits.
THE OLD NICHES
Certain specialties come to mind when you’re thinking about photography. For example, wedding, event, editorial, fashion, commercial, product, food, tabletop, portrait, fine art, and sports. They all have their perks and pitfalls. For example, wedding photography requires the toting around of many pounds of equipment (Stormi Greener’s minimum field pack weighs 30 pounds). You also many be forced to go eight or more hours without using a restroom, because in the wedding biz you don’t get do overs! All in all, it can be very physically demanding. In contrast, a commercial photographer’s clients come to him. So that means minimal equipment hauling, but it also means incurring the fixed overhead of a studio large enough to accommodate large sets and backdrops, and large products (like cars, for instance).
Each niche is demanding in its own way. That’s why when choosing a specialty it’s important to ask yourself not just “Which area pays the most?” but also “Am I athletic enough to cart my equipment around and am I really that into weddings?” and/or “Do I have the bankroll and the nerve to own a large studio?”
THE NEW NICHES
Digital technology has opened up several new niches, many of which don’t require a huge financial commitment. In many businesses, such as real estate, portraiture, e-commerce, retail, and desktop publishing, there is a demand for inexpensive images shot with high-end consumer-grade digital cameras. The drawback is that if you enter this niche, you’ll be competing with every other aspiring photographer who has a DSLR.
Another new arena is “lifestyle photography.” Lifestyle refers to a style of photography rather than to a specific niche. It describes commercial, portrait, and wedding images that are made to appear candid or photojournalistic in execution. “But,” says Lee Stanford, “it takes a huge amount of setup to get those candid looking lifestyle shots.”
MAKING YOUR OWN NICHE
I’ve never liked competition. I’ve always thought that if there were people already doing something, I should do something else. When I opened my first studio, everyone was still generalizing in my regional market. There was no one positioning themselves exclusively as a kid expert or as an exclusive expert of anything, for that matter, because common wisdom still held that if you specialized you’d lose out on a lot of work. But I figured I’d rather have a bigger portion of a small area than a small portion of a large area. Besides, I enjoyed shooting kids and not much else. In calling my studio KidShooters (now called KidCapers) and shooting kids and their families only, I didn’t realize I had created a new niche or even that I was positioning myself within my market. I was just trying to do what I loved. I was lucky. It turned out that 1988 was a great year to start a kids’ portrait studio. In addition to my portrait clients, national clients who wanted me to shoot their commercial work that involved kids began to call. This was a perk that took me totally by surprise. I got to shoot for Pentax, Nikon, 3M, Hormel, Microsoft, and more. I believe I would never have been considered for these jobs if I hadn’t established myself as a shooter who was all kids, all the time.
You can create your own niche, too. Learn as much as you can about the existing ones, and zero in on the things about them you like. For instance, let’s say you love pets and you’d like nothing better than to make a living photographing them. But you think, “There isn’t a big enough market in my city to draw a large enough client base to support myself doing pet portraits. And who is going to pay me big bucks for a picture of their dog, anyway?”
But wait. Think about this. Sure, it might be difficult to make your living on pet portraits alone. But who else besides pet owners need photos of pets? A little research will reveal that there are breeders in your area who sell puppies and kittens online and need to regularly update their website images as the animals grow. Normally they might take a puppy and place him on their couch and shoot a direct-flash snapshot. But who’s to say you couldn’t convince them to hire you to come to their home once a week from the birth of that puppy until its sale and provide gorgeous available-light shots on pretty backdrops? And puppy and kitten images sell really well for stock. So there are two possible buyers for the same images right there. Then consider that perhaps the family who purchases the puppy from the breeder might like to purchase a collage from you. Perhaps six to eight images from the puppy’s first weeks of life? (Maybe they’d like to upgrade to a framed piece or add greeting cards or “baby announcements.”) Now you have three potential buyers for the same images. While you’re at it, research the other professionals who come in contact with these puppies. I can think of pet groomers, trainers, and veterinarians to start. These folks might also want to show off images of their furry little clients. Or they may appreciate having a trusted photographer to refer their clients to. Now you have four, five, or six potential buyers for the same images, and this is starting to look like a living. And to think you almost didn’t even try because you thought your little niche wasn’t viable!
HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN MULTIPLE NICHES
You may be a very well-rounded individual who feels passionate about shooting in two or even more different specialties. Or you may find that the market for your chosen specialty is drying up, getting flooded with competitors or simply hasn’t turned out to be all it was cracked up to be. How can you get a toehold in a different area without losing the clients in your original field?
Be sneaky! Have different books (portfolios) for each specialty. Have different business cards, letterhead, invoices, and promotional pieces. Keep your studio name noncommittal, like, “Joe’s Photography,” and not specific, like “Joe’s Portraits, Food, Landscape, and Product Studio.”
Pay attention to the work you show in your studio. If you’re shooting for a portrait client today, have only examples of your portrait work on the walls. Shooting a product? Display only product shots. And don’t flap your jaw about your product shots to you portrait clients, or visa versa. If worlds collide and a client finds out about your other specialty, don’t deny it. Just say, “Oh sure, didn’t you know about that?”
And for goodness sake, don’t mix up your clients by being a graphic designer who also shoots, or a photographer who also designs. Since the advent of the digital camera, I’ve noticed a number of listings in the yellow pages for “Joe’s Photography and Design.” When a savvy client sees that, she’ll probably just conclude (and she might be right) that you’re a designer with a camera and not enough to do.
So you have your work cut out for you—to choose a niche that holds both enjoyment and marketability for you. Seems like a tall order. But every successful photographer I interviewed either knew going into the business what they wanted to shoot or found that it all fell into place for them after a little thrashing about.
“Finding your niche is like falling in love,” says architectural shooter Karen Melvin. “Once you find it, you know it’s right.”
BETH WALD: THE DANGLING WOMAN
Beth Wald created a very interesting, highly targeted niche for herself when she became a mountain- and rock-climbing photographer. She literally shoots while dangling from a rope over a 2,000-foot drop.
“It was a great time to start in this niche, because there weren’t many other people doing it,” she says (and I suspect that might be something of an understatement). “There were other climbers who would carry a snap shooter and take a few snapshots, but when you’re climbing you don’t want to be carrying a big lens and camera body with you. I was one of the few who would take the time to set up a shot—find the right angle, the right time of day for the light.”
Rock and mountain climbing were enjoying new popularity, with more and more magazines and catalogs to sell to.
It’s hard enough having to think about lighting, exposure, and composition on a shoot, let alone doing all this while hanging from a rope. I wondered if Beth had ever been in danger as a consequence of combining her two passions of climbing and photography.
“Yes, I’ve been in dangerous situations,” she says, without hesitation. “Now that I’m established, when I go out on a shoot for a commercial client, I hire a rigger who sets the ropes, and I don’t have to worry about that aspect. But in the beginning it was hard to talk clients into budgeting for a rigger, so I was out there alone.
“Once I was in Nepal with a famous French mountain climber, and it was all ice. I use devices to go up the ropes—it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t climb—and these devices would slip on the icy ropes.”
What led her into such a refined—and potentially dangerous—niche?
“Necessity! I wanted to figure out a way to make a living climbing—that was my first passion. Photography became my second. I was just out of college and had decided against a scientific career—I’d studied ecology, plants, botany, because I thought it would be a great way to be in the mountains, but I discovered that was not the case. Most botanists are only in the field about one month out of the year.
“Now photography has become my first passion, and climbing my second.”
She considered whether there is still a place in this narrow niche for newcomers in this unstable economic market. “It’s a tough market. But I think it’s incredibly important for people to get out there and create great images. There’s always a place for talent.”
So you need to find yourself a niche—the smaller and more focused, the better. But you also need to be flexible within the parameters of your specialty.
The business and creative models are changing constantly, so you need to be willing to change constantly, too. You must find ways to make great assignments happen. If you wait for them to come to you, you’ll be waiting forever. You have to be passionate about the business and apply your creativity to it. Find new ways to get jobs, and get money to finance the jobs.
For instance, I did a shoot in Afghanistan for Smithsonian Magazine. The writer and I got together and pitched the story to the magazine. Magazines almost never consider proposals from writer/photographer teams—only from writers. They prefer to assign the photographers themselves. They told me outright that they’d never consider a pitch from a photographer. But we made that job happen. We had to combine several assignments to do it—Smithsonian couldn’t afford to send us to Afghanistan. So we piggybacked a story for Sierra Magazine, and we got a small grant, and it all came together. So I say, “Never say never.”
JIM ZUCKERMAN: A JIM OF ALL TRADES (AND MASTER OF THEM ALL!)
Photographer, author and teacher Jim Zuckerman is an exception (with a capital E) to the common wisdom regarding specializing. Jim doesn’t limit himself to any particular market, subject, style or niche. A look at his website reveals images categorized by such varied heads as impressionism, conceptual, fine art, travel fantasies, natural life, and people and cultures—to name just a few. He is equally at ease creating classic straight up nature shots as he is creating images that are digitally manipulated to portray dinosaurs sunbathing or unicorns rearing in front of bolts of lightning.
What’s up with this, Jim? I thought we were supposed to specialize?
Most successful photographers do. I don’t. I know a photographer who does nothing but shoot diamonds—he flies all over the world to do it. Another one makes tens of thousands of dollars just shooting baby clothes on a white backdrop because his clients like the way he arranges the clothes. But I shoot everything.
Should an aspiring professional photographer specialize or be a generalist?
(Reluctantly) Probably, he should specialize. Yes.
But you don’t. So how, for instance, did you wind up making surrealistic images? Did you know there was a market for this?
No, I didn’t. I did this series of images using mannequin heads. I was told not to shoot that, that it would never sell. So I submitted some of them to OMNI magazine, and they sold. They bought five covers in seven months. You see, the deal is this. No matter what you shoot, you have to go out and market it. No matter if you specialize or generalize. Constantly! Perpetually! You never stop moving! Before websites, this was harder, because you had to literally go out and see people. I alleviated some of this by sending out proposals via the old-fashioned postal service. Now with e-mail it’s even easier. And people go to your website instead of asking for your book.
You sell a lot of stock images. Is it perhaps a little easier to be a generalist in this market than, say, in assignment work?
Yes, I think so. Because when people are buying your work from a stock agency, they’re not buying your name or your reputation, they’re just buying your image. They don’t care if you’re a big name or a small name. They don’t care where you went to school. They just want that image. That’s what makes stock almost a must for new photographers. Because they’re on a level playing field with established photographers like you and me.
So do you shoot what sells, or do you sell what you shoot?
I do both. I shoot what I love, but I also ask my editors (at my stock agencies) what they need. Ten years ago an editor told me they needed images of a worker fixing an air conditioner and of a lady being helped out of a limousine. So I said, “Oh, okay.” So I went out and I hired models and I rented a limo and I spent a half a day and I shot it. Today, ten years later, these images still sell three to four times a month for $300 or $400. That’s not bad for a half day’s work!
And you didn’t even have to market those!
No! That’s the other beautiful thing about stock. Your agencies do the marketing for you!
JENNIFER WU: A NICHE FOR ALL SEASONS
Photographer and teacher Jennifer Wu has done a fair share of niche hopping. Now a nature photographer with a subspecialty in amazing images of stars and the night sky, Jennifer started out in photography shooting food and tabletop after majoring in photography in college.
What kinds of food did you shoot?
First, it was gooey desserts. I was eating them for breakfast! Then I got a seafood company, so that was good. I got to eat seafood. Mostly I did the styling myself, but sometimes I worked with a food stylist.
How did you get these clients? Did you market yourself specifically to food companies?
No! These jobs just came to me—they were referred to me by my school—people who were looking for students and former students to shoot for them inexpensively.
Did you like shooting food?
Not really. For me, there was no expression, no life to capture. So then I switched to weddings. In 1993, I shot around forty weddings.
That’s a lot of weddings! Did those come as referrals from the school again?
Yes, so of course they were looking for someone inexpensive, as with the food. When I started out, I was shooting a whole wedding for $300. I knew I should raise my prices, but it was when I went to a wedding fair that it really became real—I saw photographers with booths there who charged thousands of dollars. So over the course of a year I raised my prices until a wedding was $3,000.
Wow! That’s a big increase in such a short time.
Yes. It was hard at first because I felt insecure. But I was tired of working so hard for so little. I lost a couple of prospects when my prices went up but not many.
Then you switched niches again—from weddings to landscape and nature. Why did you make that change?
Because nature is so beautiful!
And you’ve been successful in your nature niche! Canon features one of your night sky/star images in a brochure! So which niche has been the most rewarding for you?
Oh, nature! Certainly! But the most lucrative is weddings. If someone wants to make a lot of money, I would say, “shoot weddings!”
KATHLEEN CARR: CASUAL FRIDAY MEANS WEAR YOUR HULA SKIRT TO WORK
Kathleen Carr loved photography from the time she was big enough to hold her father’s Brownie camera in her hands. Yet she still didn’t consider it as a profession until, as an art major in college, she took a fine art photography course—and she was hooked.
Though she worked as a photographer all over the world and even had her first book of photographs published in 1975, it took her until 1990 to really zero in on her true calling.
“Up ’til then I shot everything: events, weddings, births, portraits, dogs, horses, photojournalism, publicity, you name it. But in 1990, I was diagnosed with cancer. That made me take stock of my life. I realized I didn’t want to do commercial photography anymore. I just wanted to express my creative vision. I started out with my Polaroid transfers, which galleries picked up and sold very well. I loved the medium so much, I didn’t want it to be just a passing fad. I wanted it to be a movement! So I wrote a book about it, and I put on some workshops, and they were packed! I went on to manipulated Polaroids and wrote another book. A year after that one came out, Polaroid stopped making the film. Imagine what that did for book sales!”
Just as she has done with many of her images and various mediums, Kathleen hand colors her art prints. (She works both by hand on the print and on the computer.) These days she is working heavily in digital infrared. Since this is an ethereal, finely textured look that originated with infrared film and regular digital capture can’t do it, she has had two digital camera bodies converted to shoot it.
Kathleen now lives in Hawaii full-time and teaches photography online and at her own retreats and workshops, and she also leads photo tours and even swims with dolphins.
“Teaching is also a passion of mine,” she says. “Working in cooperation and being of service, and experiencing camaraderie,—that’s all a part of creating art for me.”
A few of these brave souls forged original niches. A few went into established niches and bent them to their own will. And one, Jim Zuckerman, seems to be the exception to the rule. He shoots in a huge variety of specialties. Whatever niche (or niches) you choose to work in, ultimately your level of satisfaction and your level of success will depend very much on the amount of effort and passion you put into you work. Like most everything else in life, you will get out what you put in.
Vik Orenstein is a photographer, writer, and teacher. She founded KidCapers Portraits in 1988, followed by Tiny Acorn Studio in 1994. In addition to her work creating portraits of children, she has photographed children for such commercial clients as Nikon, Pentax, Microsoft, and 3M. Vik teaches several photography courses at BetterPhoto.com.
Excerpted from The Photographer’s Market Guide to Building Your Photography Business © 2010 by Vic Orenstein. Used with the kind permission of Writer’s Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Media Inc.