Buried in my contact form, there’s a small note that reads, “I specialize in architectural photography; I don't shoot weddings, portraits, babies, etc…” Early in my transition to this career, I knew I wanted to specialize in one area of photography. We now live in an world in which really good cameras are ubiquitous and anyone can hang their shingles and call themselves professional photographers. So, what’s an aspiring professional photographer to do in the face of this onslaught of people? The answer is simple: specialize and focus. Years later I can look back and say that specializing on photographing commercial architecture and interior design has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. If you’re curious, keep reading to learn how turning down work can actually pay off.
Photography is a wildly addicting hobby. Anyone that has ever purchased or received a “nice” camera (usually a DSLR) quickly falls in love with how easy it is to take better-than-average pictures by just setting the camera to auto-everything and hitting the shutter release. With a little practice, those better-than-average snapshots turn into good pictures and eventually one can reliably create great pictures without having to shoot hundreds of images hoping that one turned out “ok”. One day, most hobbyists get the same idea of turning this expensive hobby that pays for itself into a side-hustle. And thus, it begins… making a firstlastnamephotography.com website and taking any job that pays.
I get it, it can be challenging, even frightening, to say “no” to paying photography projects when you’re first starting out; however, taking any project that comes through the door or that you see posted online is a sure way to frustration and stagnation. One of the better self-help books I’ve read is “Book Yourself Solid” by Michael Port, which deals with this creative professional problem. In his book, Mr. Port outlines what he calls his “velvet rope policy”, which is essentially a way to filter clients/jobs depending on how well they match your vision of your dream business. Using this policy, you only work with clients whose work excites you and reject clients whose work (or personality) dishearten you. In the end, your dream clients inspire you to create and produce your best work and you’re not bogged down doing half-assed work on projects you may come to resent just to make a quick buck.
Jack-of-All-Trades Means Master of None
In my previous life in academia, specialization was mandatory. Sure I liked brains, but sadly, they weren’t handing out PhD’s in general neuroscience. I had to find a small niche or question at the boundary of human knowledge to explore which eventually led to me becoming a leading expert in such a small field that only 6 other people in the world really cared about my work. Yay! Similarly, in every other professional field, those at the top making the most money and profit are those that specialize and find a lucrative niche. For example, all doctors go to medical school, but typically the speciality surgeon makes much more money than the general practitioner. I’m not saying that’s right or fair, but it’s the truth.
While you may think you’re casting your net far and wide to catch lots of fish, you’re inadvertently just announcing that you’re not that good at any specific type of photography. You may find clients, but they most likely won’t be well informed, have a significant budget, or turn into repeat clientele. It may end up that your career gets mired in 2nd or 3rd gear and never achieves its true potential.
So, how do you make more money by turning away business? It may seem counter intuitive, but if you spend time making money shooting something that you don’t want to specialize in, like food instead of weddings, you’re essentially robbing yourself. You’re stealing time away from becoming a better and more profitable wedding photographer by taking on non-wedding projects. Sure, you may get $50 to shoot some food for a new coffee shop in town, but in this situation you’re making low money, shooting something you don’t want to, and not working towards becoming a mega-wedding photographer. There’s the saying “rob Peter to pay Paul”. Well, in this situation you’re both people and it’s a zero sum game.
Become an Expert
Do you want to teach workshops or classes? Or be invited to give talks about photography? If you go look up the current class offerings at CreativeLive you won’t see a single one that’s titled “General Photography: How to Shoot EVERYTHING”. That’s because a class like that can’t exist — nobody would be interested in it. Instead, focus on a specific area of photography that you’re passionate about and go at it like nobody else. There is tremendous power in the word “NO”, for example:
“No, I don’t shoot weddings, I’m an architectural photographer.”
When I say that, I’m announcing to the world what I do, and doing it in a profoundly powerful manner. I’m not denigrating wedding photographers, I’m saying that I’ve specialized and that I respect the person speaking to me enough not to misrepresent my talents and waste their time. Going with the doctor analogy from earlier, it would be a dangerous situation to say that you’re a plastic surgeon if in truth you’re an ear, nose, and throat doctor. So why do we do it with photography?
In a world where everyone has a camera and newer, more powerful, and smaller cameras are being released everyday, it can seem overwhelming to pursue photography. They key to rising above the fray is to not allow yourself be “just” a photographer, but instead pursue being the best in a particular subject or style. And the good news is that it’s never too late to sharpen your focus! I myself continue to refine what I do and don’t want to shoot for example, I found myself leaving real estate photography behind to focus more on interior design and commercial architecture this past year.