The great debate: be a generalist or find a niche
Lifestyle photography is the new black. In the quest to capture ‘authenticity’ in both advertising and editorial – whatever that means, given both are usually meticulously staged – ‘real life’ scenes are being used for everything from beer advertising to fashion editorial. Does this mean that the era of the specialist photographer is coming to an end, at least for now? Candide McDonald investigates.
What’s the greatest asset a photographer can have right now? A highly trained eye and remarkable expertise for creating standout images in a specific genre, or the ability to do great work for briefs that, increasingly, require images to be used across a multiplicity of media forms for a range of uses?
Melbourne food photographer, Brent Parker Jones explains the value of specialists with a role-playing game. You: You live and breathe furniture and interior design. Me: Not so much. We: Both have to shoot this new restaurant. You: As you walk in, your eye goes wild at the use of timber panels and concrete. “So yesterday,” you think. But then you see those chairs that line the entrance. Each one is a rare find but, nope, here they are. That floats your boat, and you know your client knows that you know this is important as well. Me: I walk right past the chairs thinking, “Oh, nice light. I might shoot there later,” and go straight to the kitchen, introduce myself to the executive chef (who, I know, once did time on a line in a two-Michelin-star restaurant). I grab a coffee and flip out over black morel mushrooms, still attached to their spore block. I know that the chef must be getting them in from an extremely secret source. “With food and Australian quarantine regulations,” I think, “if they are European, they are like unicorn poop, and illegal. But Australian native and hand cultivated is still very special.” My client has hired me for that knowledge and passion of all things food. Having said all that, I still take a few images of the dining room, but that’s not what made my heart sing – or his – that day.
“There is a saying, Jack of all trades, master of none,” Parker Jones continues, “but I feel photography is literally and metaphorically a grey area. If there is a common skill, it’s how you use light. I don’t think you can be great at everything because of the inherent reasons why you want to be a photographer in the first place.” Those reasons, Parker Jones states, are that you use photography to express yourself, or to capture and share your point of view or passion for a subject of interest. “Street life of old Rome to an outback sunset, you found and followed your passion. You didn’t think, “Damn, I look good with 2kgs of plastic and metal hanging around my neck. I think I should do this for a living. It’s about sharing your love for a subject,” he says. That love for your subject brings valuable knowledge, he adds. “Because I am engaged in food and cooking, I understand what it takes to produce high quality, informative, engaging, and, most importantly, educational content. For example, the recipe says rain in caster sugar as you stiffen egg whites until glossy, until firm peaks start to form. What does that look like to an inexperienced, corporate portrait photographer turned part-time food photographer because they just got a job to shoot for an egg brand? I know, because I have made a few meringues in my time and I am already engaged in the product. Plus, I already consider myself an eggspert in the area of food.”
German photographer, Roland Halbe has worked almost exclusively as an architectural photographer since his career began. “It is a very vast field of photography, ranging from tiny interior spaces to enormous infrastructure projects,” Halbe states. He believes, though, that he can’t be great in all genres. “There are common skills, like the capability to choose the right camera position with the appropriate lens, to find the right framing and the sensitivity for the best light and contrast. These are ‘ingredients’ that work for most fields of professional photography,” he adds. “I can take some from fashion and street photography when I have people in my architecture shots, and landscape photography is teaching me how to put architecture in a relationship with its surroundings.”
In Halbe’s field, micro-specialising is a distinct possibility. This, he says, has its pros and cons. The main advantages, he notes, are that you will become very experienced in your specialist genre. “You will get very skilled and fast, and you will know the market with its potential clients very well. You can also build up a reputation which helps you to stay out of the ugliest dumping price battles.” But he adds, “You are likely to lose opportunities to widen your horizon, and, in my case, to miss big budget advertising commissions.”
Australian photographer, Ben Cole specialises in food and beverage photography. “The current Australian climate requires most photographers to have a little bit of diversity in their art,” he states. “That diversity can be the actual subject, capture type, for example motion or stills, and media output, for example, social media or print. I know many Sydney still photographers have expanded their skill set to additionally offer some sort of motion services, including myself,” he notes. “I think you can be great in a range of fields, but hopefully within this diversity you can still have a standout speciality. I would never advertise myself as a fashion photographer as it’s too far from my skill set. I feel the skills that translate across all projects are your pre-production, composition, lighting, and post-production knowledge, which are valuable these days.”
US-based architectural photographer, Tim Griffith notes that there is a difference between good and great. “I think it’s quite possible to be competent in a number of fields. To be great would imply some added effort or deeper understanding of the specific subject matter. There are certainly common skills which come into play. These stem from your core visual sensibilities and are applied across all your creative output. Unless you are just banging out superficial responses to your subjects, your own personal vision will influence the way in which you see and photograph the world around you, irrespective of what you point your camera at,” he adds. London architectural photographer, Edmund Sumner has an even stronger stand. “A photographer who says he shoots ‘everything’ really means he shoots ‘anything’. More often than not, is both slightly desperate, and embarrassed. It is OK to be average at all fields, and if you’re happy to shoot a wedding one day and an event the next, you’ll probably do OK as long as you haven’t ambitions to be a great photographer.”
Many years ago, when I was starting out,” Sumner adds, “a wise photographer advised me that one should focus in one area and aim to be in the top 5% of that field, otherwise there wasn’t any point. His rationale was that if you were in the top 5%, your name was synonymous with a certain specialism, style, or genre, and your name sprung to mind when anyone was looking to commission a shoot of that type. You were, therefore, consequently in demand, and got offered the better jobs.” Although he has never asked why he was chosen – or not chosen – for a job, because he feels it betrays a lack of confidence, Sumner feels that while social media, and Instagram in particular, has contributed to his obtaining commissions, his 20+ years of shooting good specialist work has led to his getting most assignments.
Australian lifestyle photographer, Jason Ierace believes interest ranks more highly than specialism. “I’m a lifestyle photographer and for me, lifestyle covers a lot of areas and genres,” he says. “I often get asked, ‘What do you shoot?’, and I have a hard time answering people as I shoot a lot of different things. But I guess the main common denominator is people. So, I often say I shoot people. But in saying that, I do get booked to shoot a lot of different things from general lifestyle, portraits, beauty, kids, fashion, still life, and, sometimes, interiors and food, all of which really encompasses life in general. I think you can be good in a lot of fields if you have an interest in those fields, which I do.”
Ierace adds that photography is all about composition, “the understanding of light and how it works with whatever you’re shooting, and the interaction of your subject to it. These skills can be used across any spectrum or genre. I truly believe that if you have a great understanding of those elements, you can shoot anything well.”
For Griffith, the viability of specialising depends on the size of the market you are in. “If a marketplace is big enough to support a specialist field, like there is in the United States, then I’d recommend concentrating your efforts on that specific field,” he says. “In the smaller market of Australia, it is considerably harder to maintain a sustainable income within a narrow speciality.” Griffith works in the US, across Asia, and in Australia. When it comes to getting commissions, he believes that specialists have an advantage. “Demonstrating particular experience in the subject matter is beneficial for editorial and advertising commissions,” he notes. “All clients are risk-averse and [are]rarely willing to spend money on an unknown result.”
“I have always been told that it’s better to work on your look, and being known for doing that one thing,” Ierace adds. “But I feel in Australia, if you want to be a busy working photographer, you have to be adaptable and able to do many things.” This, he has found, works for him. “I was an art director and creative director for ten years before I became a professional photographer, and I feel that having a graphic mind and an understanding of the process from start to finish has helped me cross many genres. Having the ability to shoot over multiple genres gives you the skills to adapt to any situation you are put in and produce quality work every time.” Having a wide range, he believes, is also an asset for winning editorial and advertising work. “The more you shoot,” he notes, “the more reference images you can pull to match the job put in front of you.”
Ben Cole agrees. “You can be diverse, but having specialities within the diversity is still very important especially in editorial and advertising projects, as the client normally has a specific outcome required and is looking for a photographer with specialised knowledge and specific style relating to their needs. This specialised knowledge won him two recent jobs. “The projects were a recipe style cookbook and a beverage image for the launch of a new alcohol brand. Both commissions were new business, and I was selected because my portfolio work showed off my knowledge and creative vision for the projects’ demands.” This, he notes, is the case for most new business.
Increasingly, clients are being seduced by the lure of having one photographer shoot an entire campaign, and all collateral. Usually this has a budget foundation. “The advantages for the client,” Griffith says, “are a consistency of visual approach to the subject matter.” The advantage for the photographer, he supposes, would be in applying their creative input to a range of outcomes and thereby increasing their range. But spreading yourself too thinly is a clear disadvantage, he notes. “You compromise your primary skill set. Stills photographers have a tendency to believe that they can do everything – stills, video, lighting, rigging, sound, post production. On larger campaigns, it soon becomes clear that as the brief gets bigger, the list of services you are providing increases, and the more people need to be involved to deliver a successful result.” Cole adds, “Another disadvantage is the need to continually update skills, offerings, and technical understandings. Your management skills also need to be thorough and adaptable so you can be focused on all elements of the project.”
A generalist has a wider net to cast, but it would seem that the specialist will always win in terms of quality work and job satisfaction. To end on an emotive and perhaps inspiring note, here is a statement by Parker Jones: “I have suffered, pushed, and been extremely disciplined and proactive in setting myself up to shoot high quality food images. Food, and the photography of it are my passion. Everything I have done and every cent I have earned and spent in my studio kitchen, from my props to my background collection, point straight to what I love, and what gives me my living.”
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