There are two pieces of wisdom shared among photographers: (1) you need to specialize, and (2) you need to find your own style.
It makes sense. There are certain segments of the photographic market when this approach is necessary. For example, wedding or commercial photography requires a specific branding strategy without which it would be difficult to attract a new clientele. However, let’s leave aside such cases.
A similar “you must specialize or die” logic is pushed at aspiring photographers who, with their fresh eyes, can bring in new visual ideas. These newcomers often don’t know what they really like: landscape, street, travel, portraiture, etc. Unfortunately, instead of focusing on visual exploration, which encompasses all genres and types of photography, they often rush into one area much too early. What’s even worse, they may stay there for the rest of their photographic lives.
Recently, during one of my workshops, I led a group of photographers from all skill and age levels. We focused on a small, quiet plaza with few elements. I said that we were going to spend hour or two at this location. It came as a surprise to most participants because there was not much there in a traditional street-photography sense. Then, we started to explore the visuals around us. After a few minutes, participants started to create imagery which could not easily be tagged as street, travel, macro or portrait. In other words, as soon as my students stopped defining what street photography should be, their creative potential exploded.
Recently I showed a photo which was taken on the street but didn’t include any people. What’s even worse, it combined numerous elements from the street and from the interior of a store. I didn’t have to wait long before I received a note saying: “This is not street photography.” Interestingly, I never claimed that it was street photography!
One of the biggest problems with creativity is that photographers chain themselves to one genre. What’s even worse, they often opt for a strict definition of what travel, landscape or street is or isn’t. Of course, there is some conceptual value in such considerations but the loss of creative potential and personal development is just staggering.
Then, there is the notion that “you must find your style.” This usually means shooting only black and white or colour, processing the images the same way, taking portraits only, etc. In other words, “your own style” is understood in a stylistic and constricted manner.
There is another way to approach this subject. How about not defining your style by voguish choices but rather by artistic and quality considerations?
Instead of being known for black and white photography, portraits or street action shots, how about making strong compositions your marker? Maybe creating imagery which has no genre boundaries could become your style? Or maybe constant change and visual provocation (I am not talking about content provocation) could become your photographic brand?
Either way, I strongly believe that specializing too early in your hobby or career could do more damage than good. Exploring new ways of seeing, combining elements in the frame and most importantly taking visual risks should always be a high priority for every aspiring photographer. Every time I look at my imagery and see something I have done before, I know that I must fight to retain the mindset of a start-up photographer.
What is your experience? Do you find that being highly specialized is helpful or not (excluding paid or commercial work)? Do you want to explore other genres of photography but are afraid to lose your followers? What keeps you from experimenting?
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27 thoughts on “Conjuring the mindset of a start-up photographer”
There’s so much pressure to specialize, find your niche, and shoot only one thing. It has definitely hurt me in the long run. Thank you for putting words to what has been “ailing” me creatively!
Thank you for taking the time to leave this kind note. Appreciate it a lot.
Your blog posting gave me a lot to think about. I am relatively new to the scene and am trying to “find my style” or my “niche.” It is hard, especially living in a small town in a relatively sparsely populated state.
I am none of the above…. but all of the above. I am a photographer. 🙂
your post has a brilliant timing. Lately, I have been thinking about this question a lot. At the beginning of my photographic journey (4 years ago), all I was looking for were good photos of my daughter/family and friends. As I hate posed photos and my family and friends don’t like to pose either, I had to be really quick to get my shot.
Last year, I started the so called “street photography”. But honestly, I am so sick of all these talks like the one you experienced. What does make a photo a street, portrait or a landscape photograph? Certainly not some strickt “rules” invented. What makes a photograph a photograph is you, your vision, your imagination and in the end your finger on the shutter release. These days, I much rather call myself a photographer. Nothing less, nothing more. As simple as that.
You’re so right when you say one should not specialize to early. Staying open minded is the key to vision, in every respect.
I am already looking forward to your upcoming book.
“You must specialize or die” is too harsh, I think. Obviously, if you are going to go pro, you need to be a specialist in a certain thing, whether is fashion portrait or architecture or product photography or whatever. But of course you already noticed that. Here we are talking about enthusiast photographers, who shoot only for hobby. Not pros, right? 🙂
I started learning photography about 5 years ago. In the beginning, I picked street photography because it was the least gear demanding genre. You don’t need fancy camera, filter etc. Your iPhone is enough. Just go out and shoot. And I started studying the works of masters, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Daido Moriyama, Fan Ho, Garry Winogrand, and so on.
Later, I started doing landscape photography as well, inspired by great black & white photos by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, etc. This was where I started using medium format film cameras as well. Further exploration in black & white photography introduced me to another great photographers like Michael Kenna, Joel Tjintjelaar, Rupert Vandervell, Robert Adams, Frank Gohlke, and so on.
These days, I don’t classify myself as a certain genre photographer. Not a street shooter, not a landscaper, not a portraitist, etc. I simpy have my cameras ready in my bag and shoot whatever I find interesting. Maybe it’s a man running in rain. Or an empty chair in a cafe. Or some rocks on the beach. Or some cables intersecting on an utility pole.
Regarding those 2 pieces of wisdom, 1. I’m not a specialize yet, and 2. I’m still looking for my own style. In other word: simply a generalist. Yes, a generalist 🙂
Long live a generalist! It appears to me that your lack of specialization or your own style is working well for you. It is great that you have been studying the works of masters. However, I think we sometimes over-idolize some names. In the meantime there are so many young and unknown photographers who create a truly amazing work. Some of them are humble and quiet and lack some promotional skills but they are worth discovering. Soon, I will list some names on the blog. In fact, this is where I find most inspiration.
Thank you Andre for sharing your story. Look forward to our future conversations.
All the best,
So true….I have no ‘style or specialism’. I am just trying to make pictures…
Short and to the point. Thanks Peter!
This is such a true article. With street photography, there is far too much discussion on what ‘is’ or ‘is not’ street photography. Instead we just need to ask, is it an effective photo.
Well-said! Thank you for visiting.
“Instead we just need to ask, is it an effective photo”
Ah, wish I could give a “+1” on this.
We, street photography enthusiasts, probably take too many pictures of:
– people simply walking/passing by, without any interesting action/architectural context around
– reflections on mirrors/puddles
– random juxtapositions
– legs on the street
– … (insert another street photography cliches here)
I used to think street photography was easy. Now? It can be very difficult.
Indeed, street photography is difficult. Creative street photography is incredibly difficult. You are right that there are lots of visual traps and repetitions in photography mostly driven by “likes.” Therefore, we all must take more visual risks.
I think Im stuck in street photography and the thought of trying other genres or going back to travel photography never crossed my mind. I think — if photography is art — that is because of street photography. The authentic SP, that is.
Great lights and shadow you got there.
Thank you for sharing your perspective and your kind words. Would love to hear from you again.
All the best,
Reply to John Patterson. My take is that you have followed well and been rewarded in competitions. Now I hear you prepared to lead. Invite a member or a few from that camera club to go with you in a new direction. If they decline, lead a crew of one (you) where you see fit and see where that is in a year’s time as you clearly articulate. My bet is that you will prosper greatly with your plan.
I, too, considered myself landscape and followed Olaf reluctantly to the street. I didn’t get really good at it, but (surprise surprise) when I got back to landscape I discovered that I had a new and better eye for lighting and composition in landscape photography than I did before. How wonderful!
Best of luck, John, and let us know in a year where you’ve arrived.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience. Great point!
All the best,
Thank you for your encouraging words. I too have noticed that when I take landscapes now, after trying to be more creative on the street, I am more aware of light and I see opportunities that I would have ignored a year ago. An unexpected bonus.
nice work with lighting.
Your blog about the mindset of a start up photographer made me smile. I recognize every bit you say even though I am not a start up photographer. Looking for strong visuals has always been my goal without trying to put it in a genre.
See you in March in London.
Thank you so much for your kind note. Cannot wait to meet you in person.
A very good and timely article, Olaf. I am known in our camera club as a landscape photographer and I do reasonably well at club competitions. Club members seem to expect me to do landscapes but it’s not where my interests are taking me.
My problem is that I feel trapped by the landscape genre which inhibits the development of my interest in ‘street photography’. For me, this means images taken in an urban environment in which people, if they are included at all, play a supporting role as compositional elements but are not necessarily the primary subject matter. My influences are Saul Leiter (historical) and your work (contemporary). Because it’s all about creative seeing rather than capturing a shot of a waterfall, for example, I find it hard going.
Despite my past success, my ‘street’ work does not do well in competitions. This is possibly because it’s not yet very good or because the judges do not often come across it very often (pastoral images and nature shots are the norm) and expect to see more conventional work, or both.
I think I am at a crossroads and your article has helped me to clarify my thinking. My inclination is to forget about competitions, follow my interests in creative seeing and see where I am in a year’s time.
Thank you for your honesty and kind words. The fact that you’re aware of your dilemma and are willing to discuss it shows how mature your photographic persona is. I know many advanced and experienced photographers who wouldn’t even admit it.
You are not alone in this problem. I started as a landscape photographer, then I became travel photographer, only to shoot a kind of creative street photography. This change wasn’t easy but it was worth it. I understand your concerns. Let me tell you this: some photography clubs don’t usually appreciate this type of imagery as most members like landscape or visually pleasing imagery. Therefore, I would advise you to go ahead and not be afraid. You have my full support and admiration for such a move. If you would like to discuss your new work, please feel free to send it to me. Let me know how I can help you on your new photographic path.
Wishing you all the best,