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?
It’s time to share some imagery.
San Francisco – November 2018
Sydney – late 2018
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