Are you a photographer who drills deep and specializes in one area, or a generalist who casts a wide net and photographs everything?
Sometimes specialists and generalists have a hard time understanding each other’s approach. To the generalist, you’re too narrow, and to the specialist, you need to settle down and find your niche.
There are arguments (many of them coming down to skill level or money) as to why you should be one or the other. But I think that being a generalist or a specialist is connected with your nature as a person. If you’re a generalist at heart, try as you may, you’ll likely never specialize. If you’re a specialist, you’ll never see the sense of photographing such a wide variety of subject matter. And that’s okay. You can love what you do either way, and you can make a living with it either way.
Let’s look at the nature of specialist and generalist photography and discover the value of each. Understanding what you were built for will give you the confidence to stop doubting your approach and move forward with purpose. You’ll also better appreciate what other photographers are up to, even if you feel like the opposite of them.
A specialist digs deep into one area of photography and masters a constantly growing number of details. Things are often more predictable for the specialist, they know all the ins and outs of their branch and style of photography.
It may be the same subject matter over and over but the variety is in the details. This may sound rather monotonous to the generalists, but there is great joy in digging deep for the specialist.
As a result, specialists have a clear niche. It’s never in question, it’s never difficult to explain what they do.
Specialist photographers are organized and excellent at managing their shoots because they’ve done it the same way so many times. They notice the tiniest details that the generalist easily overlooks (and perhaps doesn’t see the importance of). There is often more concern about the details of this one branch of photography than the big picture of photography in general.
As a specialist, you may photograph the same thing for your whole life or career. It’s not that you never try anything new, it’s that you have drilled deeply into one thing and know it well. You are also well-known for it. As a specialist you can say, this is what I’m good at, this is what I do.
- Richard Avedon – fashion and portrait photography
- Diane Arbus – B&W portraits of people on the fringes of society
- Ansel Adams – B&W landscape photography
Generalists work with many different types of photography. If you’re a generalist, you’re happy to learn from all the specialists, but can’t narrow it down to one thing yourself. You can’t help but photograph whatever ends up in front of your lens. Photography is unpredictable, and spontaneous for generalists. You never know what the day is going to look like. Newborns, landscapes or sports cars could be your next project!
There is a good chance that your specialist photographer friends will find your approach a little too chaotic or whimsical. On the other hand, they may envy you a bit as you seem so free to explore. Perhaps the same way you envy them for their deep technical skills in areas that you tend to skim over.
Generalists are a little more comfortable with the chaos and unpredictability of pursuing different types of photography. There is a great joy in the variety of discovery for the generalist.
As a generalist, you should certainly stick with one thing until you get good at it. But it definitely be will more about learning the principles of photography and then applying them broadly, rather than digging in as deep as you can. You’re more “big picture” than detail-oriented.
You’re often exploring, experimenting, and consolidating what you’ve learned, then repeating the process until a distinct body of work begins to appear over time.
You can’t stick to one thing because so many things excite you. But look for the common link in your work. For me, it’s awkward, candid, gritty, real human nature. Even a landscape has got to have character.
As a generalist, you will shoot your own style across many types of photography. You accept the joy and challenge of applying techniques to new unexpected situations. Even if you feel overwhelmed, leap in, and figure it out.
Among DPS writers, have a look at Andrew Gibson. Then lookup:
- Steve McCurry
- Joe McNally
- Jay Maisel
Is one way the right way?
Sometimes generalists feel inferior because they don’t have an obvious specialty. They are often referred to as a “Jack of all trades, but master of none.”
The specialist can confidently say, “I shoot stylized, strobe-lit weddings.” While the generalist says, “I do weddings too… and newborns and sports cars and landscapes and, and, and.”
But here is what they have in common. They have both studied light, moment, color and gesture among other things. But one applies that knowledge deeply in one specific scenario, while the other applies it broadly in many scenarios.
So the generalist is not so much a “Jack of all trades” but someone who has ‘mastered’ light (as has the specialist) and applies the knowledge more broadly.
It’s not that either approach is right or wrong. They are different paths. They are different ways to explore, learn and apply.
Being a generalist doesn’t mean that people can’t point to anything specific about your work. And being a specialist doesn’t mean that you never try anything different. But you can find a home in either approach and visit the other every now and then.
So which are you; a generalist or a specialist?