Stephen F. Dennstedt
Photographer, Writer, World Traveller
What kind of photographer are you and does it really matter? The world of photography covers such a broad range of genres that there’s room for everyone. Like doctors of medicine many photographers seem desperate to find a specialty early on, and the label generalist is often viewed as a pejorative term. The thinking seems to be: you can’t really become good at something unless you specialize. Balderdash.
I find that kind of thinking limiting in so many ways, and in our creative brains limiting ourselves is generally not a good idea. Limits are an integral part of living in so-called society and within the rules that govern our lives, but in our heads (where creativity takes place) there should be no limits—we should be free to soar like the eagles. Without dreams, without imagination, without creativity life is a dismal affair at best.
I’m not a total pie-in-sky idealist, I am fully aware of the practicalities of earning a living, putting food on the table. Earning a full-time living through creative effort alone can be exceedingly difficult, a daunting task. Is there a place for specialization? The obvious answer is: of course. What I’m talking about, more than anything, is the angst new or recreational photographers feel about discovering a photographic specialty and/or style.
The first big split in photography comes when you reach the fork in the road that separates the amateur from the professional. This has nothing to do with competency or creative talent, but has everything to do with how you make your day-to-day living. In the days of film the label professional used to guarantee a certain level of technical and artistic competency, but with digital technology this has changed (dramatically in some instances).
It’s hard to believe, but in this day and age there are photographers who pass themselves off as professionals (because they shoot the occasional wedding, birthday, or social event for money) who lack the basics of photographic technique. This is the exception to the rule, but disappointing nonetheless. On the other hand there are amateur photographers who absolutely knock my socks off with their talent and technical competency.
Professional photographers typically declare a specialty once they start earning their living with a camera. They strive to find their niche and slant their entire marketing effort towards that niche. There is a tried and true marketing practicality to this approach. Customers are looking for consistency of product: subject matter, technical proficiency, style, and creative inspiration. They want to point to images in a portfolio and say: I want that.
Amateurs are free to do their own thing, they are not locked into their customer’s expectations and constraints. Amateurs have freedom that most professionals don’t enjoy. Professionals often face ethical issues surrounding their craft: when does customer necessity (or want) trump artistic/creative value? The customer is paying hard-earned cash for a product and service, and at that point photographers become hired hands.
I spent a year as the staff photographer and photojournalist for a Mexican newspaper in Yucatan. I lost the freedom to take the kinds of photos I wanted to take, and each image had to pass editorial scrutiny. What I thought was an excellent photo didn’t matter any longer, it’s what the editor thought was an appropriate photo. Excellent didn’t always equal appropriate (for a newspaper). I had the financial independence to walk away and I did.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a rewarding and educational experience. Running with the Big Dogs taught me a lot about deadlines, inserting myself into political and social situations (politicos and the rich & famous), getting the money shot, and how to make my case to the editor. And finally, acceptance that not every great photo was going to get used. But what I really learned was I lacked the temperament to compromise my work.
Turning professional is a dream come true for many aspiring photographers, it was certainly a dream of mine. But the reality is often quite different from the dream (as so often happens in life). To be a professional photographer is to be a business person, and not necessarily an artist. I love both aspects of photography, both the creative and business side, but not everyone does. That’s why I caution people not to become too specialized too soon.
I would suggest that letting your photography take its natural course, evolving over time, is a smart way to go. Rather than tilting at windmills like some photographic Don Quixote, let your natural ability and creative genius percolate up from your inner being naturally. Don’t be the anguished errant Knight, but rather the enlightened Buddha. Your style, your specialty, your niche in photography will manifest itself on its own. It’s the nature of all things.
Here are some practical suggestions that have become almost cliché. Before agonizing over a specialty, a style, or a niche; before choosing a professional or amateur path, focus on the basics. That’s why masters had apprentices—to teach. You don’t become an accomplished dragon-slaying Knight all at once, first you have to spend time as the Squire that learns from the Knight.
Take a camera (any camera) EVERYWHERE you go. Don’t let your photo-op be the fish that got away—the best photo opportunities present themselves when you don’t have your camera with you (it’s an unwritten karmic rule of a photographic life). You gotta trust me on this one (it’s absolutely true).
Snap the shutter. Pull the car to the side of the road, end your cellphone conversation, step in that mud puddle, embarrass yourself, do whatever you have to do to get the shot. An unsnapped shutter is just another fish that got away. People don’t want to hear about it they want to SEE it.
Snap the shutter all the time. Digital is cheap (unlike film). Shoot thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of images. Don’t worry about genres, styles, or anything else. Just push that damn button. You’re going to trash most of your images, but the more you shoot the more your keeper rate goes up.
Learn from others—the Knight and Squire approach. Engage with photographers you admire and learn from them. Unfortunately not every photographer is generous in that regard, but as a whole photographers are pretty cool people. Don’t copy but apply your own creative insights to the various methods and techniques you come across.
Don’t lock yourself into a speciality or niche (unless you’re a professional trying to make a living). Do it all and don’t limit yourself. Being proficient in one genre generally improves your performance in the other genres. There is nothing shameful about being a generalist. Limits don’t nurture the creative spirit, exploration and innovation do.
I could go on and on with more suggestions learned over a lifetime of shooting, but half the fun is learning them for yourself. This is the best time for photographers and photography. I have favorite genres that have evolved over my shooting career (wildlife, travel, and street photography), but I still do it all. I make money with my photography, but I no longer wish to work for others (no more newspapers in my future). I don’t have to comprise photographic integrity for the almighty buck. Now get out there and shoot.