I’ve been wanting to write about how I found my niche in this industry, and how you can find yours, for a long time. This series will be four parts long: Part 1 – Preface to finding your niche || Part 2 – Why specialize? || Part 3 – How I found my niche || Part 4 – Finding yours!
This week, to end the series, I want to talk about some ways you can figure out what your niche might be. It’s really going to boil down to a lot of self-reflection, examination, and research on who’s doing what in your market. Basically… a lot of homework. Figuring out what you want to focus on and devote your career to shooting isn’t easy. It’s a process that can take years – it certainly did for me. And it’s not something you necessarily want to rush into. You need to make sure you have a viable business model before you jump into something – so make sure you crunch the numbers and come up with a really good marketing strategy before you give up shooting everything else and focus on one thing. Because it’s incredibly risky. Giving up big weddings was absolutely terrifying; what if I was wrong and I couldn’t sustain myself on elopements alone? Be prepared for the bad, for the risk… and when things go well, it will make it that much more of a satisfying victory. And also, I hope this goes without saying, but make sure you LOVE shooting whatever you decide to focus on. I have said it over and over and over during this series, and I’m going to say it one more time, because it’s important – if you don’t LOVE LOVE LOVE what you decide to photograph for a living, you will burn yourself out, and it will be as soul crushing as any desk job you can find.
So… finding your niche. How do we do that? Let’s take it step by step.
At first… photograph everything! I know this sort of goes against the idea of specializing, but it’s a really important first step. Try your hand at portraits by asking friends of different ages/life stages to model for you – families, newborns, engaged couples, kids. See if you can second or third shoot a wedding. It will help you figure out what you love doing, as well as what you don’t love. And knowing what you don’t like to photograph is just as important as knowing what you do like to photograph. The only way to solve that puzzle is to get out there and shoot, shoot, shoot. This process can take a long time – it should take a long time – and I think one important question to ask yourself as you go through this process is… “Do I not like to photograph X because I just genuinely don’t like it, or because I’m not good at it yet?” There are things that I started out not enjoying because I had no idea what I was doing and how to get the result I wanted. So I thought I hated shooting these things. Years later, those things that I thought I disliked, I actually love because I have gotten better at my craft. So before you give something up, just make sure it’s not just because you’re not good at it yet. If you’re not good at something – keep practicing. Study the principles of photography. Ask another photographer for help. You might surprise yourself down the road when you realize, “Oh, now that I know how to do this, I love it!”
When you’re photographing an event, pay attention to how you’re feeling. How do you feel during the getting ready, the portraits, the ceremony, the family portraits, the reception…? What aspect of wedding photography are you drawn to during the day – the photojournalism, the portraiture, the food photography? During post production, really examine which part of the day you were being the most creative. Where are you capturing the most dynamic images? Are there parts of the day that you just weren’t into and it shows? Think about the way you feel photographing one wedding versus another – are there specific venues or types of weddings that you prefer? Maybe you love photographing weddings on farms or vineyards, but you’re just not into hotel or country club weddings. Maybe your speciality is going to be in the types of venues you photograph at. Or the size of the weddings you photograph – maybe you love huge weddings and dislike shooting small ones. If you’re a portrait photographer… how are you feeling when you photograph whole families or newborns or couples? Is it just a total chore to you to photograph families? Do you just love working with newborns, but have a hard time working with couples? Be honest with yourself – don’t think about what’s going to bring you the most money down the road. What makes you feel happy when you photograph it? What doesn’t? Your niche is hidden in the answer to that question, I bet.
Examine your personality and play to your strengths. Are you having a hard time photographing children because you just can’t connect with them? Do you feel awkward around them? That will show in your photographs. Are you outgoing? Are you shy? Do you feel overwhelmed trying to command the attention of a large group of people? Can you make people laugh? Your personality is going to affect your work in a HUGE way, particularly if you’re a wedding or portrait photographer. The connection you have with your clients – or lack thereof – is going to show in your work. I’m not saying a shy person can’t be a good wedding photographer – I’m a very shy person, but there’s “wedding photographer Katie Jane,” and “everyday, shy Katie Jane.” I really had to force myself out of my comfort zone, learning to command a little more attention, and cultivating a more confident personality when I work. I found that as my work got better, my confidence was less faked and more natural, because I am confident in my work and what I’m doing now. But if you look at my work from my first year (which you can’t, because none of it’s online anymore – ha!), I feel like the photographs are a little flatter because I couldn’t figure out how to make that connection with my clients, and I wasn’t totally confident in what I was asking them to do. So if you’re having a hard time photographing children because you can’t make that connection… ask yourself how you can get past that. And if you can’t, maybe that’s not where your specialty lies.
Ask yourself what other artists inspire you and what kind of work you’re drawn to. Are you totally obsessed with fashion photography, but you’ve been trying to photograph weddings as a true photojournalist? Do you keep taking really posed family photographs, but you’re drawn to photographs of families that are a little more natural and relaxed? Practice changing your approach to photography with friends/family. If you’re drawn to more dramatic images, maybe you need to learn more about the different types of lighting that are out there. It is natural for one’s style to evolve as we learn more about ourselves as photographers and the kind of photography we like. Don’t let yourself get pigeonholed because you started your career doing one specific thing – you might find out your specialty is really this approach to photography that you’ve been constantly drawn to, but never tried yourself.
Start examining your personal projects. What are you shooting just for fun? Do you find yourself expressing your creativity through your personal work, and not so much through your paid work? Why is that? How can you incorporate the two? Small disclaimer with this one: It is really important to have personal projects that aren’t related to work, so before you decide to become a travel photographer because that’s what your personal project has been about… make sure that turning the thing you photograph for fun into your career, won’t suck the joy out of it. A lot of personal projects should just be personal projects – that’s totally ok. But you may want to look at the way you approach your personal projects and see if there’s something there that you can bring to your paid work.
Finally, you need to know your market. Research, research, research. Is there a hole to be filled? Are there a lot of people photographing weddings/portraits the same way? Is there space for someone to come in and change the game? How would you approach things differently? What makes you totally different from everyone else in your town – your work, your personality, your approach…? When I became an elopement photographer, there were definitely other elopement photographers – it was nothing totally new – but there was nobody doing it the way I wanted to do it. I found a hole, and I filled it. I’m willing to bet there’s some kind of hole in your market; maybe you need to think outside the box.
Your niche may not end up being something as specific as “elopement photographer” or “birth photographer” or “proposal photographer.” It could be something a little bit broader – “wedding photojournalist” comes to mind. And I said it at the beginning, but I’ll say it again… not everyone needs a very specific specialty. If you are doing just fine photographing a little bit of everything, I am in no way, shape, or form saying you need to give that up and specialize. I don’t know you or your market. This whole series was about what worked for me, and if you can get something out if it, that’s awesome. If you can’t… that’s fine too. I just wanted to share my experience in how I came to specialize in something so specific.
One more thought… I do think that if you are going to focus on several different things in your business, it might be good to separate them a little bit. I don’t photograph enough families for it to warrant giving them an entire side website – but you might. And you probably don’t want your boudoir work on the same page as your newborn photography. So consider having a few different websites under the main umbrella of your business name if you’re working in a lot of different areas. I think it will help you more easily find a target audience for each of those specialties.
I just want to thank all of you so much who have commented and emailed me about how much you’ve enjoyed this series. It’s really meant a lot to me. I have no idea whether any of this was actually beneficial or not, but I’ve loved writing it, and I’ve found that throughout this, I really have a passion for helping other photographers grow their businesses. Later this fall, I am going to start a mentoring program, so I can work one on one with some other photographers who may need a little marketing/SEO help or who are just starting out and having trouble figuring out where to begin, so keep an eye out if that’s something you think you may be interested in. I’ll be accepting applications in a few months.
I’d love to write some more educational posts on here, and I definitely have some ideas, but if you have a specific question or aspect of photography you’d be interested in hearing more about, please feel free to let me know in the comments, and you may just see a post about it down the road. Once again, you guys are awesome, and I am so grateful for the lovely response I’ve had to this whole series. If you feel like I left something huge out – and I may very well have – please let me know in the comments or drop me an email.