This topic came out of a great question from an assistant seeking some advice. The questioner was basically asking about why so-and-so in New York can shoot such-and-such (insert cool, edgy genres and topics) and have a diverse body of work while here in Chicago it can feel like buyers are more conservative and want to see only one thing from a photographer in order to want to hire them.
I see several different problems being raised here. I will discuss first: what reasoning can we apply to why certain photographers are successful and others are not so much? Second: how does a photographer successfully position herself in a market? The issue of specialization can be another entry entirely.
So who works and who doesn’t? Photography is a service that is bought and sold just like any other, so ask yourself: where do you get your haircut; go out to eat; buy your gas/groceries/clothes/furniture? Basically – where do you spend your money? Chances are, you make most of these decisions (big and small) based on how you have made them in the past, or what people you know have told you, or on some advertising or promotion you have seen, or possibly just based on price or location alone. Buyers of photography are no different. Sometimes their photography project comes down to location or price alone. Other times they want to work with someone they know and trust. Or it may be based on a referral, or some sort of advertising or promotion they saw about a photographer. Chances are, that established shooter in New York has a lot of people he/she has worked with before, a lot of people referring them, and a lot of advertising/promotion/pr in the works at all times that helps them generate business. The nice thing is, the rules are the same for all of us. If we are making great work, we just need to keep getting the word out about it. You cannot make a living as a photographer if you take great pictures but do not show them to people who might commission or buy your work.
As for the question about positioning oneself, this is a little trickier. Of course, if it were just hard work alone there would be many more people in the game right now. An important first step that many photographers skip is researching their own market. No matter how great your work is, if there is not a good set of clients that can support the work, it will probably not lead the photographer to success. Food shooters need to be in a city where a lot of food photography is shot, ditto for fashion photographers. Search workbook.com or your favorite portal and see where concentrations of specialties lie. In Chicago we only have two photographers in the beauty category, and only two in the celeb category in Workbook. That might be a hint that our density of beauty product companies and celebrities is lower than other cities. Or it could show a lack of competition and need going unfulfilled. It helps to think like a venture capitalist: if someone else showed you your own portfolio and said they would be shopping it around your city, would you bet your own money on their success?
Stay tuned for another entry on specialization.