Is it Best to be a Specialist or a Generalist?

The poll this week is an open ended question. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but I can never convince myself to form an opinion.

Is it best to be a specialist or a generalist?

A Specialist is somebody who focuses their photography on a very specific topic or style, while a generalist is somebody who has no single specialty. I could argue for one or the other depending on my mood at that moment, but I keep coming back to “no opinion”.

Specialists can have a very recognizable body of work based on subject matter or photographic style. This can be good if you want to have your name associated with that subject or style. But it could be bad if you don’t want to feel limited to that one thing.

Generalists are often less recognizable because they cover so many different subjects and their style can be varied to suit the need of the subject. This can be good if you like doing something different all the time. But it could be bad if you find that you’re never well known for any one thing in particular.

I see myself as a generalist — film, digital, b/w, color, street, macro, landscape, portrait, architecture, candid, sport, etc. I’ll basically shoot anything that comes my way with whatever camera I happen to have in my hands. And yet all along, I feel like I should be focusing on something more specific in order to take myself to the “next level”… whatever that means. I think I’m giving up on trying to define my photography — I’ll just let it do its own thing.

What about you guys? How do you see yourselves? Are you striving to become one or the other? Do you feel one is better than the other? Do we even have a choice in the matter?

21 thoughts on “Is it Best to be a Specialist or a Generalist?

  1. Chris Mc Roberts

    Definitely a Generalist. I just like trying out new things. I’m still pretty new to photography so maybe I just need to find something I really want to be a Specialist in. Time will show ;)

  2. Daniel Yee

    I think you should be a generalist with a specialty. IE, you should be able to shoot anything that comes along and do it well, but that one specialty you do REALLY well. Being a specialist and only a specialist in that area puts you in a pigeon-hole – sort of like actors. And well, it just becomes boring and predictable, IMHO.

    As for not having a set “style” as a generalist isn’t entirely true. I’ve shot a wide range of subjects from portraits to landscapes and most of the people who are familiar with my work can pretty much tell which photographs are mine. Though, on the other hand, the base style of a generalist will adapt as you said to the subject at hand.

  3. Tuffer

    I was just wondering this exact question (well, not exact, but close). I was thinking about it terms of “getting a break” in photography. If you’re new, obviously there are a million things you should do to get recognized and you should work hard. But for that “lucky break”, is it better to have a website or portfolio that presents many different styles to increase the chance that someone finds something they like? Or, is it better to stick to a unique interesting, singular style that won’t appeal to everyone but when someone sees it that does like it, you are thier perfect specialist.

    The first seems more logical (appeal to more people, have a better chance). But it seems you always here stories of people that mainly shoot “x” which gets them thier first job that eventually makes it all happen for them.

  4. John

    Daniel Yee took the words right out of mouth. Generalist with a speciality. I think you’ll find that most of the supposed specialist are really generalists in their own mind but seem to have a special knack for one thing over the rest.

  5. Kristi

    You can be a generalist and look like a specialist. (smile)

    I have a website for 3D work, one for film/video, one for glamour/retouching/portrait, one for weddings, one for stock. . . . . . . . . Then you just direct the client to the appropriate website.

  6. Janne

    From everything I’ve heard, talking to working photographers, if you want to make a profession out of photography you absolutely must be a specialist and stick to it tightly. And usually it’s a very narrow field you should aim for.

    If your specialty is shooting pipe fittings and related tools for plumbing manufacturers’ catalogs you should probably avoid shooting bearings or pneumatic valves lest your clients think you’re not focused and dedicated enough. Trying to have an “artistic” sideline of your own can kill your client list – and career – in ten seconds flat if a client gets hold of your artistic nudes or contemplative suicide scenes, so if you want to make steady money with photography, expect to treat it as a day job, not a hobby with an income.

    For us hobbyists, well, I kind of want to aim for “serial specialist”. Try to focus on one aspect of photography for a while, and see what you can learn. Then take a step to the side and try out some other form for a while. Me, I utterly fail at actually doing this of course but I still think it’s a good idea.

  7. Joseph Szymanski

    Having been cited above as somewhat of a specialist, I thought I’d throw my two-cents in…

    I think everyone has a specialty, that being whatever makes up the majority of their body of work. A style on the other hand, is a specific approach to whatever subject matter you happen to be photographing that is reflected in the final product, through choice of tools, materials, execution and presentation.

    The two are very different, but of course, go hand in hand. You can’t really have one without the other, although both are typically developed over time, and will always evolve. At least that’s the way I’ve always thought of it…

  8. Brian Auer Post author

    @Chris I think time is definitely a huge factor when it comes to specializing.

    @Daniel Yeah, as Joseph mentioned, subject and style are probably two different things. Some people can shoot a wide variety of subjects and still have a very distinct style.

    @Tuffer You may be right about those who “catch a break” being more specialized in their genre and style. You don’t see a lot of overnight success stories on people who are a “jack of all trades.”

    @John You’ve brought up a good point — photographers view themselves far differently than others do. Even the specialists probably feel that their work is somewhat general in nature.

    @Andrew Nothing wrong with being selfish!

    @Kristi That may be a good compromise, but Janne brings up a good point about this type of thing.

    @the_wolf_brigade You’re the ultimate specialist of using a different camera each week. I don’t know how you do it, dude!

    @Janne Very good point — there’s a difference between amateur and professional. But even some pros are considered to be generalists — Joe McNally is a good example. Sure, he’s a photojournalist, but he’s covered such a wide array of topics and subjects in his career. He even considers himself to be a generalist. And yeah, the “serial specialist” seems to be the way of the amateur. I’m still doing this sort of thing (and I love it).

    @Joseph Agreed, subject and style specialization are two very different things. But they do seem to follow each other. You, for example, are known as a street photographer. You’re also known for your high contrast b/w film photos. To tell you the truth, if you posted a color photo of a pretty landscape, I might not recognize it as yours. The thought of such a thing just seems so out of place — not that you couldn’t do it.

    After hearing the comments thus far, I think I’m going to fall back on my feelings that we should just keep shooting and let everything else fall in to place. Forcing a specialty or style will only end up yielding poor results with a lot of wasted effort.

  9. Richard Wong

    A lot of “specialists” are known for what they are for commercial reasons. Another reason could be they only are interested in one or several things.

    The problem with being a “generalist” from the get-go is that many never devote enough energy to focusing on anything for long enough to ever develop their own vision.

    For myself, landscape / nature was the reason why I got into photography. After a while though I wanted to find my own way and worked to develop other skills. Landscape is still my passion but I think pursuing other avenues has given me a broader perspective than I would have otherwise.

  10. Gary

    Interesting post Brian….

    I think it would be obvious to anyone looking at my flickrstream that I am a generalist. When I find things that interest me, I shoot them.

    I kind of think that photographers follow a path. Most begin as generalists, but then become more specialized as they find something they love, or something they can make money at.

    But I don’t think that one is better than the other. Photography is art, so everyone so do what makes them happy!

  11. woonie

    As a teenager, I consider myself more of a generalist as I’m still experimenting with different types of photography, including concerts, sports, street, candid, architecture, film/digital, BW/colour etc.
    I’m looking into specializing in one field in the future (though that does not mean completely giving up on the other aspects), though I’m not sure which right now.

    To quote people above me, I would eventually be more of a generalist with a specialty.

  12. Air Jordans

    I feel like it definitely pays to be a specialist in a small niche. once you have enough money to do what you want, then becoming a generalist is a a safe bet.

  13. Claude Angers

    I think you can be a generalist with your own signature. I mean some people could guess that you took a certain picture because through the years you have developed a certain style. I enjoy people photography as well as landscapes and stilll lifes. It’s just fun to do many things in photography and through sites like these I learn something new every day.

  14. Victor Bezrukov

    Generalist… !
    Love black and white, but sometimes deeply colored picture, trying night urban photography, just street life , or still life, or portraits (my favorite theme) …. in other words – lots of subjects and styles.. :-)

  15. Andrew M

    I started off as a specialist, shooting water ski racing, mostly because I enjoy the sport, but also figured that there was a captive marketing opportunity.

    I subsequently discovered that despite spending tens of thousands of dollars per year enjoying their sport, most people are not prepared to spend $10 on a photograph of their pride and joy…

    Moving on, I’ve become more of a generalist, tending towards candid street and situation photography, as I enjoy reviewing and printing this style of image…

    I believe the market (especially in Australia) is becoming saturated with photographers claiming to be “event” photographers – portrait, weddings, and the like, but at the end of the day, anyone hoping to make a dollar or two out of their work truly just generalizes.

  16. Latterkonsulent Peter

    I am not a photographer, so it is quite interesting to see this discussion through your lens, so to speak.
    I can’t count the number of times I have had this discussion with my friends within the area of project management.

    Personally i am a great believer in being a generalist. This can involve specialising for something for a period of time. But i would never have only one speciality.

    I don’t know if it apply in your field, I think that a will always be more fun to be a generalist.


  17. Mattias Wirf

    I think you can get stuck if you specialize. It’s the same with painting. Try other things, and you will benefit with knowledge and ideas. I’m certainly a generalist, but somewhat limited by my gear (I have no studiolighting and flashes).

  18. Maureen Bond

    I am a generalist with some specialties that I do enjoy to photograph a bit more or because I feel like I do it well.
    I carry a camera with me at all times because I shoot whatever I find or strikes me. Some of my best shots I feel come from this approach. Many folks have said some very interesting things and reminds me that we all are individuals which makes our art even more unique.

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