To specialise or generalise?

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The work of a generalist, or a specialist in seeking abstraction?

There’s always been a slightly inaccurate preconception in any field that a specialist must be better than a generalist – surely, if you’ve done something a thousand times, you’d be better at it than somebody who’s done it ten times? Today, from a photographic standpoint, I’m actually going to argue against this – albeit with a very specific set of caveats.

A specialist, by broad definition, is a person who focuses on one narrow range of activities or disciplines at the expense of others. It means you know everything there is to know about the workings of the liver, but might have no clue about the skeleton since there aren’t any bones in the liver (at least there shouldn’t be, in a healthy person). Photographically, you might be able to nail a bird in flight at 10 yards with a manual focus telephoto, handheld, but architecture might be a bit of a stretch. Plausible? Feasible? Yes, and very common. The way most of us live – or more accurately, juggle the things that make up life – there’s not a lot of time left to spend on any one pursuit except perhaps our day jobs. Though there’s this popular notion going around (blame Malcom Gladwell, I believe) of needing north of 10,000 hours to be an expert, and 30,000 to be a master – the reality is that you’re not going to develop expertise by wishing or theorizing.

There are many obvious reasons why it’s good to be a specialist: fluidity of performing a task; the ability to do it to a higher level than anybody else, which in turn makes your opinion and skills commercially valuable. It makes your life easier. It makes the task predictable. People respect you. Surely those are reasons enough?

Actually, no. I think there are more disadvantages to too narrow a focus than advantages. The very thing that makes being a specialist so appealing – fluidity and skill at performing in a certain situation or at a certain task – means that you’re also going to hit a brick wall. It means that if you shoot only flowers, you’re one day going to have pretty much shot every single flower from every single possible angle with every possible lighting setup you can conceive, be able to do it repeatably and predictably, and then the challenge will no longer exist. The very motivation that drove you to seek expertise in the first place will have evaporated, and you’ll be bored. Granted, it takes a lot of time and effort to get to that point, but it’s definitely possible. I’ve shot over a thousand watches in my career, most of them in dozens of angles; I no longer photograph them for fun. I think that should say a lot: I can deliver whatever output the client needs, but there are only so many possible combinations of position, light and magnification that exist especially when the fundamental form of the object is the same. If I’d only ever shot watches, I think I’d be having the photographic equivalent of a midlife crisis about now.

Photographing a few different subjects – the more diverse, the better – gives you the ability to transfer specific skills from one to the other. I can apply my knowledge of lighting watches to food and architecture, for instance; I can apply my understanding of perspectives and natural light from architecture to landscapes. And I can use the anticipation and stealth skills I learned from stalking birds to be a better street photographer or photojournalist. Ultimately, this is what you want – no, need – to make images that stand out. There is simply no way you can find a unique perspective or interpretation of something if that something is all you have ever seen. Much like how the personality and preferences of an individual is a derivative of all of their life experiences to date up to that point, our photographic view of the world is influenced by the things we’ve seen and shot thus far. I wouldn’t attempt food or watches with cinematic lighting, for instance, if I hadn’t already been exploring that style of reportage. It’s not just perspective, style or presentation either – it’s also about developing a consistent and controllable workflow, as well as mastering your equipment (and other dedicated equipment such as perspective control lenses, off-camera flash, etc.).

On the topic of style, we add another set of variables to the mix – you’ve got subjects, the typical presentations that are ‘traditionally’ expected – photojournalism in high contrast monochrome with wide angles, for instance – and then you’ve got the option for the cross-application of styles across different subjects and genres. Photojournalism in a cinematic style, for instance; or architecture in high contrast monochrome. They don’t always work of course, but you need to try it to know that – and in order to try it, you need to be familiar enough with the typical scenario that you can apply the hallmarks of that style to what might potentially be a very different environment. It all comes back to uniqueness again – or specifically, the end objective of making an outstanding image.

Don’t misinterpret this, however: I am by no means advocating being a generalist and lacking depth in anything. You’ll just land up being mediocre across the board. And that never got anybody anywhere, except perhaps politics or an endgame of middle management. From the non-professional’s point of view, what it means is that you should try a variety of different subjects and photographic situations; you don’t have to spend so long on them until you can compete at a world-class level, but long enough that you feel reasonably confident of getting the shot in the typically encountered situations (e.g. for wildlife, bird in swamp, bird in flight, charging elephant, small fish etc.) Then, move on: you don’t really have the luxury of time, but at the same time, it has to remain fun. Chasing down that last 5% difference can take an entire lifetime, even for the pros. Instead, being reasonably handy in a wide variety of photographic situations means that you’re far more likely to be able to come back with a image you’re happy with when the opportunity presents itself – because that’s also likely to be when you’re able to shoot. It’s also one of the reasons that all of my Making Outstanding Images workshop and video series modules are subject independent.

It’s a bit different for the professional, though – we have a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, clients still seem to prefer specialists at first – but on the other hand, we need to diversify both so that we have a constant stream of income, but also to avoid creative stagnation. It’s a tough line to balance: present too narrow a portfolio, and you’ll be thought of as too specialized; too wide a range and you won’t be expert enough for their chosen subject matter. I’ve found the only solution to this is to present a moderately diverse public portfolio, but tailor one specifically for each prospective client or pitch. In the end, this strategy works time and again simply because it is the person with the most different viewpoints to draw on who will create the most unique images – back to square one again. In fact, I tend to find that clients who hired me for one thing will land up using me for a whole bunch of other things, too – I started off photographing watches for some of the Richemont brands, but landed up also doing boutique interiors and architecture…

Even with the amount of time I spend on photography, I estimate I have no more than about 25,000 hours under my belt. There are of course other factors such as the quality of the time you spend, how fast you learn, how much introspection and analysis takes place, and whether or not you get any external feedback – but I think you get the idea. Ideally, we’d all like to be experts or masters at everything, but there’s simply not enough hours in a lifetime for that. In the end, it boils down to balance: have enough diversity to avoid being boring, and to avoid being bored. But not so much that you have no real focus or depth…now, remind me how to walk a creative tightrope again? MT

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Comments

  1. Great essay, Ming! As others have said, your insights into the creative process certainly apply to a broad spectrum of the arts, music, literature, and even technology. Many of the great masters, although certainly not all, have intuitively sensed when they had no more to say in a given genre and moved on. There is a joke among classical musicians (attributed by some to Igor Stravinsky) that “Vivaldi didn’t write five hundred concertos, but the same concerto five hundred times!” He was a great composer, but the point was that a much smaller percentage of his tremendous output ending up being viewed as masterpieces. I wonder if artists themselves in the best position to know what are the really great works in their portfolios, or if it requires an appreciative public, over time, to point this out to them and/or to later generations? Thanks for sharing! You’ve got everyone thinking now.

    • Thank you. I think that’s the case for photographers too: think of the really famous ones; even the most prolific of them only have a small handful of truly well-known images – in a similar way to how musicians are famous for only one or two hits even. It’s only the serious fans who remember or care…

  2. Ming,

    Very glad that you generalize. It is a wonderful approach. It also makes your videos work well for any subject.

    • Some principles are universal across all subjects/ genres of photography – e.g. the necessity for light that fits your subject and artistic intention; subject isolation etc…

  3. I’m going to provisionally suggest that it is indeed better to be a generalist. Here’s the proviso: …but have a couple of areas of specialty/preference/expertise within that generalist field.

    As you stated, Ming, I think the big advantage with being a generalist is problem-solving skills across a broader range. You’re more well-rounded. Why is this advantageous. Because within a single discipline, one style can often inform another.

    Biology, chemistry and physics require a basic grounding in mathematics.

    Political science is an untenable study if one has no background in history.

    These are not precise parallels I’m drawing, but I think the basic concept is the same.

    I remember when I was forced to study algebra in Grade 12. It seemed ridiculous to me. Not because algebra was intrinsically stupid (even though I thought adding letters together at the time WAS stupid), but because I couldn’t fathom where or when I would ever use it in my life (maths and sciences were not to be career choices for me, after all). So why force all the students to study it?

    It wasn’t until years later that I realized why we’d all had to take it.

    Because algebra helps the brain learn how to problem-solve.

    Being a competent generalist photographer is foundational in the same way, IMHO.

    • Neatly put, Robert. It’s just that we can’t appear to be generalists to our clients, else they think they’re not getting the expertise of a specialist :P

      • Seems like a client would be inclined to pay less if they think you are a generalist. This conversation naturally gravitated towards commercial photography, but it seemed to me that Ming was also talking about one’s own personal photography as well. Specialize in one or two areas commercially that requires similar skills, for example, but peruse your “most current” passion on your own. You may eventually become an expert in one of those as well, eventually. It also seems to me that the better clients would want to foster creativity to distinguish their product–and it’s best, most unique features–from all the others. I’m also reminded here of the old advice about only doing business with people you like. If you don’t, both of you will fail and it will hurt your own business in the long run.

        • There are not that many of the ‘best’ clients unfortunately – I don’t think it’s possible to survive on those alone. At least, I am nowhere near that level myself.

  4. Those 10,000 hours will disappear like a wind when I do photographic work that I really like. This is maybe the most important question to ask oneself. “What do I like to do?”

    So many photographers specialize within one field because they believe it will give the best return on their investment. But if there’s no love for that area involved, the hours will soon feel very long and they will never reach the top. At the same time, I agree wholeheartedly that being too specialized is very dangerous, unless I’m one of a dozen or so photographers in this world who can charge a zillion per day. I’ve seen some food and wedding photographers in that category, but I’m afraid it doesn’t apply to myself. Most of my own commercial work is industrial, but I wouldn’t get very far if I couldn’t take decent product shots and portraits as well. During a job, there will always be someone at the client’s office who’ll come forward and say something like: “Since you’re here anyway, we need some new portraits of the management for a conference next week…”. Or: “We need photos on a white background from 398 angles of this new steam driven spectral analyzer thing. Our customer is waiting for the photos in Carpetisthan right now.” One can always say no, but you know what will land you the next job with that client.

    • Even if you only offer one ‘subject’, having experience with other subjects is definitely valuable because it gives you both a different perspective and the ability to apply other approaches to boost creativity. This is also how advances are made in other fields – ironically to be a good specialist, you also need to be a good generalist. You just can’t tell anybody about it :)

  5. One of the most frustrating aspects of the commercial music business is that clients want to see their idea already executed. In other words, diversity isn’t important and specializing per se isn’t important, they literally want to see that you’ve already executed their idea. It’s the most limiting approach of all. I’ve had sport shoe clients ask me if I’ve ever worked on sport shoes and ask me to make a sports shoe reel as if the music for sports shoes is generalized. It’s the craziest thing. One might have an orchestral approach on one and a rock or hip/hop track on another. But you won’t get the gig if you haven’t composed sport shoe spots!

    Given this reality, I find that extreme diversity of a portfolio is definitely helpful. Work on enough products in enough styles and you’ll at least be able to show a body of work that can make you look very experienced if not expert in a particular subject or genre. Not only does it keep one from burning out, but it’s fun to switch gears and often the result is a amalgamation of things you’ve learned from many past and specific instances that allow you to show something truly original!

    • I can totally relate to that, Roger. It’s as though they were born without an imagination: you cannot believe that if your service provider has done A and B, they can do AB. You can’t imagine it so it means it’s not possible. That’s extremely narrow-minded, but the attitude that all creative people face. The irony is that a lot of what’s in my portfolio, and that impresses clients enough to hire me, is personal work because no client would pay for it or take the risk to begin with. Then they want exactly the same, even if it might not necessarily fit their intentions.

      Extreme diversity in a single presentation might not work, but now I’ve got a selection which I choose from and tailor appropriately to the client – and yes, there’s a range of stuff in there – even if only just to show them what’s possible.

      • I can relate very much to these issues. I tried once to create the “being able to do many things” identity…. I believe it’s very legitimate that talented people can creatively approach a variety of problems and solve them well. In practice I found it an uphill battle to overcome the stigma attached to generalists and I don’t think I was entirely successful.

        The experience has (somewhat) inclined me toward generating more than one specialist identity. I would still conceptually and sentimentally, at least, like to establish a “creative / skilled / flexible enough to do many things” identity that I considered to be entirely successful.

        By the way, I can think of a couple instances when I over-estimated the skill and creativity of some of my hires. I’m so accustomed to working with very talented people that I grow to expect it…. in a couple of instances I erred with people who really only could do “A” — asking them to do “AB” was a mistake.

        • Convincing others – clients especially – is the challenge. Ironically if they’re hiring you to be creative but don’t trust your creativity…what do you do then?

  6. Hey Ming,

    Popping my head back here :) . Some good points and working in an industry with high risk, sometimes acceptance is only gained with experience and showing you have seen a variety of situations. I’ve also noticed how much mentoring/teaching others has helped me improve my own understanding in working life. Naturally curious people I think get bored slightly quicker before reaching a Mastery level in their field which in some ways isn’t a bad thing.

    Fields involving creativity is a tough one and in principle I agree with your points. We’re always encouraged to change roles every 3-4 years to keep us fresh. Maybe harder when working for yourself. You want enough jobs to keep your income going and basically diversifying much more regularly.

    • I agree, Junaid. Perhaps that’s why my career has also undergone a major shift every couple of years – hitting boredom and the limits imposed by my environment. There’s less of that in photography, which is why we’re here towards the end of year two, without end in sight…

      • The interesting thing is in many ways you are reaching limits imposed by your environment – clients no doubt are a bit conservative on what they want which after a while must get boring.

        What experience has given you is the opportunity to be creative with repeat clients who have built up trust with how you work. Maybe the diversity in potential clients also allows you to maintain your drive. I’m guessing two years ago you didn’t think you’d get to shoot cars for instance….

  7. Great essay Ming. I wrestle with this issue a lot and I think your conclusions are quite valid. I agree that variety is hugely important to stay passionate, grow and to keep from getting stale.

    We all recognize a mature Van Gogh or Jackson Pollack at a glance. In the same way, as you suggest, our public identity, our brand, would ideally have a unique and obvious style, perhaps even limited by subject matter. It is a bit of balancing act. I know of one artist who uses his real name for his impressionistic, oil paintings and another, fictitious name, for his surreal, large format photographs. This allows him to create a variety of work while simultaneously presenting very focused identities to the public. I’m not advocating this, necessarily, but it works for him.

    Again, thanks for this thought provoking article.

    • Thanks David. Here’s the question though: how would Van Gogh or Pollack turned out if they’d gone commercial and decided not to hold out? Is that even possible today without the right patrons and connections? I’m not sure.

      The idea of different identities might well work because it separates out expectations. Then again, being able to do many things can be a strong and unique identity in itself – if anything, but business part of this whole game is more complex and far less defined than even the artistic part – at least we know that we’ll probably produce what we want so long as sufficient time and practice are involved.

      • Another interesting topic Ming.I am only really qualified to speak on the subject in relation to art, but I’m sure there are parallels in other creative industries.

        I find when you break down an artistic practice, there is essentially one conceptual idea running through an artist’s oeuvre .There maybe be subtle shifts through the development but a coherent practice with lead back to a solid conceptual base.
        The specialised practice will often focus on one medium, or style, with repetition forming the artists signature. This approach tends to reap the most commercial success, as progression is easily tracked and the appeal of a “signature” style can resonate with the audience and repetition allows for easier reading. This approach tends to pander to audience feedback and expectations and is often risk adverse as it favours aesthetics over concept.
        I find a multi-disciplinary practice to far more interesting. A longer period needed to digest the work, as a visual dialog is built across multiple platforms. Different readings are placed on the concept depending on the given approach. This variation tends to actually speak more to the idea, as there is often a conceptual rational for using any given medium. Commercially this is a risky approach, as the work is much more conceptually focused; even at the expensive of visual aesthetics. The audience is asked to read a more nuanced work (a lot of collectors are not actually that well versed in art) and tend to push back against the work if uncertain of the intention behind it.
        I find that the shelf life of the multidiscipline practice to be far greater. Aesthetic are often flavour based and tastes quickly change. Aesthetics are stronger in conceptual based work in the long term as the ideas trickle down over time with the visual elements being enforced by the strength of the overall idea.

        I guess from a careerist perspective it’s a leaps and bounds approach vs slow and deliberate steps.

        • My question: what do you do if your instinctive style doesn’t resonate at a commercial level? This I think is a problem that is common to all sorts of creative industries…

          • This is essentially the difference between the egotist and the altruist.

            For the egotist, this is something that is doesn’t even enter the conversation; they are unwilling to compromise their vision regardless of what anyone thinks, they are willing to take risks and have little regard for the financial consequences associated. The rewards are more linked to self satisfaction and the dignity of sticking it out. The egotist would rather achieve nothing, over the success of a compromised vision.

            The altruist strives for social agreement and acceptance and may compromise and abandon ideals for popular appeal and the financial rewards that follow. The consequence is that you are unlikely to contribute anything innovative as the altruist is less likely to take risks, they would rather gear their work to the demands of the client and reap the rewards.

            Commercial success doesn’t necessarily reflect artistic merit, it often relates to ones ability to understand and conform to the market
            (a skill in itself), and other attributes that have little to with the product;personality, charisma business sense etc…There are always trade offs. It all comes down to compromise.

            • I think everybody has a bit of both in them – question is which one dominates. As for commercial success – conforming to the market is one thing; doing what’s already been done at a better price or at better quality is another, but quite often the really sizeable successes lie in delivering something the market didn’t even know it needed – in essence, the Apple model. I suppose that could coexist with the egotist…or at very least require an egotist to bring to fruition.

              • I tend to break things down to extremes:) Apple is the perfect example. I don’t think Jobs had an altruistic bone in his body, and no doubt this caused him set backs, but this type of uncompromising personality builds true innovation.
                On the subject of values, an interesting thing happened to me today. I was walking across Princess bridge this afternoon, when I came across a young man sitting in the 40 degree sun holding a handwritten sign which read “Follow your passion or be chased by mediocrity” I caught this mans eye, stopped and said “how very true” he didn’t smile but said “come here man” I walked over and he took my hand and placed a $20 note in it. We looked at each in understanding and I walked away.

                • What a surreal experience. He gave you money? I thought it’d be the other way around. Did you figure out why?

                  • It was an act of a desperate plea. Although clean cut and a look of intelligence, he was sat in the manner of a beggar. I think the money was to reinforce memory, he understood he was creating a moment. I certainly won’t forget it. Mediocrity is a disease of the 21st century. The saddest part is its openly celebrated.

                    Although I preaching to the choir here ;)

  8. Kath Bowers says:

    Thank you again for providing food for thought. I am coming to think that your topics resonate because photographers at all levels face similar issues. If every picture tells a story, there is a whole other story leading up to the moment revealed in the image. The image is like the tip of an iceberg of decisions, choices, things done and not done.

    Your articles articulate pixels of the big picture, as it were. Each one merits thinking about!

    • That’s certainly the intention, Kath. This site was always meant to be what the serious photographers wanted to read; things left unsaid and things that perhaps have been too sensitive to discuss – like pricing, for instance.

  9. Reblogged this on yasser033.

  10. 25,000 hours=12 years, full time, that isn’t a lifetime. Some people seem to get it right away. If there is a group that is stuck in a rut it has to be the birders, and there are many of them. BTW, I have seen good results shooting architecture in high contrast B&W, or at least people look at it and like it. A good read, Ming.

    • It’s not, but I think you also need to consider the difference between just putting in face time hours – a lot of corporate work is like that – and genuinely learning. It’s very, very difficult to be on the ball 100% of the time; I suspect that means it’s probably closer to 20 or even 30 years in reality.

      • Ming, am from the corporate world and had to be on the ball almost 100% of the time, while surrounded by others like that. However, to say 20 years, is not unreasonable. It takes a lot of time. In the five years that I have returned to photography as a hobby there has been a lot of learning, and you know I don’t shoot the same stuff from day to day. IDK how many hours.

  11. It helps to be a specialist to land certain clients and projects as a professional. Quite often the creative needs in following projects are different than the work that got you lined up with a client. At the very high end, it seems that being a specialist is more important. One downside I’ve heard about is specialists running out of projects, even those in the profession at the highest levels. While that is not discussed much, if at all, it highlights a great danger in being too focused. The few who got out of the specialists rut, did so by reinventing themselves and changing the work they produced. It’s all too easy to be type-cast and only lined up with a certain range of projects. In my work, I have tried to break out of my niche world of corporate imaging, towards more advertising related work, though making the transition feels almost like starting out for the first time.

    • Definitely – doing too much of the same can be both boring and very limiting in terms of market. Worse still if that market isn’t that big to begin with. My bigger concern is going stale: even if you do manage to corner the market, it’s difficult to stay creatively fresh if you’re doing exactly the same thing all the time; more so if that’s what clients expect of you and hire you for. That said, if you’re in a largely quality-indifferent and very price sensitive market like Malaysia, it might all be academic anyway.

  12. Very good points though perhaps the great “generalist” (or polymaths maybe?) is really specializing in connecting the dots.
    Another key factor (as discussed in the excellent HBR article http://www.uvm.edu/~pdodds/files/papers/others/2007/ericsson2007a.pdf ) in building expertise ,in addition to focused practice, is mentoring. Thank you for providing that mentoring through your blog . You consistently explain fundamental skills that are brushed aside as common knowledge or an innate talent one must posses, when really they are THE hard questions but also gateways to great progress. Thank you!

    • I think very few qualify as polymaths – that requires not just skill but also the curiosity to want to learn in the first place.

      Mentoring and teaching force you to understand what you do better before you even think about trying to explain it to somebody else…

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