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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