To be a specialist, you have to be a good generalist

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Here’s today’s provocation of the day: there is really no such thing as a specialist. I’m going to explain why, using photography as the background context. The general expectation is a specialist in one particular topic or subject or tightly defined discipline should be familiar with and understand how to handle the vast majority of variations encountered around that topic or subject. They would probably have to keep up to date with new developments or changes and do enough experimentation to answer any self-doubt or uncertainty: an expert sports photographer, for instance, would know how to deal with indoor arena lighting, outdoor high noon and night games – and still produce an image that would pass muster for their clients. An aerial photographer would know how to deal with haze – either to minimise in post, or to use as a feature of the image. Yet I keep encountering this odd resistance…even amongst supposedly educated and image-savvy people. Why?

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A couple of years back, I had a conversation with one of the senior editors of a renown photojournalist agency about an associate membership; I was told that my work was just too diverse and lacked the kind of tight stylistic focus they were looking for. As a further point, they also said all of their members without exception shot the same style all the time, regardless of subject. I could think of more than one example where this was clearly not true – simple example, Majoli used color and B&W, and others where it was a consequence of the underlying technology or limitations of their working environment – HC-B and perspectives/required shutter speeds/lack of very long lenses for RFs etc.; Majoli again and contrast levels in early work due to limited digital DR. Pursuit – or rather endurance – of these limitations may have lead to some rather unique pictorial results, which they found both personally appealing and professionally rewarding – resulting in turn in continuation of development of this style.

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In short: external factors (as much as personal choices) lead to the current state. This is important because in every discipline of photography, we are responding to external factors of a sort – even when we create the set and lighting, those things still generally obey physical laws: the objects have to physically exist to be photographed. We may select the objects based on their aesthetic, physical and reflective properties, but again: we are reacting. (The opposite end of the creative spectrum would be say, automatic writing.) It would be very difficult to successfully incorporate something we have not seen into a photograph (compositing aside) or even know we wanted it to be part of the image without having seen it or something like it beforehand. Again: a response to external factors.

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It is this response to external factors that leads to my next point – since the world around us is in constant flux, our subject opportunities keep changing, too. In order to present those subjects in the way we personally believe best suits their nature – i.e. our own style – we too have to change and continually evolve that very method of presentation. For example: you’d compose very differently in a location at high latitudes and long shadows at all times of the day vs. say the tropics, where shadows are short and light intense. Leaving a lot of space in the frame for the shadows may result in
an imbalanced image in the tropics, but not leaving space for the shadows might make a composition feel cut off at 10pm in midsummer in Sweden. Needless to say: both will result in very, very different feeling images. Using the sport shooter analogy: midday games vs artificial light. Same subject, different situations, not easy to get recognisably consistent images from a stylistic standpoint – especially when you’re probably not at all in control of light or weather. Bottom line: we have to adapt, which means ‘doing things the same way’ is out of the question.

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To some degree, I do agree that it’s possible to have a consistent style across subject matter and even varieties of subjects – you could for instance photograph a plant, a person, a product and a building head on with a ring flash (albeit extremely large in the latter case). You would get a similar look in each image, providing the other underlying compositional elements were similar and you used a similar perspective. But to know that the ‘ring flash look’ was what you preferred over all other possible presentations – available light at dusk, indirect diffuse flash, high speed sync at noon etc. – you’d have to actually try them first.

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Simply looking is not enough – it’s necessary to see whether the working method works for you, too. There’s no point in liking the output but finding that the setup etc. is impossible for whatever reason – you simply won’t get the shot anyway, and worse, be put off attempting because the results are discouraging. And since our own experience, vision and preferences continue to change as we evolve as observers and photographers – methods and style cannot stay static, either. If you only ever concentrate on the development of the horse drawn carriage as a method of transport, you may miss the automobile entirely.

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Personally, I find that these evolutions in style tend to come in fits and starts. There are small improvements and refinements as one practices in an iterative fashion, but the big progress tends to come with underlying perturbations in environment, subject or process. Only then are you actively forced out of your comfort zone – either by necessity or inspiration – and produce different results. It’s why most people are uninspired to shoot in their own familiar home environments, but find themselves rather active travel photographers. The real key here is that in order to continually develop one’s own seeing, composing and presentation abilities – you have to continually seek these opportunities to inject change, and go about the experimentation in a scientific manner. It’s only through encountering different situations that you may learn cross-disciplinary techniques or have new ideas outside convention that in turn lead to a fresh presentation of the same subject – and ironically, these edge case exceptions are what tends to make for exceptional work. In short: doing the same thing as everybody else won’t get you a different outcome.

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We haven’t even talked about client requirements differing yet – as a working pro (and more importantly, a going concern business) – it isn’t possible to always shoot in one’s own style. We take jobs that we might not necessarily feel inspired by, but have to work in a craftsmanlike way to pay the bills. We might be lucky enough to be engaged to shoot mostly in our own style, but then if we have created a certain look for a client – we are trapped by our own past, because a certain degree of sameness is necessary to maintain a consistent brand image. Again: step changes almost always come with a big change, e.g. new campaign, new client. And given the reality off the photographic economy these days, very, very few photographers have the luxury of being picky about jobs – the best we can do is continue to work on our own personal projects to hopefully demonstrate a unique enough and desirable enough vision that we get hired on the basis of the work we want to do, not necessarily the work we’ve done in the past.

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The images I’ve chosen to illustrate this article are a demonstration of this – an evolution in my personal style of industrial documentary, with the most recent towards the end. There are elements incorporated from street photography, reportage, wildlife, product photography, cinematography, abstraction, even surrealist painting. Without trying all of these at some point or another, there’s simply no way I’d be able to produce the end result. Given a choice, I’d rather be the continually evolving photographer than the 100% constant, static one. I want to ask the ‘what if we did it x way?’ questions, rather than defaulting to autopilot. After all, if we make the same images time and again – not only do we eventually get unsatisfied with our output, but we cannot make a better image than before. Why photograph at all, if you’ve already made your best work? MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Fantastic progression – it’s been a pleasure to have been around for some of that journey. That last image is beautiful. Hope you’re doing well, Ming!

  2. Casey Bryant says:

    I recently had a conversation with a family member over why I/we photograph.

    Your last statement brought be back to that same question. Why bother getting better? Why bother at all? It reminded me of your article. https://blog.mingthein.com/2013/03/05/why-we-photograph/

    At the time, I my answer was something akin to #2 (preserving personal moments) and the last bullet (because I want to).

    But now I’m less sure. I imagined a social event, trip, or otherwise photograph-rich opportunity. I imagined not having a camera. I imagined what it would feel like in those moments, and what it would feel like after it had passed. In reflection, I love the process. The art-making if you will. But I must also admit that it feels strangely compulsive, and I wonder how healthy that is.

  3. Many people become comfortable within their niches and have difficulty dealing with areas outside of their specialization. They can’t understand that others (a minority for certain) may be adept at moving between niches; or even profit from this by modifying techniques/ideas to different circumstances. This has happened throughout all of human history. It occurs across all fields of human endeavor. While working at a prestigious teaching hospital, I was heavily penalized for having Certification in both Neuroradiology as well as Vascular and Interventional Radiology; I “wasn’t focused”. Never mind that I started dissolving blood clots in stroke patients’ brains long before my colleagues because I had done similar things hundreds of times previously in other parts of the body.

    I like your work. But even Ansel Adams had to earn a living by doing commercial photography – giving clients what they wanted.

    • I suspect ultimately all forms of making a living that involve ‘creativity’ are really more like the specialised applications of, and it’s all commercial after a while…

  4. I’ve agreed with the headline of this post for a long time. In my line of photography, for example, one really needs to draw upon photojournalism and visual storytelling skills, lighting skills (if you’re asked to shoot prop stills or gallery images), and have a grasp of the cinematic frame. And all of that falls under the purview of an on-set “unit stills photographer”.

    • Absolutely! The number of relatively single-purpose straightforward commissions I’ve had that land up spreading into other stuff (product shots > factory line > management headshots > environment etc.) is actually quite a high proportion of most jobs. This is good for us as photographers from a business point of view since we can offer a wider range of services, and prevent clients from going elsewhere. But if you advertised ‘one stop shop’ – you’d probably never get the commission in the first place because they don’t think you’d be good at the main task.

      • Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head. I specialize, but then have a variety of “personal work” on my site as well. The specialization gets you in the door, and then the additional work potentially “pre-screens” you for other things, e.g. “I see you also do ______ photography as well…”

        • Another example: someone I know in Florida does real estate photography, but does a lot of personal fine art photography as well. This has led clients to ask him if he sells his fine art work to decorate homes and or commercial spaces.

        • But if you advertise your skills at ‘everything’, that gets you passed over 🙂

          • Yes it does.

          • Yes. Agreed.
            A local business nearby is advertising on local radio with a message essentially stating “we specialize in a wide variety of different things.” I understand that desire to promote several skilled capabilities, and I might have fallen into the same trap just as easily, but the advert still makes me cringe a little.

          • Ironically, I ran into this very situation yesterday. I’d been assigned by the production designer on a TV series to shoot a couple of translights for them.

            For those who don’t know what a translight is, it’s the enormous vinyl draping (with photography printed on it) that hangs outside of a set, to simulate a cityscape, or natural setting, or whatever, on the other side of a set of windows. Typically it’s lit. With forced perspective, distance control, the right lighting, and some atmospherics, it can look very convincing on camera. It’s not unusual for them to be 20’x90’ in size (in other words, big).

            You photograph them using the skills set you would employ to shoot a high res panorama, e.g. a tripod with a nodal point head, shooting vertically to maximize MP acreage, etc, etc.

            In any event, during a conversation with the production designer, he mentioned that he’d hired another (experienced) union photographer a couple of years prior. When that photog arrived, he shot the scene by simply moving the tripod a few feet to the left or right, then again, then again. No comprehension that he was altering the lens to subject position just subtly enough to throw off the perspective. And the production designer mentioned that it had been a PITA to stitch the files together. Doable, but far from ideal. And time is money in this business.

            So, yes, sometimes being a generalist can actually help you specialize. The more you know, as they say…

  5. Ming, I’ve experienced similar limiting attitudes about specialists in my main area of industry. Of course there are so many fish in the sea that buyers naturally want to pick and choose the ‘very best’. Then as each role or need presents itself the solution is naturally to pick a different specialist fish. The rationale might very well be applied that if you didn’t get a specialist then, with some certainty, you didn’t obtain the very best of available skills and experience to fill your needs.

    For buyers, it may be more difficult to determine whether a generalist genuinely has the ability, skills, and intelligence, to meet my particular needs. Arguably it may be less efficient and more risky to try sorting that out ~ and with the effort and risk multiplied by however many generalist candidates come to my attention. Disregarding buyer laziness or greed there still may be some merit to this. It could even be argued that our brains do change as a consequence of intensive specialization, e.g. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/london-taxi-memory.

    -But- as a producer, I have experienced both the frustration and the irrational side of attitudes toward specialization that are taught by contemporary business culture or perhaps sometimes arise in merely ‘natural’ decision-making. The resulting behaviors seem to be artificially limiting, lead to undesirable outcomes that were apparent at the time (if one had open eyes with which to see). The behaviors also ignore or disregard the underlying intelligence and capabilities, and sometimes humanity, of the human being.

    I seem to now have many anecdotes of losses — both concrete losses and opportunity costs — that seem clearly attributable to buyer attitudes and insistence concerning specialists.

    • Actually, I think we’re saying the same thing: the established/ accepted specialists had to start somewhere (probably as generalists) and subsequently became status quo; they didn’t start out that way. It’s just that nobody remembers it 🙂

      • Yes.
        I also meant to suggest that demands to engage or associate only with a specialist (such as you experienced with the agency) can lead to myopic behavior and to outcomes in which everybody loses. Sometimes the myopic behavior can even become locked in, rigidly, as it makes its way into internal corporate culture, rulemaking, or policies.

  6. Seems to me the last two photos —and the oncoming train above them — suggest a specialty in getting extraordinary results in absurdly difficult light. That, of course, can also reinforce your point about the value of being a widely accomplished generalist.

  7. Interesting thoughts and accompanying photographs… I especially love what you say at the end of this post about all the elements you’ve learned along the way enabling you to produce the final result.
    I was thinking many times about what it means to have your own style and how to achieve it, whether you need to specialise or process your photos in a similar way… If you are a specialist, your work must be more prominent and easier to point at… Or not? It all depends on so many circumstances…

    • Specialist: I think you need to need to be able to get the shot under any circumstances, all the time…and to a level beyond the majority of everybody else. And ideally, put an identifiable style on it too…

  8. And BTW the final photo is superb.

  9. Funny that once you finally gain the experience and skills required to belong to an exclusive club… it becomes unattractive.

    Another point is that you can carry on with your style regardless of the gear, location, and lighting situation. Once you use an 8×10 at noon in the desert, a point and shoot camera at night, and a Hollywood stage… and continue to make photos with your clear signature then you’ve achieved your style.

  10. The pictures you took are just amazing. You are so good at what you do! The post was great. I am just learning so trying all different types of photography interest me right now. I have to figure out what I like and if I don’t try everything, how will I know? I am not playing by rules because I want to be creative and find my own style.

  11. Lothar Adler says:

    I want to thank you very much particularly for this post, because you expressed very important and valueable thoughts and insights into a precise, condensed text form.
    Just as an aside: maybe you should have presented your pictures back then to the “renown photojournalist agency” in black and white … (smile).

  12. Bill Walter says:

    Very interesting. I think that even thought different variables and situations can force us out of our normal style, whatever changes you opt for to deal with those unfamiliar situations may still reflect some elements of your style of photography. Your method of adopting to an unusual situation will most likely be different than the next photographer. My method of “not doing things the same way” will differ from yours, and yours will differ from the next person. No doubt, to be a successful photographer, one needs to be flexible and resourceful.

    • Those ‘edge cases’ are probably actually what defines your style – and are a product of your experience…after all, what might be common for us is uncommon for somebody else and vice versa.

  13. “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
    -Robert A. Heinlein

    Well I can do seven of those things (and make the occasional photo). Never really agreed with the man’s politics, but I like that quote. Recently, I’ve come to notice that people often fail to understand the distinction between a career and a profession. Perhaps photography is diverse enough to be either or both at the same time?

Trackbacks

  1. […] your niche. I’ve explained in the past why all good specialists are really also generalists – though from a commercial standpoint, everybody wants to hire an expert. What needs to […]

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