I’m told I give good advice. In my previous life as a lawyer, people were even known to pay a considerable amount of money for my advice. When presented with a question or predicament, I’m pretty good at cutting through the extraneous BS, narrowing my focus, and arriving at a thoughtful, well-reasoned plan or solution. This assumes, of course, that the person seeking advice or guidance is anyone in the world other than myself. When it comes to addressing some of my own issues head on, I often have trouble finding that place where I can be objective. Instead, I tend to get bogged down in my own tunnel vision. I come out the other side eventually, but the path taken is often much more of a winding road than I would like.
The same thing happened when it came time to address a particularly low time in my photography career a few years ago. In an effort to make sure I could take any job or assignment that came through the door, I tried to be all things to all people. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that while being all things to all people may sound like a good idea, it’s definitely not the #1 tourist stop on the road to success. Being a generalist in everything keeps you from excelling at one or two things
I needed a niche.
What is a niche anyway?
When you get right down to it, your niche is your brand– or at least an extension of it. It’s the flashing neon sign in your window that tells the world what you do and why they should hire you to do it for them. This doesn’t mean you have to corner the market in your area of expertise, but it does mean at least having an area of expertise. Like most things, this is much easier said than done. I can shout from the rooftops that I’m a wedding photographer, but simply shouting it from the rooftops doesn’t bring clients in the door. And just so we’re clear, talent alone doesn’t bring them to your door– you also need to do your homework.
Nobody said anything about homework!
Relax. Chances are that you’re already doing it and haven’t even noticed. You’re basically trying to answer two questions. The first is, “What is your ideal photo?” The second (and perhaps more important) is, “Who is your ideal client?” You’re in business to make money, but you also want to do what you love. The key is to figure out what you love to do and find the people who want to pay you to do it.
Step 1 is coming to terms with the notion that you can’t do everything. That all things to all people mentality I mentioned earlier might be able to sustain you for a period of time, but eventually the quality of your work is going to suffer. Being able to devote your time and your craft in a much more targeted approach will bring you the clients which will hopefully sustain you over the long haul.
Answering the questions that are going to get you to this point won’t always be easy. Learning your market, adapting your business model, and a whole lot of soul-searching will get you most of the way. Remember, though, that a willingness to be brutally honest with yourself is essential. Without that honesty, the entire exercise is a moot point. Except in very rare circumstances, you’re the one that’s new to the market. Your potential clients are already in place. If you can’t be honest– and realistic– about your product, you and your ideal clients may never have a chance to meet.
So, what do I do?
There’s no checklist of secret formula for this stuff, but there are a few things you should keep in mind along the way.
For starters, kiss your comfort zone goodbye. Not to sound too much like my father, but anything worth having is worth working for, and that means spreading your wings and taking some chances– calculated chances, but chances nonetheless.
Adaptability is important. Markets change and so do you. What you love about photography right now may not be the same as what you loved about it five years ago. Your focus will likely shift or change over time and you should be cool with that. Keep your eyes and ears open. Recognize the changes and be ready to embrace and incorporate them when they happen.
Finding what you love doesn’t have to mean ignoring everything else. Think about the wedding clients who come back to you for family portraits when they start having kids, and then again when their business needs head shots for all of their executives. The business of photography is built at least partially on relationships. If this is one of those ideal clients we were talking about earlier, the work is already at least partially within your niche.
Listen to your brain, but don’t forget your heart.
Artists don’t always make the best businessmen and businessmen don’t always make the best artists. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap. There is no greater joy than waking up in the morning (or afternoon) and being able to support your family by capturing light in a box and using it to tell a story. Finding your niche will elevate those stories and help make sure you get to keep telling them.
Additional Reading: “Photography Business Secrets” by Lara White is a phenomenal book, covering marketing and other business fundamentals for photographers.
“Comfort Zone” is an image I stumbled across on the internet several years ago and a copy hangs in my office. While I’ve seen it in many variations, I am– unfortunately– unable to give it proper credit or attribution.