Here’s something I see all the time in the photography world. In fact, I see it in a lot of different arts, not just photography. There is this tendency to specialize. Photographers will limit themselves to one or two genres. It’s not so different from painters who only paint portraits or writers who only write science fiction. This is something that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me. Why is it that so many feel the need to limit themselves to only one or two genres?
Of course, it’s impossible to tackle all genres in a given medium. No matter the medium, there are always tons of different genres, after all. We’d need lifetimes to explore every one of them. But should a nature photographer never create a portrait or still life? Should an urbex photographer never venture out into the wilderness? I don’t think this should be so, but I see a lot of photographers who call themselves portrait artists or still life photographers. This is something that extends across all levels of photography, too. I see new photographers, amateurs, hobbyists and even professional photographers — some of them with major reputations in the business — defining themselves by just a genre or two.
I think a big part of the reason for this is that specialization comes with the connotation that one is better at what he or she is specializing in than a generalist might be. But where so many of the arts are concerned, I just don’t think this is true. To my mind, there should be no shame in working across genres, and there is no need to limit oneself. In fact, I’d argue the opposite — that there are tangible benefits to working across however many genres happen to suit you.
Think of it in terms of writing. Whether an author writes general fiction, fantasy fiction or science fiction, there will always be certain elements that stay the same. Story structure needs to be adhered to, characters need to be developed. There must be an objective for the main character to work toward, otherwise the story, no matter what genre it is, just won’t appeal. These are skills that apply to all genres, not just one, and thus, practicing them in any genre is valuable to all genres you may write in.
The same is true for photography. First and foremost, photography should be about photographing what you enjoy, whether that’s in one or twenty different genres. And no matter what you choose to photograph, many if not most of the skills you pick up and polish will be applicable to other types of subject material. It’s a “rising tide lifts all boats” sort of thing. If you learn all about how to use off-camera lighting in order to take great portraits, you can use what you’ve learned to properly light a still-life, too.
Of course, the challenge will always be getting the photography community as a whole to stop disdaining generalism, so for most of us, we’ll probably keep noting ourselves as specialists, especially where business and photography blend together. But even if you might label yourself a specialist for business purposes, that by no means requires you to stick only with that particular area of photography.