Almost every hobbyist photographer has considered making the transition to full-time professional. Similarly, almost every professional photographer has made that transition from hobbyist to professional. There are myriad factors why that career move isn't always possible and a great deal of them stem from the central notion of money, or lack thereof. Whether you want to organically build your photography from hobby to side-hustle and then to a career or you merely want to improve you earnings in any of those categories, developing a niche can make a crucial difference.
I had been a photographer for about six years when I decided to give full-time photography a shot. I had just finished my Master's and I scoured career websites looking for a proper fit but I harbored this suppressed sense of dread; I didn't want any of these roles. My passion is photography and writing and I knew I had to try now or forever rue the missed opportunity.
The Stability of the Niche
My first month of photography I took a headshot of a local actor, an engagement shoot, and some factory images of a company that make giant drill bits. Financially, it wasn't a bad first month as a professional with no business contacts or work already lined up. However, I had this haunting feeling — even after just one month — that taking the photography equivalent of "odd jobs" wasn't going to be sustainable this early on. I was extremely grateful to have had any paid work straight out of the gates and to be earning money doing what I love, but it felt anything but a reliable source of future income. When you're established as a photographer, people often try to get you to shoot things you wouldn't ordinarily and that's fine, but when you're essentially a complete nobody, you need to be known for something.
I've always been addicted to taking and looking at portraiture, so that had immediate pull for me. I knew, however, it wasn't niche enough in itself and it also felt commercially awkward. That is, difficult to make money from it and particularly difficult to build a solid career from it without some serious investment of time and my own money in portfolio building. What I needed was a niche and little did I know, I was building one while looking.
I'd loved watches since childhood and the reason I initially picked up a camera was because a photographer on a car forum I frequented took amazing macro images of insects. I found it fascinating and I wanted to have a go. With those two facts in mind, I started seeing what macro images of watches were like while simultaneously working on fashion portraits of people wearing watches with the timepiece as a focus. Before long I had several watch brands as clients and I was getting more work than ever before. Fast forward a matter of only several months and I had brands approaching me rather than the other way around. Watch photography to this day is one of my most important roles. It doesn't make sense to remove all my earnings from watch-related work and see where I would be without it because those newly created voids would have been filled with something else, even if only canvassing for work, but without my focus on that niche, my career would be a lot less stable.
How You Know You've Found Your Niche
If you've ever made the mistake of asking a new couple how they know they've found the right partner, you'll know they gormlessly merge in to one creature and tell you the infinitely useless advice that “you'll just know.” Well, it's similar in the quest for your niche, but there are early telltale signs. Firstly, there is going to be more interest in your product (photography) than perhaps you're used to. I've always tried to network where possible and I always approached companies I wanted to work with. Often companies wouldn't even reply, but once I had a small portfolio of watch work and some clients on the go, other watch brands not only replied even if it were to tell me they're not interested, but they opened a dialogue. This isn't unique to watch photography or even niches in general, but it is a great sign that you're tapping in to a potentially rich vein.
Secondly, it's worth doing research in your area of interest. How many people are doing this and how much of a call for this line of photography is there? You might be very interested in taking seascapes which could fairly be called a niche of landscape photography. Without research of my own, I would suspect that there aren't too many people who specialize in seascapes and so you could tick that box. However, you need to ask if there's a call for this sort of photography, commercially speaking. Again, without research, I'd doubt you're going to make a living in this area. I'm sure someone is, but it's not going to be easy to say the least and will probably take a long time and a lot of work to even make steady sales. Conversely, you could call headshots a niche of portraiture and I know there is a call for it. Headshots are wanted for everything from acting and the arts to LinkedIn and business. However, there are so many photographers offering headshots that it's going to require a lot of hustle to gain a slice of the pie.
Neither of those examples ought to deter you from that path if that's where your passion lies; it's by no means impossible to become successful in almost any area of photography. But, if like me, how much money you bring in in the early days dictates whether you can pursue this career you want or not, they are important considerations. In my case, there weren't too many people doing what I wanted to, at least to the point where I would be boxed out. Also, with the fast inflating number of brands, there was certainly a call for it.
The Long-Term Value of the Niche
The primary long-term value of a niche has to be its stability. As anyone who owns their own business or is self-employed is all too aware, regular work is always appreciated whether you're new or an established company. Furthermore, the foundational nature of becoming somewhat of an expert an a particularly specialized area means that you can use it as a platform to reach out in to other related areas. The chances are, whatever your niche may be, there are others that require a similar skill set. This brings me on to my final point.
You're by no means bound to one niche. The most successful photographer that I know personally — whom I won't name but has accolades and work seeping from every orifice — has multiple niches he works in, several of which he dominates, and has a portfolio and business card for each. He has shot high-end magazine covers in the morning, an event in the evening, and then a wedding the next day, and that's just naming his areas within portraiture. His compartmentalized approach to portfolios is worth noting as a convoluted portfolio can lead companies to believe you're a jack of all trades, master of none, even if that's not at all true.
If interest in this area is high enough, I will write a follow-up article on how to dominate a niche and build a name for yourself in that chosen area. Plenty of Fstoppers' readership will want to make more money in photography and perhaps even make the leap to a career in it, so what advice can you offer people on finding and capitalizing on a niche?
Lead image by David Bartus via Pexels.