A photographer is not just someone who knows how to use a camera, control light, or frame a shot. Photography, like any artistic discipline, is all about your vision. Sure, the technical side of exposure, lighting, and composition are important to achieving that vision, but it is crucial to know which to put first. Becoming a strong photographer is all about finding your niche, which generally starts with asking yourself, “What do I want to shoot?”
At first, this question may seem too easy; it sounds like a no-brainer. But if your goal is to turn your passion into a profession, sticking with what you love may prove difficult. When you think about a professional photographer, who do you picture? I’m guessing that wedding photographer and commercial photographer are probably on most people’s lists. Since everyone has been to a wedding or read a magazine, these two types of photography are perhaps the most publicly visible. Sports photographer or photojournalist is probably up there, too. This can lead to a misunderstanding of what it really means to be a professional photographer, and can be intimidating for someone seeking a photography career who doesn’t particularly enjoy the above types of photography.
The solution? Shoot what you love. If you enjoy taking photos of your kids, focus on that. Child portraiture is completely different from any other type of portrait photography, and if you take the time to develop the skills it requires, people will look to you as an expert in that field. Or maybe you like taking pictures of your pet. You might hate the person who posts a bunch of snapshots of her cat to Facebook every week, but guess what? There are people out there who are crazy about their pets, and will pay good money for high quality portraits of them. Build your skill set, start showing only your best cat photos, and go from there. A surprising number of photographers have also made a name for themselves just shooting self portraits. However vain that may seem to some, the same logic applies: photographing what you want will keep you engaged, naturally encouraging you to work harder and improve on your talent. Whatever motivates you most to take out your camera, keep at it. Don’t try to be a wedding photographer just because you think it would be an easy way to make some quick cash (hint: it’s not). Even if your passion is something as atypical as photographing, say, frogs, and you can’t possibly see how to monetize that right now, don’t give up on it. Take the best dang frog pictures anyone has ever seen. Somewhere, somebody cares about frogs. Maybe it's an advertiser sifting through stock images. Maybe it's a biologist working on a forest conservation project, which may lead you to additional projects. You might have to expand your repertoire to include other types of wildlife, but I’m guessing that’s okay for someone who already likes frogs so much.
Now, if you really love weddings, then wedding photographer is probably a viable option. But your decision doesn’t end there. What type of wedding photographer do you want to be? Do you want to shoot exotic destination weddings or would you prefer to work solely within your local area? There are benefits to both, and both require a different type of specialization. What type of client do you want to serve? Personality is not to be underestimated in wedding photography; if you don’t “connect” with your clients, you will be asking for more hardship than you need. Make it known on your website, blog, Facebook page, or business card what type of photographer you are and what kind of person you are. Let this be how you differentiate yourself from your competition. Don’t worry about limiting your exposure and reach; instead, think of it as making yourself more visible to the people you most want to reach. This way, you establish yourself as a specialist within a specialty, which increases your value to the right client.
As for commercial photography, it is an incredibly diverse field—so much so, in fact, that it is difficult to label it as a “niche.” Commercial photography can really be anything. Do you like food? Be a commercial food photographer. Do you like shoes? Then photograph shoes. Once you discover your passion, the photography will follow naturally. Your niche may not even be a specific subject, but a style. It could be the way you use light, or how you process your images, that sets you apart from everyone else. Again, it is more important to develop a speciality than try to appeal to the widest market. Put yourself in your prospective client’s shoes: would you rather hire a jack-of-all-trades or a specialist? The answer is specialist, every time. That’s not to say having a little diversity in your portfolio is a bad thing, and a natural expansion of your services may occur over time, but make sure your intentions are clear: you want to be easily recognizable as an expert in your field.
Sports photography is no different. Stick to your sport, or couple of sports if you’re passionate about more than one. You can teach yourself everything there is to know about the photography side of the equation, but if you don’t know the sports side you will make for a lousy sports photographer. Maybe you think shooting football would be fun, so ask yourself: how well do you understand the sport? If you never miss a game, know all the players, make calls before the officials do, and otherwise live for football, then by all means, do what you can to make a career out of football photography. Otherwise, it may be prudent to consider something else. It’s not worth it to pursue anything less than your greatest passion when you're starting out. Even sports that do not receive the same public attention can still be viable options: rock climbing, horse riding, fishing, scuba diving, running, sailing—whatever it is that interests you the most. Chances are, if there is an activity you really enjoying doing, then there are other people who share that passion. There's your market. You won’t get far by trying to make it a field you don’t really care about.
Finally, don’t worry about finding your niche right away. It may just take time to figure out what you really want to do. Maybe that means shooting a wedding or a football game only to realize you hate it, and that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with experimenting and trying new things, but once you find your passion, stick to it. Develop it. Refine it. Maybe you'll love weddings and football, and that's fine, too—so long as you realize the extra work that comes with specializing in multiple areas. Naturally, your work will evolve and change with time and taking on new specialties may be part of growing your business. A portrait photographer, for example, could move from corporate headshots, to commercial work, to weddings, and finally to concert photography—but he or she will need to put in the work to specialize in each niche. Plenty of established photographers take on a variety of jobs and excel at all of them, but do yourself a favor and start with what you know and enjoy most (and note that this article by no means presents an exhaustive list of the options available to you). Building a business around photography is an incredibly challenging undertaking, but it’s a challenge well worth it when you truly love what you are doing.