Branching Out

Washington D.C., Keystone XL, pipeline, protest
Back in 2011, I attended a protest opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline at the national’s capital and brought my camera with me. Being immersed in a crowd of like minded people helped me feel less vulnerable as a photographer and step out of my comfort zone try try and photograph new subjects. I don’t just photograph nature and sports all the time!

Fifteen years ago, I published my first photograph in my high school newspaper. I ended up winning several awards for photojournalism every year of high school after that. I remember at one point a friend came to my house and saw a second place award certificate and said “Wow second place in the whole state! Who got first?”

“I did,” I told her.

In college, I landed my first paid photography gig, shooting athletics for my school’s Sports Information Office. Throughout college and every year since, I’ve earned at least a little bit of money every year from photography, whether it be shooting assignments, selling my work, or photography related writing and instruction. Over the years my photography career has grown, changed, and at times, plateaued. I created niches for myself, first shooting primarily high school and college sports, then focusing on nature and wildlife. While there are a few subjects I’ve managed to avoid altogether, like weddings and product shoots, I have dabbled in many genres at one point or another.

It’s easy to gravitate towards one subject or genre as a photographer, and as a professional it is almost always encouraged. You build your brand around what you shoot best, and it’s easier to be better at something if you specialize in it. This is how you market your business and attract clients.

Does focusing on one genre of photography make you a better photographer? Yes.

Does shooting one subject limit your creativity, professional, and personal growth? Yes.

Shooting subjects you are not comfortable with and don’t shoot often will make you a more well rounded and creative photographer. I’m damn certain I can take a better wildlife photo than Annie Leibovitz because I’ve spent many hours practicing the specific skills that I need to shoot wild animals, such as finding and approaching wildlife and using a long lens. However, I don’t feel comfortable coaching human models into great poses or using artificial light so my portraits are overall quite mediocre, especially if taken indoors. As a photographer there are things I’m good at and some of these things apply to a wide range of subjects, such as noticing great natural light and creating balanced compositions. There are also many more things I need to work on, some of which I may not use that often in my chosen area of expertise but that might prove helpful from time to time. When I only shoot the things I am good at and comfortable with, I don’t improve the skill areas that need the most work and ignoring those makes me less capable overall.

American Alpine Club, benefit dinner, Henderson House, Massachusetts
I was asked to take photos at a fundraising event for the American Alpine Club in exchange for free admission, which included a fancy dinner, auction, and slide show presentation and speaker. The organization only needed a handful of web publishable photos, so it was a task I felt I could manage even though I rarely photograph events or people, and since it was an exchange of services instead of a paid assignment, I didn’t feel as much pressure as I would have if I was hired to photograph the event, so I said yes. There were challenges I didn’t anticipate – the main room had many different light sources that were all different color temperatures and even though the space was large it was crowded and more confined than I thought it would be – so I ended up improvising quite a bit. This ended up being my favorite shot of the evening – a black and white photograph of the main hall that I snapped with a fisheye lens. The fisheye is both the widest and fastest aperture lens I own, and converting the image black and white eliminated the weird color issues I was having from the mixed light available sources. I’m sure a photographer with a background shooting weddings or similar events and gear suited for poorly lit indoor spaces would have taken a much different approach, but I made it work. The shoot lasted just a few hours and was very different from anything I had done before, so it was a great learning experience for me.

I am also a person who likes to learn. Learning is fun! I want to be able to capture images of all the things I want in the ways that I want to, and that isn’t just limited to college students playing soccer or the beach at sunrise. While I may have focused mostly on sports and nature subjects in the past, different things are important to me now and I want to be able to photograph them with the same level of expertise and passion I have when I shoot subjects I have had more practice with. Just because I don’t photograph people doesn’t mean I don’t like people or photographs of people.

I’m also not the same person I was in college or even five years ago. I have a job and responsibilities that make getting up before the sun rises and shooting all day until dusk not very practical. My financial resources are allocated in different ways, towards home improvements and retirement savings instead of a faster computer and new gear. Things like wild animals are not so easy to photograph in the spare hour or two I may have on a given day. So I can either not shoot at all or shoot differently. I’ve been doing a little of both, but I’m trying to shoot more, even if its subjects I’m not great at.

prom, gown, teenager, high school, field, sunset, suit, formal
People photography is not my thing but when a group of teens I am close to asked me to snap photos before their prom, there was no way I was saying no. The teens made the perfect clients and subjects – they didn’t have lofty or unrealistic expectations, I felt comfortable around them and they felt comfortable around me, and they were delightfully confident and goofy and came up with some of their own poses and ideas. I really struggle with directing people for photos because it just seems awkward for me, so this was great practice. Both the teens and I had a lot of fun with this shoot and were really happy with the resulting photos.

I don’t know if the best photographers ever shoot other subjects, but I imagine that they do. Annie Leibovitz might not be able to resist a gorgeous sunset, and I bet David Doubilet takes a snap above water from time to time. Sure it makes sense to specialize in certain genres, especially if you have a photo business, but that doesn’t mean you should never shoot anything else. If we only shot specific subjects, we’d miss out too often on other incredible ones, and that just seems wasteful. There is so much to marvel at in this world. Beauty is everywhere. I am inspired and amazed by things all the time. So why wouldn’t I photograph them when I feel compelled to do so?

If you feel inspired to take a photograph, do it! It doesn’t matter whether its your subject or not, whether or not you can sell it or have a client for it. Shooting different subjects will make you a better photographer instead of just a good [insert specialty here] photographer, and we all want to be better at our craft.