“Don’t do photography – you should specialise more, not less.”
That advice was given to me by a friend last year. He’s one of the best photographers in the Southwest and, like me, he’s self-employed. His recommendation was based on personal experience, so I didn’t take it lightly. Actually, I didn’t take it at all. For context, I’m already a slasher: I’ve spent the last eight years working as a tech journalist/copywriter. From the outside, the two roles have similarities – both involve writing about really complex products and services – but they’re distinct careers. On either side of that scribal fence, I’ve found a niche picking up projects that sit on other people’s ‘too complex’ pile. If anything typifies my work, it’s that.
My photographer friend’s right, adding ‘slash photographer’ to my job description could make marketing my services more difficult. Who wants to hire a jack-of-all-trades when a specialist job needs doing well? Being able to answer that question well partly boils down to personal brand and storytelling. Specialised skills make for clear stories. The broader the variety of skills you’re selling, the harder you have to work to build a narrative your clients find compelling. Hard, but not impossible. We can do it for tricky clients, so why not ourselves? I’m lucky on this front: I don’t offer different services to the same clients. Different types of client see a different brand. I’m also fortunate that most projects come from inbound inquiries through word-of-mouth recommendations. For the moment at least, and despite my line of work, I have surprisingly little need for a strong online presence.
Side note: writing a blog post in my capacity as WEDF’s photographer has created my biggest challenge regarding confusing overlaps in my work – enjoy the irony!
Whether you’re self-employed or head up an agency, successful marketing means a client thinks of you first when they need to solve a problem. I’ve done my job as long as event managers get in touch when they want shots of a late-night talk; as long as agencies email me first with a copy problem they can’t sort in house (cough, cough); and as long as magazine editors know I’m the person who can make quantum cryptography sound interesting. My clients don’t need my other services … so I don’t talk about them.
Do try this at home: If you have clear, long-term goals across career types, putting in concerted effort to get these multiple projects off the ground is really fulfilling. Just bear in mind, staying on everyone’s radar requires a truckload of discipline and generates extra admin.
Don’t try this at home: If you’re just unsure of how to make money from the thing you currently love doing. Haring off in a new direction could compound your issues.
The second point I inferred from my friend’s comment relates to craftsmanship (or lack thereof). Why start at the bottom rung of a new career and divert my attention away from writing? After all, I’m far from done honing my copywriting skills. Unsurprisingly, I’m not actually new to photography, but after years as a hobbyist, I’m at a stage where the best way to focus my learning is to take on projects that stretch me. Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll look something like a photographer. All of which leads us to the topic I find most fascinating: the relationship between learning and creative practice. Creative work is built on analogy. Understanding the feelings and experiences people identify with, then making unexpected, insightful connections between them. Learning works similarly. Every time you discover something new, you test it against your existing model of the world and then synthesise the two to form a new model.
— Ben McCluskey
The neurobiology that underpins learning is endlessly fascinating. I recently learned that our brains physically change when we learn – even in adulthood.
Some changes relate to repetition – what people sometimes refer to as muscle memory. Imagine a set of traffic lights is permanently set to green on your drive to work in the morning. Now imagine that every day you drive that route, another set has been fixed to green: your journey gets faster and better with each trip. A similar process happens with the neuronal networks in your brain when you learn and practice something. More surprisingly, the best way to speed up those neural signals is to introduce new information to our brains. Learning different crafts actually improves your capacity to learn, just don’t forget to keep practising them all regularly. That’s why I don’t feel like I’m specialising less as a writer by improving my photography skills.
If you’re a designer with no interest in copywriting, and a client asks you to have a go, don’t expect a good outcome or an improvement in your design skills. However, if you take time to build knowledge in that or any other new craft, your ability to connect dots between the two can be invaluable. Mostly, people able to do this become managers, creative directors or take on other leadership roles. If you’re not that way inclined, there’s a whole range of ways to exploit these critical skills on your own terms, and consultancy is only one option.
The only issue is getting your story straight. On that note, most photographers hate shooting events in low light environments. That’s become my niche, so I’m back to picking up work from the ‘too hard’ pile.
Photograph: Ben McCluskey