Are You Carving a Photography Niche — or Digging Your Career in a Hole?

From stock photography old-timers to newly minted microstock experts, all the gurus will tell you the same thing: the key to succeeding in today’s market is to carve out a niche for yourself.

Shoot stuff no one else shoots. Bark at others upon approach. Defend your turf so no one else can take pictures of your subject.

It’s a bourgeois mentality, like that of a fearful suburb-dweller guarding his patch of lawn. In the face of adversity, retreat and protect.

Only problem is, it’s a doomed strategy.

Nothing to Protect

What is there for you to protect, exactly? You do not own your subject. You do not own your clients. You do not own anything except your equipment.

In microstock, clients belong to the platforms, not the photographers. Contributors have no clue who they are selling to or why. In traditional stock photography, sales report still include some licensing information, but the trend is to provide less, not more.

So tell me, if you do not know who your customers are, if you do not have your own data, how can you niche yourself?

You can look at the sales trends at iStockphoto to see what’s working in general. But all the other microstockers see that data, too.

Once everyone is in the same niches, they’re no longer niches, right?

Shooting What You Love

The commercial stock photography market has decided to walk on its head. It used to be that photographers would shoot what they loved and sell that. Some, very, very well.

That was back when photographers had no clue what others were shooting, except for what was published. Now, everybody can see everybody else’s body of work — the vast majority of which never gets sold.

So, based on seeing what other people are shooting (but not necessarily selling), they cross subjects — including very interesting subjects — off their list.

They look for something that hasn’t been found yet. They search for a niche, like miners search for a vein.

Instead of shooting what they love.

The “Field of Dreams” Strategy

Let’s say you find a niche. Then what?

Since you are the only one taking photos of your subject matter, I guess we can just assume the clients will find you, right? The “Field of Dreams” marketing strategy.

Unfortunately, images don’t market themselves, niche or no niche.

There are billions of images online. Do you really believe yours will find buyers simply because the subject matter is rare? Did it ever occur to you that it’s rare because no one cares?

It’s true that once you leave the crowded center of the marketplace for an isolated corner, you will find less competition. But you will also find fewer clients.

And if you don’t know who those clients are, or how to find them and sell to them, you have no chance.

The Talent “Niche”

Here’s a “niche” you might try instead: talent. No one can copy talent.

Shoot everything that everyone else shoots — with talent. With your own eye, your own style and personality. Make your specialty how you approach your subjects, not the subjects themselves.

And leave the niches to those who like living in caves.

17 Responses to “Are You Carving a Photography Niche — or Digging Your Career in a Hole?”

  1. Superb advice. It is really good to see some pushback against the whole niche concept which is great for the non-talent side of any industry but lousy for the talent.

  2. 100% agreed - great post and so true, the only thing I believe in addition is that today talent all by its own won't help either. You need talent to have a chance but you also need talent in how to market yourself

  3. Great piece. I am just getting started in stock and couldn't agree more. If you want to make money, you have to shoot what sells. So, if you love shooting people in business suits, you've got it made.

  4. You’re absolutely right that there are so many images out there on every conceivable subject that there are almost no inadequately covered niches left to be found. It they

    However, shooting what you love – with talent – is not the answer either. There is a huge oversupply of excellent imagery on every conceivable subject people love to shoot. Even if the photographer were to manage to produce something that is great, and somewhat unique (within a high demand category) that image will be buried among hundreds of others of similar images of great quality.

    The problems are two. (1) Customers will never agree that any particular image is the best of its genre. There will be differences of opinion and they will spend their money on different images. And (2) there is way too much over supply and no way to turn the supply off. Normal supply/demand economic drivers do not work in stock photography because a huge portion of the supply is created by people who are not concerned about profit.

  5. Jim,

    If shooting what you love with talent is not the answer, then I wonder what is. Your analysis of the photo stock market presuppose that it similar to making widgets. In other words, that photography fills a existing demand. If that was true, you would be 100 % correct.
    However, Photographs can create their own demand. That is what I writing about here.

  6. Paul:

    I think it is very rare for a photograph to create its own demand and for someone to say, "I have to find a way to use that photograph simply because it exists."

    Photographers may not like to think of it that way, but it is similar to making widgets. To make money they will first need to find a customer who has a need and then find a way to fulfill that need. It is more about assignments and less and less about shooting stock on speculation.

    I sat in on a very interesting seminar by Paula Lerner at PhotoPlus Expo. She earned an Emmy for her multi-media presentation "Behind The Veil" about the women in Afghanistan. Excellent work, but she was paid almost nothing for that project.
    However, that project led to her getting a series of well paying projects for Boston University.

    If a photographer is shooting "what he/she loves" with an eye to it being self promotion that's fine, but it will be increasingly rare that the photographer really makes money from such projects.

    To make money you've got to find customers, learn what they need and then deliver it.

  7. Jim,

    That is exactly what is killing photography today. People like you who think that they are selling widgets : The belief that creative photography can be summed up into a perfect set of rules and regulations, numbers and equations. You think in terms of holes and fillings.
    Most publications will publish images without even knowing the day before they existed, nor having requested them. Actually, maybe 90% of their content, including online , Ipad, etc is made of photographs that they couldn't have possibly asked for 24 hours before.
    "To make money they will first need to find a customer who has a need and then find a way to fulfill that need." resumes perfectly the reason for the deteriorating condition of the commercial stock world. That thinking leads to the search for niches. (see post above)
    If you don't beleive you can create a demand with your photographs, then you might as well become a Microstocker and fill holes, as you say. To me, that is not photography.

  8. Paul,
    I'm so glad I've read your article. Full of good to hear common sense!
    I'm not a niche photographer and sometimes I used to regret it but it is how it is, you can't force yourself to shoot something. So I'm shooting what I love, and this vary a lot from a year to another.
    I'm now convinced that one of the reasons I'm still making a (good) living from my stock photos it is because I cover a broad variety of themes and subjects. I have proofs in my sales figures that there's some seasonal 'trends' for one type of imagery, not another. That sometimes everybody buy this and the next day it's gone, could be forever or just for a while!
    Variety is my insurance against roller coaster sales those days. And more than ever it is my route.
    Have fun!

  9. Paul,
    I agree with you. A niche market is a very limited market and I would imagine that it would only work for a very small percent. Having a variety of images is going to increase your sales potential and well said-photographs create their own demand. If a buyer likes what they come across whether it be a photo editor or consumer then a sale will be made regardless if it is $50 more than the microstock site.

  10. A problem with your discussion of niches, as I read it, is that you are talking about niche kinds of photography and not niche markets for images.

  11. AMEN! If you can find a sellable niche that you love then you are in the money. You gotta work our ass off as well, don't leave that part out : )

  12. Nice article, advice is great for all aspects of photography, not just stock photograph. Everyone with a camera thinks they can be a photographer... the goal is to create an image, not just capture one.

  13. I was one of the 1,400 people laid off from Kiddie Kandids earlier this year. I did exactly what you wrote about here - I carved out a niche and it has paid off better then I could ever have dreamed.

    In fact, my site now teaches people how they can do the same thing.


  14. I believe photography reflects the energy of it's creator. If you take photos to make money, all your energy will be in chasing the money. If you take photographs because it is your gift, you do not have to worry about niche, websites, marketing, and social media or your monthly bank statement.
    Just be yourself, do what you love, share it freely and your finacial needs will be met.
    I know it is a weird concept but if you put as much energy into figuring this out your bank account will not be a indicator of your success.

  15. The problem with niches, is that picture buyers don´t know they exist. They know the rainforest is a threatened biome; but few know that tropical savannas are as rich in biodiversity but much more threatened. South American Indians? They want Yanomami, because it is the tribe that is most talked about. The difficulty lies in making people aware of your niche. I am only partially successful at it. Ah, I don´t defend my turf. Everybody is welcome, if they can find the same niche.

  16. The problem lies in shooting stock for a living at all. Stock used to be a place to put the outtakes from commercial assignments. The world, and its picture users need more stock like they need more mass produced plastic pop music. To continue the music analogy, if you're a great singer or guitarist, you spend your time playing and songwriting your own sound. If you are creative and put the effort in you gain a fanbase (or exposure and marketing). You truly need to love what you're doing in order to go through the pain barrier to find success. But the very idea of shooting purely for stock doesn't fit here at all. Imagine McCartney writing Yesterday because there were a lack of ballads on the market that would suit the 11pm slot on the radio. Does anyone really truly have their heart set on taking pictures of smart business dressed people around a water cooler? Am all for people taking photos for a living. But if you're in it for the money there are a million easier ways to make the limited amount of cash in this ecer decreasing industry. If you do it so you can call yourself 'a photographer' ask yourself this - do you call the guy who puts copy onto the leaflets in Starbucks a writer, or just a guy who does the words? Photos are like sentences - anyone can write a nice sentence (some people are trained well and can sell them to companies like Starbucks) but putting together a load of sentences and saying something gripping - now that's a guy who can call himself a writer. I'm working on being able to truly call myself a photographer, and the benchmark will never be related to how many pictures I can sell cheaper than the next guy to be published (it def wont be because I gave a photo away to be published either!!), no matter where. Success will simply be a body of work that speaks for itself. Maybe then the doors will open to continue working with otehr creative people in other interesting projects because they'll know what me and my work is all about, and will see a synergy in working with me.

  17. John, I do what I like but you are right, it´s hard to sell and I am not getting rich.

    I disagree with what Jim Pickerell said on November 2, 2010: "there are so many images out there on every conceivable subject that there are almost no inadequately covered niches left to be found". There are still many niches, especially in the scientific fields (but that doesn´t pay much) and even in travel. They are hard to find, but as I wrote previously it is even harder to let non-specialized people like picture researchers or editors that they exist. For some uses they would refreshingly replace clichés that are used over and over again.

    I cannot agree more with you: "Success will simply be a body of work that speaks for itself."

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