If you've ever asked yourself, "What do I want to do more than anything else?" then felt a little disheartened about not solving such a question right away, I hope this article can ease any self-frustration, and helps guide you closer toward creating an answer.
Lately, anyone who asks me how I'm doing gets to watch my eyes get big and hear me say, "I feel transformed...." My hands gesture happily and my heart beats quicker as I explain how part of this transformation includes serenity and strength from no longer saying yes to every gig that pays just because I have a camera. I've been reminded to focus my time, study and branding into a more specific area — or genre — of photography.
The pros call this "finding your niche." The results I've had in the last two months alone make me wish I would've niched immediately after starting my business. Now, my brand is more solid, my technique is stronger, my marketing is impactful... my phone is ringing. And yet, I've had five conversations in these past three days with both guys and gals who expressed some concern that I may be limiting myself from wider opportunities now that I'm "one kind" of photographer. It is here that I offer the distinction that FOCUSING does not mean LIMITING.
In all of the conversations that led me to write this article, the moment my niche came up, I immediately got bombarded by the "You-Should's":
"You should open yourself up more to possibility!"
"You should not limit yourself!"
"You should challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone!"
These comments gave me some confusion. Do you feel like you are limited when you walk into a cake shop that bakes everything from bite-sized organic, gluten-free fruit tarts to 7-tiered silky chocolate masterpieces that can feed an entire wedding party? Do you complain to a heart specialist when, heaven forbid, you find yourself needing open-heart surgery that you're concerned he's stuck in a comfort zone?
Those simple "You-Should" adages above fare well when you're dating. Or trying to lose weight. Or lacking a hobby. They do not fare well as whiplash retorts to hearing a professional state his or her specialty.
I know that the comments referenced above did not come from a place of malice, but of care. Friends and strangers alike share their ideas because they truly want to see the next person succeed. However, what did not happen before the flood of "You-Should's" was any solid gesture to educate themselves on why or how I came to certain points in my decisions.
Instead of writing me off with these strict instructions that reek of self-help calendar stock phrases, I would have genuinely loved to respond to questions that dug deeper into the network of studying, serious business planning, and pragmatic insight I have from years of growing toward what I do now. It's reflex for many of us to hear one thing and quickly react. I say let's all try to remember two fundamental elements of having a good conversation — listening and asking questions — before offering a casual "You-Should" that may thwart understanding another person's journey.
Finding a niche to focus on does not mean that we are limiting our vision! The action of finding can imply that we've made a conscious, determined, wide-spread effort to try different things and educate ourselves. Let's look at how limiting and focusing differ, and embrace an opportunity to listen and learn about a person's goals, versus assuming they are pigeon-holing themselves.
Limiting: Fear — Focus: Clarity
It's no mystery that when we limit ourselves, a huge reason why is fear. We are generally afraid of the unknown.
When The Oprah Show® ended in 2011, I kid you not, I woke up daily in cold sweat, terrified of what I could not see ahead. I was young in the professional world sense, and although I'd worked for Oprah over four years, I felt like I had no portfolio, no video reel, no strong responsibilities on my resume that would get me easily into another door. And for that matter, I genuinely had no idea what door I would even knock on next. I was limiting myself. More accurately, I was afraid.
As life would lend, my bosses asked me to stay and help team Oprah build the OWN network. It was little relief knowing that I chose to stay only out of fear for my very fuzzy future. Somehow, out of the depths of night sweats and daily tearful outbursts at my desk, I made myself focus.
Focus is centering your thoughts and actions within a specific area with the intent of achieving clarity, inspiration, motivation, or peace. Peace! Who doesn't want peace while creating an income?
I began putting all of my energy into what I loved doing and what I was great at, and what was given to me exclusively to work on — retouching.
Out of fear, I stayed at Harpo; out of focus I became Oprah and her A-list celebrities' personal and professional retoucher among Chicago, L.A., and New York. And having studied light and shadow so intensely as a retoucher prepared me for shaping light and shadow as a photographer — a photographer who consequently does not need to pay out for retouching services.
Limiting: Jack of All Trades — Focusing: Creditable Expert
It's easy to be a Jack of All Trades, Master of None. There is no committment.
When I started this biz, I did what I thought was necessary. Everyone told me to "get my name out there." So, I told every person I met that I was a photographer. I was a photographer who shot everything except weddings, newborns and pets. That was my pitch. My negative, tired pitch. I shot company holiday parties and church banquets and family reunions... and gave out business cards that still had "digital artist" listed on them for some reason... and I still said yes to a few weddings... and I said I would possibly photograph newborns... or you with your dog... just call me....
But few called. Why? Was I not the prime example of "open to opportunity?" I was willing to shoot anything, even if there was no pay, even if I had no real joy doing it. I told people upfront that I preferred to take portraits, but I was getting my name out there like people said I should, right? But for months, my phone went silent... because I was just another photographer.
I do not say it lightly that my decision to niche transformed the way I do business. All the expert business advice I'd absorbed like a hungry mogwai awake past midnight suddenly became clear, and now I am a fierce, but business-minded, gremlin. The best part is that I'm introduced as the photographer who empowers women through beauty portraits.
Honing in on an expertise does not mean we've suddenly become lazy or have run out of skills to grow on. Challenges will always be plentiful. Posing, lighting, book keeping and time management are all urgent and rewarding priorities. It's okay to add more challenges in our own time. Expertise makes us creditable.
Limiting: Spread Too Thin — Focusing: Full & Managable Range
The conversations referenced above regarded my niche as not having a range wide enough for me to make profit or gain exposure. Totally. Not. True.
I can write another entire article about the range of photography I do within the genre of women's beauty. By accepting that this is what I love, believing and receiving affirmations that I'm good at what I do, and possessing deep, fulfilling clarity of why I do it, I actually find it much easier to branch out from a centralized focus.
Beauty shots, glamour shots, boudoir, headshots, personal branding, mothers, mothers & daughters, sisters, best friends, generational legacy portraits, themed parties, office parties, bachelorette parties, bridal parties, girls' days out, women's empowerment groups, book clubs, wine clubs, jewelry clubs, elite clubs, brunches, artists, writers, women in business, spas, salons, gyms, vintage shops, boutiques, galleries, hotels, hospitals, studios, cosmetics, body image projects, medical offices, gifts, auctions, charities, prizes, partnerships... the list goes on... and all of it targets women's beauty!
I've barely begun to tap into the majority of these adventures, my mouth drools at the incredible relationships and financial reward any of those marketing avenues could build for me, and yet, turning down an offer to "just bring the camera" to a bowling outing was summed up as a "limitation." We gain nothing but perpetual scatterbrain and poor sleeping habits when we are spread too thin. I can even insert here that accepting just any general gig can hurt more than help because it cheapens the professionalism that a niche embodies. Embracing opportunities to be visible and promote what you do is an encouraging practice but must not be confused with depleting your energy and your value for the sake of accessibility.
Limiting: Lack of Motivation — Focusing: Extreme Motivation
A humongous difference between being an everything photographer last year and having niched this year is my level of motivation.
My website had too many separate price lists for too many services. I shovelled out discounts and coupons without even waiting for clients to consider my original price because I thought "sweetening the deal" would distract them from my feelings of low self-worth. My productivity suffered horribly; I procrastinated editing past photoshoots or working to book future ones, especially when feelings of being amateur or uninvested, or being unable to financially invest overwhelmed me.
So, I threw away all those negative feelings that I wasn't good enough. Positivity! I dug deep and reconnected with the joy I feel when I photograph someone who feels that they aren't good enough. Empowerment! I got rid of a dozen "everything" options and began studying and working harder and smarter to improve all the skillsets I need to be phenomenal in the area I chose! Determination! These kinds of motivations are constant and real, and they promote creativity, not complacency.
Limiting: Ignorance — Focus: Knowledge
Make no mistake, every trade, skill and profession comes with study, practice and patience. Sometimes it takes years. Some people say the hardest part is getting started. Others say the hardest part is not giving up. I feel that the hardest part is knowing, with every fiber of your being, that where you are in that moment is the only place you want to be.
When we limit ourselves, we are ignorant of possibility — we may not get the good, but we certainly lessen our chances of getting the bad. There is comfort in feeling like whatever dark cloud lies ahead is not our fault. We didn't ask for it. If life gets harder, we're allowed to complain about it because all we ever wanted to do was get through the day. If a failure sets us back, we should have known better than to stir up trouble in the first place.
Most of us, thankfully, realize that this world is too big and full of wonders to sit around and wait for things to fall on our heads. We, instead, seek knowledge. Knowledge earns us incredible discernment. We become much better at filtering the areas that will either move us forward, or drag us behind. I have no reason to guess or suppose that wedding photography is not an area I need to pursue further because through experience I already know that I lack desire for speed and candidness and would much rather hang out with the guests.
Limiting: Straying — Focusing: Affirming
I know I have a long road ahead of me when it comes to business matters. I never studied business in school. I grew up in a home where money and profitability were neither plentiful nor discussed. I find myself now an entrepreneur with zero background of how to run a successful business.
So do I quit? Of course not. Quitting is a poor option... but likewise is following the "advice" of any and everyone who has an opinion. That deer-in-headlights, blind following can lead to a mess of trouble.
Instead, learn. More effectively, learn from other professionals in the same field who themselves started long ago at the same point you are and have valuable wisdom to give. And learn from your guts. Intuition is a remarkable asset.
I stopped marketing myself as an everything photographer, not because I was afraid of other genres, or because I grew lazy, or because I doubted myself. I niched because I felt fire in my belly when I photographed a lady who had no idea of how magnificent she looked through my eyes.
I now meet so many more people daily — specifically, experts in the business areas that I am not, and... this is important... who do not presume to know everything about my business. From those conversations, I recieve copious affirmations that I'm making good decisions. If I never even spoke with these generous professionals, it's fantastic that I receive more affirmations in the form of my phone ringing with women wanting me to photograph them.
There's no guesswork when you find your niche. You're great at it, then. You love doing it. And how many times have we heard that when you do what you love, the rest will follow? I am absolutely willing to see what becomes of a passion career. My bank account right now shows clear signs of a fledgling entrepreneur, but I wake up happy every day — excited to see evidence of how completing small goals bring me closer to grand goals!
Decisions can be difficult when we're presented with too many choices, same as our own self blocks keep us from making any decision. What's important to remember is to make a choice that works for you — a unique individual — and to not succumb to what others who have not lived in your shoes presume is best.