Specialist or Generalist?
February 25th, 2016 by David LaBelle
While I can do many types of photography—portraiture, landscape, news and sports—the small, quiet, storytelling moments from everyday life like this brother and sister discovering a tree frog in their backyard best define me. Photo by David LaBelle

While I can do many types of photography—portraiture, landscape, news and sports—the small, quiet, storytelling moments from everyday life like this brother and sister discovering a tree frog in their backyard best define me. Photo by David LaBelle

A manager of an exclusive golf course once admitted he had paid handsomely to fly in a celebrated golf course photographer from out of state.

“He’s an expert, a specialist,” he said, justifying the expense.

I nodded and smiled.

I could have saved the golf pro a lot of money and likely done as good of a job, but I am not an “expert” golf course photographer or even a golfer.

I am a photojournalist.

Today, there are specialists in every field: law, medicine, sports, even photography. Brain or heart surgeons are specialists. So are undersea photographers. This does not mean the surgeon would be unable to set a broken arm or the underwater photographer would do a poor job shooting a wedding. What it means is somebody has chosen to focus on a narrow piece of a larger profession, study or game.

Look at baseball. There was a time pitchers threw nine, 10, 15 innings—whatever it took to finish the game. Now, if a guy pitches seven innings, we hail him as a an iron horse. Today, many specialists—starters, middle relievers, set up guys and closers—are paid millions to get one or two outs.

Specialists in any profession—photography included—usually are paid more because they are considered the best at what they do. Often people who can do it all possess the same skills, but lack a degree, title or reputation. They are not as valued, and unlikely to summon the same pay.

Photographers are generalists. Wedding, landscape, street, underwater, portrait or architectural photographers are specialists. Photojournalists fall under both headings.

Just as there was a time the handyman fixed everything, newspaper photographers of my era were expected to do it all. With a solid understanding of cameras, lighting and photography, most could make quality pictures from any assignment—breaking news to fashion.

One of the things I enjoyed most about news photography was the variety of assignments, and the technical and psychological challenge each brought.

While some news photographers made a comfortable living, few earned the day rates of those who specialized in narrow pursuits such as food, fashion or aerial photography.

Don’t get me wrong; I like specialists, especially when it comes to medical issues. Unfortunately, with photography, everybody thinks they are experts—and I don’t want those assigned to judge pickles and canned goods at the county fair to judge the photography exhibit, too.

For me, an expert is someone who knows the turf and can be counted on to consistently make good, relevant pictures from a particular genre.

Consistency is the key. I might get lucky and shoot a great race car picture or prize-winning football or fashion picture, but I am not a specialist in either area. I cannot be counted on to produce at a high level under pressure, nor do I understand the turf.

Just as I don’t want someone who might get lucky and do well in surgery, I don’t want a novice any more than I want Uncle Bob shooting something as important as my wedding. Trust and comfort come with knowing we are dealing with a specialist.

I enjoy portraiture, nature, animals and street photography, but am most known for teaching and capturing human emotion—humor and grief.

The psychology of photography is what stirs my heart.

Learn about all types of photography, but if you want to be noticed in a world with a billion cameras, focus on photographing what you love and are curious about.

Find your niche, strive to be the best in that field and develop a specialty—a brand.

daveL_mug_2011David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.