What is the path to artistic success? Some would argue that it is simply practice – and not just practice overall, but practice at a specific genre of photography, always honing and fine tuning that one small piece of the larger art form.
I would argue otherwise. I think that the keys to success are in diversity. Diversity of style, of techniques and even among many genres, even some of the genres of photography that may not interest you as much as others. Let me give you a few reasons why I think this is true.
If you aren’t diverse in the kinds of art that you’re looking at, then you may run into some problems. This goes not only for photography, but all art forms. There is inspiration to be had from any medium. Look at sculptures and you’ll instinctually learn about lighting just by observing the way shadows fall across the marble. Paintings can teach you a lot about the deliberate use of color and sketches have something to say about the use of precise lines. And, that is just the beginning.
The other reason that you should be looking at all kinds of art is that if you aren’t, you are certainly going to miss things that interest you. Let’s say that you only look at portraits because that is your genre. The problem is, there is a whole wide world out there of landscapes, street photography, architectural photography, abstractions and hundreds of other genres. One or many may pique your interest and inspire you to try new things.
When you are exposed to a narrow range of things, you tend to think more narrowly. If, for instance, you only take landscape photos, then you will think in terms of horizon lines, layering the front, mid and background, various types of sunlight and the colors that are most commonly found in nature.
The same is true if you only work in color photography and never create black and white images. You won’t have as much of an opportunity to appreciate high contrast or the tonal range between the deepest blacks and brightest whites.
This is how working in a wide variety of genres can benefit you. You’ll develop a broad range of thoughts and ideas that can be applied to your favorite genres later on. Sometimes creativity is simply seeing and doing things that you’ve never done before.
When you confine the work that you do, you may think that you are honing that particular subject, but you might instead be confining your creativity. If you delve into other subject materials, and other types of photography, then you’ll learn many new things that you can apply to your favorite material.
It helps to think about the different traits of particular genres. For instance, portraiture often relies on impeccable focus to capture the expression of the eyes and the textures of skin, hair and clothing. How can you apply those things to another genre?
Another example is landscape photography. Colors feature prominently here, whether it is black and white imagery or color. With color, you’re often looking for things like blazing sunsets, glistening blue water and various shades of green. Black and white landscape photography shows you how to look for the contrasts in your landscape. These are creative skills that you can blend with other genres.
In my mind, some of the best photography pulls ideas and influences from a variety of genres. This way, each piece of art produced has its own unique flavor.
Just like each subtype of photography comes with elements that you can use to boost your creativity, each subset also comes with different skills that can be used for a variety of types of images. If you only do street photography, for instance, you won’t have much experience with off camera lighting. As you are roaming public places, there simply isn’t time or a good place to set up lighting. Plus, lighting equipment makes you more conspicuous, which is exactly what you don’t want to do if you are trying to capture candid imagery.
But the same is true in reverse. If you never shoot anything but carefully lit portraits in a studio, then you aren’t taking advantage of the skills that you can learn from street photography. For instance, street photography teaches you to be observant and quick. Look for those amazing candid moments and snap a few shots before it is over.
Each genre has a different set of skills, so by practicing a wide range of them, you can learn lots of skills that can be applied to the types of photography that you are passionate about.
This is the greatest thing of all about photography. Is it helpful to delve into as many different genres and types of subject material as possible? Of course it is, but that doesn’t mean you have to take those things up permanently. Try as much as you can, learn from it, analyze what you like and dislike. Even if you never go back to a particular form of photography, the skills you will have picked up will be valuable.
Just keep in mind that you don’t have to force yourself. Do what you want to do, keep an open mind, and diversify as much as you are comfortable with.
So in the end, which is better, diversifying or sticking with one thing until you’ve mastered it? For me, the right choice is to diversify, but you may have a different answer.