Are You a Specialist or a Generalist? by Mike Larson

Photo by Wedding Photographer Mike Larson

Are you a Specialist or Generalist? Today we’ll talk about what this means, why it matters & how to figure out which category you belong in. Specialization and generalization are two totally different approaches to doing business. Business owners tend to adopt a bit of both practices, but doing so actually ends up hurting their business.  I’ll admit that over the years I’ve done my share of this as well. That’s why I want to start this dialogue and share some of what I’ve learned about making intentional choices and clearly developing a purpose for a photography business.

Are you a Generalist? A generalist is a person (or business) whose skills, interests, and/or habits are evenly distributed and unspecialized.

A generalist has NOT chosen a single category or niche to operate their business within, but instead does a bit of everything. There are a lot of these businesses in the photography industry.

Wedding Photography is No Longer a Specialty Years ago a wedding photography business was automatically operating within a niche market by focusing on wedding photography. This was because most photographer’s business cards said something like, “Specializing in weddings, portraits, landscapes, babies and maternity.” (That was exactly what my 1st business card said.)  Since then, the quantity of “wedding specialists” has grown to a number in the tens of thousands. Now, a wedding photography business does not naturally belong to a specialty or niche; it is just as general as my first business card.

A lot of photographers starts out without a specialty because they need the work and experience, because they don’t quite know what they want to specialize in, and maybe even because they love the variety! As Jeff Jochum always says, “The Customer will always try to homogenize you.” He’s right. If you do everything the consumer asks you to do, you will end up doing everything. Doing everything in a photography business means offering multiple product or service lines and multiple styles of work represented on a website. A photography business using a generalized model typically has a primary product or service that generates 60-80% of their business, as well as multiple other product & service options.

Some generalists get lucky and will succeed for a period of time. But I believe that these photography success stories are the exception rather than the rule. I considered myself to be one of these accidentally successful generalist early on. Those like me who succeeded by luck, got in with a few brides who happened to have 20 friends who were about to get married, we were in a market that was not yet saturated. Others that have found success in this way may have known the right person or may have just been in the right place at the right time. This success is not bad, but luck is temporary and easily replaced. As the group of brides you photographed passes their mid 30′s and no longer has a basket of referrals, your “shoe in” client base shrinks.

The Pros Businesses that are less specialized have a larger market pool, which potentially means more client volume. Photographing more people can help you gain experience. However, if you’re building a referral based business you want your current clients to be your ideal client. If you have a large volume of clients that aren’t ideal, you can get stuck in that market and have trouble working up to a higher clientele or a specialized position.

The Cons When you are one photographer in a large market, it’s easy for potential clients to compare you to others. Clients that want a general service usually want cheap & convenient. You have a lot more competitors. You have to be all things to all people so that you can get every bit of business you can. There are always updates and new product lines to add to your offering in order to keep up with the competition.

Are you a Specialist? A specialist a person (or business) who devotes their career to the pursuit of a single specific area. They are a connoisseur, an expert and a master at their craft. There are fewer of these people.

Pick a Hill of Specificity My friend Kevin Swan always encourages photographers to pick a hill, a hill thats easier to defend, a hill of specificity. The more narrow the ground, the less competition will want to join you. Most entrepreneurs are fearful of committing to a specific market and position. A company that has made the commitment to a unique position in our industry is Kiss Wedding Books. They are committed to making simple wedding books, and because of that they are the only simple wedding book company. (It takes about 90 seconds to order a book.) They founded their business on simple: no frills, no metal covers, no embossing, very few options.

Most businesses fear saying no to work. A specialist turns down work that is not consistent with their unique position, with their brand, and that broadcasts anything that is inconsistent with their messaging. Jose Villa is a great example of a photographer who is excellent at consistently broadcasting images that reflect a unique position.

The first step to specializing your business is finding a niche or specific category of the photography market and defining a unique position. For example, within the resort wedding photography market there are unique specialties such as focusing on weddings that take place at 5 Star resorts. The category that I have chosen to pursue is geographical and venue specific. Other specialties include: type of clientele, type of bride, location, region, etc.

I challenge you to Google the term you want to specialize in. Destination wedding photography is no longer a specialty, but instead is a market that has the opportunity multiple different specialties. The same goes for international wedding & portrait photography.

The Pros You get the opportunity to own your unique category. A refined vision helps guide your day to day activities; whatever you do every day must get you closer to success within this category and your goal, otherwise you don’t do it. Your business can be simple. I love simplicity. You get to charge a premium for what you specialize in because people will pay a premium for specialists.  You will have fewer workflows, and have a narrow scope of tasks – you don’t have to be all things to all people.  You get to focus your business time on just those who support your business. And personally, you can spend more time on life and with the people you choose.

The Cons You have to say no to everything else. While I love the beach and surfing, there is a very low potential for business in my area for beach weddings. I have had to choose to keep some of my personal passions for my personal life and highlight the passions that work professionally.  Estate & Vineyard weddings are a different passion of mine that happen to make sense for my business.

Its important to know whether you are a generalist or a specialist. Currently in our market, I believe specialists have a bull run and generalists are in a bear market. But what do you believe? Where does your business fit? Where does it have the best opportunities to succeed?

Join me in the next few weeks as we continue this conversation about strategies for being a specialist or generalist, unique positioning, and more.

Let me know what you think by commenting on this blog post!

I also suggest that you check out the book, “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing” by Jack Trout & Al Ries.

Written by Mike Larson

Mike is hosting a Wedding Photography Inspiration {StyleShop} in NYC on June 9-10th.  A special guest from a top NYC wedding blog will be sharing insight on getting published.  Stop guessing at how to get your business growing.  Mike will be speaking at the New York PUG on Wednesday June 8th. There you can test drive a fraction of what Mike will sharing over the following 2 days at the StyleShop!

Mike Larson is an international photographer who began his career traveling the globe in search of photographing exotic locations, amazing surf, and beautiful cultures. Since then, he discovered his passion for photographing people who are in love and enjoying life. Residing in Southern California when not traveling, Mike is honored to be sought after to photograph spectacular weddings around the world.

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Character Marketing: Why do your clients hire you? by Mike Larson

character marketing for photographers

Why do clients hire you? Think about it for a minute.

Over the past 13 years as a photographer/entrepreneur, I’ve realized that the reason people hired me was not always what I assumed it was, especially in the beginning years of building my business and reputation. I would have liked to think that people hired me because they had to have me as their photographer. Looking back over my first few years though, I realized that many of the people who hired me did so not because of who I was, or what I did, but for some other lesser reason. They might have hired me because I was the most economical, because I sold them on me, because I had a show special, or because I was one of the few available for their date.  Certainly not reasons I would want to brand myself on. As far as positioning myself uniquely, I’d never want to be known as the guy in town to book because he’s underpriced, or the guy who gives away the most in his packages, or even the guy who is always available last minute. None of these reasons are very good unique positioning strategies.

None of these things give someone the reason to pay a premium for an experience based service. So what does?

In my experience, people who have been willing to pay more, have done so because of me and not the photos. It was the trust that they had in me, because of my character.

Once I realized this, I began to change my focus of exposure FROM my images and the time I spent on them, to myself. I made myself more available to those who were working closely with potential clients, mostly the venues and coordinators. I made sure that those important people knew me and my character. I made it my #1 priority to be in the place where the action was happening, where clients would most likely make the purchase decision. This was pre-Twitter and pre-Facebook. I realized that true honest to goodness face time with those who would refer me, was the #1 important thing.

Here’s the formula:

Find the “action spot,” (the point where your clients converge and are most likely to make a purchase decision). Maintain an ongoing relationship with the gatekeepers to those places. Provide more sustainable value and passion than anyone else. Define to them what your unique positioning is, (and you can’t use any term that comes up in a google search, such as “capturing your unique beauty the way nobody else can.” That may come up about 5000 times and is NOT unique).

People trust people over brands, so that means your face is more important than your logo. Why do people remember you? I recommend having a “To Be” list. At the top of my “To Be” list is who I want to be and what I want people to remember me as. This comes above my to do list, which defines what I get done. You decide what’s more important for you.

In a sea of a hungry and sometimes desperate business climate, our character shines more than anything else. People do business with those who they like and who they trust. Do people trust you? Before you answer with a quick, “Of course.”  Ask those who have hired you, why they hired you, and don’t let them tell you “it was your images”, or because they “liked you.” Everyone says that, rather, get to know exactly WHY they hired you and you’ll find out your “secret sauce.”

I believe that it’s our character that allows our business to flourish, and our business that gives our character the chance to continue to grow. By focusing our efforts on the real reason we want our clients to hire us (because of our character), we spend our time being who we want to be, rather than racing others with the price game, discount game, package matching game, or any other way.

Think of the businesses you choose to spend a premium with and I’ll bet its because of who the people are who serve you that you get the amazing experience you get. And most importantly, I bet you can tell me in 10-15 words why that business is different and far better from anyone else. Now, can your clients say the same about you? Once they do, you’ll have a team of customer evangelists telling the world simply how amazing you are, free of charge of course!

Learn more about “Character Marketing” from Mike at the 2nd annual WPPI Photographers Ignite Presentations on Thursday February 24th  from 10 am-12 pm. All are welcome to attend!

Mike will also be presenting a WPPI platform talk “Defining Your Style” Sunday Feb 20th from 3:30-5:30pm with a guest panel of speakers including Mike Colon, Jose Villa, Jesh deRox, w/ Stylist Summer Watkins, and Blogs Style Unveiled and 100LayerCake. Visit for more information.

Written by Mike Larson

Mike Larson is an international photographer who began his career traveling the globe in search of photographing exotic locations, amazing surf, and beautiful cultures. Since then, he discovered his passion for photographing people who are in love and enjoying life. Residing in Southern California when not traveling, Mike is honored to be sought after to photograph spectacular weddings around the world.

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Do You Have Style Integrity? by Mike Larson

on location engagement shoot by photographer mike larson

Take a look at most of the big companies, and they have a Graphic Standards Manual containing guidelines for the proper use of their identity, logo, and style of marketing. It describes authorized usage for communication of all kinds, with consistency and with purpose. You would never see the Nike swoosh above the Nike text part of the logo, as it always is placed below the text. You would never see more than one Apple logo on the same product, and there is an order to which the style, size, colors and organization of everything is used. Every company has what is called a standards manual, where the designers of the logo give parameters for the color, logo, size and the details for every possible variation. More often than not, this is very specific, and does not allow for use beyond that which the designers designed. This protects the brand’s integrity and keeps things simple. Why is this important for photographers? Implementing ample design integrity builds brand equity.

Lets call it “style integrity.” Style integrity is an adherence to a similar style to which something is done. It is the currency of collaboration and growth in today’s creative world.

Do you have style integrity? Take a look at your blog, your website, and everything that is produced from your business entity. Is there consistency? From your email campaigns to your business card, do things appear unified and cohesive? It has been wisely said, “we are often defined by the decisions we don’t make.” Sometimes our decisions unknowingly put is in a category we may not want to be in. When we do not decide what we are and what we are not, we lose out on opportunities to lead in our industry.

We live in an age where we are bombarded with so many small business and DIY marketing campaigns, with home cameras capturing Etsy products, or newsletters with profile pictures that don’t fit the vibe of what the company is selling, etc. we need to pay attention to our style integrity if we want to stand out from the majority. While often the average photography client cannot tell the difference between good and great, the people who are leading the industry that we want to collaborate and connect with with can tell the difference. Those who lead want to work with those who are also leading. Does the integrity of our style inspire others to collaborate with us?

It is easier than you think to maintain your style Integrity. Here are some basic tips that might help. Pick some of your favorite companies that do this well, and take note of their style. Write down words that describe them, for example, Apple, is “smart,” “sleek,” “cutting edge,” and “fun.”  I would challenge you to find anything on their site, blog, or marketing campaigns that does not fit these parameters.

Now let’s do that with our own work. Looking at your website, blog, etc.: 1) Are there words that define who you are and what you do that could act as a filter for what images and words you do and don’t put on your site? 2) Are there consistent text styles, colors, and sizes that you use throughout your entire branding? 3) Do you keep everything as simple and clean as possible to keep your client clicking as few times as possible to get to what they need? 4) Write down a few phrases, client testimonials, or descriptions you would like to be known as, and then test this against what you currently have on your site, card, etc. Ask some friends you trust to give you honest feedback.

We can set ourselves apart from the sea of competition by being simple, and putting everything we do through this filter. If this is hard for you, bring on a board of directors, or several friends with a critical eye that can help catch what you don’t filter. Have them give you monthly reviews. This process of wrestling with what you choose to post, print and produce will become easier once you have set parameters as to what you do want your style to represent. Once you define what you are and what you are not, and remove the things that do not fit with that defined style, as the months pass you will train your eye to “see” this style integrity.

Set out your goals for your style integrity in 2011, and set yourself apart. You will attract others who are inspired, and thus the door opens to collaborate and grow.

**If you want to learn more about developing your style, visit Mike’s Platform talk at WPPI in Las Vegas on Feb 20th from 3:30-5:30pm.**

Written by Mike Larson

Mike Larson is an international photographer who began his career traveling the globe in search of photographing exotic locations, amazing surf, and beautiful cultures. Since then, he discovered his passion for photographing people who are in love and enjoying life. Residing in Southern California when not traveling, Mike is honored to be sought after to photograph spectacular weddings around the world.

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Mastering Reception Lighting, Forever. by Mike Larson

Reception Off Camera Lighting - Photographer Mike Larson

I’ve had this problem for years when it comes to an entire wedding collection I would post on my website.  Great getting ready, great portraits, beautiful ceremony, and the light is sweet, then we grab the stellar sunset shots and then the reception hits and I’m left with horrible lighting when the DJ turns the lights down low.  I was never really happy & satisfied with the quality of the light on the images with my on camera flash and therefore I just hated to use the images.  So my slideshows stopped with the first dance.  As the years went by I got on camera flash down, but off camera flash was always touch and go.  I could get some of the shots to turn out great, but when the action kept moving and people got in the way of the flash units, things just didn’t come out consistent enough.

That was then.  Last year I was on this shoot in Germany and my pocket wizards didn’t work.  Bummer.  I had to nail this shot.  So we twittered for any extra wireless units and then this guy came from Hamburg and brought these little units that had a chinese name and I was thinking, “what the heck are these things!?”.  I tried them out and they worked like a charm.  Then he told me they were about $20 buck on ebay!

When I got home I ordered 10 receivers and 5 transmitters.  That cost me a whopping $300.  Then I used my existing 550ex, 580ex and 580exII flash units.  I had 4 of them and used them all at 1/128th power to get 3-4 frames a second.  We have all 3 shooters shooting on the same setup and the 4 AA batteries would last all night.  I was blown away by the simplicity of the device, even using manual and not TTL.

How amazing is this light on these shots.  I could finally get insane reception shots, of the 1st dance, speeches, and all the events and all on manual.  It was so ridiculously easy.

Here is how to do it:

You want to make sure you have the flash units circling around, dead spots will occur when the flash units are too far apart.

Here are your camera settings: (yes, its really this simple).

Aperture: 1.4-1.8 Shutter speed: 1/60-1/125th, (depending on ambient light) ISO:400 Kelvin: 5000-6000(depends on amount of ambient light)

Speedlight Flash Settings:

Zoom: 24mm zoom Power: 1/64th

Other Gear used to secure flashes:

Gorilla Pods($99) 11′ Matthews Light Stands ($59) 12′ Manfrotto booms ($150)

There are always places to put the flash units, the most common locations are out of the way from people at as low profile as possible.  You can put the gorilla pods on top of the DJ speakers, and lightstands around the columns.  If the tripod bottoms get in the way of foot-traffic, you can put booms there and attach to the side of the wall, or pillars near the dance floor.  Attach with Gaffers tape or zip ties.  You can hide these in curtains, or wherever the decor permits.

Important lighting placement thoughts to mention:

- Have flash units as high as you can get so that people don’t block light from hitting the center of the dance floor.

- Space them evenly apart.

Optimal distance away from center of dance floor: 12-25 feet. (25 feet may require flash at 1/32 power).

Below is the range of the devices and the technical data.

Mike Larson is teaching his last & final workshop of the year, (Dec 6-7th) sponsored by Calumet in Los Angeles CA, Hands on shooting, and dialogue for you to ask questions and grow your business, are you ready for 2011!?  Click here for details  Its only $199.

Mike Larson is an international photographer who began his career traveling the globe in search of photographing exotic locations, amazing surf, and beautiful cultures. Since then, he discovered his passion for photographing people who are in love and enjoying life. Residing in Southern California when not traveling, Mike is honored to be sought after to photograph spectacular weddings around the world.

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Preparing Yourself and Your Clients for a Styled Shoot by Mike Larson

This is a topic I had wrestled with for years, how do I get my current shoots to attract the type of clients that I want in the future? How do I give my shoots the edge and style that I want to portray to future clients? I eventually learned that a photographer really needs to be a leader to make this happen. We do not necessarily have to do everything ourselves, but instead we can source help and lead them and our clients toward the common vision.

Here are four basic steps to help you style your shoots & clients:

Step 1. Know what you want. Pick out some samples of work from different photographers or from ads you’ve seen that inspire you, then you can put together some ideas to springboard from. Jose Villa is one photographer that really inspires me & I love his work. I …

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