Carving a Niche: Shooting What You Love

Posted on 11/5/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (4)

Paul Melcher recently wrote a story that asked, “Are You Carving a Photography Niche – or Digging Your Career in a Hole? Melcher argues that there are few inadequately covered niches left and points out that perhaps those niches that do not already have thousands of images available exist because there is no demand for the subject matter. He also asks: “If you do not know who your customers are, if you do not have your own data, how can you niche yourself?”

Instead, Melcher suggests photographers “shoot what they love” and make their niche “talent.” “No one can copy talent,” he says, with the theory being that if you create images that are better than anyone else’s, yours will sell.

I agree that finding an uncovered niche is not the answer, but shooting what you love—with talent—is not the answer either. There is a huge oversupply of excellent imagery on every conceivable subject that 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 other similar images of great quality.

The problems are two-fold.

First, customers will never agree that any particular image is the best of its genre. There will be differences of opinion, with different customers spending their money on different images.

Second, oversupply is already great, and there is no way to limit additional new images entering the market. Normal supply/demand economic drivers do not work in stock photography, because people who are not concerned about profit create a huge portion of the supply.

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

That may be true, but 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 what they create in that way, but it is indeed more similar to making widgets. To make money, the photographer will first need to find a customer who has a need, and then find a way to fulfill that need. It will be more about finding assignments and less and less about shooting stock on speculation. Photographers could make good money shooting stock on speculation in the 1990s, when there was more demand than supply. Now, supply far exceeds demand, and shooting on speculation no longer works anywhere near as well as it once did.

For one small perspective on supply, consider that PhotoShelter hosts the archives of more than 65,000 contributors, totaling over 50,000,000 images—and this number is growing by more than 100,000 images per month.

I attended Paula Lerner’s very interesting seminar at PhotoPlus Expo. She earned an Emmy for her six-part multimedia series “Behind The Veil” about women in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The work is excellent, but she was paid almost nothing for its use.

However, the project did lead to her getting a series of well-paying multimedia production shoots for Boston University and other multimedia projects as well.

If a photographer is shooting what he or she loves with an eye to it being self-promotional, that is fine. In such cases, what is invested in time, energy and money is all part of the promotional budget. But in most cases, it is unrealistic to expect to sell such work for enough to realize a profit. It will be increasingly rare for photographers to really make money from such projects.

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

Copyright © Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to:  


  • Jonathan Ross Posted Nov 5, 2010
    I have to agree with you on that Jim. Good article.

  • Bill Bachmann Posted Nov 5, 2010
    I write this from location in Vietnam........ Good article. BUT here is your quote ----Normal supply/demand economic drivers do not work in stock photography, because people who are not concerned about profit create a huge portion of the supply.-----

    Why then, Jim, do you keep encouraging any one who owns a camera to go ahead and submit to Microstock for "beer money" which continues to create the problem rather than push to have people do it correctly???

  • Paul Melcher Posted Nov 5, 2010

    That is exactly what is killing photography today. People like you who think that they are selling cement : 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 filling holes.

    What is wrong with your thinking is that you assume that buyers demand is unilateral. In other words, for two, or ten people needing a picture of a toothbrush, they will all go for the same image. However, it is not the case. Although they might have a need for an identical subject matter, they will fulfill it in a variation of ways.

    Your analysis also ignores the editorial market. Most publications will publish images without even knowing the day before they even 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. Thus the images create the demand.

    "To make money they will first need to find a customer who has a need and then find a way to fulfill that need." you writes. And how, may I ask, do you achieve this?

    Finally, If you don't beleive you can create a demand with your photographs, then I wonder why you or anyone becomes a photographer.

    Paul Melcher

  • John Harris Posted Nov 6, 2010
    Paul Melcher surely has a point. With all respect a "Says Law" supply/demand model (however well informed and carefully nuanced) does not adequately explain the operation of the economy (as the ongoing wider crisis has made clear) - social reality always seems a deal more complex as it unfolds and mechanistic, even fatalistic precepts may be part of the problem not the solution - ideas themselves are, after all, a material force. We've seen that the digital revolution enabled a consolidation that has mostly moved profits from producers up to the top executives of an increasingly small number of powerfully dominant companies - as has happened across much of industry. In our case this near monopoly is defended by a low price/high volume/quick sale strategy (with subscription, preferred supplier discount etc. etc.) "for the benefit of the customer". This "Savvy Marketing", whilst mesmerising many photographers into wide eyed acquiescence and subsequent penury, is intended to remove any competition for market share and thus further consolidates the monopoly position. It is as if we were selling bags of cement via Wal-Mart. Publishers meanwhile, as the digital revolution continues, will find they must distinguish their content from that of their competitors. Those producing outside or on the peripheries of this bloated oligarchy of "content providers" who are so obviously compromised by an oversupply of mediocrity, can see that customer requirements may yet create opportunities for inspired photography as the transformations continue.. john harris

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