Find a Niche — And Fill It

As much time as editorial photographers spend bitching and moaning about how things just aren’t the way they used to be, you’d think we were witnessing the death of an entire genre. Personally, I think nothing could be further from the truth. I actually think we are in the midst of a renaissance that will prove to have been one of the most exciting times to have ever been a photographer.

True, newspapers and magazines cry poor house as the pool of available assignments slowly drains. That’s because along with the digital explosion there has been a massive repricing of information. Presses, trucks and dead trees are no longer needed to disseminate information. So the economic pricing moat that used to surround the publishing process no longer exists.

Publishers used to be guys who sat in corner offices and wielded great power along with their printing presses. In 2011, my ten-year-old kid is a publisher. He doesn’t have a blog. He has three blogs. And he won’t even let me help him. He does it all himself, and for free. This low-infrastructure model is the future of publishing.

Which is to say, that while the bad news is that newspaper and magazines are having a hard time supporting their now-bloated infrastructure, we no longer need the infrastructure. Photographers and writers are now near-zero-infrastructure publications waiting to happen.

If you think about that for a moment, it starts to reset your compass. You can either be a pawn in an outdated economic model or think of yourself as a near-virtual company, ready and able to run on a shoestring. The challenge is figuring out a niche that exists that you can fill, and then how to create value by doing so.

That process is happening all around you every day, and will continue to do so until every bit of information — both visual and otherwise — exists in every form possible and available to everyone. That is a tall order, and it is not even close to being filled yet.

At the large end of the scale, companies like Twitter and Facebook didn’t even exist just a few years ago. The niche they filled was to facilitate the ease of connection between people. On a smaller and more industry-specific scale, SportsShooter did the same thing for sports photographers. Ditto Strobist, for people who want to learn about light — which also did not exist until 2006.

As photographers, we have the ability to discover and create publications that fill visual niches. We live in a visual world, and we are content producers.

Nearly twenty years ago, I created all of the photography for a traditional coffee table book on Columbia, MD. It was on assignment for a publisher, but I had enough visibility into the process to see that the economics of small-press book publishing were brutal even then. So much so that I almost felt bad taking royalty checks.

But with internet publishing, the costs and infrastructure all goes away. If you have the commitment to produce something of value and quality, there are many ways to monetize the value that a comprehensive local project can produce. The hardest thing is probably finding a niche about which you are passionate that is ripe for exploration.

For a couple of years now, I have been divorcing myself from the idea of shooting editorial for other people and instead learning to think more entrepreneurially. I am thinking hyper-local, and looking at the inefficiency of coherent, quality visual information about the county where I live. It just seems logical to explore the options that exist right at my doorstep as publishing continues its major upheaval. And the more I study it, the more opportunity I see.

I have been gathering words and photos for a while now, and I am just starting to see the organizational structures that will help to build it into something that can be of value to a large number of people. And that will be important when it comes time to monetize it. As an entrepreneur, you are a one-man (or -woman) band. You have to learn everything you can about the business ecosystem you create.

If you are still thinking, “Who will pay me to take pictures?” you are heading down a very, very competitive path. Better to think, “What can I explore, define and create with my camera that will create value?” And then, “How can I monetize that value?”

As information continues to decentralize, those photographers who can learn to think entrepreneurially will be in the driver’s seat to create and capture new business models. And those who don’t will have more and more to complain about every day.

You can read more of David’s musings, ramblings, tips, tricks, and other stuff over at Strobist.com