How to Be a “Full-Stack” Photographer

Photo by Cindy Nguyen. Vancouver, 2015
Photo by Cindy Nguyen. Vancouver, 2015

I feel in today’s world in order to be successful, you need to be a “generalist” — someone who isn’t uber-specialized in one thing, but you can do many things very well.

What is “full-stack”?

SF, 2015
SF, 2015

I’ve heard this term “full-stack” developer recently— someone who knows how to code (front-end and back-end), someone who knows multiple coding languages; essentially a multi-faceted computer engineer.

Also in the world of marketing, a “full-stack” marketer would be someone who knows how to blog, make YouTube videos, write e-books, manage email lists, produce “content”, and could effectively market themselves.

I feel that in today’s world and economy— becoming a “full-stack” photographer is essential for “success” as well. You need to have a combination of marketing skills, photography skills, technical skills, blogging skills, as well as video-production skills.

The days of the specialist is over

London, 2015
London, 2015

In the past, the specialists were the ones who succeeded. They had a very specific skill in a very specific niche, and they made tons of money (because only they could do that one specific task).

However in today’s world and economy, due to the internet, globalization, and technology— a lot of these specialist jobs are being killed.

For example, let’s say you are a photography darkroom specialist, or a specialty printer. Sure you still might be able to scrape by from your skills today, but technology has unfortunately made these jobs redundant. We don’t “need” people who are darkroom specialists anymore, because digital photography doesn’t need to process film. Printing photos is also a dying business— most people would just prefer to upload their photos online (unfortunately).

Adapt or die

Paris, 2015
Paris, 2015

The benefit of being a “generalist” over a “specialist” is that as a generalist— you are less prone to dying.

For example, having a specialization in any one field is dangerous. If that field suddenly becomes irrelevant, you have no other job or skill to fall back on— you might lose your job, and have a hard time finding a new job with your skills.

If you look at it in biological terms— let’s say 100% of your diet is eating bananas. If a mysterious disease suddenly wiped out the entire supply of bananas, you would starve to death. This is why humans have succeeded so well evolutionary speaking— because we have become omnivores to have a variety or a “general” diet (we can eat meat, plants, nuts, fruit, and other food sources).

The animals that have been able to fare well are also the ones that can adapt— the ones that can evolve to meet the demands of the times. Camels have evolved to survive walking long distances in the heat, cheetahs have evolved to become faster and faster to kill their prey, and plants have also evolved poisonous toxins to keep predators away.

Stay flexible, like bamboo

Paris, 2015
Paris, 2015

We also need to learn how to evolve and adapt with the times.

Unfortunately a lot of wedding and commercial-photography jobs are being swallowed up by “Craigslist photographers” who offer jobs for very low rates. An average wedding photographer can no longer expect to get $2,500+ a wedding, when college students with high-end DSLR’s offer to do the same wedding for $500-$1000.

The only solution I can see for professional photographers to succeed is to adapt and evolve— perhaps offer video services, improved customer service, unique ways to present their work (in print books, interactive web galleries, etc), or to simply learn how to make better photos.

The market for “average” photographers is over. You need to strive to become the best photographer you can, while building all these other skills (marketing, business, coding) to survive (and hopefully thrive).

Wear multiple hats

Paris, 2015
Paris, 2015

I am not the world’s best street photographer. Far from it. I know so many other street photographers who are far more skilled and talented than I am.

However I am fortunate that I have learned how to harness technology (blogging, social media, internet marketing) to “get my name out there.”

If we can learn anything from Apple it is this: having a great product isn’t enough. You need to be skilled in marketing yourself (think of how well Apple brands themselves, and all their fantastic advertisements).

One huge advantage has also been able to create a variety of “content” (not just photographs, but YouTube videos, e-books, and in-depth articles). If you are only good at making photos as a photographer, you severely limit yourself.

Even nowadays, I still have the fear that “street photography” won’t always be popular. So I have been exploring more of the concept of “personal photography” — a field of photography that is more general, and can appeal to a larger group of people. Part of this is my evolution as a photographer (even though street photography is my passion, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed creatively) and also partly thinking of my business long-term.

What other skills can you learn?

Beverly Hills, 2013

If you are an aspiring full-time photographer, try to learn these skills to be a “full-stack” photographer:

  • Video production/editing/YouTube
  • Social media (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook)
  • Blogging/Writing (WordPress)
  • Email marketing (Mailchimp)
  • HTML/CSS (for blogging)
  • Coding (Javascript, Python— something I want to learn more)
  • E-book production
  • Teaching skills (Workshop, online seminars, 1:1 consulting)

Of course there are many other skills out there, but the more general skills you build up, the more valuable you build your personal brand and network.

I am always skeptical of new technology. Is it worth investing a lot of your time in the new social network that popped up this week? Maybe, maybe not.

For me, I would say work on established social media platforms that have been around for at least 3+ years. Furthermore, know that at the end of the day— no amount of marketing will help you if you don’t build genuine value for your customer or audience.

What if I’m just a hobbyist?

Lansing, 2014
Lansing, 2014

Of course you can just ignore all of this advice if you are just a hobbyist photographer— who shoots for the love of it.

But at the same time, if you are a passionate photographer who wants to do gallery shoes, have an exhibition, build your name and brand, gain more followers, and get more people to look at your work— being able to “market” yourself by having multiple skills is very important.

I also find that by learning new skills and studying different fields, you stay creative. You take different skills you have, and combine them in unique ways.

For example, my passion in photography + my passion in sociology = street photography.

My passion of books + writing = e-books.

My passion of working out + zen = powerlifting (to me, powerlifting is a combination of the body and mind).

All of my new ideas that have excited me were always from random things that I studied in my part-time for fun.

Think of how you can hack, tinker, combine, and fuse your different interests and passions together. What will result is a unique, original, and authentic point of view.

Specializing as a generalist

London, 2015
London, 2015

One of the hypocritical problems I face is that I could attribute my “success” to focusing on “street photography”– rather than photography as a whole.

I’d have to admit, by focusing on street photography, I’ve been able to get to know the genre quite well. And that has helped me build a position within this “niche”.

However at the same time, I feel that my approach in street photography was unique from other “purist” street photographers in the sense that I took a “generalist” and broad approach.

For example, I’m not that picky in terms of being super anal about what is “street photography” and what isn’t “street photography”. To me, anything can really be “street photography” (as long as it is shot in a public space, and showcases humanity).

I feel my broad knowledge of sociology, psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, and design has made more contributions to the field of “street photography” (because I was able to have an “outsider” perspective). I also believe that by not going to art school or photography school helped me study photography from a unique perspective, rather than just ingesting the same photography curriculum given to hundreds of thousands of art/photography students.

Pave your own path

Chicago, 2013
Chicago, 2013

I feel if you really want to put a dent in the universe in terms of what you do, you must pave your own path.

To be original and unique doesn’t mean to follow a cookie cutter model. You can’t simply mimic what other greats or masters have done before, because their circumstances, their lifestyles, and the society in which they lived in is dramatically different from ours.

For example, it makes no sense for us to try to shoot like Henri Cartier-Bresson (50mm and film Leica) when we have smartphones and social media. The only reason Henri Cartier-Bresson shot with a Leica was that it was the most compact and quick camera at the time. For us today, that might mean shooting with a micro 4/3rds camera, a Fujifilm camera, or a small compact camera. Or even an iPhone.

Follow what you find naturally curious in life, and create your own life and artistic curriculum. There are no teachers, no standardized testing, or rules to follow.

Be an “autodidact” (self-directed learner) and pave your own authentic, idiosyncratic, and unique view in photography. As long as you stay true to yourself, you will always be “successful”.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016 @ 1:10pm, with a lovely single origin espresso at “Dripp” coffee shop in SoCal.

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