Photographers take pictures of people, animals, landscapes and products using digital and film cameras — and even drones — to capture events or bring a story to life. Photography careers vary dramatically, depending on which area of specialty they choose. The specialties include portrait, wedding and fine arts photography, photojournalism, university photography, scientific, commercial and industrial photography, and aerial photography.
Photographers may be self-employed, work for a company or freelance with an agency. Certain specialties require travel to locations and long, non-standard work hours. Some specialties are in greater demand during specific seasons such as wedding photography in summer. If the photographer and their specialty are well-matched, this can be a rewarding career.
Day in the Life of a Photographer
While most professional photographers specialize in a particular type of photography, some of the following tasks are common to virtually every photographer:
- Composing each photograph to maximize its impact
- Deciding which photographic techniques and lighting equipment to use
- Working with natural and artificial lighting sources to enhance the subject's appearance
- Using software to edit and manipulate images to achieve the desired effect
- Managing and archiving images in a digital portfolio that demonstrates the photographer's ability
- Developing marketing material and websites to attract new clients
Below is more information about the work of each type of photographer, by specialty:
Aerial photographers may travel in planes or helicopters to capture photographs of buildings and landscapes. They often use special cameras to counteract the movement of the aircraft. A growing number of photographers use drones to capture aerial images.
Portrait photographers take pictures of individuals or groups of people at weddings, religious ceremonies or schools. They often work weekends and evening hours and may travel to locations such as wedding sites, schools or even clients' homes. Many of them work out of their own studio and operate their own businesses.
Commercial and industrial photographers take pictures of buildings, models, merchandise and landscapes that can be used to help analyze engineering projects or may appear on magazine covers.
Scientific photographers may use digital cameras or microscopes to photograph or video subjects, focusing on accurate visual representation. These photographs record scientific or medical data or phenomena. Scientific photographers may need to work closely with scientists or medical personnel to plan their photographic approach.
News photographers, also called "photojournalists," photograph people, places and events for newspapers, journals, magazines or television. In addition to taking still photos, photojournalists often work with digital video. News photographers must be in the right place at the right time to capture events that can happen very quickly. Their work may take them to dangerous or remote locations. They are usually under strict deadlines to meet the publishing requirements of a media employer.
Fine arts photographers typically use traditional film instead of digital cameras and apply creativity to transform their images into art.
University photographers serve as general photographers for large academic institutions. They take portraits, document events and take photographs for press releases.
Important Characteristics for Photographers
Beyond the training they may receive at photography school, successful photographers depend on a variety of skills to accomplish their work. These skills may be natural abilities or they may be cultivated through the pursuit of particular types of photography careers. It is usually helpful to be:
- Artistic and think creatively in order to visualize and design how an image will look after it is manipulated or edited
- Analytical to solve problems and detail-oriented to manage the editing process effectively
- Comfortable using computers, printers, scanners and photo-editing software
- Able to work well independently and still engage with clients or employers, as needed
- Good at managing time
- Focused on providing good customer service by communicating with clients and understanding their goals
- Physically fit enough to stand for long periods of time, often carrying heavy equipment
Aspiring photographers take different paths to their profession, depending on the specialty they want to pursue. The general path to becoming a professional photographer, with variations, is as follows:
Dabble in photography. Take art, journalism and photography classes in high school, at a community college, or through your city's recreation department. Join your school's yearbook staff.
Work as an intern or employee of a portrait photo studio or office. Assisting a professional photographer on assignment and in the studio can expose you to the day-to-day skills of the profession.
Earn a degree. Although many photographers don't need a college degree, those who do find that having a bachelor's or master's degree in commercial, news or fine art photography will help them find work with news, ad and government agencies. Photography courses are offered by many local universities and community colleges. Some vocational-technical and trade schools may offer classes or a certificate program.
Gear your education to your specialty. Photojournalists, for example, need to know how to collect information and write captions. Photographers specializing in industrial or scientific photography generally need an advanced degree from one of the photography colleges. Scientific photographers should also be knowledgeable about their subject matter.
Serve as an apprentice. After completing a photography program, consider starting your careers as an apprentice to a more experienced professional.
Build your portfolio. Examples of your work are essential when applying for freelance or permanent jobs as a photographer. Most photographers maintain a website that allows potential clients or employers to peruse their work.
Get certified. The Professional Photographers of America, for instance, offers a rigorous certification process that identifies professionals who have the consistency, artistry and technical skills clients are looking for in a freelance photographer.
- Photographers, O*Net Online, Accessed December 2017, https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/27-4021.00
- Photographers, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Accessed December 2017, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/photographers.htm
- 7 Photographers Share What They Love (and Hate) About Their Jobs, Business News Daily, Accessed, December 2017, https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/8295-photography-pros-cons.html
- Certified Professional Photographer, Professional Photographers of America, Accessed December 2017, http://www.ppa.com/cpp/?navItemNumber=4314