Education and Training: Varies—see profile
Salary: Median—$26,080 per
Employment Outlook: Varies—see profile
Definition and Nature of the Work
Photographers combine artistic talent and technical skill to produce professional photographs. To use their tools—cameras, lenses, and lights—they must be highly skilled technicians. To create meaningful photographs, they must be able to arrange whatever they are photographing so that it will stand out clearly in the finished picture. Photographers work at many different kinds of jobs. One photographer might make a career of taking pictures at weddings. Another might work in a laboratory taking scientific pictures through a microscope.
Most photography in the twenty-first century involves the use of digital cameras, which allows photographers to capture images electronically and edit them on a computer. Numerous images can be stored on compact disks or flash disks, which are small memory cards found in digital cameras. On a computer, images can be edited using color correction and other effects. Because this can be done in a short time, photographers can take pictures and see them right away. When they are satisfied with an image, it can be sent anywhere in the world via the Internet.
Photographers can display their work electronically by creating their own portfolios and placing them on their own Web page. Customers can order prints of a photographer's work, which can easily be edited, enlarged, or cropped to a customer's needs with the aid of computer software.
Photographers are employed in many businesses and have a variety of specialties. In general, photographers in technical work must have an understanding of their subject in order to be successful. Industrial photographers work for manufacturers. They travel to factories and take pictures of workers on the job and the products they are making. These photographs are used to improve the methods by which the products are made. The government employs many photographers to work on scientific and defense projects.
Medical photographers take pictures of new methods and advancements made in health care. These photographers must have some knowledge of science and medical terms. Science photographers usually need backgrounds in the sciences or in engineering. They may take pictures of rockets taking off, or they may work in a laboratory shooting photos of the various stages of an experiment. They are sometimes asked to design new photographic equipment for use in research. Science photographers often specialize in one area, such as biology or aerodynamics. In addition to working for the government, science photographers work for private foundations and pharmaceutical companies.
Press photographers work for newspapers. They are journalists as well as photographers. Their photographs try to capture the mood or feeling of particular events and people in the news. They sometimes work with reporters covering stories. Magazine photographers are usually freelancers. They submit ideas for stories to magazine editors. If the editors like their ideas, the photographers get the assignments. Some magazine photographers are journalists; along with taking pictures, they do research and dig for facts as other reporters do. A collection of their photographs may be arranged in the form of a photo essay that tells a story. A few large magazines keep photographers on their staffs.
Many other kinds of photographers are freelancers. Portrait photographers take pictures of people. They are hired for weddings, graduations, and other occasions. Advertising photographers take pictures that are designed to sell products. One type of advertising photographer is the fashion photographer, who takes pictures of models wearing the latest clothes.
Many portrait and advertising photographers run their own studios. Others work for large studios that employ many photographers. A few freelance photographers work for publishers of books and educational materials.
Education and Training Requirements
The most important training for a photographer is practical experience using cameras and taking pictures. Some apprenticeships may be available in camera shops or developing labs, but most beginners receive their training in schools and colleges. Photography courses are offered at two-year technical colleges and four-year colleges; some colleges even have programs that lead to a bachelor's or a master's degree in photography. Some knowledge of science and education are helpful for candidates in this field.
Because digital photography has become so important, photographers must have the technical knowledge to use digital equipment, high-quality printers, and editing software. Technology is changing rapidly, and photographers must keep up with the latest advancements.
Getting the Job
Prospective photographers should prepare a portfolio—a collection of their best photos. Candidates for a job as an industrial photographer should include pictures of factories and factory workers in their portfolios. Individuals interested in becoming portrait photographers should include close-ups of people. Employers decide whom to hire on the basis of portfolios.
A good start for a photographer is a job working for an experienced professional. The pay is low but the training is invaluable. Candidates should apply directly to portrait photographers or any freelance photographer who needs an assistant.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Successful photographers are those who have become well known in their field. Beginners generally use their skills in just one branch of photography until they establish a name for themselves. Photographers who have worked for studios or companies sometimes start their own businesses.
Jobs for photographers are expected to increase as fast as the average through the year 2014. Digital technology has profoundly affected the field of photography: nonprofessionals can now utilize digital cameras to create and edit their own images. The Internet has provided opportunities for freelance photographers to exhibit and advertise their own work. In addition, photographers will be needed to provide digital images to the growing number of online magazines, journals, and newspapers. The greatest demand for photographers is expected to be in technical fields such as industry, science, and medicine.
Working conditions for photographers vary, depending on where they work. Magazine, advertising, and portrait photographers work at least forty hours per week. Those who run their own businesses work longer hours. Freelance photographers choose their own hours, but they usually work more than forty hours as well. Freelancers cannot be certain that they will get work every day—or even every week. Many develop, print, and mail their own pictures. Often they work under pressure to meet their customers' demands.
Industrial and science photographers typically work forty hours per week. Press photographers keep irregular hours. They may be called in whenever they are needed to cover a story. Press photographers who work for large newspapers may be sent all over the world.
Earnings and Benefits
Earnings for photographers vary widely. Freelancers charge whatever the market dictates. Freelancers often earn more than salaried workers, but their earnings are affected by business conditions, their client list, and the location in which they work.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of a photographer in 2004 was $26,080 per year. The highest 10 percent earned more than $54,180 a year. Photographers working for newspapers and magazines earned a median annual salary of $32,800.
Where to Go for More Information
American Society of Media Photographers, Inc.
150 N. 2nd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19106
National Press Photographers Association
3200 Croasdaile Dr., Ste. 306
Durham, NC 27705
North American Nature Photography Association
10200 W. 44th Ave., Ste. 304
Wheat Ridge, CO 80033-2840
Professional Photographers of America, Inc.
229 Peachtree St. NE, Ste. 2200
Atlanta, GA 30303
Salaried photographers usually receive paid vacations and sick leave. Those who work for the federal government also get health insurance and pension plans. Freelancers must provide their own insurance and retirement plans.
A photographer is an artist and a part-time mathematician. As an artist, the photographer, who often learns the craft at a two- or four-year college, usually as part of an art program, takes pictures in places as varied as natural settings, wedding reception halls, studios, and industrial environments. As a mathematician, the photographer must understand the mathematics of cameras, lighting and optics, and print processing.
The mathematics of the camera involves shutter speed and f-stops. Shutter speed measures the amount of time the shutter is open, exposing the film to light. The numbers of the shutter speed represent the denominator of the time the shutter is open, so that a shutter speed of "500" means that the shutter is open 1/500th of a second. Such a fast shutter speed helps photographers capture action shots or take photos in bright environments. A low shutter speed, like "60" (or 1/60th of a second), slows the shutter to allow more light to enter the camera.
The f-stop is how wide the lens opens (that is, how much light is allowed to reach the film) when taking a picture. The f-stop measures the size of the lens's opening (also called aperture) relative to the lens's focal length. So, a 50 millimeter lens with a 12.5 millimeter opening has a maximum f-stop of 4 (or f/4). To achieve a certain pictorial effect, the right combination of these settings is needed. Photographers also use mathematical formulas to increase or decrease the amount of light and to determine the focal point of a lens. If the combination is not calculated correctly, photos can be overexposed (too much light is let in and the image is washed out) or underexposed (not enough light was let in and the image is too dark).
To help the photographer make precise determinations, most cameras have built-in light meters. Such devices measure the amount of light and indicate the optimum settings for the camera's f-stop and shutter speed.
Although these features are automatic on many cameras, some photographers prefer to use manual cameras and adjust the settings themselves.
When developing prints, photographers not only must get the chemical composition of the developing fluids correct, they must also measure accurately the temperature of the solutions. Additionally, photographers must use a mathematical scale to determine how long to leave the print in the solution, depending on the type of film.
Michael J. O'Neal
Grimm, Tom. The Basic Book of Photography. New York: Plume, 1997.
London, Barbara, ed. Photography. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.