Photographer Career

Photographers take and sometimes develop and print pic­tures of people, places, objects, and events, using a variety of cameras and photographic equipment. They work in the publishing, advertising, public relations, science, and business industries, as well as provide personal photo­graphic services. They may also work as fine artists. There are approximately 129,000 photographers employed in the United States.

Photographer Career History

The word photograph means “to write with light.” Although the art of photography goes back only about 150 years, the two Greek words that were chosen and combined to refer to this skill quite accurately describe what it does.

The discoveries that led eventually to photography began early in the 18th century when a German scien­tist, Dr. Johann H. Schultze, experimented with the action of light on certain chemicals. He found that when these chemicals were covered by dark paper they did not change color, but when they were exposed to sunlight, they dark­ened. A French painter named Louis Daguerre became the first photographer in 1839, using silver-iodide-coated plates and a small box. To develop images on the plates, Daguerre exposed them to mercury vapor. The daguerreo­type, as these early photographs came to be known, took minutes to expose and the developing process was directly to the plate. There were no prints made.

Photographer CareerAlthough the daguerreotype was the sensation of its day, it was not until George Eastman invented a simple camera and flexible roll film that photography began to come into widespread use in the late 1800s. After exposing this film to light and developing it with chemicals, the film revealed a color-reversed image, which is called a nega­tive. To make the negative positive (aka: print a picture), light must be shone through the negative on to light-sen­sitive paper. This process can be repeated to make multiple copies of an image from one negative.

One of the most important developments in recent years is digital photography. In digital photography, instead of using film, pictures are recorded on microchips, which can then be downloaded onto a computer’s hard drive. They can be manip­ulated in size, color, and shape, virtually eliminating the need for a darkroom. In the professional world, digital images are primar­ily used in electronic publishing and advertising since printing technology hasn’t quite caught up with camera technology. However, printing technology is also advancing and even amateur photographers can use digital cameras and home printers to shoot, manipulate, correct, and print snapshots.

Photographer Job Description

Photography is both an artistic and technical occupation. There are many variables in the process that a knowledgeable photogra­pher can manipulate to produce a clear image or a more abstract work of fine art. First, photogra­phers know how to use cameras and can adjust focus, shutter speeds, aperture, lenses, and filters. They know about the types and speeds of films. Photographers also know about light and shadow, decid­ing when to use available natural light and when to set up artificial lighting to achieve desired effects.

Some photographers send their film to laboratories, but some develop their own negatives and make their own prints. These processes require knowledge about chemicals such as developers and fixers and how to use enlarging equipment. Photographers must also be famil­iar with the large variety of papers available for print­ing photographs, all of which deliver a different effect. Most photographers continually experiment with photo­graphic processes to improve their technical proficiency or to create special effects.

Digital photography is a rapidly growing technology. With digital photography, film is replaced by microchips that record pictures in digital format. Pictures can then be downloaded onto a computer’s hard drive. Photogra­phers use special software to manipulate the images on screen. Digital photography is used primarily for elec­tronic publishing and advertising, but it is increasingly being used for photos in newspapers and other tradi­tional print publications.

Photographers usually specialize in one of several areas: portraiture, commercial and advertising photog­raphy, photojournalism, fine art, educational photogra­phy, or scientific photography. There are subspecialties within each of these categories. A scientific photographer, for example, may specialize in aerial or underwater photography. A commercial photographer may specialize in food or fash­ion photography.

Some photographers write for trade and technical journals, teach photography in schools and colleges, act as representatives of photographic equipment manufac­turers, sell photographic equipment and supplies, pro­duce documentary films, or do freelance work.

Photographer Career Requirements

High School

While in high school, take as many art classes and pho­tography classes that are available. Chemistry is useful for understanding developing and printing processes. You can learn about photo manipulation software and digital photography in computer classes, and business classes will help if you are considering a freelance career.

Postsecondary Training

Formal educational requirements depend upon the nature of the photographer’s specialty. For instance, pho­tographic work in scientific and engineering research generally requires an engineering background with a degree from a recognized college or institute.

A college education is not required to become a pho­tographer, although college training probably offers the most promising assurance of success in fields such as industrial, news, or scientific photography. There are degree programs at the associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s levels. Many schools offer courses in cinema­tography, although very few have programs leading to a degree in this specialty. Many men and women, how­ever, become photographers with no formal education beyond high school.

To become a photographer, you should have a broad technical understanding of photography plus as much practical experience with cameras as possible. Take many different kinds of photographs with a variety of cameras and subjects. Learn how to develop photographs and, if possible, build your own darkroom or rent one. Experi­ence in picture composition, cropping prints (cutting images to a desired size), enlarging, and retouching are all valuable.

Other Requirements

You should possess manual dexterity, good eyesight and color vision, and artistic ability to succeed in this line of work. You need an eye for form and line, an appreciation of light and shadow, and the ability to use imaginative and creative approaches to photographs or film, espe­cially in commercial work. In addition, you should be patient and accurate and enjoy working with detail.

Self-employed (or freelance) photographers need good business skills. They must be able to manage their own studios, including hiring and managing assistants and other employees, keeping records, and maintain­ing photographic and business files. Marketing and sales skills are also important to a successful freelance photog­raphy business.

Exploring Photographer Career

Photographer CareerPhotography is a field that anyone with a camera can explore. To learn more about this career, you can join high school camera clubs, yearbook or newspaper staffs, photography contests, and community hobby groups. You can also seek a part-time or summer job in a camera shop or work as a developer in a laboratory or process­ing center.


About 129,000 photographers work in the United States, more than half of whom are self-employed. Most jobs for photographers are provided by photographic or com­mercial art studios; other employers include newspapers and magazines, radio and TV broadcasting, government agencies, and manufacturing firms. Colleges, universities, and other educational institutions employ photographers to prepare promotional and educational materials.

Starting Out

Some photographers enter the field as apprentices, train­ees, or assistants. Trainees may work in a darkroom, cam­era shop, or developing laboratory. They may move lights and arrange backgrounds for a commercial or portrait photographer or motion picture photographer. Assis­tants spend many months learning this kind of work before they move into a job behind a camera.

Many large cities offer schools of photography, which may be a good way to start in the field. Beginning press photographers may work for one of the many newspa­pers and magazines published in their area. Other pho­tographers choose to go into business for themselves as soon as they have finished their formal education. Setting up a studio may not require a large capital outlay, but beginners may find that success does not come easily.


Because photography is such a diversified field, there is no usual way in which to get ahead. Those who begin by working for someone else may advance to owning their own businesses. Commercial photographers may gain prestige as more of their pictures are placed in well-known trade journals or popular magazines. Press photographers may advance in salary and the kinds of important news stories assigned to them. A few pho­tographers may become celebrities in their own right by making contributions to the art world or the sciences.


The U.S. Department of Labor (USDL) reports that sala­ried photographers earned median annual salaries of $26,100 in 2005. Salaries ranged from less than $15,240 to more than $53,900. Photographers earned the follow­ing mean annual salaries in 2005 by industry: newspaper, book, and directory publishers, $37,230; radio and televi­sion broadcasting, $36,100; and colleges and universities, $38,590.

Self-employed photographers often earn more than salaried photographers, but their earnings depend on general business conditions. In addition, self-employed photographers do not receive the benefits that a company provides its employees.

Scientific photographers, who combine training in science with photographic expertise, usually start at higher salaries than other photographers. The USDL reports that in 2005 photographers working for scientific research and development companies earned median annual salaries of $44,650. They also usually receive con­sistently larger advances in salary than do others, so that their income, both as beginners and as experienced pho­tographers, place them well above the average in their field. Photographers in salaried jobs usually receive ben­efits such as paid holidays, vacations, and sick leave and medical insurance.

Work Environment

Work conditions vary based on the job and employer. Many photographers work a 35- to 40-hour workweek, but freelancers and news photographers often put in long, irregular hours. Commercial and portrait photog­raphers work in comfortable surroundings. Photojour­nalists seldom are assured physical comfort in their work and may in fact face danger when covering stories on natural disasters or military conflicts. Some photogra­phers work in research laboratory settings; others work on aircraft; and still others work underwater. For some photographers, conditions change from day to day. One day, they may be photographing a hot and dusty rodeo; the next they may be taking pictures of a dog sled race in Alaska.

In general, photographers work under pressure to meet deadlines and satisfy customers. Freelance photog­raphers have the added pressure of uncertain incomes and have to continually seek out new clients. For specialists in fields such as fashion photogra­phy, breaking into the field may take years. Working as another photographer’s assistant is physically demand­ing when carrying equipment is required.

For freelance photographers, the cost of equipment can be quite expensive, with no assurance that the money spent will be repaid through income from future assign­ments. Freelancers in travel-related photography, such as travel and tourism photographers and photojournalists, have the added cost of transportation and accommoda­tions. For all photographers, flexibility is a major asset.

Photographer Career Outlook

Employment of photographers will increase about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The demand for new images should remain strong in education, com­munication, entertainment, marketing, and research. As the Internet grows and more newspapers and magazines turn to electronic publishing, demand will increase for photographers to produce digital images. Additionally, as the population grows and many families have more disposable income to spend, the demand should increase for photographers who specialize in portraiture, espe­cially of children.

Photography is a highly competitive field. There are far more photographers than positions available. Only those who are extremely talented and highly skilled can support themselves as self-employed photographers. Many photographers take pictures as a sideline while working another job.

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