We all take photographs, but some of us are paid to do it. And some of the professional photographers who are paid to take pictures also fly around the world, mingle with celebrities and are feted as celebrity artists themselves. But many others struggle to make ends meet as professional photographers: taking a picture of professional caliber requires more than the push of a button. Everything from camera angle to the type of lens can make the difference between a Pulitzer Prize and wasted film.
About half of all photographers work independently and in specialized areas. Commercial photographers are the jet-setters of the profession; their work takes them to exotic locales for everything from the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in the Galapagos Islands to Sudan for The New York Times. Portrait photographers often work in their own studios, schedule appointments and coax smiles from cranky toddlers. Industrial photographers take trade pictures for companies such as automobile manufacturers or engineering firms, which the companies then use in their annual reports and advertisements.
Forty percent of photographers are self-employed freelancers. One of the major outlets for freelance photography is stock photo. Stock photos are used by advertising agencies when they don't have the budget to hire a photographer. If a photographer's work is accepted by a stock company, he or she receives a commission every time the photo is used. Newspapers, magazines and ad agencies also frequently hire freelance photographers.
Labor of love?
For many photographers, their primary concern is photography as art. For these ambitious artists, portrait or commercial photography may simply be a way to make ends meet. It is not unusual for struggling photographers to earn their living taking school pictures while they await their first gallery show. For those with artistic ambitions, the flexible hours afforded by freelancing are ideal, although the search for work can sometimes be as grueling as working an eight-hour day in an office.
New technology is offering even more outlets for the ambitious photographer. Digital cameras eliminate the need for film and make it easy to transmit photos directly over the Internet. Using digital technology, photographers can also electronically alter photos for a desired effect, or produce more accurate results for advertisements and scientific photographs than if the photographer had used regular silver-halide film. It certainly wouldn't hurt up-and-coming photographers to learn the ins and outs of computer technology and stay on top of new trends.
Although no formal education is required of photographers, a strong technical understanding of photography techniques and familiarity with film processing are essential. Entry-level positions in photojournalism and in industrial, scientific or technical photography usually call for a college degree in photography, journalism, or the specific field being photographed (archaeology, botany, etc.). Many aspiring photographers get their start as assistants at a studio. As an assistant, they learn to mix chemicals, develop film, print photographs and various other skills vital to running their own businesses.
Aspiring photographers should subscribe to photographic newsletters and magazines, join camera clubs, and seek work in camera stores or photo studios. Interning or working part-time for a photographer, newspaper or magazine is an excellent way to make contacts that will be useful when the time comes to strike out alone. Photographers who want to operate their own businesses need to know how to submit bids, write contracts, hire models and gain access to private properties for shoots.
Photojournalists require more formal education, since they need to understand the history and the significance of an event to determine whether it is newsworthy. They must act as journalists to recognize a potentially good photograph and capture the moment quickly.
When they think about their careers, most photographers "feel as though it is not a job/work." "While the hours can be long, sometimes it goes by quick," says one photographer. Even though they may be taking photos of Mrs. Jones' sixth grade class for a paycheck, they are still doing what they love--taking photographs. And it's lucky, because in a client-driven industry like this one, one photographer notes, "a positive attitude is also very important. Clients can sense this easily."
Photography is a competitive field. "Anyone interested in photography had better be thick-skinned," says one photographer. "The competition is intense." So how do you stay ahead of the pack? "Learn, learn, learn!" Keep on top of technology trends and advances while honing your creativity. In the words of one photographer, "Be as diverse as possible."
Travel; Flexible hours; Wide variety of career options
Deadline pressure; Unpredictable hours
Average about 40 per week
Median salary: $26,170; Salaried photographers usually earn more than those who are self-employed
Technical understanding of photography techniques; Journalism or fine arts degree can be helpful; A "good eye" is necessary