Photographers create permanent visual images for an exceptional range of creative, technical and documentary purposes.
A professional photographer usually works to a brief set by the client or employer.
Examples of image content include wedding, family and baby photographs, fashion, food, architecture and landscapes.
A large proportion of professional photographers are self-employed. The remainder work for a variety of employers, including creative businesses, publishers and photographic agencies, or in the education or public sector.
Types of commercial photography
Most professional photographers specialise in one area, such as:
- fine art;
- social photography - also known as general practice, which includes weddings, commercial and portraiture photography.
Exact tasks vary according to the specialisation. However, common activities for most photographers include:
- working with clients to discuss the images they require and how they want to use them;
- seeking out appropriate photographic subjects and opportunities;
- carrying out research and preparation for a shoot;
- working in different locations and in different circumstances to get the right image;
- using an extensive range of technical equipment, including cameras, lenses, lighting and specialist software;
- communicating with photographic subjects, putting them at ease, encouraging them and directing them;
- arranging still life objects, products, scenes, props and backgrounds;
- liaising with other professionals, including graphic designers, writers, gallery managers, picture researchers, commissioning editors and art directors;
- managing the processing and use of images, discussing technical problems, checking for quality and dealing with clients' concerns;
- preparing proofs for approval;
- compiling finished products for sale, such as albums and framed prints;
- understanding traditional film and digital photography and keeping up to date with industry trends, developments and new techniques;
- developing expertise with software to digitally enhance images by, for example, changing emphasis, cropping pictures, correcting minor faults or moving objects around;
- managing the business aspects of the work, including administration, scheduling work, invoicing and basic accounting;
- developing a good portfolio, building a network of contacts and achieving a reputation for quality and reliability in order to secure future assignments;
- self-marketing by, for example, producing business cards, postcards and promotional materials and creating and maintaining a website.
Many graduates start out as a photographer's assistant, spending a great deal of time on routine administration and helping out around the studio.
As with other creative professions, salaries vary enormously. Many photographers work freelance so what they earn is linked to what they are able to charge and how much work they obtain. For this reason, income is likely to vary from year to year.
- In full-time employment, starting salaries can be between £12,000 and £22,000.
- Many entrants to the profession start as assistants though, resulting in some extremely low starting salaries, sometimes around £10,000.
- Salaries can increase to £25,000 to £65,000. The top end of the scale is typically for those who have a strong reputation and are highly sought-after.
Freelance and self-employed photographers often supplement their income by other related activities, such as teaching.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Hours can be long and unpredictable and may be led by demand. For example, wedding photographers will be at their busiest in the peak spring/summer wedding season and sports photographers will expect to work weekends and evenings to cover fixtures and events.
Freelance photographers may have periods of working at maximum capacity followed by times when there is little or no work.
What to expect
- Working conditions vary depending on the assignment and can involve all weather conditions, remote locations or cramped studios. In certain fields of photography, such as documentary, work may also be dangerous, particularly when on assignment in war zones or unstable countries.
- A reasonable degree of fitness may be necessary for some areas of work, such as sports photography, which involves the use of bulky and heavy telephoto lenses and equipment.
- Work for some areas of photography may be concentrated in London and a few other large cities. Corporate and social photography work is spread across the country.
- Job security is not high, especially in the early days when reputation and a solid client base are yet to be established.
- Travel is an integral part of many specialist photographers' lives and may include travel within the UK and overseas.
It is possible to get into this profession without a degree, but in many instances having a degree or equivalent professional qualification is an advantage.
The following subjects are relevant:
- art and design;
- digital imaging;
- fine art;
- media studies;
The content of photography courses varies considerably. Some have a strong emphasis on fine art and the study of photography as an artistic endeavour, whereas others have a more commercial focus and cover managing a business, professional ethics and marketing.
Digital imaging and other technological developments now form a significant part of many courses. Those that offer work placements and promote contact with industry are especially useful.
A postgraduate qualification is not necessary, although entry to the more competitive specialist areas, such as fashion, advertising and photo-journalism, can be a lot more challenging, so a higher degree may be helpful. Search for postgraduate courses in photography.
Personality, perseverance and patience are all essential, and dedication is needed to get a foot in the door. Although freelance work may be solitary at times, photographers also need the ability to blend quickly into work teams and to build rapport with different people, for example when working on shoots.
The impact of digital technology has revolutionised the industry. In many areas, such as editorial and sports photography, digital technology dominates. Film is still sometimes used though in fine art and some studio-based photography, and shooting with film is even becoming an alternative trend.
It is now the norm for images to be supplied in digital format, which is likely to involve image manipulation using software packages such as Adobe Photoshop after the photographic shoot.
It is virtually essential that you have significant work experience when applying for work. You will need a professional and impressive portfolio, which could be online, a traditional 'book' or a CD. It can contain tear sheets, if available. Whatever format you choose, your portfolio must be:
- relevant to the chosen area;
- well presented;
- constantly updated.
It is useful to join photographic societies, visit exhibitions and galleries, look at photographs in books and magazines and find out as much as possible about any specific fields of interest.
Volunteering, work shadowing, work experience and project work with photographers or relevant employers are also great ways of gaining experience and skills, as well as making contacts. Any opportunity to have work published should be taken.
Around half the companies in the photo-imaging industry are sole trading or freelance photographers, and the majority of these companies employ five people or fewer.
In addition to employers in the fields of press and medical photography, permanent employment is offered by a variety of organisations:
- The police employ photographers to take 'scene of crime' and forensic photographs. This work may incorporate videography and is not for the squeamish. Further details are available from individual police forces. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) also employs qualified photographers.
- Some museums have permanent photographers who catalogue exhibits and contribute to educational materials.
- High street photographers and wedding/social photographers may take on trainees and assistants.
- Commercial studios, which are a significant employer in the industry, are based mainly in London, but there are a few in other large cities.
- Many large organisations, such as businesses, universities, local authorities and charities, employ staff photographers, who may also be involved in audiovisual or marketing work. There is a low level of staff turnover in these types of posts, so vacancies appear infrequently.
- Cruise liners, holiday companies and theme parks employ photographers to provide a social photography service. Work is usually offered on a short-term contract and recruitment is generally handled through an agency.
- Although magazines mainly commission freelance photographers, some also employ permanent staff photographers.
In all other work, whether you specialise in advertising, aerial, architectural, corporate, documentary, editorial, fashion, fine art, food, portraiture, scientific and technical, sport, sub-aqua or wildlife photography, you are likely to work for yourself, either as a freelance, running a business or in a partnership.
Freelancers use a variety of means to generate work: some rely on their portfolio, self-promotion and a good contact network, while others use a photographic agent.
An increasingly influential market within the industry is the growing number of picture libraries and stock agencies. Further details are available from the British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Association of Photographers (AOP) Job Shop
- British Journal of Photography Jobs
Many vacancies in this sector are never advertised, so it is essential to use speculative approaches and contacts. Useful resources for this purpose include:
- Creative Review
- The Freelance Photographer's Market Handbook from the Bureau of Freelance Photographers
- Le Book
In a profession where there is so much self-employment and freelance work, it is not surprising that training is largely on the job and self-directed.
Academic courses often contain a substantial practical element and this is a useful starting point. Numerous part-time courses are run by local colleges, including GCSE, AS level and A-level courses, City and Guilds, diplomas and non-assessed courses.
A searchable database of various courses is available at Creative Skillset Courses Directory.
The British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) has its own training courses, providing a variety of one-day courses and masterclasses run by experts, which cover a range of photography disciplines as well as business skills.
The BIPP also offers a tiered professional training route, leading to Licentiateship, Associateship and Fellowship qualifications. If you are interested in gaining a European photographic qualification, the BIPP acts as the link to the Federation of European Photographers (FEP). For more information see BIPP Events.
Discussions, seminars, online exhibitions and workshops are offered by the Association of Photographers (AOP).
If you are thinking of setting up your own photography business, it is a good idea to undertake business-training courses, especially those that cover marketing and promotion, copyright and contracts, and basic bookkeeping and financial management.
There are many different types of photography, so there is no standard, structured career development route.
It is likely you will begin as a studio assistant or assistant photographer and you will be expected to learn by watching and to gain experience over time.
You can gain Junior Assistant or Assisting Photographer membership with the Association of Photographers (AOP), which provides access to a network of fellow assistants and professionals.
As an Assisting Photographer member, you can promote yourself on the 'Find an Assisting Photographer' search facility on the AOP website. The AOP also offers a mentoring scheme, workshops and seminars and runs competitions, which offer winners a good opportunity to improve career prospects.
You will be able to learn a great deal from the photographer(s) employing you, and will have the opportunity to develop a portfolio and to meet other photographers and stylists. You may also be able to borrow equipment or use studio space to develop your own work at weekends or during quiet times.
Even within the profession, there is contradictory advice about career development. Some suggest that becoming specialised is the best approach, whereas others warn of the dangers of operating within a niche market without the certainty that it will continue to be in demand.
If you choose to specialise, the best advice is probably to develop a range of skills and maintain a flexible approach. You can move between specialist areas if you have the right portfolio.
Entering competitions, trying to get your work into galleries and, above all, networking will also help to boost your reputation and expand your client base.
Some experienced photographers become studio managers in large photographic studios. Others become agents, promoting and selling the work of other photographers. Many photographers do some part-time teaching or lecturing.