To earn a living as a professional photographer in the UK requires a commitment to learning and honing your craft, a portfolio showcasing your style and plenty of networking
'The market for professional photography is shrinking, fees are getting smaller and there's a lot of competition - so making a career out of it means you need to stand out in some way,' says Dr Michael Pritchard, director of programmes at The Royal Photographic Society (RPS).
He explains how this can be achieved through developing your own photography style, but stresses the importance of always being professional and having the right attitude to match your creative talents. You should deliver your work on time, in keeping with the client's brief and bring your full range of skills to your photography offering. Increasingly, being able to add additional skills such as filmmaking is a significant advantage.
If you've decided that a photography career is for you and are prepared for the hard work that lies ahead, you'll need to take the following steps.
Get some photography work experience
As with most careers, you'll find that work experience is the best means of understanding what working as a professional photographer is actually like.
However, instead of spending time looking for work experience with large employers, it's worth speaking to local photographers online via Twitter or LinkedIn - for tips, see social media and job hunting. This is because you're more likely to be invited to assist a photographer for a day or during an event they're covering than land a traditional week or month-long photography internship.
Make the most of any experience you're offered - even if it's not within the specific area of photography you're interested in. This is the perfect time to ask questions, learn photography practices and build your network of contacts.
If you're struggling to secure work experience or find a mentor, Dr Pritchard reveals that there are other ways to promote yourself and get noticed. 'Submitting work to photography competitions and exhibitions can help to raise your profile, but be selective and only choose those that will add value to your CV.'
You could consider portfolio review sessions, as this will introduce your work to industry specialists and commissioners. 'Often a review session can be the start of a longer-term relationship,' says Dr Prichard.
Also, by attending talks and events, you'll get to meet photographers and influential people from the industry. Dr Prichard advises you to keep your work on a tablet device so you can easily show it to others. 'Take business cards to hand out, but don't forget to ask those you meet for their cards,' he adds.
Finally, you could start your own blog or website and upload your work online. This will demonstrate your talent, ability to use photography software and provide instant access to your portfolio. Utilise the online community by following other photography blogs and using social media to network and hunt for opportunities. See our 5 tips for getting media work experience.
Do an online photography course
'The world of photography education is enormous,' reveals Dr Prichard. Indeed, there are plenty of informal ways of learning about photography, from specialist online courses to independent workshops.
For instance, the RPS has developed a 10-week online digital photography course in partnership with the Open University (OU). This short course on Digital Photography: Discover your Genre and Develop your Style is suitable for competent photographers who've mastered the technical basics of the craft.
The course would be ideal for those who've already completed the Digital photography: creating and sharing better images course and can now fully grasp the principles of digital photography and image editing. Delivered on the FutureLearn platform, it will give you a broad overview of various photographic genres as well as the knowledge, skills, and techniques required to create better photographic narratives.
Dr Prichard feels that if you've got the drive and initiative to present your own work, these courses may be sufficient, but there are plenty of options in the formal education sector for those hoping to further expand their knowledge and develop practical skills at a higher level.
Study a photography degree
A Bachelor of Arts (BA) in photography - available from the likes of University Arts London (UAL) and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) - would give you a good solid grounding in photography as well as business skills, Dr Prichard advises. An event organised through your university department will also probably be where you first show your work publicly.
When it comes to choosing a photography degree, it's worth taking the time to select one with the syllabus and tutors that cover the areas you want to learn about. Some courses have specialist modules that may overlap with your own career interests.
Once you're coming to the end of your course, explore what can I do with my degree in photography?
At this stage, you can also think about which courses may support your next steps should you decide on further study. If you do intend on progressing to postgraduate level, make sure you attend a university open day (including virtual events) to assess the facilities and meet the staff.
Masters degrees in photography
A Master of Arts (MA), a Master of Fine Art (MFA), postgraduate certificate (PGCert) or postgraduate diploma (PGDip) would give you invaluable knowledge of the industry while also building your portfolio.
MFA courses are exclusive to creative subjects, and are focused more on applied, practical learning through performance and portfolio than a traditional, theory-based MA. The range of modules offered on an MA course is designed to give you a deeper, more rounded understanding of photography as a whole - its past, present and future.
For example, the MA Photography from Kingston University London's Kingston School of Art (KSA) offers modules concerned with political debates about representation in photography and the photographer's role as an image maker.
To see what's available, search postgraduate courses in photography.
To gain entry to a course, you'll typically need at least a 2:1 degree in a related subject, as well as substantial relevant experience. This could be anything from work shadowing to publishing your own photography blog.
Universities will be interested to see your own work, so you may be called to interview as part of the application process. Compile a creative portfolio of your work and be prepared to discuss it at length.
Generally speaking, a full-time photography Masters will take you one or two years to complete. Part-time courses can last up to three years, with the exception of some part-time MFA courses, which can take four.
As you explore your postgraduate funding options, you may wish to consider the RPS Postgraduate Bursary, which provides £3,500 to one postgraduate photography student each year. This can be for a taught course or research project, with applicants able to apply at any stage of your studies.
The RPS also provides annual funding for two online degree courses at Falmouth University: the BA Photography (top-up) and the MA Photography.
Find a photography job
As a professional photographer you'll usually specialise in a certain field, such as:
- fine art
- forensic - see crime scene investigator
Alternatively, you can combine your interests in photography and journalism to become a press photographer - or TV to become a television camera operator.
Each of these roles requires a different style and skillset. Photographers across the industry use a range of equipment, work to different hours in various locations, with travel ranging from local to global.
For instance, as a school photographer you may work within a county or region, while as a wildlife photographer you'll need to travel to habitats in other countries and environmental conditions. Because of this, finding work experience tailored to your ambitions is crucial.
When looking for your first role, you could consider doing a photography apprenticeship at Level 3 (photographic assistant) and building your experience that way. You could work for a small creative studio or a larger commercial or government organisation. Involving digital or film cameras, you could be tasked with producing still or video images in a range of settings.
Join a professional body
As the UK's largest photography organisation, with over 11,000 members, the RPS is well-equipped to offer additional support to new photographers interested in pursuing this as a career.
This educational charity not only provides networking opportunities to students and graduates, as you'll also benefit from the chance to enter competitions and attend exhibitions - see RPS opportunities.
In addition, you can develop your skills and creativity while focusing your work through its raft of resources. These include access to journals talks, plus a globally recognised programme of RPS qualifications for every level of photographic experience.
Professional bodies such as The Association of Photographers (AOP) and the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) will also bring more focused professional benefits that will add value to you.
Become a freelance photographer
A MoneySupermarket.com study on The Best UK Cities for Freelancers revealed how nearly a tenth (9%) of UK freelancers work in the video, photo and audio media subsector.
This shows how a growing number of photographers are self-employed, which is something you'll need to consider when starting your photography career.
Find out what's involved in working freelance before you get started.
You can also delve into this further by visiting FreelanceUK - Photographer Guides and get advice on how to make it as a freelancer at Comparethemarket.com.
Find out more
- Explore other graduate media jobs.
- Consider journalism courses.
- Get an overview of the UK's media sector.