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Photographer

Professional photographers create permanent visual images for a wide range of purposes, from family portraits, fashion, food, and crime scenes, to medical and scientific records. They usually specialise in one area, such as newspapers, advertising, editorial, fashion, forensic, scientific, medical, or general practice, and the work and rewards vary accordingly.

The work involves:

  • discussing a project with a client or employer and working to instructions (a brief)
  • choosing and preparing locations
  • selecting appropriate cameras, lenses and accessories
  • composing and taking pictures
  • managing post production of images
  • marketing and running a business (if self-employed).

Hours can be long and unpredictable, and photographers can work anywhere from a studio to a war zone, depending on the assignment. They may travel within the UK or abroad.

Salaries for photographers may range from around £12,000 to £50,000 or more a year.

Photographers should:

  • be creative, with a good eye for colour, shape, pattern, form and tone
  • be motivated and self-confident
  • have technical aptitude, including computer skills
  • have excellent communication and interpersonal skills.

Competition to be a photographer is fierce. Employers include publishers, government departments, business, advertising agencies, research institutions, the police and armed forces. Some photographers are employed as staff, but most are freelance or run their own studios.

Depending on the specialism, most photographers start out by assisting an established photographer and learn on the job. Photographers have to be able to market themselves effectively. They need a strong portfolio of 10 to 15 images.

There are no set qualifications for entry into this career but most photographers have completed a course in photography. Courses that offer industry contacts and work placements are particularly useful. There is a wide range of relevant courses available, including A levels, City & Guilds qualifications and degrees.

Many photographers start work and then train on the job. There are structured training schemes for press photographers or for work in the armed forces. Some roles, such as medical or forensic photographer, may have specific entry requirements.

Success for self-employed photographers depends on reputation and track record. For photographers working for an employer there are limited opportunities for promotion as photography departments tend to be small. Promotion may take the form of management, commissioning or editorial roles. Some freelancers also teach part time.

What is the work like?

Professional photographers create permanent visual images for a wide range of purposes: everything from family portraits, fashion, food, and crime scenes, to medical and scientific records. Their work can be seen everywhere: newspapers and magazines, catalogues, advertising leaflets and company literature, textbooks, websites, and wedding albums.

Photographers usually specialise in one area, eg press, advertising, editorial, fashion, forensic, scientific, medical, or general practice, and the work and rewards vary accordingly. They might have some creative freedom, but more typically they will have to follow detailed instructions. The work involves:

  • discussing a project with a client or employer and working to instructions (a brief)
  • choosing and preparing locations
  • selecting appropriate cameras, lenses and accessories
  • setting the aperture and shutter speed
  • composing and taking pictures
  • managing post production of images and delivering them to the client in the appropriate format
  • marketing and running a business (if self-employed).

Images are usually supplied in digital format now, on CD-Rom or via the internet, and the photographer will either need to spend a considerable proportion of their time on digital post production or pay someone else to do this for them, using software packages like Photoshop or Aperture.

Depending on the specialism, photographers might work with the public, models, celebrities and public figures, the police and armed forces, company executives, medical staff and scientists. A press photographer might work alone, but a fashion photographer could be responsible for organising a large team of set builders, stylists, art directors and other support staff.

Hours and environment

A photographer working for an employer might work regular hours, but for most photographers the hours can be long and unpredictable, including evenings and weekends.

Photographers can work anywhere: in studios or on location; in companies, laboratories or hospitals; at weddings or in war zones. Working outdoors can involve waiting long hours for the right light or weather conditions, or for the subject to appear.

Photographers may have to lift and carry heavy camera and lighting equipment. Working at height might be involved.

Photographers often have to travel, locally, around the UK or abroad. A driving licence is an advantage.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and where people live.

  • Junior assistant photographers start on around £12,000 a year.
  • With experience this may rise to around £20,000.
  • Some photographers may earn over £50,000.

Income varies for freelancers depending on experience, reputation and the work available. They may earn between £150 and £600 a day.

Skills and personal qualities

A photographer should:

  • have good eyesight
  • be creative, with a good eye for colour, shape, pattern, form and tone
  • be reliable and able to meet deadlines
  • be motivated and self-confident
  • have technical aptitude, including computer skills
  • have excellent communication and interpersonal skills
  • be able to understand and interpret the client's needs
  • have the patience to get the right shot even under pressure
  • have business and organisational skills
  • understand health and safety requirements.

Interests

It is important to be interested in:

  • their own specialism - eg fashion history and trends, science, etc
  • developments in photographic technology, techniques and processes.

Getting in

Competition to be a photographer is fierce. Employers include publishers, government departments, business, advertising agencies, research institutions, the police and armed forces. Some photographers are employed as staff, but most are freelance or run their own studios.

Vacancies appear in trade publications such as the British Journal of Photography and on websites such as that of the Association of Photographers (AOP), but many jobs are found through word of mouth. Success usually depends on building up a reputation and track record. Photographers need a strong portfolio of between 10 and 15 images.

More than 50 per cent of photographers work in general practice or social photography. Their competitors are the serious amateur, so they must provide a real service to their local community. Photographers have to be able to market themselves effectively. Developing contacts and networking is crucial. Membership of professional associations can be useful (See list at the end of this article.). Some freelancers are represented by an agent, who takes a commission.

Photographers work all over the UK, but most opportunities are found in larger cities. Depending on the specialism, most photographers start out by assisting an established photographer and learn on the job. The website www.photoassist.co.uk has useful information for assistants.

Press photographers usually start on local newspapers and freesheets. Scientific photographers are scientists with an interest in photo images, and forensic photographers might start as scene of crime officers before specialising in photography. Vacancies may be advertised in, for example, New Scientist and Police Review.

Entry routes

There are no set qualifications for entry into this career but most photographers have completed a course in photography. Courses that offer industry contacts and work placements are particularly useful. There is a wide range of relevant courses available, including:

  • A level photography
  • City & Guilds levels 1, 2 and 3 in photography and photo imaging
  • BTEC ND photography
  • Diploma in foundation studies (art and design), with option to specialise in photography
  • BTEC HNC/HND in art and design (photography)
  • foundation degrees
  • degrees.

The Diploma in creative and media may also be relevant for this type of work.

Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for Creative Media, has developed a foundation degree framework for the photo imaging sector. Information about photo imaging training, courses and qualifications can be found on Skillset's website www.skillset.org/photo

Some photographer roles may require specific qualifications.

  • The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) endorses two training schemes for press photographers.
  • Medical photographers require a degree or a postgraduate certificate in clinical photography.
  • Forensic photographers usually need good passes at GCSE including English and either science or maths, and one A level in a science subject.

The RAF recruits civilian photographers directly, but the Army and Navy only recruit candidates currently serving in the forces.

Skillset has developed two Apprenticeship frameworks for the photo imaging sector.

Training

Most photographers start as an assistant and gain experience and skills working on the job. Some employers may support work-based qualifications. Photo imaging NVQs are available at Levels 2, 3 and 4.

Trade and professional associations, such as the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP), the Master Photographers Association (MPA) and the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) run short courses.

Personnel from all three armed forces are trained at the Defence School of Photography where they can take a range of courses up to NVQ Level 4.

All photographers must keep up to date with developments in technology and techniques as well as trends in their own particular specialism.

Getting on

Photographers working for an employer may benefit from formal promotion structures, although prospects are limited as departments are small.

For freelancers and those that run their own business, success depends on reputation and continually developing and reinventing their style. Press photographers may move to a national paper or magazine and then gain seniority within the team. Promotion for all photographers may take the form of management, commissioning or editorial roles.

Some photographers also teach on a part-time basis.

Further information

The Association of Photographers, 81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS. 020 7739 6669. Website: www.the-aop.org

British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), 1 Prebendal Court, Oxford Road, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP19 8EY.01296 718530. Website: www.bipp.com

Institute of Medical Illustrators (IMI) 0121 333 8492. Website: www.imi.org.uk

The Master Photographers Association (MPA) 01325 356555. Website: www.thempa.com

The National Council for the Training of Journalists, The New Granary, Station Road, Newport, Saffron Walden, Essex CB11 3PL. 01799 544014. Website: www.nctj.com

The Royal Photographic Society, Fenton House, 122 Wells Road, Bath BA2 3AH. 01225 325733. Website: www.rps.org

Skillset, Focus Point, 21 Caledonian Road, London N1 9GB. Free careers helpline: 08080 300 900. Website: www.skillset.org

The Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers 01745 356935. Website: www.swpp.co.uk

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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