Field Photographer Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a field photography career? Get real job descriptions, career prospects and salary info to see if becoming a field photographer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Photographer Career

Field photographers use their artistic eye to document events, landscapes, and people throughout the world in order to capture visually and emotionally striking photographs. Read on to learn more about the positive and negative aspects of this career.

PROS of Being a Photographer
Can work with a variety of subjects, such as landscapes, news events or architecture
May document significant events, like wars or weddings*
Engage in a creative art form*
Formal education isn't a strict requirement*

CONS of Being a Photographer
Lower than average median salary (about $30,490 in 2014)*
Competitive career field*
Some photographers work irregular hours on short notice*
May work in dangerous surroundings or adverse weather conditions*
Some must work under strict deadlines*
Must carry heavy equipment, often for long stretches of time*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Essential Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a photographer, you take and develop photographs in order to create a visual narrative or document an event. You use a variety of equipment, including digital and traditional cameras, tripods and filters. At times, you'll also employ means to create artificial light, such as lamps and flashes. You must calculate the best camera settings and lighting techniques in accordance with the amount of natural light available and the amount of movement in your subject matter.

When working, you may spend hours in the field, waiting for the perfect picture moment, and only a small amount of time actually taking photographs. Additionally, manipulating or editing images on computers or working in traditional dark rooms to develop your own photographs may take up a significant portion of your work hours.

Specialization Areas

To specialization in field photography, you might become a photojournalist, commercial photographer or industrial photographer. You must have the skills and expertise to adapt to various environments if you pursue a field position instead of a studio photography job.

Photojournalists specialize in taking pictures of places, people and events that are newsworthy and are featured in journals, magazines and newspapers. Commercial photographers take pictures of structures and objects, such as merchandise, artifacts, buildings, landscapes and models. Your photographs might be used in books, advertisements, catalogs and reports. Industrial photographers specialize in taking pictures of equipment and machinery that are used for a variety of purposes, including engineering projects and equipment records.

Job Growth and Salary

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expected employment of photographers to grow 4% between 2012 and 2022, a rate slower than average compared to all occupations. In May 2014, the median annual wage among salaried photographers was about $30,490, with the highest ten percent earning more than $68,930 and the lowest ten percent earning less than $18,120.

Education and Training Requirements

Most entry-level careers that involve taking pictures in the field require at least a college degree in photography or in a subject that is related to the industry within which you're seeking employment. Many universities, community colleges, art institutes, trade schools and technical schools offer associate's or bachelor's degree programs in photography.

Photography courses train you to use a variety of equipment, to process digital photographs using computers and to refine techniques involved in taking pictures of a variety of subject matter. Some bachelor's degree programs may provide you with training in business and marketing; these skills are especially important if you want to work as a freelance photographer.

Important Qualities

A career as a photographer necessitates professionalism, technical skills and aesthetic sensitivity. Developing a portfolio that showcases your best work is crucial to obtaining employment. In general, photographers must possess or acquire the following skills and talents:

  • Artistic ability
  • Good eyesight
  • Patience
  • Attention to detail
  • Familiarity with a range of photography equipment and techniques
  • Ability to use computer software in order to edit and prepare photographs
  • Willingness to work irregular hours in all weather conditions

Job Postings from Real Employers

Photographers can find work in a wide range of industries, and may have additional responsibilities external to those that specifically involve taking and editing photographs. While some employers highly value photographers who know how to utilize a range of photography and editing equipment, others value photographers that have a combination of skills in business and photography. Below is a summary of some online job postings that were available in March 2012:

  • A printing and publishing company in Illinois was seeking a full-time photographer to take pictures of products for advertising purposes. The ideal candidate was expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of software programs, such as Photoshop and Adobe Acrobat. Scanning and file manipulation skills and strong creativity were also required. This job also required a two-year degree.
  • A news organization in California was seeking a photographer for full-time work. Candidates were expected to have at least three years of experience in photography and editing. They were also expected to be able to drive a news vehicle, work with reporters and edit material to match scripts prepared by reporters and producers. This job also required photographers to be able to work a variety of shifts and times of day.
  • A portrait studio in Illinois was seeking an experienced mobile photographer for part-time work. This employer required candidates to have at least two years of experience, and preferred candidates with experience in mobile photography. Job duties included traveling to various locations in order to set up photography sessions, interacting with customers, scheduling meetings and negotiating contracts.

How to Stand out in the Field

Because many people are interested in photography, you can expect a lot of competition for jobs. The BLS suggested that aspiring photographers find a part-time job in a studio or camera shop, since working alongside a photographer can help you learn the industry skills. Joining camera clubs and keeping up-to-date on the field by reading magazines on photography are others ways to get an edge in a photography career, also per the BLS.

By earning a bachelor's degree in photography and taking a range of business courses in addition to topics in photography, you can gain the skills needed to negotiate with customers, market your services and skills and even become self-employed. Many employers seek photographers who are skilled in using a variety of computer software programs, so ensure that your degree program trains you to become thoroughly acquainted with current editing software. These skills can qualify you for a wider range of jobs and may help you to stand out among the competition.

Alternative Career Paths

Graphic Designer

If you're interested in working with visual media, but do not want to specialize in taking and editing photographs, then you may wish to consider a career as a graphic designer. Graphic designers use hand-drawing skills and software programs to develop and design the layout of various publications, including newspapers, journals, magazines and reports. You might also create logos, commercials or advertisement boards.

As a graphic designer, you could work in large advertising, design or publishing firms. Alternatively, you could work on a freelance, contract basis. You typically must hold a bachelor's degree in graphic design in order to qualify for entry-level job positions. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for graphic designers was about $44,000 in May 2011 - quite a bit higher than the salary of photographers. Employment of graphic designers was expected to grow by thirteen percent between 2010 and 2020, about as fast as average.

Camera Operator

If you are more interested in shooting video footage, as opposed to working primarily with photographs, then you could consider a career as a camera operator. You would use video, television or motion picture cameras to shoot everything from news events to television shows. Like photojournalists, camera operators involved in the news industry should be prepared to work in a variety of conditions and times of day in order to capture and document important events. Many camera operators also work in television or film studios.

You can prepare for this career through a bachelor's degree program in a field like broadcasting or film. You'll likely need some additional on-the-job training. The BLS reported that the median annual wage for motion picture, television and video camera operators was near $40,000 in May 2011. However, keep in mind that employment growth was predicted to be slower than average, at only 4%, between 2010 and 2020.

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American University

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Purdue University

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The George Washington University

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University of Fairfax

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Johns Hopkins University

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