Becoming a Photographer: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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A photographer's median annual salary is around $30,000. Are the education, training and practice requirements worth it? Read about real job descriptions to get the truth about career prospects if you want to find out if becoming a photographer is the right career move for you.
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Becoming a Photographer: Pros and Cons

Many photographers enjoy the creativity involved in using a camera to capture moments in still images that can later be used for art, news or even science. Take a look at some of the pros and cons to becoming a photographer.

Pros of Becoming a Photographer
Freelance and self-employment opportunities (over half of photographers were self-employed in 2012)*
Flexible work scheduling in some cases*
Only need technical proficiency to start career*
Specializations available (photojournalism, portrait, commercial and fine arts)*

Cons of Becoming a Photographer
Work conditions can be dangerous (natural disasters or warzones)*
Irregular and long work hours*
Keen competition *
Strict deadlines*
Expensive equipment and starting costs*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Career Information

Job Description

With the use of a camera (either digital or film), a photographer can capture moments or objects, such as weddings, sporting events, buildings, people or scientific phenomena. What you capture is typically dependent on your specialty. For example, a news photographer might capture newsworthy events or disasters, while a portrait photographer typically captures images of families, babies or seniors. When shooting an image, you must keep in mind factors like lighting and angles so you can choose the right camera, lenses and tools.

Once you're on location as a photographer, you'll want to try out different angles and techniques in order to have a variety of different images to choose from for the final product. In some cases, a job can be time sensitive. You might only have one opportunity to capture the perfect image, so you have to be prepared and ready to take a picture at a moment's notice. In addition to capturing an image, you will work behind the scenes in a dark room or on a computer creating the perfect print. This may include manipulating images, modifying color and lighting, adjusting contrast or correcting blemishes.

Salary Info

In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that photographers had an annual average income of about $38,000 (www.bls.gov). Photographers who were in the top ten percent of wage estimates could earn upwards of $68,000 or more in a year. The top-paying states for photographers were the District of Columbia, Hawaii, New York, California and New Mexico. For photographers, the best-paying industries dealt with information services, scientific research and development services, aerospace products, motion pictures and medical and diagnostic laboratories.

Job Requirements

Education

Although employers prefer photographers with an educational background, it is not a strict career requirement in some cases. Substituting years of work experience and possessing a strong portfolio can compensate for not having a postsecondary degree. However, postsecondary education can greatly benefit a new photographer. Many community colleges and technical schools offer associate degree and certificate programs. There are also bachelor's degree programs in photography at many universities. In these programs, the professors can help you build your portfolio through class assignments in digital imaging, lighting techniques and color processes. If you're interested in film photography, you'll also learn developing techniques.

Skills and Training

A certain skill set is necessary to become a photographer. Having excellent hand-eye coordination along with good eyesight ensures that you'll capture images accurately. Although those traits are normally inherited, you can practice taking pictures in different scenarios and circumstances to help develop coordination skills. Sometimes an entry-level position or an assistant opportunity offers job training and mentoring to new photographers. These experiences can help you learn and practice some important photography techniques.

What Employers Want in Photographers

Employers are looking for photographers who can be patient and have an eye for detail. The nature of the employer often determines what type of photographers they're interested in. For example, if an employer operates a portrait business, photographers with communication and business skills are preferred. Look at some information taken from job postings in March 2012 to find out what skills employers sought:

  • In Florida, a staff photographer position requires applicants with color correct Adobe Photoshop experience and proficiency in off-camera flash lighting. The ideal applicant must have a degree in photojournalism and one year of shooting experience.
  • A manufacturer in St. Louis, MO, wants a photographer who can lift at least 20-25 lbs. and who is familiar with athletic apparel and shoes. The company requires a 2- or 4-year degree and two years of experience.
  • A photographer with sales and customer service experience can find an opening with a portrait company in Alabama. The ideal applicant will have an interest in photography and excellent interpersonal skills.
  • A portrait studio in South Carolina is requesting a photographer willing to work weekends and evenings.

Standing Out in a Photography Career

Specialize

Due to the many different industries that use photographers, you can set yourself apart from other applicants by focusing your work in a specific field that interests you. For example, if you want to get involved in advertising, you'll want to obtain experience in commercial photography. For your portfolio, you can take pictures of merchandise, buildings, landscapes and similar items that would be of interest to employers in advertisement. Other types of photography that you can specialize in include portrait photography, scientific photography, fine arts photography and news photography.

Develop Your Portfolio

Regardless of the area you want to work in, your success can hinge upon creating a successful and eye-catching work portfolio. Accepting feedback and criticism can help you grow as a photographer. Developing your own photography style is heavily recommended. Additionally, you may want to consider displaying and updating an online portfolio that is easy for customers and potential employers to access.

Other Career Choices

Camera Operator

If you'd rather capture video instead of still images, you can apply your photography skills towards becoming a camera operator. In this line of work, you could work for broadcast television, cable television or motion pictures. Depending on the nature of the production, you'll have to familiarize yourself with different tools and techniques of the trade - like using cameras mounted on tracks or cranes - through formal training at a postsecondary institute. Camera operators were found to make roughly $49,000 as of May 2011, according to the BLS.

Multimedia Artist

If you enjoy the creative aspects of photography, but you want to be creating or manipulating images, you could become a multimedia artist. These workers often hand-draw images and use computers to create special effects or animation. Multimedia artists normally work on movies, animated cartoons or television commercials. Multimedia artists typically require a bachelor's degree, due to the technical requirements of the field, the BLS said. As of May 2011, the BLS found that multimedia artists averaged about $68,000 annually.

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