Scientific Photographer Careers: Job Description & Salary Info

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A scientific photographer's median annual salary is around $45,000. Is it worth the education requirements? See real job descriptions and get the truth about the field's career outlook to find out if becoming a scientific photographer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career in Scientific Photography

Scientific photographers provide photographs for scientific brochures, exhibits, or papers, sometimes with the use of specialized equipment. Keep reading to learn more about the pros and cons of a career as a scientific photographer to see if it's a good choice for you.

Pros of Being a Scientific Photographer
Decent salary (median annual income of $44,728 per year)****
Can find work in a variety of industries and places (laboratories, forensics, medical offices, museums)**
Experience can often substitute for some education*
Opportunity for self-employment**
Able to see concrete results from work (finished images)*

Cons of Being a Scientific Photographer
Can be difficult to find full-time, salaried work**
Pressure to make deadlines***
May be exposed to chemicals or contaminants in a laboratory*
High degree of accuracy and patience required**

Sources: *Michigan Department of Career Development, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, ***California Employment Development Department, ****Salary.com.

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

As a scientific photographer, you'll use various photographic techniques and equipment. For every shot you take, you'll analyze the subject and decide how to frame it. You may maintain a digital portfolio of your work. Your work could be used to provide illustrations for scientific textbooks, journals and teaching aids. It may be possible to specialize in particular fields within scientific photography, such as chemistry, medicine and aerodynamics.

Scientific photographers vary from many other types of photographers in that they specifically record scientific data or medical phenomenon. They may use some form of digital camera and might edit photos using computer equipment, but it's also typical to use microscopes to take photos of subjects. In scientific photography, accuracy and clarity is key; therefore, you won't be as likely to use image manipulation techniques on your finished images as other types of photographers might. You can expect to use specialized equipment, such as electron microscopes, but most scientific photographers use 35 or 16mm video cameras. You might prepare specimens to be photographed and consult on what photographs should be used for publications or lectures.

Career Paths and Specializations

While some scientific photographers may work in a lab with microscopic specimens, many types of photography can qualify as scientific photography. For example, forensic photography, medical photography and museum work can all involve taking photos of documents or specimens to be used for further study. Other relevant work could be found at pharmaceutical companies or military bases.

Job Growth and Salary Info

Statistics from Salary.com indicated that scientific photographers made a median annual salary of $44,728 as of March 2015. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment of all photographers was expected to grow 4% from 2012-2022, which is slower than average for all professions. In general, there's a lot of competition for jobs since it's not difficult to get started in the field of photography.

Full-time salaried jobs might be hard to come by since many companies find it more convenient to contract with freelancers. Candidates who have multiple skill sets have an easier time finding a job according to the BLS. In general, there are more qualified photographers than there are openings; however, scientific photography is one of the less-crowded fields within photography, due to the fact that you need specialized technical knowledge.

What Are the Requirements?

There's no standard formal education to become a photographer; however, the BLS noted that scientific photographers often need a bachelor's degree. Entry-level positions require a bachelor's degree in photography or in a related discipline, such as chemistry, biology or medicine. You might start off working as an assistant to gain experience and exposure to the field and prospective clients. Additionally, all photographers should be:

  • Artistic
  • Customer service driven
  • Detail-oriented
  • Technically-savvy

Job Postings from Real Employers

Employers advertise for a variety of scientific photographer positions, though these positions can have different titles depending on the field. Sufficient experience is often an acceptable substitute for a specific degree. While the following is not an exhaustive list, it's a representative sample of the jobs available to scientific photographers in May 2012:

  • A health insurance company in California advertised for a certified ophthalmic technician/photographer to provide patient care at a hospital. Candidates should have at least three years of relevant work experience in the last five years, one year of experience with cameras and darkroom technique and a high school diploma or GED. Applicants must hold ophthalmic technician certification and preference may be given to those with retinal angiography certification through the Ophthalmic Photographer's Society.
  • A forensic science institute in Houston sought a DNA evidence photographer with at least two years of photography-related coursework and ideally with a bachelor's degree. Duties include using alternative light source photography to document evidence related to cases involving disturbing subject matter.
  • A Georgia non-profit organization posted for a forensic photographer to work in a variety of locations both within the U.S. and internationally. They would photograph crime evidence and scenes. Candidates should have either a bachelor's degree and three years of experience or an associate's degree and five years of experience. They should be willing to deploy overseas for multiple months at a time and need to have some formal background in forensic photography.
  • A Texas art museum is looking for a photographer to aid with digitization and archival activities. Applicants should have at least a bachelor's in photography or equivalent experience and should be well versed in computer editing programs. Duties include photographing a wide range of museum objects according to set standards and processing along with storing resulting digital images.

How to Make Your Skills Stand out

You should always have a portfolio of your work ready to show any potential employers. To gain relevant experience during school and early on in your career, you should be willing to complete an internship or two; even if they are unpaid, you'll be able to make contacts within the photography world and gain valuable experience.

Get Certified

Some job postings have expressed a desire for certified photographers. Certification shows employers that you're knowledgeable in the nuances of your field and some certifications are available that pertain to different types of scientific photography. For example, you can earn certification as either a professional photographer or an evidence photographer through the Professional Photographic Certification Commission. For both certifications, you must submit a portfolio of images and take a written exam.

For those who specialize as ophthalmic photographers, it's possible to earn a credential as a Certified Retinal Angiographer through the Ophthalmic Photographers' Society. Candidates need to take an exam and may need to perform particular professional development activities in order to maintain certification. To be eligible for certification, you'll need to meet particular educational and work experience standards.

Other Careers to Consider

Perhaps after reading about the work of a scientific photographer, you're considering similar careers instead. As a graphic designer, you would create visual concepts to represent an idea or a brand. You could work by hand but you'll likely use computers for at least some of your work. You'll need at least a bachelor's degree, and the BLS predicted job growth to be average from 2010-2020, at 13%. Graphic designers made a median salary of about $44,000 per year in May 2011.

If you like the idea of capturing images on film, you could consider becoming a camera operator or editor for one of a variety of industries. Like photographers, this field does a variety of selecting and editing materials for different uses. While the employment growth was predicted to be only two percent from 2010-2020, the BLS noted that camera operators made a median income of around $40,000 per year as of May 2011. You'll probably need to have at least a bachelor's degree to get started and a few years of experience under your belt before you can jump into this position.

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