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Creative & Arts

Career insights: Become a Professional Photographer

 
Updated for 2021

If you are a creative individual with a good eye for taking photos of friends, family, pets and scenery, you may have already considered a career in photography. More and more people are following their dreams and choosing to pursue a career in this dynamic and exciting field.

If this is something that you (or a loved one) is considering, read our comprehensive guide in order to learn how you can succeed. Photography is an extremely competitive field, and so it is imperative that you put in the work and do the research before you get started. By knowing all about the industry, its requirements and your competition, you can build your knowledge and increase your chances for success.

What is a professional photographer?

 

The Washington Post, the internationally renowned newspaper, defines a professional photographer as “anyone who earns more than 50 percent of his or her annual income from photography.”[i] Anyone who earns less than this would technically be considered an amateur.

That said, there are many professional photographers who might not met this definition. For example, perhaps a trained and skilled photographer donates a great deal of his or her time to worthy causes – they may only earn 40% of their income from photography, but they are certainly a professional in the industry.

Similarly, the definition above also leaves out someone who spends a lot of their working hours (and earns a lot of their income) editing, retouching, or developing other photographers’ photos.

The positive aspects of this definition? It makes the pool of people who can claim to be a ‘professional photographer’ very narrow, preventing hobbyists and newcomers from falsely advertising their skill level. Very few people can actually call themselves ‘professional photographers’, and this is certainly a good thing for other photographers and for consumers.

Different types of photography

You can probably think of at least a few different types of photographers right off the top of your head – wedding photographers, those who specialise in portraits, wildlife experts. While these are all common, there are many, many other types, with more becoming popular each year as technology advances.

Here are just a few of the most common and popular types of photographers out there.

  • Aerial Photography

    Photographers have been capturing the earth below from flying aircraft since all the way back in 1858[ii]. French hot air balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon took the world’s first aerial photos, of a French village called Petit-Bicetre from 80 metres up! Since then, people (and increasingly drones) have gotten up into the sky in order to snap vast landscapes and breath-taking sunsets.

  • Candid Photography

    Candid photography is the art of capturing a photograph that doesn’t appear to be posed[iii]. Mastering candid photography is the bread and butter of any event photographer. Since event photography can really help to pay the bills, this is something that most people try to master. This style is especially popular amongst influencers and stems from people not wanting posed and ‘fake’ looking photos of their wedding, party or event (or to go on their Instagram)

  • Fashion Photography

    Fashion photography is an important part of the photography world, as it is all about showcasing products in the best possible light – literally and figuratively!

  • Architectural Photography

    Using natural light to capture the beauty of a building’s façade is an acquired skill, and if you can build this talent you can start working with the best in the real estate industry.

  • Documentary Photography

    Documentary photography is all about telling a story that chronicles a particular subject or a story. This might be about war, famine, social problems, scientific issues or other current events.

  • Landscape Photography

    Landscape photography captures the beauty and dramatics of nature, giving the viewer a sense of tranquility, love or even despair (if the image shows the negative impacts environmental change.

  • Portraiture

    As a photographer, portraiture is many people’s bread and butter. You can make a lot of money – and gain many loyal clients – by creating meaningful portraits of children, weddings and events.

  • Wildlife Photography

    Capturing animals in their natural habitat requires skill, talent and perfect timing. In addition to your technical skills, you need to time everything perfectly – and if you can get the perfect shot, you can charge quite a high amount.

  • Food Photography

    A lot of people joke about people taking pictures of their food, but what they don’t realise is that food photography is a big business. Restaurants, cafés, bars and food production companies need savvy food photographers to take mouth-watering photos for them.

What Does A Professional Photographer Do?

A typical day in the life of a professional photography? It simply doesn’t exist! On any given day, a professional photographer might be donning a scuba tank to dive into a reef, sailing above the clouds in a prop plane to capture vast landscapes, or inside an operating theatre snapping photos for a medical textbook.

The most important part of any professional photographer’s daily tasks is the time that they spend liaising with their client. Unless you are creating images for your own portfolio or for a fine art purpose, you will likely always have a client that has specific opinions and ideas about how you should work.

While you will certainly be able to allow your personal flair and creativity shine through (after all, that is why they chose you over your competition), you will also need to be mindful about what they want from your work. Once you have met with the client and had them sign a contract, you will spend anywhere from a few hours to a few months tackling the project for them.

Once the photos have been taken, a whole other facet of the work must be undertaken, including touching up and editing the photos on the computer, changing colours, lighting and ‘cleaning them up.’ Once your client has approved these edits, you will need to physically develop your pictures, and present them to your client in the agreed-upon format.

Remember, you will also need to spend time promoting yourself and your services, including maintaining a website and social media profiles, attending trade shows, advertising, and meeting with potential clients.

Responsibilities of a photographer

Your responsibility as a photographer depends on whether you are going freelance, or, if you’re being employed by a company, whether you have a team of people working alongside you. As a general rule, your responsibilities will include the following[iv]

  • Understanding and handling equipment[v]
  • Taking photographs
  • Promoting your work (especially if freelancing)
  • Planning and analysing the composition of photographs you are taking
  • Utilising various lighting equipment and photographic techniques
  • Using editing/photo enhancing software
  • Maintaining a portfolio to showcase work
  • Effectively managing and archiving work
  • Presenting work to clients and listening to feedback

This list covers the basics, but you may be required to take on extra responsibilities within your job role.

How Much Does A Professional Photographer Earn?

Every photographer earns a different level of pay, and their paycheques depend on many factors. These include their level of education, the quality of their portfolio, their industry contacts, their years of experience, and of course – their talent! You can find photographers that charge a few hundred pounds to shoot an event, and photographers that charge tens of thousands.

Employed Wage

The current average salary for an employed photographer in the UK is around £22,000 per annum. Salary can vary depending on area of expertise, but most photographers tend to branch out into many different areas (especially if working freelance or employed by an agency). Here are the average rates based on experience[vi]-

 
Experience Level Average Salary
Less than 1 year £19,470
1-4 years £20,380
5-9 years £23,119
10+ years £24,644
20+ years £30,000
Freelance/Self-Employed

As a freelance photographer your wage will depend on the amount of work you do and the number of gigs you can secure a year. There are many factors to take into account when you decide how much to charge clients, including-

  • Experience (how long you’ve been doing photography, and how big your portfolio is)
  • Competitors rates in the area
  • Equipment cost
  • Travel costs
  • Cost of editing software
  • Time it will take to edit & enhance photographs

In the UK, the average hourly wage for a freelancer can be anything from £8 to £100[vii]. Travel costs are usually added on top of this. It is common to charge a lower fee when you first start out in exchange for permission to include finished photographs in your portfolio.

How to Become a Photographer

If you’re set on becoming a photographer, you need to start taking steps to gain the relevant experience.

Do you need qualifications to become a photographer?

While you do not technically need any formal qualifications to call yourself a professional photographer, a higher education program, online photography course, or university degree really can help you to hone your skills, build good practices, and gain important industry connections. A digital photography diploma can also be very helpful.

You need creativity, technical prowess and good people skills, along with a good eye for detail. In order to please your clients, you must listen to what they want you to do, so customer service skills are also important.

GCSEs & A-Levels

As you have just read above, not everyone pursues formal education on their journey to becoming a professional photographer. However, if you plan to apply to a photography degree or higher education course, you need five grade 9-4 GCSEs (A*-C) (this might vary slightly depending on the institution)[viii]. These GCSEs should include Maths and English, in addition to 2 or 3 A levels (one must be in art, design or media).

Experience

Whether you get qualifications or not, experience is completely necessary before trying to secure your first gig or applying for a job. Whether you start small by taking photographs of your friends, ask restaurants if you can take some food or cocktail pictures free of charge or ask to shadow a professional in a studio – relevant experience makes all the difference and is important for your own learning & skill development.

Career Advancement Opportunities

While some people choose to remain ‘part time’ professional photographers for many years, earning the occasional bit of income from their photos and maintaining a select stable of clients, others do wish to advance in their careers in order to earn more money.

As with any industry, the room for advancement depends on many factors. If you are a freelancer, you might consider ‘advancement’ to be related to being able to charge higher rates, or having a fully booked calendar. If you choose to work for a specific company as a paid employee, you might consider advancement as including promotions, pay rises and/or more prestigious assignments.

See courses related to this career

Summary

 

If you are considering a career in photography, you are about to enter into a fascinating, exciting and constantly challenging world. By utilising some of the information listed above, your transition into your new career will be easier – and more profitable – than you ever imagined.

 

References

Krule, J., 2014. The Origins of Aerial Photography. [Online] Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/origins-aerial-photography [Accessed January 2021].

Levie, C., 2017. What IS a Professional Photographer?. [Online] Available at: https://petapixel.com/2017/10/31/what-is-a-professional-photographer/ [Accessed January 2021].

PayScale, 2021. Average Freelance Photographer Hourly Pay in United Kingdom. [Online] Available at: https://www.payscale.com/research/UK/Job=Freelance_Photographer/Hourly_Rate [Accessed January 2021].

PayScale, 2021. Average Photographer Salary in United Kingdom. [Online] Available at: https://www.payscale.com/research/UK/Job=Photographer/Salary [Accessed January 2021].

Target Jobs, n.d. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOB DESCRIPTION. [Online] Available at: https://targetjobs.co.uk/careers-advice/job-descriptions/276307-photographer-job-description [Accessed January 2021].

Truity, n.d. Photographer. [Online] Available at: https://www.truity.com/career-profile/photographer [Accessed January 2021].

UCAS, n.d. PHOTOGRAPHER. [Online] Available at: https://www.ucas.com/ucas/after-gcses/find-career-ideas/explore-jobs/job-profile/photographer [Accessed January 2021].

Wikipedia, 2021. Candid photography. [Online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candid_photography [Accessed January 2021].


Sources

[i] https://petapixel.com/2017/10/31/what-is-a-professional-photographer/

[ii] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/origins-aerial-photography

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Candid_photography

[iv] https://www.truity.com/career-profile/photographer

[v] https://targetjobs.co.uk/careers-advice/job-descriptions/276307-photographer-job-description [vi]https://www.payscale.com/research/UK/Job=Photographer/Salary [vii]

https://www.payscale.com/research/UK/Job=Freelance_Photographer/Hourly_Rate

[viii] https://www.ucas.com/ucas/after-gcses/find-career-ideas/explore-jobs/job-profile/photographer