What’s so attractive about becoming a photographer?

In the digital age, photography is a discipline that everyone seems to enjoy; but if your talent stretches beyond taking simple snaps on your mobile phone, you might be considering a career as a professional photographer.

Photographers are experts in capturing moments. They manipulate light in creative ways to produce appealing images that serve a purpose. Photography involves a number of different sub-disciplines and photographers usually end up specialising in one of these. They include wedding, portraiture, fashion, travel, landscape, food, architecture, medical, scientific, commercial and wildlife.

Each discipline requires a different skillset; for example, a photographer specialising in portraiture would normally work from a studio using artificial lighting and setting to stage and capture their subject precisely; compared to a photojournalist, who must be prepared to travel at a moments notice and use natural light to capture significant moments that are outwith their control and may only last a split second.

Photography is a very popular career and professionals will testify to how hard it is to get ahead in such a competitive industry. However, the rewards come in seeing your own artistic work published, viewed and appreciated by an audience and building a reputable name using your talent.

What does a photographer actually do?

The work of a photographer varies greatly depending on the type of photography they do and whether they are self-employed or employed by a company. Typically, a professional photographer will be given a task by a client or employer and they will find a way to provide the perfect image to complete that task.

Although it is difficult to compile a comprehensive job description, the work of a photographer includes:

  • Discussing the requirements of images the client or employer need and how they intend to use them
  • Carrying out research to find out what images fulfil the requirements and how best to get them
  • Preparing location, time, subjects and equipment for a ‘shoot’
  • Experimenting with different lighting and settings and preparing for adverse conditions
  • Setting up and using technical camera equipment
  • Directing and encouraging subjects to achieve the desired result
  • Arranging lighting, props, backdrops and subjects during studio work
  • ‘Retouching’ images using digital imaging software
  • Discussing projects with others involved including graphic designers, writers, commissioning editors and art directors
  • Keeping up to date with industry trends and technology to inform the most effective method for completing different projects
  • Self-promotion; including creating and updating a website and social media channels and sending portfolio work to prospective clients and employers
  • Calculating project and business costs and negotiating these with clients
  • Business management; including administration, scheduling, invoicing and basic accounting

How long would my working day be and what can I expect to earn?

The working day of a photographer is very unpredictable; a lot depends on the project and hours can be very long. Photographers tend to work whenever there are opportunities and may have to turn down work when they are at full capacity. Adversely, there may be dry spells when little or no work is forthcoming. Some specialisms, such as wedding photography, are seasonal and business will peak during busy times of the year.


It is up to you to build a dependable reputation in order to maintain a reliable flow of work. This usually begins with creating a portfolio and implementing an effective self-promotional marketing campaign. In the early days, job security and a stable income are not to be expected and photographers will initially have to invest a lot of money for professional standard equipment and software. It requires a lot of hard work to establish a solid client base and develop a name for yourself and/or your business. Most work tends to gravitate towards big cities but travel to less populated areas is very common.

Membership of professional bodies can encourage opportunities through contacts, professional development and networking. Two relevant bodies you should consider are the British Institute of Professional Photography and the Association of Photographers.

And my salary?

Suggesting salaries is difficult in such a varied profession. Starting out, a photographer would normally take up a position as an assistant and can expect anything from working for free to £10, 000p/a. Starting salaries range from £10, 000 to £20, 000p/a and more established professionals can expect from £25,000 to £65,000p/a. Some photographers build such a strong reputation for themselves that they command salaries even higher than those suggested.

What training do I need, how do I get it and where should I look?

In order to become a successful photographer you will require the following skills and attributes:

  • Creativity and imagination
  • Determination and patience
  • Confidence in your ability
  • Self motivation
  • Technical and photographic skills
  • The ability to manage your time, meet deadlines and work within a budget
  • A certain degree of physical fitness (some of the equipment is very heavy and some disciplines require a lot of running around)
  • Good IT skills
  • Business management
  • Communication and people skills
  • Commercial awareness and the ability to market yourself using a variety of methods

What about equipment?

In order to become a professional photographer you must know your camera inside-out. This includes understanding everything there is to know about lighting, composition, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, lenses and all the different factors that go in to capturing the perfect image.

There are countless gadgets that can be used with your camera to aid your job and it is your responsibility to figure out what you require in order to achieve the best results. You can do this by keeping up to date with the latest trends online or in industry magazines.

How about software skills?

The ‘digital darkroom’ is increasingly being preferred to the traditional darkroom and you will be judged almost as much on the computer as you will be from behind the camera. Editing is a valuable way to improve your photos, however, editing images takes up a lot of time and, if you want to save a lot of trouble, it’s good idea to get the image right as and when you take it.

Adobe Photoshop is certainly the most common editing programme; so much so that ‘photoshopped’ has become the common word used to describe any digital image that has been edited. You must become proficient with this programme; there are a number of online tutorials and information that will help you to do this. Adobe Lightroom is another popular programme for storing images in an organised manner and also has some useful editing capabilities.

IDI students save almost 50% on the entire Adobe Creative Suite which includes Photoshop and Lightroom.

Do I need any qualifications?

As photography consists of a lot of specialist disciplines, the bulk of specific learning happens on the job, for example, a wedding photographer will learn different techniques and be trained in operating different equipment than a medical photographer. However, any photographer beginning as an assistant will be expected to have a working knowledge of basic photography techniques and theory. Most professional photographers will study towards a qualification to improve their skills and make them more employable and trusted by clients. You will notice that most professional photographer’s business cards give their name and their qualification. This helps their clients to have confidence in the professionalism of the provided service. Undertaking a qualification is also a fantastic opportunity to build a quality portfolio of work that will be crucial for getting work.

Choosing a course

Take care to choose the type of course and mode of study that most suits you. Most people choose full time study at an attendance based college or university but this usually involves relocating and if you have work or family commitments it might not suit you. You may prefer a flexible, more affordable alternative such as an online course which can be studied on a part time basis. You must be confident that the course that you choose really does prepare you for the profession so don’t be afraid to ask questions of the provider.

Research your course options

The internet is your most valuable source of information about the variety of courses available to you in photography but you must take time to ensure the course you choose is the right one for you. Don’t hesitate to contact institutions directly to ask for advice, guidance and information. Their response is a good indication of how student friendly and efficient the organisation will be.

Stuff to make you stand out

Photography is an extremely popular career choice and there is always tough competition for jobs amongst people with similar skills and experience. It’s up to you to make your CV stand out to give you an advantage. There are a number of ways you can achieve this:

Create a portfolio of quality work to showcase your talent. This should include a selection of your best photos that demonstrate your style and diversity. Creating a website or blog and following and contributing to existing blogs that specialise in photography related matters is a great way to market your ability and build contacts.

Follow trends in photography on social media and in the industry news to ensure you have an up-to-date knowledge on the subject. For example, many professional photographers are now becoming ‘Google trusted’ to help local clients find them online. You should constantly look for opportunities to promote yourself to prospective employers and clients.

Building a career is a slow process requiring all the help you can get so you must be as professional as possible to encourage repeat business. A solid client base is the key to a successful career in the industry.

Don’t hesitate to approach companies and publications directly. This will not only increase your knowledge of the industry but the names of the major and minor players within it. If publications like your work, you may well be asked to complete further jobs on commission.

The big picture; where does photography fit into the creative and cultural industries?

The Creative and Cultural Industries is a term that describes a wide range of economic activities associated with the Arts and the generation of knowledge and information. This ‘creative economy’ includes disciplines such as architecture, the visual arts, advertising, literature and publishing, graphic design, the performing arts and television. Photography fits into this group and can be branched out to include its own separate specialisms such as medical, portraiture, fashion, travel, landscape, food, architecture, corporate and photojournalism.

What is the relevance of these industries; how do they contribute to the economy?

You may be surprised to learn that the creative industries generate as many jobs globally as the financial services: 4% of the workforce. While there has been a 13% growth in employment in all industries over the last 30 years, there has been a staggering 37% growth in the creative industries alone.

The creative industries will generate significant numbers of jobs over the next decade and it is predicted that they will overtake the financial services industry in the levels of employment they will provide. However, photography differs slightly. The industry is adapting to the number of people now able to take and post their own images on the internet. Statistics from the UK reflect this trend in that revenue has dropped 4.1% over the last 5 years.

What does this mean in terms of jobs?

In the UK no individual companies have a dominant share of the market place; the 4 largest companies account for just 5.5% of the market share with no individual accounting for more than 3% of revenue. This is a reflection of the industry being characterised by small, non-employing operators and a high proportion of part-time practitioners.

  • There are 23, 892 people employed in photography in the UK and 8, 624 enterprises, many of which are owner-operated.
  • Most employing businesses are small, with 91.3% of businesses employing fewer than 5 people.
  • Over the past 5 years, the proportion of sole-traders has increased as barriers to entry have declined and new entrants to the industry have been encouraged.

Considering the figures, it is extremely important to market your work effectively to encourage new and repeat business. It is estimated that photographers now spend 80% of their time in business development and only 20% behind the camera.

You will find the following links essential when searching for jobs and information about trends within the industry.

Association of Photographers
British Institute of Professional Photography
Creative Pool
Creative Jobs
British Design Innovation

Good luck and happy hunting!