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job specification

Entry level/Aspirational

Also known as:

  • image-maker
  • 2D visual artist
  • content creator

What does a Photographer do?

Photographers make pictures of a wide range of subject matter, often in response to a specific set of instructions (known as a ‘brief’) from a client (also known as a ‘commissioner’ or ‘buyer’). Traditionally, the photographer has only made still images, but more and more they are expected to be able to produce video (or ‘moving-image’) content too.

They will sometimes start with a set of sketches (‘scamps’ or ‘visuals’) and use their creative skills to turn that into a scene that can be captured digitally or, less commonly but still used, on film. They will find out what the most important aspects of the subject they’re being asked to photograph are, from the client or from any other people involved in the creative process, like an art director, a designer or a creative director.

They will make sure that they use the correct tools for the job (like the most appropriate camera/lens and choice of lighting).

There are many different types of photographer needed in industry – some use more of their creative skills than others, who in turn may need to be more technical. Others use a mix of everything including personal attributes such as people skills.

What’s a Photographer good at?

(You don’t have to be good at all these things…)

  • Art: Having an eye for composition and framing (not the ‘hanging on the wall’ type!) and understanding form, colour, texture and light and shade.
  • Understanding people: Photography, at some point, will always be about the relationships you build, so being able to empathise and get along with people, whether they’re your subjects, your team or your clients or customers, is important, as is your ability to stand up for your own views.
  • Technical knowledge: Photography relies on technology to a large extent, so have a good grasp of the tech (cameras, lenses, lighting equipment and computer hardware/software) will allow you to concentrate on the other creative aspects of making the picture.
  • Collaboration: A bit like understanding, but being able to work well with others where you all contribute something can be important in some types of photography.
  • Organisation: You’ll need to be disciplined and able to prioritise tasks. You’ll need to be able to motivate yourself and work on your own from time-to-time

What are the tools of the trade?

Most commissioned (i.e., paid for by a client) photography is carried out using digital equipment, so a digital camera and selection of lenses would form a basic set-up. Add to that a tripod (three-legged camera support platform) and separate lighting of some type (continuous or flash/strobe) and stands to put the lights on, and very quickly you can find yourself with a fair bit of kit to manage.

Some photographers work in a studio environment, which can be anything from a plain neutrally-painted empty space to a spare room or garage at home, and some work ‘on location’ (at their client’s premises or outdoors or some other space where you may need to bring everything with you.

Because most photography is done digitally, you’ll need access to a decent computer for working on your images as well as to image-editing software like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, or Capture One for processing and retouching your pictures. There’s too many to list them all here.

Who does a Photographer work with?

Depending on the type of photographer you become, you may be a wedding and/or portrait photographer, who deals with the general public pretty much all the time. Or, you may become a commercial photographer working for a number of different clients who run their own businesses, or perhaps you may become an advertising or fashion photographer, working with a team comprising, amongst others, your own assistant, an art director, make-up artist, stylist, set-designer/builder and a lighting technician.

How do I become a Photographer?

There are many different routes into the industry – as many as there are types of photographer. Experience does help, so for some people, being an assistant to other photographers can be really useful, not just in terms of experience, but building up your own network of contacts too.

Most Photographers work for themselves – i.e., they are freelance or self-employed. However, there are permanent jobs in large, commercial e-commerce (‘e-comm’) studios run by companies like Asos, Next, Argos and Amazon. Sometimes these jobs will require some qualifications, but not always – check and do your research before you decide which route you’ll take. There may also be jobs at smaller studios with a few Photographers employed.

At school or college:

Learning traditional drawing & painting (instead of, or as well as, photography, of course) can help with some of the creative aspects, but many come into the industry from other routes such as engineering or computing backgrounds. Many places offer photography courses at GCSE and A-level and other FE levels and it’s worth considering film-making or video courses too. 

At University:

There are a great many places that offer Photography as a degree course, either on its own or mixed with film-making or another creative discipline. If you want to go to University, bear in mind that it is worth studying relevant A-levels or Highers and that these courses are usually very popular.

This popularity translates into lots of graduates looking to become photographers each year, so make sure you have additional, complementary skills (like video production, perhaps) that can give you a head-start. 

Remember too that study at HE level is not just about skills and qualification, it’s as much about the experience of doing that with a whole bunch of others and making life-long friends and memories.

Straight to Industry:

You do not need any formal qualifications to be a photographer, and some of the world’s most famous photographers have never been to college or formally studied photography as a subject. Of course, study can teach you many things, but sometimes experience can teach you as much and if you have the opportunity to assist an established photographer for a couple of years, that in itself could be all the education you need.

Jobs come up in all sorts of places – National and regional press carry job adverts and sometimes photography jobs pop up there. Linked-In (and to a certain extent Twitter) can be good for the e-comm type stuff mentioned above, so keep your eyes open and get friends and family to help look too. Word-of-mouth is probably the most effective means of getting yourself in the right place at the right time, but that means you need to be able to interact, socialise and build your own networks if you want access to a great many of these opportunities. Of course, careers like being a forensic or a medical photographer are much more well-defined and rely far less on your abilities to network and get yourself out there.

Build a Portfolio: 

Your portfolio is the visual expression of you as a photographer – it will have your best creative work in and give the people you show it to, an insight in to what makes you tick, what you like, what style you have, how you approach things. A portfolio is fluid – it never stands still and you should look to make the practice of shooting new work a regular one. It’s great discipline and keeps you fresh and can help motivate yourself too. There are loads of options for what a portfolio should look like (print?... or digital?... or both? Prints in boxes or in a printed book…?) so think about what best represents you – and feel free to change it later on down the line.

Be aware:

It’s important to have an excitement for what you do as it’s a competitive field, and keeping tabs on what’s happening in the sector you’re interested in (fashion? advertising still life? cars?) is really useful in influencing your own work and enabling you to able to discuss and chat about these things when you meet people and network.

Join photography groups on social media platforms, interact with others – there’s loads of free opportunities out there for mixing with like-minded people. Set up your own social media accounts and plan when and what you post, carefully. Look at others’ work that inspires you for ideas (but don't copy!) and stay curious. 

Further resources: 

UCAS – Photographer role

Listing of photography-related jobs

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