The Job and What's Involved

Professional photographers create permanent visual images for a wide range of purposes: everything from family portraits, fashion, food, and crime scenes, to medical and scientific records. Their work can be seen everywhere: newspapers and magazines, catalogues, advertising leaflets and company literature, textbooks, websites, and wedding albums.

Photographers usually specialise in one area, e.g. press, advertising, editorial, fashion, forensic, scientific, medical, or general practice, and the work and rewards vary accordingly. They might have some creative freedom, but more typically they will have to follow detailed instructions. The work involves:

  • Discussing a project with a client or employer and working to instructions (a brief).
  • Choosing and preparing locations.
  • Selecting appropriate cameras, lenses and accessories.
  • Setting the aperture and shutter speed.
  • Composing and taking pictures.
  • Managing post production of images and delivering them to the client in the appropriate format.
  • Marketing and running a business (if self-employed).

Images are usually supplied in digital format now, on CD-Rom or via the internet, and the photographer will either need to spend a considerable proportion of their time on digital post production or pay someone else to do this for them, using software packages like Photoshop or Aperture.

Depending on the specialism, photographers might work with the public, models, celebrities and public figures, the police and armed forces, company executives, medical staff and scientists. A press photographer might work alone, but a fashion photographer could be responsible for organising a large team of set builders, stylists, art directors and other support staff.

A photographer working for an employer might work regular hours, but for most photographers the hours can be long and unpredictable, including evenings and weekends.

Photographers can work anywhere: in studios or on location; in companies, laboratories or hospitals; at weddings or in war zones. Working outdoors can involve waiting long hours for the right light or weather conditions, or for the subject to appear.

Photographers may have to lift and carry heavy camera and lighting equipment. Working at height might be involved.

Photographers often have to travel, locally, around the UK or abroad. A driving licence is an advantage.

Junior assistant photographers start on around £12,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Competition to be a photographer is fierce. Employers include publishers, government departments, business, advertising agencies, research institutions, the police and armed forces. Some photographers are employed as staff, but most are freelance or run their own studios.

Vacancies appear in trade publications such as the British Journal of Photography and on websites such as that of the Association of Photographers (AOP), but many jobs are found through word of mouth. Success usually depends on building up a reputation and track record. Photographers need a strong portfolio of between 10 and 15 images.

More than 50 per cent of photographers work in general practice or social photography. Their competitors are the serious amateur, so they must provide a real service to their local community. Photographers have to be able to market themselves effectively. Developing contacts and networking is crucial. Membership of professional associations can be useful. Some freelancers are represented by an agent, who takes a commission.

Photographers work all over the UK, but most opportunities are found in larger cities. Depending on the specialism, most photographers start out by assisting an established photographer and learn on the job. The website has useful information for assistants.

Press photographers usually start on local newspapers and freesheets. Scientific photographers are scientists with an interest in photo images, and forensic photographers might start as scene of crime officers before specialising in photography. Vacancies may be advertised in, for example, New Scientist and Police Review.

Education and Training

There are no set qualifications for entry into this career but most photographers have completed a course in photography. Courses that offer industry contacts and work placements are particularly useful. There is a wide range of relevant courses available, including:

  • A level photography.
  • City & Guilds levels 1, 2 and 3 in photography and photo imaging.
  • BTEC ND photography.
  • Diploma in foundation studies (art and design), with option to specialise in photography.
  • BTEC HNC/HND in art and design (photography).
  • Foundation degrees
  • Degrees.

The Diploma in creative and media may also be relevant for this type of work.

Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for Creative Media, has developed a foundation degree framework for the photo imaging sector. Information about photo imaging training, courses and qualifications can be found on Skillset's website

Skillset has developed two Apprenticeship frameworks for the photo imaging sector.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work, Careers Wales; and for Northern Ireland contact

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Most photographers start as an assistant and gain experience and skills working on the job. Some employers may support work-based qualifications. Photo imaging NVQ's are available at Levels 2, 3 and 4.

Trade and professional associations, such as the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), the Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers (SWPP), the Master Photographers Association (MPA) and the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) run short courses.

Personnel from all three armed forces are trained at the Defence School of Photography where they can take a range of courses up to NVQ Level 4.

Some photographer roles may require specific qualifications.

  • The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) endorses two training schemes for press photographers.
  • Medical photographers require a degree or a postgraduate certificate in clinical photography.
  • Forensic photographers usually need good passes at GCSE including English and either science or maths, and one A level in a science subject.

The RAF recruits civilian photographers directly, but the Army and Navy only recruit candidates currently serving in the forces.

All photographers must keep up to date with developments in technology and techniques as well as trends in their own particular specialism.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A photographer should:

  • Have good eyesight.
  • Be creative, with a good eye for colour, shape, pattern, form and tone.
  • Be reliable and able to meet deadlines.
  • Be motivated and self-confident.
  • Have technical aptitude, including computer skills.
  • Have excellent communication and interpersonal skills.
  • Be able to understand and interpret the client's needs.
  • Have the patience to get the right shot even under pressure.
  • Have business and organisational skills.
  • Understand health and safety requirements.

Your Long Term Prospects

Photographers working for an employer may benefit from formal promotion structures, although prospects are limited as departments are small.

For freelancers and those that run their own business, success depends on reputation and continually developing and reinventing their style. Press photographers may move to a national paper or magazine and then gain seniority within the team. Promotion for all photographers may take the form of management, commissioning or editorial roles.

Some photographers also teach on a part-time basis.

Get Further Information

The Association of Photographers,
81 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QS
Tel: 020 7739 6669

British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP),
1 Prebendal Court, Oxford Road,
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire HP19 8EY
Tel: 01296 718530

Institute of Medical Illustrators (IMI),
29 Arboretum Street, Nottingham NG1 4JA
Tel: 0121 333 8492

The Master Photographers Association (MPA),
Jubilee House, 1 Chancery Lane,
Darlington, County Durham DL1 5QP
Tel: 01325 356555

The National Council for the Training of Journalists,
The New Granary, Station Road,
Newport, Saffron Walden,
Essex CB11 3PL
Tel: 01799 544014

The Royal Photographic Society,
Fenton House, 122 Wells Road, Bath BA2 3AH
Tel: 01225 325733

Skillset, Focus Point,
21 Caledonian Road, London N1 9GB
Free careers helpline: 08080 300 900

The Society of Wedding and Portrait Photographers,
6 Bath Street, Rhyll, LL18 3EB
Tel: 01745 356935

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