Photographic Technician

The Job and What's Involved

Photographic technicians work in laboratories where film is developed and photographs are printed or converted into digital images. There are three main types of laboratory:

  • High Street stores or mini-labs.
  • Large photofinishers.
  • Professional laboratories offering specialist services to photographers and businesses.

There are a range of roles depending on the type and size of the lab. These include:

Digital Imaging Technicians, who are usually employed by professional laboratories or picture libraries. They use computers and computer software to copy, manipulate and print photographic images. The works also involves resizing, cropping, colour correction and colour management, as well as some design and layout work. They often have regular contact with the client and may need to discuss their exact requirements. In picture libraries they scan and convert new material and archive images into digital media.

Print Finishers, who are usually employed in a professional laboratory, where their work involves using precision cutting and laminating equipment to mount prints for use in exhibitions and displays.

Film Processing Technicians and Photographic Printers, who may work in all three types of laboratories and operate computer-controlled machines to process and print films. The work includes mixing processing chemicals, following health and safety procedures, sorting and loading films for processing and setting up and adjusting sophisticated electronic printing machinery. However, the increase in digital technology is leading to a decrease in the film processing side of the work.

A small number of professional laboratories still use traditional techniques such as hand-printing.

Some photographic technicians may also combine their technical work with a retail role, giving advice to customers and demonstrating equipment.

Photographic technicians usually work 37 to 40 hours a week. In large laboratories, shifts and night work are common. Weekend work is normal in professional and mini-labs, and overtime and part-time work may be available.

Many photofinishing laboratories are housed in large buildings containing automated processing machinery, but professional laboratories vary in size and have a more hands-on feel, while working in a mini-lab is similar to any other shop environment. Working conditions in all types of laboratory are generally clean and dust-free.

Modern techniques mean that very little time is now spent in a dark room, although photographic processing still involves the use of chemicals. When dealing with chemicals it is necessary to wear rubber gloves and goggles. People with certain skin allergies may find it difficult working with these materials.

Digital work often involves long periods spent sitting at a computer. Print finishers spend most of their time standing, and their job may require heavy lifting.

New photographic technicians earn approximately £10,000 to £15,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 450 professional laboratories in the UK employing between five and 100 people, and roughly 4,000 mini-labs, usually with two to three full-time staff. Although there are only a few large photofinishing labs, they employ about 2,000 skilled and semi-skilled people to process thousands of films a week, using highly automated, computer-controlled machines. Overall the industry employs approximately 15,000 people, although the rapid growth of digital photography has lead to a lack of employees with the right skills in this area.

There are also some opportunities in hospitals, research establishments, universities and colleges, the Armed Forces, newspapers and TV companies.

Jobs are advertised in specialist photography magazines, the local press and in Connexions centres and Jobcentre Plus offices. The British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA) lists vacancies on its website, www.bapla.org.

Education and Training

There are no set entry requirements to work as a photographic technician, although qualifications in technical and scientific subjects are an advantage. Experience of working in a retail mini-lab is often a good route into a professional laboratory.

To work as a digital image technician a qualification in graphic design is useful. Experience of working in this field is also needed to work in a digital image library. Some specialist picture libraries often prefer graduates with a degree in electronic imaging.

It is also possible to complete a full-time course, such as a BTEC National Diploma in Photography and Photographic Processing, before starting work. To enter this course applicants need four GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or equivalent qualifications, and a portfolio of work. Skillset, the Sector Skills Council for the audio visual industries, is in the process of producing a Foundation degree framework for the photo imaging sector.

The Diploma will give you the knowledge and skills that you will need for college, university or work in an exciting, creative and enjoyable way.

There are Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships available in both photo imaging and photographic processing. These cover photography, laboratory operations, mini-lab operations, digital imaging, and digital photography.

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 www.apprenticeships.org.uk.

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

For further information visit My World of Work www.myworldofwork.co.uk/modernapprenticeships, Careers Wales www.careerswales.com; and for Northern Ireland contact www.careersserviceni.com.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Photographic technicians usually train on the job, with supervision from more experienced staff. They train for two to three years to gain the skills and experience needed for professional work. This may be combined with day release to a college to study an appropriate NVQ/SVQ.

There are NVQ's/SVQ's available in Photo Imaging at Levels 2 to 4 and in Photo Processing at Levels 2 to 3.

Photographic technicians may also attend short courses run by product manufacturers.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Photographic technicians need:

  • To be careful, patient, accurate and methodical.
  • To be able to handle materials carefully.
  • Excellent computer skills for the digital aspects of the work.
  • To work well under pressure and to deadlines.
  • Some knowledge of photography.
  • Normal colour vision.
  • To work well in a team.
  • Good retail and customer care skills for mini and professional labs.
  • Confidence working with technical machinery.
  • Some understanding of basic mechanics, electrics and electronics.

Your Long Term Prospects

While knowledge of traditional skills is still important to the industry, training in new digital processes is a key way to gain promotion, particularly in picture libraries, as more and more collections are digitised.

With extra training it may be possible to move into photographic support services too. This is a growing area caused by the increasingly sophisticated technology used in many cameras, and covers areas such as camera repair, technical support and customer service.

In professional laboratories, promotion to positions such as senior technician depends on experience, while in mini-labs, photographic technicians may need to change employers for more experience or promotion. There may also be opportunities on the management side of the industry.

Some photographic technicians may set up their own business or take out a franchise with a mini-lab.

Get Further Information

British Association of Picture Libraries
and Agencies (BAPLA), 18 Vine Hill,
London EC1R 5DZ
Tel: 020 7713 1780
Website: www.bapla.org

British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP),
Fox Talbot House, 2 Amwell End,
Ware, Hertfordshire SG12 9HN
Tel: 01920 464011
Website: www.bipp.com

Skillset, Prospect House,
80-110 New Oxford Street, London WC1A 1HB
Tel: 020 7520 5757
Website: www.skillset.org

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