Photography as A Career
Want to get into photography but not sure what area to specialize in? We’ve compiled a glossary of the best photography jobs, including the pros and cons of each.
We’ve also listed the difficulty level of each area, denoting how hard it is to break into it, as well as the typical career path people take to get into it (be it via on-the-job experience or through NYFA’s hands-on, intensive photography programs or a related degree.)
Given that many photographers work freelance, income can vary wildly from person to person (as well as location to location, and year to year), so references to earnings should be treated as very rough estimates only.
Fashion photographers are usually deemed the rock stars of the photography world, but you’re just as likely to be shooting catalog items en masse than sitting catwalk-side at the New York Fashion Week.
Career Path: Not only are contacts vital, but photography qualifications are also virtually essential. Location is important, too; you’ll have more luck in New York or London than in rural Iowa.
Pros: Beautiful models, lots of travel (if you like that kind of thing) and the chance to exercise a lot of creativity.
Cons: It’s one of the most cutthroat, high-pressured industries in existence, and it’s usually not very glamorous.
Average Earnings: $59,000
Want to shoot thousands of photographs of a meticulously made-up office workers looking happy/sad/frustrated/tired at their desk? If so, becoming a stock photographer is definitely the job for you.
Career Path: Nearly all photographers apply strong technical knowledge in a freelance capacity, and license their works through major stock agencies (Shutterstock, et al.).
Pros: The earnings can be off the chart if you build up a massive library and strike lucky with some highly resellable images (and that’s the thrill of the chase).
Cons: The majority of your hard work will only earn you a few cents per photo (if anything), so it can take years to get to a liveable wage. The industry is also ever-changing and very volatile.
Average Earnings: How long is a piece of string?
As technically challenging as it is rewarding, wildlife photography has become more accessible thanks to the advent of cheaper travel and equipment costs. However, there’s not always enough work to turn it into a full time gig.
Career Path: Formal tuition in photography essential, given the variance in skills needed while out in the field.
Pros: Extreme job satisfaction.
Cons: Low pay. Potential for life-threatening danger, both in terms of the wildlife you may encounter and the politically unstable areas the job could take you.
Average Earnings: $28,000
If getting lens-to-nose with a 400lb Bengal tiger sounds a little too dangerous, you might want to avoid the most dangerous job in the entire photography industry.
Career Path: Most people looking to get into war coverage generally work their way into a media or newspaper role before transitioning over. Degrees in either photography or journalism (ideally both) can get you up the career ladder a lot quicker.
Pros: It’s exhilarating, to say the least. Plus, it’s unlikely there will ever be a shortage of work (and not all assignments put you in harm’s way.)
Cons: The main downsides of war journalism as fairly apparent. International laws rarely offer much protection, and the worst damages you risk are often more than physical. Also consider that you’ll spend most of your time filling out paperwork in order to get access to the areas you’re looking to cover.
Average Earnings: $17k to $63k (depending on freelance or salary)
An area with plenty of well-paying work (as long as you don’t mind the seasonal nature of it), wedding photography is a very people-centric area of the industry which requires competency in post processing and the need to think outside the box during the shoot. Being a $3 billion dollar industry in and of itself, any fears that business will fold due to the advance of amateur photography have long since been abolished.
Career Path: The majority of wedding photographers start off as hobbyists and hone their craft for years until they’re good enough to offer their services, at which point it’s a case of building up a client base from scratch. Naturally, people skills are just as important as technical skills.
Pros: It’ll keep you on your toes as a photographer, with every shoot presenting its own problems to solve and opportunities to work your magic.
Cons: You really need to love the job, otherwise the parade of weddings can start to feel like a factory line (which is no way to feel about what is supposed to be a creative job). It can also be a very long day on your feet, in the sun, in what is often a high-pressure environment.
Average Earnings: Too many factors. Can be $15k, can be over $100k in some cases.
Fine Art Photographer
One of the most spurious and difficult to define genre in the photography industry, working in fine art photography is one of the most creative ways in which one can make money with their craft… but it’s also one of the most difficult to earn money in.
Career Path: Given that a lot of success in the creative arts is down to catching a lucky break, a college degree in fine art won’t help in and of itself but it will help you expand your network of connections and add a bit of gravitas behind your portfolio. You’ll also need superb technical skills in order to bring your artistic vision to life.
Pros: The feeling when you pay rent with your first photo sale or open your first gallery space is pretty hard to beat. There’s also a growing demand for fine art photography.
Cons: As above; it’s remarkably hard work to build up career momentum and earn a sellable reputation, especially if your work isn’t particularly commercial in nature.
Average Earnings: $46k to $69k (depending on freelance or salary)
If you’re not up for working with animals as a wildlife photographer, why not work with kids as a school photographer? Granted, common wisdom dictates that you should never work with either, but a job in school photography can be exceptionally rewarding.
Career Path: As with wedding photography, school photographers often start out as hobbyists before specializing in this area. An established background in working with children will make getting into the industry easier.
Pros: If you love working with kids, it’s a dream job. You will also have the scope to pick up work in baby photography, which can be lucrative.
Cons: Getting the best out of a child for a shoot is famously difficult; not only that, but you’ll have hyper-critical parents judging your work afterwards. Repeat the process ad nauseum.
Average Earnings: Around 24k, but this can go up or down depending primarily on how many schools are in your range.
Requiring a high level of technical skill and even medical training, medical photography is not something photographers tend to fall into (and it’s certainly not for the faint of heart). But if you’ve got the skill for it and don’t mind a bit of real-life gore, it’s an exceptionally well-paid field.
Career Path: A degree in photography is pretty much essential, and formal medical training may also be a prerequisite for certain positions.
Pros: Contributing to works which advance medicine and help save lives is it’s own reward, but the pay isn’t too shabby either.
Cons: In terms of creativity, it’s about as sterile as the environment you’ll be working in.
Average Earnings: Between $41k and $59k.
Being able to capture incredibly tiny objects – ranging from small insects to drops of water and even things on a cellular level – is as technically challenging as it is artistically creative. It’s frequently referred to as microphotography, though technically this is a misnomer since a microphotograph is the art of shrinking physical photographs down to a microscopic scale.
Career Path: The only barrier to entry is having the equipment necessary to take photographs on a nano scale.
Pros: If photography is all about seeing everyday objects in a different way, then photomicrography is pretty much the epitome of this.
Cons: Can be extraordinarily fiddly and you’ll spend more time setting up than shooting, but for a technophile that’s half the fun.
Average Earnings: Little data exists – given that you could be performing photomicrography for stock agencies or for scientific journals, it can vary a lot.
Thanks to advances in photography tech as well as a greater public interest in space, taking photographs of celestial objects is a specialized yet highly fascinating photographic art. Astrophotography is typically divided into two camps – photographs which cover a large portion of the night sky (and sometimes contextual landmark objects, as above) and images of deep space objects taken through telescopes.
Career Path: As with photomicrography, anyone with a fascination with the subject matter and the ability to successfully capture it is all that’s required.
Pros: With new exoplanets and exosolar objects being discovered at an increasing rate, there’s never a shortage of things to photograph. It’s also a geek’s dream come true.
Cons: The equipment necessary to carry out astrophotography can be… well, astronomical, and there’s little chance of recouping those overheads through paid work.Difficulty: 3/10
Average Earnings: An astronomer can expect to fetch anywhere between $40,000 to $100,000 depending on academic qualifications, but the astrophotography itself is usually carried out by unpaid enthusiasts.
As with stock photography, many businesses need images in order to sell their services and wares, but unlike stock work, product photography is far more direct. The product photographer is ultimately responsible for making sure whatever the merchant is hoping to sell – which can be anything from an Ibanez guitar to an industrial pallet of drain unblocker – looks as good as it possibly can be.
Career Path: Many product photographers come from a background of excellent skill in other areas, either via photography school or experience, and slowly work their way into an agency environment. Many product photographers also work on a self-employed and/or freelance basis.
Pros: As long as there are people trying to sell other people things, there’ll never be a shortage of work to go around.
Cons: From a creative point of view, it doesn’t rank quite as highly as the other photography jobs listed here.
Average Earnings: Generally between $40,000 and $50,000 depending on experience, but can naturally vary more for freelancers
A very unique discipline within the photography industry, sports photography jobs can even be vastly different depending on which particular sport you choose to capture (F1 driving, for instance, is a different kettle of fish entirely from photographing a game of golf). One common factor which typically unites all types of sport photography, however, is a great need for timing and composition as you capture the moments which best represent the event and which respective fans of the sport will deeply appreciate.
Career Path: Sports photography is akin to fashion photography in the sense that connections and contacts are equally as valuable as proper training. Sports photography typically crosses over with journalism, and if not working stock, generally veer towards working for news sites and publications. Needless to say, a deep-seated love of the sport in question is a prerequisite for the job.
Pros: Turning a passion into a paying career truly is its own reward.
Cons: Given the limited vacations and high demand, it can take years to work your way towards anything even approaching a liveable wage but those with a love of sport will tend to relish the challenge regardless. The only downside once you do it full time is that it can sometimes fell like your hobby has been turned into work, rather than the other way around.
Average Earnings: Generally rather low – between $10,000 and $20,000, with a lot of overheads for equipment. There are some splendid perks to be had, however.
Real Estate Photography
When trying to sell a property worth multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars, the importance of excellent photography to accompany the sales literature cannot be understated. While taking photos of bricks and mortar neither sounds challenging nor interesting, the opposite is true; no two days are the same, and it’ll push a photographer’s creativity in often unexpected ways.
Career Path: A lot of mid-level real estate photography is conducted by the estate agents themselves, which, more often than not, is pretty dreadful by anyone’s standards. The agents that care enough to hire a professional want a seriously good job doing, and will only hire people with a very impressive background and portfolio.
Pros: As mentioned, it can be a very enjoyable challenge with no two photo shoots being the same. You may also get to see a lot of swanky pads, which isn’t exactly an unpleasant way to go about your 9 to 5.
Cons: You’ll spend most of your time convincing property sellers to get on board with the idea of professional photography rather than doing the photography itself.
Average Earnings: Annual salary is hard to compute given the variables, but expect around $75-$150 per shoot. How many you can conceivably do in a day or week is open to speculation.
Interested in pursuing a future as a professional photographer? Challenge yourself and prepare for the industry with NYFA’s hands-on, intensive photography programs.