One of the most exciting things about the field of photography is its diversity. Subject, location, technique, and education all vary depending on genre—and there is certainly something for everyone: nature, adventure, portraiture, and food, to name a very few. This diversity caters to a broad range of interests, and having been in the field for more than 35 years, I have seen many creative combinations to suit professional and personal preferences.
I spend much of my workday meeting with new photographers, discussing their strengths and challenges, and brainstorming how their skills best lend themselves to particular areas in photography. Just last week I spent an afternoon with an 18-year- old student who received a new camera for Christmas. We covered the technical capabilities of her equipment; she now wants to meet again, this time to discuss her professional potential. Meetings like this remind me how difficult it can be for any photographer to adequately assess their work and recognize their strengths—as well as how to take that first step toward making a living as an artist.
This month I am going to briefly discuss different areas of photography. I will touch upon considerations of entry like education, equipment costs and competition. Though certain specialties require more than others, most photographers should begin with some sort of formalized education—a notion fading due to digital photography and the perception that just because one sees a nice-looking image on the back of their camera means they’re a photographer. And while there are exceptions, experience has shown me that to ensure consistently well-composed and unique images, schooling (whether an intensive program, community college or four-year school) is critical. Most week or weekend-long workshops here or there won’t cut it, as they aren’t as strategically designed as a career program in terms of building fundamental skills. Fortunately, we have rich options here in the States and Canada, and many recognized professionals who also mentor and teach.
NATURE- LANDSCAPE/WILDLIFE/MACRO (close-up) PHOTOGRAPHY. Being located in Montana, RMSP nature classes are always top sellers- for both workshops and career courses. In fact, our Professional Studies class on this subject always has a waiting list. To most amateurs, it seems like an easy way into the profession. In reality, however, this is a crowded field that requires substantial training, much of which focuses on composition and creating a unique personal style. Landscape and macro are often areas that professional photographers will dabble in to generate extra income. Wildlife is much more specialized and even more competitive but unique wildlife photos sell well, especially those featuring mothers and young, young by themselves and/or out of the ordinary scenes. Equipment for landscape and macro is not overly expensive but appropriate lenses to shoot wildlife can be. High quality photos are an expectation, so having a good body and professional lens is important. Proper education must include substantial time in the field, frequent critiquing and style development. Business skills and self-marketing are critical.
OUTDOOR/ADVENTURE PHOTOGRAPHY. For folks who love the outdoors and working with people, this is a wonderful field. Many RMSP graduates make a full or part-time living as outdoor or adventure photographers. It is important to learn from an expert in order to get appropriate training in technique, equipment, interpersonal etiquette, and business and marketing. A specialist can also critique work with an eye toward current market trends. This and the previous area of photography are sometimes combined for a career in outdoor photography.
PORTRAITURE. A skilled portrait photographer can make a good living almost anywhere he or she wishes to live. Adequate training should include etiquette when working with people, posing, lighting (natural, strobes, and studio), equipment, business and marketing. Areas of expertise in this field include child, pet, environmental, and studio photography. Many young parents begin on this path by taking pictures of their own children and after appropriate training end up as successful child or family portrait photographers. RMSP has graduated a high number of portrait photographers now successful in their field.
WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY. Most wedding photographers love what they do. They get to work with people, often travel to beautiful places, and make a steady income. In fact, with proper training and a good eye, shooting weddings can be a dependable and lucrative profession. Training should include how to build an impressive, professional portfolio as well as business and marketing skills. Many consider wedding photography a part of a portrait business, as they require comparable skills and equipment.
PRODUCT PHOTOGRAPHY. This can be an extremely well-paying field, especially in larger cities. We teach the fundamentals of product photography in Summer Intensive, but those serious about it continue their training with, and ideally then assist, an expert. Many of our students have done just that and are now successful on their own. Equipment is usually expensive.
FOOD PHOTOGRAPHY. Food photography—related to product photography but specializing in prepared food—is an exciting and often overlooked specialty. The highest demand for these skills is in metropolitan areas. This genre requires considerable equipment, training and work with studio lighting.
ARCHITECTURAL PHOTOGRAPHY. This is another area that requires specialized training and equipment. Most medium to large towns need good architectural photographers. And for a photographer looking to make extra money, this is a great skill set, as there are always business owners seeking professional shots of their buildings (interior and exterior) for marketing purposes. To be a full-time architectural photographer with ambitions to shoot for such esteemed publications as Architectural Digest, however, advanced training and more expensive equipment is required.
DOCUMENTARY PHOTOGRAPHY. This is one of my favorite fields. It is a great way to educate others on issues and inspire action around a cause. And what photographer doesn’t want to shoot for National Geographic or another publication of similar prestige?! Often, however, one must not only be a talented photographer, but a strong writer. Or, you can always team up with a writer who complements your shooting. I have shot several projects with a good friend who is a writer; she writes while I shoot, and our collaboration brings dimension to topics that wouldn’t otherwise be there if we just worked alone. Equipment needs are minimal and not expensive. We have many graduates who make a good part of their income from documentary photography.
I will continue this discussion next month with other areas of photography. But whatever area draws you, it is important to realize that the more broad your initial course of study, the better, as many photographers make their living shooting across a wide range to ensure a successful business.
When I lived in Atlanta I had a friend who made six figures as a food photographer. On weekends he’d travel to the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia to shoot landscapes and flowers. He’d then sell these photos as greeting cards, calendars, posters and fine art prints. Another accolade for our profession: How many people do you know who love what they do so much that their hobby and career are the same?!
Continue reading with Considering Genres of Professional Photography, Part II.