COLLEGE COMPASS -- Occupational Overview

Photographers and Camera Operators

Nature of the Work

The job of a photographer or camera operator is to accurately or artistically portray people, places, and events. Skillful photographers capture the special feeling or mood that sells products, highlights news stories, and brings back memories.

Photographers and camera operators all use the same basic equipment, a camera. Camera operators generally use 35- or 16-millimeter cameras or camcorders to film commercial motion pictures and documentary or industrial films. They also make films for television news, and film private ceremonies and special events. Some camera operators have begun offering their services to the general public by recording important events, and renting out their equipment.

Photographers use a wide variety of cameras that can accept lenses designed for close-up, medium-range, or distance photography. These cameras also offer adjustments that allow the photographer creative and technical control over the picture-taking process. In addition to cameras and film, photographers and camera operators use an array of equipment from filters, tripods, and flash attachments to specially constructed motorized vehicles and special lighting. Photography increasingly involves the use of computers. Photographers take the picture, then it is scanned by a computer and manipulated to create the desired effect. The images are stored on a compact disk (CD) in the same way that music is stored on a CD. Currently, photographers primarily use this technology to create an electronic portfolio. However, due to poor image quality and high cost, this technology has not been widely adopted.

Taking quality pictures and movies requires technical expertise and creativity. For example, photographers and camera operators may enhance the subject's appearance with lighting or by drawing attention to a particular aspect by blurring out the background. Composing a picture includes choosing a subject, presenting a subject to achieve a particular effect, and selecting equipment to accomplish the desired goal. By creatively applying the technical aspects of light, lens, film, filters, and camera settings, photographers and camera operators produce pictures that capture a mood or tell a story.

Many photographers develop and print their own photographs, especially photographs requiring special effects, and photographers may enlarge or otherwise alter the original image. Most, however, send their film to laboratories for processing. This is especially true for color film, which requires very expensive equipment and exacting conditions for processing and printing. (See the statement on photographic process workers elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Most photographers specialize in commercial, portrait, or journalistic photography. Some specialize in weddings or school photographs. Portrait photographers take pictures of individuals or groups of people and often work in their own studios. Portrait photographers who are small-business owners also arrange for advertising, schedule appointments, set and adjust equipment, develop and retouch negatives, and mount and frame pictures. They also hire and train employees, purchase supplies, keep records, and bill customers.

Some self-employed photographers sign with stock photo agencies. These agencies grant magazines and other customers the rights to an individual's photographs on a commission basis. Stock photo agencies require an application from photographers and a sizable portfolio. Once accepted, a large number of new submissions are required each year. Photographers frequently have their photos placed on CD's for this purpose. Additional photographs can be added later to the same CD.

Commercial, editorial, and industrial photographers take pictures of such subjects as manufactured articles, buildings, livestock, and groups of people. Their work is used in reports, advertisements, and catalogs. Industrial photographers take photographs or videotapes for use in analyzing engineering projects, for publicity, or as records of equipment and processes. Automobile manufacturers hire photographers every year to show off their new models. Companies use photographs in publications to report to stockholders or to advertise company products or services. This work frequently is done on-site.

Scientific photographers provide illustrations and documentation for scientific publications, research reports, and textbooks. They usually specialize in fields such as engineering, medicine, biology, or chemistry. Some use photographic or video equipment for use as a research tool. For example, biomedical photographers use photomicrography, photographs of small objects magnified many times to obtain information not visible under normal conditions, and time-lapse photography, where time is stretched or condensed. Biomedical photographers also take photographs of medical procedures such as surgery.

Photojournalists photograph newsworthy events, places, people, and things for publications in newspapers, journals, and magazines.

Photography also is an art medium. Some photographers sell their photographs as artwork, placing even greater emphasis on self-expression and creativity, in addition to technical proficiency. Unlike other specializations, however, very few photographers are successful enough to support themselves through this specialty.

Some camera operators work for local, network, and cable television stations. They cover news events as part of a reporting team. They also may capture and transmit live pictures to the television audience.

Camera operators employed in the entertainment field use motion picture cameras to film movies or electronically record movies, television programs, and commercials. Some camera operators specialize in filming cartoons or other optical effects for television and movies.

Working Conditions

Working conditions for photographers and camera operators vary considerably. Photographers in government, commercial studios, and advertising agencies usually work a 5-day, 35- to 40-hour week. Newspaper photographers and camera operators may work long and irregular hours and must be available on short notice.

Photographers and camera operators frequently work outdoors.

Self-employment allows for a good deal of autonomy, flexible scheduling, and the possibility of working from one's own home. However, the continuing need to find new clients can be time consuming and stressful. Some photographers hire an assistant solely for this responsibility.

Portrait photographers often work in their own studios but may travel locally to take photographs in churches, synagogues, and homes. Press and commercial photographers and camera operators may frequently travel locally or overnight; some travel to distant places for long periods of time. Their work may put them in uncomfortable or even dangerous surroundings. This is especially true for photojournalists assigned to cover natural disasters or military conflicts.

Photographers and camera operators may work long hours in a cramped and smelly darkroom or stand and walk for long periods while carrying heavy equipment. Also, photographers often work under severe time restrictions to meet deadlines and satisfy customers.


Photographers and camera operators held about 118,000 jobs in 1992. About 4 out of 10 were self-employed, a much higher proportion than the average for all occupations. Some photographers contract with advertising agencies, magazines, or others to do individual projects, while others operate portrait studios or provide photographs to stock photo agencies.

Most salaried photographers work in portrait or commercial photography studios. Others are with newspapers, magazines, advertising agencies, and government agencies. Most camera operators are employed in television broadcasting or in motion picture studios; few are self-employed. Most photographers and camera operators work in metropolitan areas.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

There is no one best way to enter the occupation. Determination often is as much the key to success as are creativity, skill, and formal preparation. Students should subscribe to photographic newsletters and magazines, join camera clubs, and find work in camera stores or photo studios. Individuals also should decide on an area of interest and specialize in it. Completing an internship, through summer or part-time work, for a newspaper or magazine is an excellent way to gain experience and eventually entry to this field.

Many entry level jobs require little formal preparation in photography. However, entry level positions in photojournalism and in scientific or technical photography are likely to require a college degree in photography with courses in the scientific field being photographed biology or botany, for example.

Employers usually seek applicants having a technical understanding of photography and certain personal traits, including imagination, creativity, and reliability. Business skills are essential for photographers planning on opening their own studio courses in accounting and marketing are recommended. Technical expertise can be obtained through practical experience and postsecondary education.

Camera operators generally acquire their skills through on-the-job training. Photography and cinematography assistants may set up lights and cameras or help a photographer take pictures. They also may receive routine assignments requiring few camera adjustments or decisions on what subject matter to photograph. With experience, they may advance to more demanding assignments. Photography assistants may learn to mix chemicals, develop film, and print photographs, and can learn the skills vital to running their own business.

Many aspiring photographers who wish to open their own studios believe that talent alone will insure success. However, all professional photographers have talent, and success requires, in addition, the skills necessary to run a business. They must know how to bid for and write contracts, hire and direct models, acquire permission to use photographs of people, price photographs, and keep financial records. Some self-employed photographers attempt to enter the field by submitting unsolicited photographs to magazines with the hope of eventually contracting with them to shoot photographs for articles.

Universities, community and junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and private trade and technical schools offer courses in photography, often as part of a communications or journalism program. There are relatively few courses in cinematography. Most schools do not offer degrees in photography or cinematography.

Basic courses in photography cover equipment, processes, and techniques. Bachelor's degree programs provide a well-rounded education, including business courses. Art schools offer useful training in design and composition, but may be weak in the technical aspects of photography.

Photographers and camera operators need good eyesight, artistic ability, and manual dexterity. They should be patient, accurate, and enjoy working with detail. They also should be able to work alone and with others, as photographers frequently deal with clients, graphic designers, and visual information specialists. Knowledge of mathematics, physics, and chemistry is helpful for understanding the workings of lenses, films, light sources, and developing processes. News photographers must be decisive in recognizing a potentially good photograph and acting quickly to have it published.

Commercial photographers must be imaginative and original. Portrait photgraphers need the ability to help people relax in front of the camera. Photojournalists must not only be good with a camera but also understand the story behind an event so that their pictures match the story. This requires journalistic skills and explains why employers increasingly look for individuals with a 4-year degree in photojournalism or journalism with an emphasis on photography.

Camera operators can become directors of photography for movie studios and television programs. Magazine and news photographers may head up graphic arts departments or become photography editors. Photographers and camera operators may become teachers and provide instruction in their own area of expertise.

Job Outlook

Photography, particularly commercial photography and photojournalism, is a highly competitive field. There are more people who want to be photographers than there is work to support them. Only the most skilled and those with the best business ability are able to find salaried positions or attract enough work to support themselves as self-employed photographers. Some become weekenders, individuals with full-time jobs in other fields who take photographs of weddings and other special events on weekends.

Employment of photographers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005. Many additional job openings will arise as workers transfer to other occupations or stop working. The growing use of visual images in education, communication, entertainment, marketing, research and development, and other areas should spur demand for photographers. Demand for portrait photographers should increase as the population grows. Digital cameras, which use electronic memory rather than a film negative to record the image, are now available. However, these cameras are much more expensive than conventional cameras, and are not capable of producing an equally good image. As the technology improves and the price declines, however, these cameras may be more widely used, increasing demand for commercial photographers in particular.

Employment of camera operators also is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005, with businesses making greater use of videos for training films, business meetings, sales campaigns, and public relations work. Expansion of the entertainment industry will create additional openings, but competition will be keen for what generally is regarded as an exciting field.


The median annual earnings for salaried photographers and camera operators who worked full time were about $21,200 in 1992. The middle 50 percent earned between $16,500 and $35,600. The top 10 percent earned more than $49,200, while the lowest 10 percent earned less than $12,300.

Photographers in the Federal Government averaged $33,000 a year in 1992.

Some self-employed photographers earn more than salaried workers, but many do not. Their earnings are affected by the number of hours worked, their skills, their marketing ability, and general business conditions.

Unlike photojournalists and commercial photographers, very few artistic photographers are successful enough to support themselves solely through this specialty.

Related Occupations

Other jobs requiring visual arts talents include illustrators, designers, painters, sculptors, and editors.

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Reprinted with Permission of U. S. Department of Labor

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