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Photographers and Camera Operators

Photographers and camera operators use their cameras and film to portray people, places, and events much as a writer uses words. Because the procedures involved in still photography are quite different from those used in news and motion picture photography, workers generally specialize in one or the other. Those who are skillful can capture the personality of individuals or the mood of scenes on film. Photographers specializing in scientific, medical, or engineering photography expose worlds normally hidden from our view. Camera operators film news events, television shows, movies, commercials and even cartoons.

Although their subject matter varies widely, many photographers and camera operators use the same basic equipment. The most important tool remains the camera. Some camera operators use 35mm cameras to film motion pictures, 16mm cameras to film documentary and industrial films, and videotape cameras to record news events for later showing on television. Most other photographers use a wide variety of cameras to achieve desired results. Unlike snapshot cameras, which have a lens permanently attached to the camera body, the professionals cameras are generally constructed to use a variety of lenses designed for close-up, medium-range, or distance photography. In addition, professional photographers and camera operators use a vast array of mechanical equipment--from the simple tripod to specially constructed motorized vehicles. Besides cameras and lenses, photographers and camera operators use a variety of film and colored filters to obtain the desired effect under different lighting conditions. When taking pictures indoors or after dark, they may use electronic flash units, floodlights, reflectors, and other special lighting equipment.

Some photographers develop and print their own photographs in the darkroom and may enlarge or otherwise alter the basic image. Many photographers send their work to laboratories for processing.

In addition to the skilled use of cameras and accessories, photographers must be able to compose their pictures with creativity and style.

Still photographers may specialize in a particular type of photography, such as portrait, fashion, or advertising. Portrait photographers take pictures of individuals or groups of persons and often work in their own studios. For special events, such as a wedding or christening, however, they take photographs in churches and homes. Portrait photographers in small studios, like other small career owners, frequently handle all aspects of their career. They arrange for advertising and schedule appointments; set and adjust equipment before taking the pictures; develop and retouch negatives; develop proofs; and mount and frame pictures. They also purchase supplies and take care of billing and record keeping.

Advertising or industrial photographers take pictures of a wide range of subjects including livestock, manufactured articles, buildings, and groups of people. They frequently do photography for catalogs. Companies use their work in publications to report to stockholders or to advertise company products or services. To create attractive, eye-catching promotional pictures, advertising photographers must command a broad array of photographic techniques. Industrial photographers also photograph groups of people for employee news magazines or take motion pictures or workers operating equipment and machinery for management's use in analyzing production or work methods.

Scientific photographers and biological photographers provide illustrations and documentation for scientific publications and research reports. The photographs and slides they produce are also used for teaching purposes. These photographers usually specialize in a particular field, such as engineering, aerodynamics, medicine, biology, or chemistry. Some design photographic equipment for use as a research tool. For example, medical researchers often use ultraviolet and infrared photography, fluorescence, and X-rays to obtain information not visible under normal conditions. Time-lapse photography (where time is stretched or condensed), photomicrography (where the subject of the photography may be magnified 50 or 70 times or more), and photogrammetry (surveying an area using aerial photography) are other special techniques.

Photojournalists photograph newsworthy events, places, people, and things for publications such as newspapers and magazines. They may also prepare educational slides, filmstrips, and movies.

Some camera operators work for television networks and individual stations, covering news events as part of a team that includes a reporter and other technicians. These camera operators use special photographic equipment--called electronic news gathering cameras--to capture events on videotape. Images from these cameras can be transmitted via satellite from the news scene back to the news room in time for the news telecast.

Camera operators also are employed in the entertainment field. They use 35mm and 16mm motion picture cameras to film movies, television programs, and commercials. Animation camera operators film cartoons; optical-effects camera operators create illusions for television and movies. Camera operators in the entertainment career are usually supervised by directors of photography.

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. Free lancers, newspaper photographers, and camera operators may work longer or more irregular hours. Many photographers work part time.

Freelance, press, and commercial photographers may travel frequently and may work in uncomfortable surroundings. Sometimes the work can be dangerous, especially for photo-journalists assigned to cover stories on natural disasters or military conflicts. When working on assignment or on location, photographers and camera operators may be away from home for long periods.

Most photographers and camera operators work under pressure. Deadlines and demanding customers must be satisfied. Freelance photographers may find soliciting new clients frustrating and tedious.


Photographers and camera operators held about 107,000 jobs in 1990. Nearly half of all photographers and camera operators are self-employed, a much higher proportion than the average for all occupations. Some of these are freelance photographers who do individual projects on a one-time-only or occasional basis for ad agencies or magazines.

Salaried jobs for photographers are found for the most part in photographic or commercial studios. Other major employer include newspapers, magazines, advertising agencies, radio and television broadcasters, motion picture companies and government agencies. Camera operators are employed primarily in television broadcasting and motion picture studios.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Although a high school education is desirable, entry level jobs for photographers have no formal education or training requirements. Employers usually seek applicants who have a broad technical understanding of photography as well as other photographic talents, such as imagination, creativity, and a good sense of timing. Technical expertise can be obtained through practical experience, post secondary training, or some combination of the two. Some jobs do require that applicants have specialized knowledge of the subject area that will be photographed.

Photographic training is available in colleges, universities, junior colleges, public vocational education programs, and private photography and art schools. Over 100 colleges and universities offered 4-year curriculums leading to a bachelor's degree in photography in 1990. Many of these schools offer courses in cinematography. However, very few schools offer a degree in cinematography. Many schools offer photography courses as part of their communications and journalism programs. Some colleges and universities grant master's degrees in photography. In addition, some colleges have 2-year curriculums leading to a certificate or an associate degree in photography. A formal education in photography gives a fundamental background in a variety of equipment, processes, and techniques. Art schools offer useful training in design and composition, but not the technical training needed for professional photographic work. The Armed Forces also train people in photographic skills. On the job training is an important source of training for both camera operators and photographers. Because academic programs are not oriented toward motion picture photography, informal job training is often the only way camera operators can acquire the necessary skills. Trainees begin as first and second assistants to camera operators, helping set up equipment and learning the craft by observing experienced workers. People may prepare for work as photographers in a commercial studio through 2 or 3 years of on-the-job training as a photographer's assistant. Trainees generally start in the darkroom where they learn to mix chemicals, develop film, and do photo printing and enlarging. Later they may set up lights and cameras or help an experienced photographer take pictures.

Amateur experience is helpful in getting an entry job with a commercial studio, but post-high school education and training usually are needed for industrial or scientific photography. Here success in photography depends on being more than just a competent photographer, and adequate career preparation requires some knowledge of the field in which the photography is used.

Photographers and camera operators must have good eyesight and color vision, artistic ability, and manual dexterity. They should be patient, accurate, and enjoy working with detail. Some knowledge of mathematics, physics, and chemistry is helpful for understanding the use of various lenses, films, light sources, and development processes.

Some photographic specialties require additional qualities. Commercial or freelance photographers must be imaginative and original in their thinking. Those who specialize in photographing news stories must recognize a potentially good photograph and act quickly; otherwise, an opportunity to capture an important event on film may be lost. Writing ability sometimes is important for photojournalists, who may write captions and accompanying articles for their photographs. Portrait photographers need the ability to help people relax in the presence of the camera.

Newly hired workers are given relatively routine assignments that do not require split-second camera adjustments or decisions on what subject matter to photograph. News photographers, for example, may be assigned to cover events such as civic meetings or snowstorms. After gaining experience, they advance to more demanding assignments, and may move to larger newspapers or magazines. A few gain national recognition for their work and exhibit their photographs in art and photographic galleries, or publish them in books. Camera operators--like news photographers--advance in their profession as their work circulates and as they develop a reputation. The best known camera operators may become directors of photography on movies and TV programs. A few industrial of scientific photographers may be promoted to supervisory positions. Magazine and news photographers may eventually become heads of graphic arts departments or photography editors.

Job Outlook

Employment of photographers and camera operators is expected to as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2000. Many additional job openings will occur as workers transfer to other occupations or stop working.

Demand for photographers will be stimulated as career and industry place greater importance upon visual aids in meetings, stockholders reports, sales campaigns, and public relations work. career firms, for example, are expected to make greater use of photographs, videocassette, training films, and other visual aids in meetings, stockholders reports, sales campaigns, and public relations work. Photography is becoming increasingly important in scientific and medical research, where opportunities are expected to be good for those with appropriate technical skills. Employment in photo journalism is expect to grow slowly with keen competition expected for available positions. Slow growth is expected in portrait studios, about in line with the growth of the population.


Most experienced photographers and camera operators earned between $25,580 and $35,150 in 1990.

The median weekly contract wage for beginning photographers who worked for newspapers that have contracts with the Newspaper Guild was $400 ion 1990. The middle 50 percent of contracts fell between $380 and $472. The lowest 10 percent of contracts were for $296 or less. The top 10 percent of contracts were for $660 or more. The median weekly contract for photographers with some experience (usually 4 or 5 years) was about $660 in 1990. The middle 50 percent of contracts fell between $561 and $740. The lowest 10 percent of contracts were for $468 or less. The top 10 percent of contracts were for $855 or more.

Photographers in the Federal Government earned an average of $26,520 a year in 1990.

Some self-employed and freelance photographers earn more than salaried workers. Many self-employed photographers, however, earn very little from their photography work. Earnings of Free lancers are affected greatly by general career conditions and the type and size of their community and clientele. Related Occupations

Other workers who rely on their visual arts talents in their jobs include graphic and fine artists, floral designers, illustrators, industrial designers, painters, and sculptors.

Sources of Additional Information

Career information on photography is available from:

Professional Photographers of America, Inc., 1090 Executive Way, Des Plaines, IL 60018.

American Society of Magazine Photographers, 205 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10016.


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