Considering Genres of Professional Photography, Part II

Read Considering Genres of Professional Photography, Part I.

Whether it’s a part-time hobby or profession, photography offers something for everyone. And what may initially interest someone about the field may segue to something else—you  never know, taking family photos may evolve into a career shooting fashion or glamour photography.

I got my first camera when I was 13 years old. I spent afternoons shooting old barns and buildings near my home in Syracuse, New York. After college I taught high school at a small Ozark town in Missouri and shot portraits and weddings to generate extra income. Many years later I studied large format black and white landscape photography with Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park. Soon after, I was in Atlanta, Georgia, shooting professional dance photography. Twenty years ago I moved to Montana and started shooting documentary photography and people. Today, if someone asks which area is my favorite, I say “it depends on the day”—and I’m telling the truth! I love so many areas of photography and am constantly learning new skills and specialties.

What follows is a continuation of last month’s newsletter discussing different areas of professional photography.

Stage Photography. OK, yes, if I had to name one, this might be my favorite. Among other venues, stage photography involves shooting dances, concerts and plays. Getting a foot in the door is relatively easy, as is building a portfolio that can eventually lead to bigger and more prestigious clientele. Like most specialties, there is a learning curve—though here it isn’t very steep, and the equipment needed is fairly inexpensive. The subject matter is often exciting, making stage photography a fun way to generate extra income. I started shooting concerts and plays before branching into dance, which eventually became my favorite. In fact, I recently traveled around Montana with the Moscow Ballet shooting their performance of The Nutcracker.

Photojournalism. Due to the increased use of video, photojournalism is a rapidly evolving field that requires up-to-date training. It is also very competitive. Equipment is expensive, and may require the best bodies and lenses on the market. But for those who like action and adventure, few fields compare. Assignments can range from local events for small-town newspapers to overseas stories like the Haiti earthquake for international dailies.

Sports Photography. Making it big as a sports photographer requires extensive training and experience and, eventually, the skills to set you apart from other talent in the field. Still, there’s no shame in small beginnings. One way to start building a portfolio is to shoot local high school teams or head to a nearby ski slope or skating rink. Eventually, you’ll need a good DSLR and a long, fast zoom, so equipment gets pricey—especially if you’re aiming to be the next Peter Read Miller, a Sports Illustrated photographer who shoots with six to eight professional bodies simultaneously (operated by wireless remote). Peter is one of many experts who travels to Missoula each summer to work with our Summer Intensive students.

Team Sports Photography. Kids love playing sports. And perhaps just as much, parents love having photos of their children in action or posing with their soccer ball or hockey stick. This may not be the most exciting subject, but it often pays well. Expensive equipment is not necessary, but a good general training in photography is. Demand is relatively stable, as even the smallest teams want their pictures taken.

Fashion Photography. In large cities, this can be a high-paying field. Competition is tough, equipment is expensive and training is rigorous; skills must include business and marketing, as well as the ability to shoot under a wide range of conditions. Many people begin by assisting established fashion photographers.

Related to fashion photography is glamour photography. Many of the same techniques are used, but one doesn’t necessarily need to live in a large city, as demand exists everywhere. Products range from family photos to portraits and head shots, and this specialty typically requires less training and experience than fashion photography.

Event Photography. Events, rallies, recitals, parties, etc. occur everywhere, and therefore specializing in event photography doesn’t require that one move to a big city to succeed. Extensive training or equipment is not a necessity, either, though one should have a good general education in photography. People skills as well as business and marketing skills should be sharp. Making a full-time income shooting events may take time, but supplementing one’s income can be done fairly quickly.

The following types of photography are not actual fields, but rather encompass any or all of the above expertise. Still, they are distinct categories that deserve separate mention.

Stock Photography. Many professional photographers supplement their incomes by selling photos to stock agencies, though one seldom makes their entire income doing this. Essentially, photographers shoot what and where they desire and send their favorites to an agency, which is then responsible for selling photos to their clients. The agency usually retains half the profits generated. Stock photos are most often used in books, magazines, calendars, websites, etc. And despite naysayers, one of our teachers made six digits from selling stock photos last year alone! Additionally, a 22-year-old RMSP assistant who started with a stock agency soon after graduating from our Summer Intensive program four years ago made $23,000 in 2009 from selling stock. (Visit Forest Woodward Photography to see his work.)

Fine Art Photography. People define this general category of photography in various ways. I consider fine art photography as those images taken for pleasure that capture a photographer’s unique style and vision. Almost any kind of equipment can be used, including a Holga (a plastic camera that costs $20). Photographers typically shoot fine art photos for personal projects or to supplement their regular income. Making a full-time living takes time and requires business and marketing know-how. Because you can shoot what you love, this field is highly attractive and competitive.

Teaching. There are few things in life I enjoy more than stepping in front of a class and watching students’ faces light up when they learn something new. Teaching is a wonderful way to express oneself—as well as a great complement to shooting.

While I tried to touch on the more common areas of photography in this and last month’s newsletters, many other specialties exist, such as editorial, aerial, underwater, and medical –  to name just a few.

Nearly all the areas mentioned have one thing in common: the need for a solid general education in photography. And if you do decide to pursue such training, I advise researching programs thoroughly. Call and talk to an actual person about the place, visit if you can, and consider chatting with past students and/or instructors. Get a feel for their mission, their strengths, and the experts they draw. There are many great schools out there, but there are also many not-so-great schools—so be sure you know which one you are signing up for! And while there are several variables to consider, the following should be high on your list of requirements: 1) a wide range of teachers from varied backgrounds; 2) frequent and constructive critiques; 3) a business and marketing education; 4) a balance of technical teaching and cultivation of personal vision.

Remember, though, your starting point need not be your ending point. In fact, where you begin your training and/or career in photography is rarely where you end it. At the end of our 11-week Summer Intensive program I always ask students if their intended focus changed from day one. Consistently more than 60 percent say “yes.” Learning from 19 different teachers in 11 weeks expands their perceptions and expectations of the field so much that one door merely leads to another … and another … and another…. My hope is the same with this article—to open readers’ minds even the slightest to the dynamic opportunities and possibilities within the vast field of photography.

2 thoughts on “Considering Genres of Professional Photography, Part II

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