What Kind Of Photographer Do I Want To Be? - A Discussion of Photographic Specialties
By Kimberle Balsman
Photography is a very rewarding field, no matter what specialization you choose. While some photographers decide to focus on just one specialty, others offer services in multiple photography disciplines. Before you dive headlong into the photography field, ask yourself “What kind of photographer do I want to be?” The answer may elude you at first. Even so, thorough exploration of the various photography specialties coupled with honest introspection will help you to wisely choose the area of photography that best matches your interests, abilities and goals for your future. The purpose of this article is to provide my readers a simple yet authentic glimpse into some of the more common photography disciplines, which I hope will aid aspiring photographers in the decision-making process.
Portraiture – Portraiture dominates the photography industry. The fact is that nearly any given geographic area can support a number of portrait photographers. Furthermore, a portrait photographer can choose from a variety of interesting and lucrative areas of concentration, including senior (refers to High School seniors), family, children, pets, maternity, bridal and business, just to name a few. Although building and maintaining a successful portrait photography business requires a rather significant investment in studio space, equipment and props, there are certainly more economical avenues for aspiring portrait photographers looking to get started in this exciting and rewarding field. Location portraiture is an excellent option for photographers seeking to enter the field with minimal start-up costs. There is little overhead, as you don’t have to rent studio space, pay utilities or invest in expensive backdrops and lighting. Of course, you will still need the appropriate cameras, lenses, portable lighting and, most importantly technical ability and experience (location portraiture can be tricky because you have more limited control of the lighting conditions). Portraiture is a demanding business. Clients understandably expect professionalism and quality. The images you produce must be near perfect with minimal graininess and noise (in the case of digital photography). Thus, use of a medium format camera is highly recommended. While a 35mm SLR is acceptable for many of the portrait specialties, it cannot compare with the image quality of a medium format camera. Most professional portrait photographers use strobes rather than continuous lighting. Strobes are, of course, more expensive and require more technical savvy, but are preferred primarily because they generate far less heat than continuous lighting set-ups. Fees for portrait photography services vary tremendously. The key is to become the best portrait photographer in your area, warranting higher fees for higher quality work. Above all, a portrait photographer MUST be a people person. Remember, your client is your boss. Portrait photography relies heavily on word-of-mouth and repeat business. Thus, you must be diplomatic and patient or you risk damaging your reputation and, therefore, your business.
Wedding – The wedding photographer, like the portrait photographer, must be skilled in working with people of all backgrounds and personalities, including clergymen of all faiths. This is, perhaps, even more important for wedding photographers since they are charged with the immense responsibility of preserving the memories of such a momentous occasion. You cannot ask the bride to re-cut the cake or walk down the aisle again so you can capture the image you missed. You must be nearly invisible so as not to disrupt the events of the day, lighting fast when capturing all the many wedding day shots, and deliver technically and creatively perfect images. Because a wedding is such an important, once-in-a-lifetime event, tension tends to run high. You must, therefore, be able to diffuse difficult situations and anticipate and resolve problems BEFORE they arise. The bride and groom expect nothing less than perfection and are, consequently, willing to pay quite a premium for an experienced photographer. Search the web and you will find that most wedding photographers charge an average of $2,500 to $3,000 for wedding day coverage. As with quality portraiture, wedding photography absolutely requires expert technical ability and investment in the right equipment. A medium format camera, while expensive and heavy, is the preferred camera of experienced wedding photographers due to its superior image quality. If you are just getting started in wedding photography, you may be able to get by with a more advanced 35mm camera. However, the intense image quality demands of the wedding photography field will, at some point, require an investment in a medium format camera. In fact, most professional wedding photographers carry no less than two camera bodies, several lenses (usually a wide-angle, portrait, and zoom lens, at a minimum) and either numerous rolls of film (of varying speeds) or multiple digital storage cards to enable the photographer to keep shooting with minimal down time. Investment in portable strobe units (usually a main and fill), portable battery packs and light reflector cards is essential, as the available light in a church or reception hall may not be sufficient to capture all the necessary details. Keep in mind, however, that some churches or synagogues may not allow you to use flash during the ceremony. In that event, you must be able to work with the available light. Unlike portrait photography, wedding photographers do not have to rent studio space or purchase backdrops or props.
Fashion – There are essentially two requirements for success in the world of fashion photography. First, you MUST love high fashion and have first-hand knowledge of changing and emerging trends. Genuine passion for high-end clothing, jewelry and accessories is critical. You cannot hope to capture the true essence of a designer’s ensemble if you haven’t a clue about the fabrics, styles and materials used to create the ensemble. Fashion photography has but one purpose – to make people want to buy the outfits and accessories featured in your photographs. Second, you absolutely must be able to work with models, fashion editors and advertising executives with brash and demanding personalities. There is no room for the timid in this industry. Fashion photographers are among the highest paid photography professionals. That’s the good news. The bad news is that competition for these jobs is brutal. If you are lucky enough to gain a foothold into the fashion photography field, your equipment expenditure should be modest. Usually, one or two strobes, high-key white backdrops and some well-planned props are all that’s needed to get started. Of course, you will need a modest amount of studio space, including dressing and make-up areas for the models you photograph. In any competitive field, success follows those who exercise persistence and stay true to their passion. Fashion photography is no different.
Architecture – Generally speaking, photographers who specialize in architecture focus entirely on this discipline, which is largely due to intense, personal interest in architecture. Architectural photography requires precision and at least a moderate understanding of the principles and styles of architectural design. Engineers, architects and design firms employ photographers not to simply take photos of buildings. Rather, they want the photographer to understand and appreciate all the nuances of a particular structure and record technically perfect images that are, above all, faithful to those nuances. Contrary to popular belief, architects and design engineers are first artists who take a great deal of pride in their creations. Because of the size and scale of the structures they photograph, architectural photographers nearly always use large format view cameras and generally always work with available light, although some may use fill lighting to resolve lighting issues. View cameras are not inexpensive. Therefore, be sure you are truly dedicated to the art of architectural photography before investing in the necessary equipment.
Photojournalism – Photojournalists work for newspapers, magazines and even wire services like the Associated Press. Most news agencies, as well as specialty magazines, employ a small staff of photographers and also rely heavily on freelancers (also known as stringers) for coverage of spot news (current, hot news) as well as feature and photo stories. Photojournalists tell stories with their photos. They pull at our heartstrings and make us think about topics and events outside our small universe. While competition for work as a staff news photographer is fierce, there are always newsworthy events occurring in every community all around the globe every day. Community events, such as school activities or sporting events, as well as breaking local news are great opportunities for aspiring photojournalists to demonstrate their abilities to local and regional news organizations. Who knows, if you’re good, you may be called upon in the future to cover other events for your local newspaper. Or, you may elect to focus on creating photo stories illuminating the human condition or exposing issues of great importance to you. In any event, there is never a shortage of stories to tell. You need only be in the right place at the right time to capture them.
Stock – Stock photography is, essentially, a collection of many thousands of images catalogued for efficient retrieval by advertising agencies, magazines, newspapers and numerous other organizations that regularly rely on them for production of their specific publications. Although most publication companies have staff photographers, they simply cannot supply all the required images for daily, weekly or monthly production. Open any magazine, and you will be bombarded with stock images. So, where do all these images come from? They could come from you. Stock photographers of today nearly always use digital technology. These images can be anything from photos of fruit and other food items to photos of children playing in a schoolyard. They are usually generic, in that they seldom focus on labels or brand recognition. Those images are ordinarily produced by highly paid advertising photographers hired by marketing or ad agencies for very specific, well-planned ad campaigns. Nevertheless, there is great demand for high-quality stock images. Fortunately, very little equipment expenditure is required to produce quality stock images. Of course, the primary tools are a high-resolution digital camera and various premium lenses (usually a zoom lens, a macro lens for 1:1 ratio images, and a standard portrait lens are sufficient). A still-life studio table (sometimes referred to as a tabletop studio) is highly recommended, though not an absolute necessity. These tables range in price from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. They afford photographers the best overall surface to work on and endless lighting options for producing creative and detailed images. Ever wonder how the wine glasses in some ads appear to float in mid air? The photographer more than likely used a light table to produce the effect. If you don’t want to rush out and invest in one, don’t worry. The Internet is an excellent resource for ideas and even plans for building your own tabletop digital studio. Finally, a few strobes or simple photofloods with reflectors round out the required equipment to get started. The key to success in stock photography is to produce thousands of quality, sought after images. It may take several months or even a few years to generate income from your images. Be patient. If you produce quality work, your images will begin to work for you.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive discussion on all the many specializations within the photography field. There are other disciplines that are certainly worthy of consideration (i.e. astrophotography, macro and miniature, advertising and reproduction photography). I hope this article has at least inspired some curiosity and, perhaps, helped to point readers toward specializations they may not have previously considered.
© Balsman Photography, LLC
Kim Balsman is the chief photographer and owner of Balsman Photography, LLC, a small, professional photography studio in Longmont, Colorado.
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