Whether you want to be making families happy with professional shots of little Jimmy’s birthday party or would prefer to be stalking the streets of Kabul embedded with the troops, getting a leg up on the ladder comes down to your skill. The industry is flooded with professional and amateur photographers and there’s not always enough work to go around. You’ll need to be good with people, good with a camera and have an intimate knowledge of Photoshop and other editing software.
It's a good idea to be taking photos for local groups or businesses even while you're at university and you should maintain a blog or an online portfolio of your work to show employers and attract freelance work.
Entry route one: second shooter
For weddings and parties it is common practice for a photographer to hire a second shooter. Depending on the scale of the event and money involved, the second shooter can be anything from an assistant/student, to another equally experienced professional. Work typically involves anything from carrying equipment to the more nominal role of taking extra shots. You will need to be good at reading people and know how to work your way around a crowd without being obtrusive and be able to manage people. You’ll also need a good eye for composition and an ability to predict where and when the perfect shot is approaching.
Working as a second is a great way to build up a portfolio, learn from someone more experienced and get to grips with equipment that you may not be able to afford yet. If you are taking photos, you should be paid for the work, albeit perhaps not much. Check the going rate for your level of experience before beginning to work. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and professional photography magazines are good places to look for current fees by level.
Entry route two: the press
There are few publications that keep a lot of photographers in-house, but if you’ve already got a respectable or high-calibre portfolio you could consider applying to newspapers, magazines or websites. For anything current affairs related you’re liable to spend the day running around at the direction of editors and reporters adapting to changes in lighting and movement on the fly. For more specialist publications, you may be in charge of photographing various events, taking care of studio shoots, managing stock photo libraries or working as a picture researcher. If this role appeals to you, it’s best to start early, submitting work as a student or on a freelance basis to get your name known.
Entry route three: freelance
Freelancing can be rewarding if you’re capable of obsessively micro-managing your own time and know how to pitch to potential employers. However, unless you’re really established, don’t rely on it to pay the bills. Everything from gig-photography to advertisements, stock photos and magazine shoots are on the cards as a freelancer, but you’ll need to build up experience and have your own kit if you want to do a professional job and get more work later on. Everyone is a potential target, so if you’re having trouble selling prints or getting an exhibition in a small art gallery, scope out the local cafes and see what they would say to displaying your pictures or selling them on for a small sum. Most people will start out with requests from friends to take portraits or groups shots for a fee before moving up or will submit photos to stock photo sites (such as Alamy.com). Stock photo sites vary in quality, some pay a respectable percentage of sale and royalties, while others will pay pennies and offer your images royalty free.
Entry route four: (assistant) picture researcher
This route is more likely to feature in graduate recruitment ads and online, as the types of companies that look for it tend to be more established. This is a job for photographers without taking photos. You’ll still need the eye for composition and lighting that comes with photography, but will spend more time assessing, commissioning and documenting the photos that are used in publishing or online. At entry level you’re more likely to be taken on as an assistant, but employers can range from big online news sources such as the BBC and Mail Online to publishing houses and glossy gossip magazines.