Unpacking the Four Basic Categories of Photography: Creative, Retail, Personal and Editorial
June 11, 2013
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David A. Larsen, a photographer and journalist writing for the Shutha project, argues that identifying photographic genres is an incredibly difficult process. But, it is an essential one, as “having an overall understanding of the types or genres of photography is important for understanding where your own photography fits in the photographic world.”
He begins by breaking photography into four basic categories. Here, we’ve kept his categories and included subsets of those categories with descriptions.
Explore our detailed breakdown of photography:
Photographers working on creative assignments tend to focus on creating a fictional reality. This reality enables photographers to utilize lighting, poses, settings and retouching that adds elements of fantasy to their pictures. Larsen notes that a primary difference between creative photography and editorial photography is that, due to the emphasis on fiction and fantasy, creative work tends to have broader ethical parameters.
- Fashion: Photographs for a studio or catalogue. A very lucrative branch of photography because, as Kashmira Lad describes it, it is “one of the most effective ways of communication in the world of fashion.” Used to bring attention to clothing, accessories and evolving trends.
- Celebrity and Band: Specifically portraits of celebrities and bands for exposes or other articles. Common in newspapers, magazines and journals such as Rolling Stone.
- Commercial: Photographs of a product for advertising purposes. Also includes advertisements more generally. Lad advises photographers in advertising to focus on “creating the right environment to highlight the product.” The companies contracting the photographer typically define the concept in order to achieve a particular result. Ads are characterized by their eye-catching style.
- Food and Décor: Similar to commercial photography, this subcategory advertises food for grocery stories, producers or restaurants. Décor is also advertised this way for stores, merchants and other retailers.
- Fine Art: Includes still life, nude photography and other works. The photographer’s goal is to have their photograph resemble a work of art – as though they are practicing a more traditional art form, such as painting on a canvas. Lad describes them as “highly creative images that have an abstract appeal.”
- Erotic: Encompasses both glamour and pornographic photography. Photographers emphasize the human body, focusing on it as the primary subject.
- Propaganda: Similar to photojournalism, these photographs have a political message. Photographers may choose specific subjects, unusual poses or utilize symbolism to convey a message. Propaganda is more aggressive than typical political photography
Photographers in retail are often solicited by consumers. They are contracted to take photographs. Larsen defines the genre by its “focus on services to the end user.” The genre focuses on major events in life, typically graduations, weddings and other significant milestones.
Retail photography may be considered more mundane than the other genres; however, almost every human being purchases retail photography at some point in their life.
- Event: Includes specific functions such as sporting events, team photos, weddings, graduations, funerals and other cultural ceremonies indicating a rite of passage. Photographers may be required to know how to take high-quality action or candid shots, depending on the nature of the event.
- Portrait Studio: Includes photographers working for directories and passport services. Also includes photographers who own family portrait studies. Portrait photography is one of the oldest types of photography and knowing how to take a good portrait is one of the most useful skills in the industry.
Unlike the other genres, personal photography is not limited to professional photographers. Rather, it is characterized by photographs of personal memories, for private use, taken by unskilled individuals.
Nevertheless, this genre is the most widely used. Today, most families own a camera. If not, professional photographers can make money by providing the proper photographic equipment.
- Vernacular: Photographs from everyday life, often taken by family members on personal cameras.
- Found: Old personal photographs discovered by collectors. Victorian death portraits are an example of this subcategory.
- Travel: Photographs taken on trips or vacations of different landscapes. May be taken in the United States or abroad. Often characterized by exotic, historically significant or unusual landscapes.
The editorial genre aims to capture reality in an objective, non-fiction manner. Larsen distinguishes editorial by its tendency “to be governed by a far stricter code of photographic ethics, particularly in genres like photojournalism and scientific photography where a minimum of retouching would be allowed, and then is done primarily in the service of ensuring clarity for the scene.”
This code of ethics is important for photographers to abide by if they want their photographs to be received as valid and reliable depictions of events.
- Archival: Photographs preserved and cataloged for their historic value.
- Architectural: Photographs of public or private property with the intention of making the structures look attractive. May be used for retail. Lad says that these photographers must “be an expert in the technical as well as the visual department.” Can include panoramic techniques.
- Nature: Includes aerial, cloudscape, landscape, wildlife, wildlife portraits, underwater, seascape and plant photography. Very much sought after by media houses. Can be published in magazines such as National Geographic or Smithsonian.
- Sports: Includes action shots, sports portraits and adventure shots. Photographers often work as staff reporters or freelancers for newspapers; their photographs are featured on Sports pages or in magazines like Sports Illustrated.
- Scientific: Includes forensic, microscopic, telescopic, medical, fibreoptic, satellite, aerial and astrophotography. May also include macro and micro photography. Typically used for a scientific endeavor.
- Military: Photographers who are contracted by the government may be asked to use their skills to document events, complete spy work or manage satellite photography.
- Corporate: Includes industrial and corporate portraits. Photographers may be hired by individual companies or contracted on a more retail-oriented basis. May also include photographers working in public relations for commercial reasons.
- Celebrity: Unlike creative photography, editorial celebrity shots are taken at red carpet events or by paparazzi. Photographers in this subcategory attempt to show the celebrities in real time, rather than posed in studios.
- Fashion: Similar to the celebrity subcategory, this fashion category shows fashion as it is being presented – on the runway.
- Photojournalism: Though Lad classifies this subcategory with documentary, celebrity and sports photography, it can stand alone. Photojournalists attempt to tell a story about a particular event through a single photograph. Often, they work alongside a reporter whose story attempts to flesh out the photograph. Likewise, the photograph attempts to complement the article. Photojournalists must often be innovative as they attempt to capture the story on the camera. A motif in photojournalism is street photography.
- Documentary: The primary difference between a photojournalist and a documentary photographer is that a documentary photographer takes a series of photographs in an attempt to tell a story. These stories often revolve around any contemporary political or social issue.
As you continue studying photography, you may notice that there is much overlap between these four categories and their subcategories. The categories are flexible, but knowing what sets them apart is important as you begin to take photographs professionally. Use your coursework to explore as many genres as possible. At Brooks Institute, you may find your niche within the School of Photography.