Unpacking the Four Basic Categories of Photography: Creative, Retail, Personal and Editorial

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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