There are currently approximately 73,000 photographic process workers and processing machine operators working in the United States. Job growth projections over the next decade indicate that this is a rapidly declining industry. This is due in large part to the rapid growth of technology. Photographic home printers, high quality printing paper, sophisticated photo manipulation software that is inexpensive and easy to use, self-service printing machines, and inexpensive online services are taking a very large bite out of the digital printing industry. However, printers who create marketing materials, brochures, magazines, newspapers, signs, family portraits, and many other photographic images will still have need of photography professionals who can set up, maintain, operate, and repair complex photographic machinery.
Prints are created from film or digital images by photographic processing machine operators who employ a variety of machines. Digital files are transformed into photographic prints using computer software compatible machinery. In addition to simply creating black and white or color prints, photographic process workers are responsible for a number of subtle tasks that can take considerable time and training to learn. One such type of work is retouching old photographs that have been damaged by sunlight, water, chemical spills, or tearing. Sometimes the print itself is retouched; however, the photographic negative can also be retouched in order to create multiple corrected prints rather than just a single retouched copy.
Airbrush artists are another type of specialized photographic process worker. Airbrush artists repair damaged or faded photographs, replacing lost or distorted color, shadows, and other visual elements to create visual likenesses so accurately drawn they appear to be photographic. This specialized work is done with an airbrush and requires strong artistic sensibility to be done successfully. Photographic retouchers are another category of specialists. Photographic retouchers work with photographic negatives or prints to emphasize or accentuate something in the picture to make it appear stronger. Colorists are specialists with a strong, subtle sense of color who add oil-based tint to black and white portraits or other pictures in order to create an appearance that is lifelike. Photographic spotters specialize is eliminating defects, marks, or other imperfections on photographic prints.
Photographic process workers and processing machine operators are typically given clean, well lit, climate controlled, and appropriately ventilated workspaces. Some work in offices, others in photofinishing laboratories, and some in one-hour minilabs. Few photographic process workers and process machine operators work in darkrooms; most developing and printing is currently done using specialized computer software. Because the work requires good eyesight, a strong sense of color, and very careful attention to visual detail, photographic process workers and processing machine operators face eye strain and headache. In some cases, exposure to chemical fumes can result in nausea or headache. Workers who are around such chemicals should wear protective gloves and aprons. Photographic processing machines work at a very rapid pace. This can be stressful for operators who must be accurate and fast with repetitive work. In general, however, workers who follow standard safety procedures will minimize risks.
This type of work largely depends upon on the job training. A diligent worker can learn all the necessary basic skills in a matter of months. However, those interested in far more sophisticated applications involving software manipulation, film manipulation, composites, and other art applications will find classes at a technical school, community college or university immensely satisfying. Employees hoping to advance may find work as a supervisor or floor manager. Knowledge of equipment and specialized software could also open opportunities in sales.
The median annual salary for photographic process workers is approximately $27,000. Those who are photographic processing machine operators receive a median salary of about $21,000.