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The precise boundaries separating industrial, commercial and advertising photography are often clear but can also be obscure. Some images fit within more than one category, and indeed may be used for distinctly different purposes. Nevertheless, in broad term, industrial photography can be divided in to two categories or work. These are focused on the practical elements of industrial processes, principally illustrating the materials, tools and methods used, and people working in industrial environments.

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Images of the practical aspects of industrial endeavour are typically created for specialized or internal purposes and are consequently of little interest to a wider audience. In general, the subjects are technical, often sequential, and designed to document the stages of a manufacturing process, details of products, and the layout of equipment. They show details of highly-sophisticated machinery, materials and processes in a way that informs a particular audience, and are consequently of little interest to people not involved in the particular field of work. They are not normally intended for general publication, and the content may be of a proprietary nature, although some commercially less-sensitive images in this category do occasionally appear in company reports and other similar documentation.

The other category of industrial photography, which shows people in their working environment, is more visible to the general public. The images tend to be more aesthetically pleasing, and typically portray aspects of working environments, training, work units, and the overall culture of companies and organizations. Their purpose may be administrative, or perhaps associated with industrial or public relations . The photography work may be undertaken by external professionals, in-house photographic departments or other employees.

In addition to serving immediate company or organizational need, photographs in either category eventually form a valuable archive which reveals the history and evolution not only of organizations and their products, processes, employees and cultures, but also of the evolution of photography itself.

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