I think you should find out about all the different ways to work in photography. For instance, I have an independent studio, and first and foremost this means I have to run a business. Some people like that, some don’t. But there are ways to be a photog on the staff of a company too, so if you don’t like business you can still have options.
My work is in the studio – which means we make (not take) pictures. We set things up, and use lights. Clients tell us specific things they need, and we try to solve their problems. It requires a lot of people skills and problem solving skills. We work with a lot of helpers: assistants, food stylists, art directors, prop and background people, digital retouchers.
Other careers in photography – a random list: fine-art photographer, selling pictures people would hang on their wall; portrait and/or wedding photog; newspaper photojournalist; sports photog; photog on staff of a big company, for example a hospital or manufacturing company; police (forensic) photographer; still photographer for the movie and TV business, etc etc. There are also careers in photography that are not actually taking pictures, but working with them — for example, I have a studio manager here who runs the business and answers client requests; also you could be a photoshop retoucher; or work in an archive and be a photo researcher; or work on a magazine and be a photo editor.
Sorry, I don’t mean to overwhelm you, but just get you thinking about all the different paths. Now, to be practical, I think you could try to contact some local businesses and ask politely if you could spend a day just observing, and shadowing, and be honest and tell them you’re considering a career and want to find out what’s involved. The worst that can happen is they might say no. But we do have this here, and I have people come to visit. Maybe you can tell them that this is for a high-school project that you are initiating. It’ll show them you are a go-getter and they should be impressed.
As far as cameras and equipment, I really don’t want to say much because as you probably know, it’s the photographer, not the equipment, that makes the picture. If you have something now that you use and like, stay with it. At least for now. But I think at some point it will be important to learn photoshop, and to learn the basic principles of lighting.
So — what to do? After you get the visits above, hopefully you will have a better idea of all the different options. Then, it might be time to start thinking about formal training. I believe (maybe I’m in the minority) that people need to have a broad liberal education, so they know about the world and not just about cameras and f-stops! You’ll be a better photog if you are well educated. Having said that, look for programs that have good photo departments. You probably have a little time before this if you are 16. But you COULD take a photoshop class at a local college or continuing ed school, and also you could take a class in photography – one that includes basic lighting and studio work. Also, there is a very good place in Santa Fe where they have excellent week-long resident workshops, mostly in the summer. But I’m sure there are places at home too.
OK – one last thing. (This might be the discouraging part) The photo schools turn out tons of young photogs every year, and they enter the market with big hopes and dreams, but they find out that the business is hard. We have a bad economy. We have lots of photogs chasing after not so many jobs. It is hard to get started in the business. You will have a lot of competition. So – don’t go into this unless it’s because you absolutely LOVE photography. It’s not glamorous, and it’s gonna be hard work. Unfortunately, I have many colleagues who are having to supplement their income with other jobs. I am in the minority in that we are doing well. So — just think about all this.
One other idea: look into the local chapter of ASMP (www.asmp.org) They have meetings. You will be on the young side, but it’ll be interesting.
I would be glad to talk some more, and if you come to Boston you can definitely visit!