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How to Be a Photographer: Career Roadmap

Research the requirements to become a photographer. Learn about the job description and duties and read the step-by-step process to start a career in photography.

Should I Become a Photographer?

Photographers produce images using cameras. The profession requires strong technical understanding and creativity. Some photographers use digital cameras and edit photos on a computer, but many continue to shoot film and develop photos in a lab or darkroom. Portrait, commercial, industrial, scientific, news or fine arts photography are just a few of the areas in which a photographer can specialize. Travel might be required, and freelance jobs may be quite competitive.

Career Requirements

Education None required, though many photographers pursue a bachelor's degree to learn the craft and increase chances of employment
Degree Field Photography or a field related to a photographer's area of employment
Experience None needed to enter the profession; photographers can develop their portfolios with experience, which can improve job prospects
Key Skills Artistic ability, business skills, customer service skills, attention to detail, interpersonal skills; photo-editing software, such as Adobe Photoshop; expertise with traditional and digital cameras, as well as tripods, flash attachments and filters
Salary (2014) $30,490 annually (median salary for all photographers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET OnLine

Step 1: Earn a Bachelor's Degree

Though a formal education may not be required, some photographers, particularly photojournalists and industrial and scientific photographers, need to complete bachelor's degree programs in photography. For those whose interests lean more toward art photography, technical proficiency and artistic ability are usually all that is required; however, many art and liberal arts colleges and universities offer courses in photographic design and composition. Aspiring photographers may want to consider completing a photography program in order to learn the necessary technical skills. These programs typically take 4 years to complete.

Success Tips:

  • Develop a portfolio. A portfolio showcasing a selection of work is a necessary marketing tool for any aspiring photographer. Students in photography programs should use their best and most impressive work to start creating a professional portfolio.
  • Complete an internship to gain practical experience. Some schools offer internship opportunities for students in photography programs; interns may work for newspapers, museums or galleries. These experiences typically take place in the last semester of school and may require a portfolio presentation or submission of work in a public viewing, such as through a student gallery.
  • Build technical skills. Given the widespread use of digital cameras, photographers need to know how to manipulate images using technical software. Most photography programs teach students how to use photo-editing software such as Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator.
  • Take advantage of school facilities to practice photography skills. Galleries, darkrooms and digital laboratories are some of the facilities often available to students completing a bachelor's degree program in photography. While the options vary by school, most are equipped with PC and MAC computer labs containing scanners, printers and editing decks as well as professional photography studios with lighting and props.

Step 2: Gain Work Experience

A photographer can begin his or her career by working as an assistant to an experienced photographer. Under such tutelage, a beginner develops technical skills and learns how to run a photography business. Assistants might also acquire exposure to potential clients. Another way new photographers can gain experience is simply by advertising their skills and taking on freelance projects.

Success Tips:

  • Network with other professionals. A photographer just starting out may want to pursue opportunities to meet and make connections with others in the profession. Joining camera clubs and working part-time at a camera store, newspaper or photo lab are ways to get involved in the photography field, gain experience and interact with other professionals.
  • Consider additional education. Because many photographers work independently or run their own businesses, strong business skills can mean the difference between success and failure. Business classes can help freelance photographers learn how to prepare a business plan, bid for jobs and keep financial accounting. Due to technological advancements within the field, photographers can take classes throughout their careers in order to stay abreast of the latest programs and photo editing techniques.

Step 3: Advance in the Field

According to the BLS, most companies choose to hire freelance photographers to do contractual work instead of maintaining a salaried photography staff. Because of this, it is important for photographers to maintain an impressive portfolio of work. The more experience a photographer has, the greater the chance of moving up the ladder and obtaining opportunities to work for more prominent and well-known companies, especially in the fashion and nature spheres. Some seasoned photographers open their own photography studios where they can hire a team of photographers to guide and oversee or rent out studio space.

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