Professional Photographer: Job Description, Career Options & Requirements

Professional photography requires little formal education. Learn about the training, job duties and requirements to see if this is the right career for you.

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Being a photographer requires more than knowing how to operate a camera. It includes an understanding of art and the subject, as well as how to alter and finish a photograph using photo processing and developing software. No technical education is required, but it is recommended in order for a photographer to be successful in the field.

Essential Information

Professional photographers are paid to take photographs of all manners of subjects. They should know how to operate a camera and related equipment to produce unique images that meet a variety of needs. Although photography degree programs are available, most photographers learn by doing. Many work independently, but staff positions are usually available in media organizations.

Required Education High school diploma or the equivalent; postsecondary training is recommended
Projected Job Growth 3% from 2014 to 2024*
Median Salary (2015) $31,710 annually*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Job Description

Professional photographers combine technical proficiency with artistry to create images of people, animals, events and objects. Like most artists, they attempt to portray feelings, thoughts and other information without the use of words. Their basic equipment includes a camera, one or more lenses and illumination devices, which they use to record the elements of light and composition in unique and creative ways.

A photographer's job encompasses more than just snapping a shutter; in fact, this often accounts for the least amount of time of the many duties in this line of work. Photographers are often also responsible for scheduling and setting up shoots, traveling to their subjects, maintaining equipment, record-keeping and image processing. Digital photographers will likely spend the most substantial amount of time on this last task, working with computer photo-editing software to prepare their final images. Those who choose to use film have the added step of deciding whether to develop the film themselves or to send it out.

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Career Options

Professionals in this field are known by what they are paid to photograph most often. Popular subjects include weddings, fashion, commercial products, architecture, scientific research and sports. Photojournalism, fine art photography and advertising photography are some of the broader specializations in this field.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (, the number of self-employed photographers is expected to increase 9% from 2014-2024. Depending on their specialty, they may own a studio or take on contract work for publishers, news organizations, stock photo groups or advertising agencies. These types of businesses often employ full-time, in-house photographers as well.

The field of photography has gone primarily digital in recent years, which has significantly influenced a photographer's career options. It has allowed for greater ease in marketing and disseminating images; however, competition for jobs is stiffer as a result.

Educational Requirements

There are no formal educational requirements for professional photographers; however, many employers prefer to hire college graduates with training in photography and other areas like business and communications. These skills prove useful for photographers who are business owners as well. Bachelor's and associate degrees in photography are offered through many colleges and universities and are often coupled with degrees in art. Many would-be photographers choose to take independent classes to further their knowledge in a particular area, like black and white photography.

With or without a degree, many photographers start out professionally as photographers' assistants and gain experience through on-the-job training. Concurrently, they work on developing a portfolio of their best photographs, which often acts as their resume. For freelance photographers especially, an outstanding portfolio can be more important than a degree.

It is getting more challenging for photographers to find salaried employment, but for those who have established a portfolio of work and a reputation in their subject of choice, freelance and contract work is available. Education beyond high school is not required but may help the aspiring photographer advance in their field. Work can be found in news and press agencies, weddings and events, and advertising agencies.

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