While some may think pursuing a career in photography is an easy task, there are a few things to know before you purchase your first professional camera or submit your photos for publication. In this guide to becoming a photographer, you’ll find information on everything that’s fundamental to getting your professional photography career off the ground, including what exactly a photographer does and discovering the kinds of jobs that are out there.
Fundamental photography skills that you should develop to pursue this career include:
- A keen eye for visual details, such as how lighting, color, and composition affect images
- An artistic point of view and a strong visual imagination
- Communication and interpersonal skills, particularly when it comes to client relations and customer service
- Business skills and an entrepreneurial attitude
- A mastery of camera components, e.g., apertures, shutter speeds, frame rates, and film speed
- A familiarity with digital editing, touch-up software, and graphic design
The essential piece of still photography equipment is a camera; you can hardly call yourself a photographer without one. More advanced professionals also use multiple lenses, lens filters, and lighting equipment. If photo editing and manipulation are part of the job, you'll also need digital software and computer hardware.
If you're looking to make a career of it, the basic list of professional photography equipment comes down to:
- Memory card
- Editing software
- External hard drive
- Lens filters
- Color checker
- Camera bag
- Camera cleaning kit
- Camera strap
Photographers capture still images of subjects in high-quality photographs using their technical expertise and composition skills. Creativity plays a large role in professional photography, as the finer technical details—such as framing and editing—can have a tremendous impact on the resulting images.
The majority of still photographers work as freelancers. That means they’re self-employed and are hired by clients who are either seeking a one-off session or regular photography services. Who those clients are and what kinds of images they’re looking for depends on the genre a photographer specializes in. Many photographers work in or are adjacent to the entertainment industry; on-set photographers, for example, capture still images alongside a film’s moving images.
However, full-time or part-time salaried photographer positions do exist at publications, media organizations, and companies that provide photographic services (think Getty Images or Shutterstock). Job titles at such companies can range from art director to graphic designer, but all essentially fall under the umbrella of professional image-crafting.
Conceptualizing, arranging, and executing photo shoots—particularly for portrait or commercial photography—constitutes the bulk of a professional image-taker’s work. This calls for efficient, frequent communication about shoot details with all parties involved, including clients, venue operators, models or talent, and assistants.
However, the process is not as simple as pointing a camera at a subject, sending files to your client, and getting paid. Most photographers these days, especially those who are piecing together careers as freelancers, have digital image-editing experience. After a photo shoot, professional photographers continue to adjust their images using software like Adobe Photoshop to enhance their work to better serve clients’ needs. Lastly, publicizing that work benefits both client and photographer; an image credited to a photographer is theirs to showcase in portfolios, which can lead to more work.
From companies using photography for advertising to individuals looking for portraits of themselves that are more legitimate than a selfie, there are many options for photographers when it comes to jobs. The industry is also seen through many different lenses (no pun intended); very few professionals work in multiple genres and styles. Instead, many photographers specialize in fields and sub-industries that require specific kinds of images. These are the most popular types of jobs and projects:
- Headshot and portrait photography: This is an area that’s especially geared toward freelancers. Professionals of all kinds need to represent themselves with basic, high-quality images. Headshot photographers often specialize in particular areas. In the arts industry, be mindful of the differences between types of media (commercial versus theatrical headshots, for example) and types of professions (acting and modeling have different headshot standards).
- On-set photography: Film and television sets don’t just need videographers and cinematographers; most film crews also employ still photographers whose job is to capture behind-the-scenes images. Sometimes candid, sometimes staged to recreate the footage the camera is capturing, unit photography can be turned into promotional materials for both scripted and unscripted projects.
- Commercial photography: Advertising, editorial, and stock photography are popular in print materials like magazines and digital publications. Without commercial photography, the media industry would rely only on words and illustrations.
- Specialized photography: Food, fashion, retail, real estate and architecture, landscape or aerial shots: all require specific skills, viewpoints, and equipment. These images can end up in commercial or news publications.
- Live event photography: This can include one-off occasions like weddings—which is an entire industry in its own right—as well as sports, red carpet shoots for galas and awards ceremonies, and corporate events. This is an area of photography that requires you to think on your feet and have a precise eye. The life of an event photographer is, well, an eventful one.
- Photojournalism: This documentary form of journalism centers on recording events that are relevant to local or international stories. News photographers are the most active of all of these specialists, sometimes traveling the world to chase and capture newsworthy stories.
- Fine art photography: These photographers identify first and foremost as artists. Their work, usually painstakingly composed and crafted, is meant for art galleries and public consumption.
Pro Tip: Since filmmaking comprises a collection of still images, film photography encompasses many of the same elements as still photography. Those who capture moving images as a director of photography or cinematographer typically have experience composing still images.
ZipRecruiter estimates that the national average salary for photographers is $75,223 per year, with a high of $401,500 and a low of $11,000; while those working on an hourly basis make an average of $36 per hour. Remember that most photographers work on a freelance basis, so per-hour or per-gig rates may apply and will vary widely.
How does one go from being an amateur photographer to a professional one? In no particular order, here are the steps to take:
- Keep brushing up on your photography skills. Many professional photographers have studied the art form at the college level, earning degrees in fine art or photojournalism. But photography is a widely practiced pastime, so classes and workshops in photography can jump-start your knowledge of basic skill sets and connect you with like-minded artists. Educational opportunities are generally only a click away; type “photography class” into a search engine and sift through the results to find the best fit for you.
- Study the career paths of photographers you admire. As with any artistic endeavor, an essential way to understand your tastes and ambitions is to assess the work of those who are doing what you’d like to do. What photographic points of view do you gravitate toward, and why?
- Browse and apply to gigs on job sites. From general job posting resources like Indeed and Staff Me Up to more specific ones, such as Backstage, Mandy, ProductionHUB, and USA Production News, there’s a high demand for photographers. Persistence and consistency are key to maximizing your odds of booking gigs; bookmark job databases in your browser and schedule regular times to check them out.
- Build your portfolio and keep updating it. In the digital age, a personal website is great for displaying professional work. Social media can also be a powerful tool; many photographers rely heavily on Instagram, for example, to showcase their work.
- Network. Continue to grow your network of professional connections, which includes potential clients. It’s essential to maintain productive relationships, including with fellow photographers; you can find like-minded artists and pros online thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit, and other social media platforms.