Home / Career Guides / Optical Imaging Engineer

Optical Imaging Engineer Career Guide

What is an optical imaging engineer?

An optical imaging engineer is a specialist who applies principles of optics and imaging science to design and optimize optical systems and devices. They work at the intersection of physics, engineering, and health sciences and play a crucial role in the healthcare, telecommunications, manufacturing, and defense sectors.

Their value lies in their ability to develop innovative solutions that utilize light properties to examine, measure, and manipulate objects. They create equipment and systems that improve our ability to visualize microscopic entities, analyze materials, and transmit data. As such, their work significantly contributes to scientific research, quality control, data infrastructure, and medical diagnosis and treatment.

Duties and responsibilities

The duties and responsibilities of an optical imaging engineer largely involve the design, testing, and improvement of optical systems and devices. They work with software to create and analyze optical designs, considering elements like lens design, beam propagation, and system performance. They’re also involved in creating prototypes, testing them to ensure they meet the desired specifications, and making necessary adjustments based on these tests.

They are responsible for troubleshooting optical systems and offering solutions to any identified problems. They often collaborate with multidisciplinary teams of engineers and scientists, sharing their specialized knowledge and contributing to the development of complex projects. Also, they might oversee the manufacturing process to ensure that optical components are produced accurately and meet quality standards.

Work environment

Optical imaging engineers primarily work in laboratory or manufacturing settings. They interact with various high-tech equipment, including lasers, microscopes, and imaging devices, and use specialized software for design and analysis. Safety is an important aspect of their work environment, given the potential hazards associated with handling optical devices, so adhering to safety regulations and using protective gear is crucial.

The work often requires collaboration with other professionals, including other engineers, scientists, and technicians. Given the complex nature of their work, they often need to effectively communicate technical information to non-specialists. This job can be demanding, requiring a high level of precision and analytical thinking, but it is also intellectually stimulating and offers the satisfaction of contributing to technological advancements.

Typical work hours

Optical imaging engineers typically work a standard 40-hour week, which can vary depending on project demands and deadlines. Longer hours may be necessary when addressing technical issues or meeting project deadlines. The nature of their work is project-based, and project timelines often dictate the pace and intensity of their work. Despite these potential variations, the role does not generally require shift or weekend work, and most engineers maintain regular daytime hours.

How to become an optical imaging engineer

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming an optical imaging engineer, emphasizing the educational, technical, and soft skills required for this role.

Step 1: Complete high school education

Completing high school, particularly with a strong focus on mathematics and science, is an important starting point for aspiring engineers. Physics, chemistry, advanced math, and computer-related courses offer a strong foundation in problem-solving and analytical thinking, which is critical for this field.

Step 2: Obtain a bachelor’s degree in engineering

A bachelor’s degree in engineering, optics, electrical engineering, or a related field is the next step. Fundamental coursework often includes calculus, physics, materials science, and computer programming. Elective coursework related to optical engineering, such as laser systems and applications, optical system design, and nanophotonics, can be a plus.

Step 3: Complete an internship or work placement

Before graduating, gain real-world experience through an internship, cooperative education program, or work-study opportunity related to optical engineering. This step provides an invaluable hands-on experience and a chance to apply classroom knowledge in practical settings, building valuable industry connections in the process.

Step 4: Graduate with a master’s degree (optional)

While not always necessary, obtaining a master’s degree in optical engineering or a related field can further distinguish individuals in this field. Specialized study in optical imaging, such as biomedical optics, quantum optics, or photonic device engineering, can provide better job opportunities.

Step 5: Work experience

After completing formal education, gaining work experience is critical. Many choose to work in industries like telecommunications, healthcare, defense, or manufacturing, applying optical engineering principles to design and enhance products. This experience is crucial for career advancement.

Step 6: Keep up with ongoing learning and development

Optical engineering is a rapidly evolving field with new technologies and methodologies developing quickly. Continuing education through webinars, workshops, conferences, and courses helps these specialists stay at the forefront of technology and remain competitive in the job market.

How much do optical imaging engineers make?

Optical imaging engineer salaries will vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Specifically for this profession, the depth of knowledge in specialized areas like biomedical applications, laser systems, and image processing software can significantly influence their salary.

Highest paying industries

  • Semiconductor and Other Electronic Component Manufacturing – $117,540
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $113,600
  • Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing – $111,900
  • Software Publishers – $110,640
  • Medical Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing – $108,450

Highest paying states

  • California – $123,590
  • Washington – $120,300
  • New Jersey – $118,950
  • Massachusetts – $117,760
  • Texas – $113,700

Browse optical imaging engineer salary data by market

Types of optical imaging engineers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for optical imaging engineers. This section outlines the potential career paths and specializations available in the field.

Research and development engineer

Serving at the forefront of technology, these professionals facilitate groundbreaking advances in optical imaging. They often work in high-tech industries and laboratories, applying principles of optics and imaging to solve complex problems. This specialization includes designing and testing optical systems, solving technical issues, and creating innovative solutions for imaging devices.

Biomedical imaging engineer

Working at the intersection of technology and healthcare, these specialists develop new imaging tools and technologies for medical applications. Enhancing imaging systems or creating new ones can drastically improve disease detection, treatment, and monitoring. Their knowledge and skills are pivotal in developing equipment like MRI machines, CT scanners, and ultrasound machines.

Photonics engineer

Focusing on the application of light photons, these individuals play a vital role in industries ranging from communications to medicine. They work with lasers, LEDs, fiber optics, and other light sources to develop new technologies or improve existing ones. This specialization can involve creating more efficient communication systems or developing advanced medical diagnostics instruments.

Optical systems engineer

With the task of creating effective optical systems, this role involves working on various projects related to imaging, sensing, and illumination systems. They design, analyze, and improve complex optical systems, taking into account the needs of the client and the specifics of various industries. This can range from developing lenses for cameras to creating illumination systems for large-scale stadiums.

Top skills for optical imaging engineers

This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as an optical imaging engineer.

Strong technical knowledge

To succeed in this field, it’s necessary to have a deep understanding of optics, photonics, and related technological fields. This requires extensive science and mathematics knowledge, making a robust educational background in these subjects a strong foundation for a career in optical engineering.

Analytical and problem-solving skills

Engineers always need to dissect complex problems, hence the importance of these skills. Analyzing situations and developing effective solutions is essential, whether addressing technical difficulties, designing complex optical systems, or troubleshooting production issues.

Attention to detail

Given the precise nature of optical engineering work, having incredible attention to detail is pivotal. Even minor inaccuracies or oversights can result in significant problems, so meticulous oversight can make a difference between success and failure.

Communication skills

Good communication skills are a must in this role. Whether explaining complex optical systems to non-experts, working collaboratively with a team, or presenting findings to higher management, effective verbal and written communication is crucial for a successful, smooth-running operation.

Software proficiency

Developing, modeling, and simulating optical systems requires familiarity with specialized software. Using such tools effectively to carry out tasks and conduct experiments is key to efficient and productive work.

Optical imaging engineer career path options

An optical imaging engineer, once established in the field, enjoys a dynamic career path with multiple avenues for advancement. Depending on individual career goals, interests, and the possession of specialized skills, the future may lead to several different roles.

Senior engineering roles

Moving upwards in the hierarchy, one of the most common career movements is to senior engineering roles. These roles require a specified number of years of experience and typically involve more complex projects and increased responsibilities. As a senior engineer, one might also oversee the work of less experienced engineers, providing mentorship and guidance.

Project management

With accumulated experience, they may opt to move into project management roles. These positions require handling and executing large-scale endeavors, liaising with various teams, and ensuring that objectives are met on time and within budget. The focus here is less on the technical aspects of imaging and more on the broader scope of planning, organizing, leading, and controlling project resources.

Research and development

Another progression opportunity lies in research and development. This route is best suited to those who enjoy solving complex problems and working on the cutting edge of technology. Advancements in the field of optical imaging often stem from this sector, and engineers in this role contribute significantly to technological innovation.

Consultancy or entrepreneurship

Consultancy is another viable route for experienced professionals in the field. Some engineers may choose to share their expertise as consultants, helping other companies streamline their imaging processes. Alternatively, some might venture into entrepreneurship, starting their own companies or exploring innovative solutions in the imaging industry. Both these routes provide great autonomy but also carry higher risks and responsibilities.


Professionals interested in knowledge enhancement and sharing may veer toward academia. This path involves engaging in teaching at the university level and conducting scientific research. The push for constant learning, exploration, and imparting knowledge can be highly satisfying. However, it also involves its own set of challenges, such as securing research funding and publishing in reputable journals.

The world of optical imaging engineering is rapidly changing, largely due to leaps in technology. Advances in fields such as AI and machine learning are paving the way for new ventures and innovations within the industry. A current positive trend surrounds the development of smaller, portable, and user-friendly optical imaging equipment, particularly for medical and industrial applications. High-tech startups and established firms are both contributing to this trend, producing lightweight devices that can deliver reliable results.

Another notable trend driving change in this field is the steady rise in the use of optical imaging technologies for preventative healthcare and early disease detection. Non-invasive imaging tools that enable early diagnosis are garnering attention from medical professionals and patients alike. Similarly, there’s a growing interest in exploiting the potential of optical imaging for enhancing security systems, such as biometric scanning, and integrating them with existing infrastructure.

Employment projections

As per the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the demand for professionals in the field of optical imaging engineering is projected to grow steadily. The BLS forecasts an increase in employment of 10% through 2031, which is faster than the average for all occupations. This growth is largely driven by the requirement of high-tech industries like healthcare, security, and manufacturing, emphasizing their key role in these sectors.

Optical imaging engineer career tips

Understand the technology

Having a comprehensive understanding of optical imaging technology is key for any optical imaging engineer. Familiarity with technology like lasers, spectroscopy, and microscopy can provide a competitive edge when applying for jobs and contribute to success in this field. Stay on top of the latest advancements and trends to integrate them into your current projects.

Master the use of CAD software

These professionals often use computer-aided design (CAD) software to design and optimize optical systems. Knowledge and proficiency in using software like Zemax, Code V, or FRED can give you an advantage in your career.

Develop project management skills

This role often requires managing projects involving a team. It’s important to be able to lead a team and project effectively. This includes creating project timelines, allocating resources strategically, and executing plans efficiently.

Build a professional network

Networking is incredibly important in the field of optical imaging engineering. These connections can lead to new job opportunities and provide valuable insight and advice regarding the latest trends and advancements in the industry. Some recommended professional associations and networks include:

  • The Optical Society (OSA)
  • International Society for Optics and Photonics (SPIE)
  • American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS)

Engage in continuous learning

Technology in the field of optical imaging is always evolving. Use the following pointers to broaden your knowledge:

  • Attend webinars and seminars hosted by professional associations
  • Read research papers published in reputable journals such as Optics Express or Journal of Optical Engineering
  • Take advanced courses in optical engineering or related fields

Pursue relevant certifications

Earning professional certifications can help set you apart from other candidates in the job market and demonstrate your commitment and skill level. The American Society for Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing (ASPRS) offers a Certified Photogrammetrist certification that could be beneficial.

Where the optical imaging engineer jobs are

Top employers

  • Novanta Inc.
  • PerkinElmer
  • Olympus Corporation
  • Zeiss Group
  • Edmund Optics

Top states

  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • Florida
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • Monster
  • CareerBuilder


What type of education is needed for optical imaging engineers?

They typically require a bachelor’s degree in a field related to optical engineering, electrical engineering, or physics. Understanding the basics of light propagation and imaging systems is paramount. It’s beneficial to have a higher degree, such as a master’s or Ph.D., for advanced positions, which generally involve more complex tasks and responsibilities.

What skills does an optical imaging engineer need?

They should have strong analytical and problem-solving skills, as well as expertise in optics and imaging principles. They should also have a good understanding of CAD software, light sources, sensors, and detectors. Communication skills are also important; they often collaborate with other professionals to design, develop, and improve optical systems.

What kind of work environment can I expect as an optical imaging engineer?

Most work in research and development or manufacturing environments. They could be employed in labs, manufacturing plants, or offices. Those working in manufacturing may have to deal with the noise and heat of factory settings, while others in research and development could work in a quieter lab or office environment. Occasionally, travel may be required.

Is practical experience important for optical imaging engineers?

Yes, practical experience is very important in this field. While academic knowledge provides the foundational understanding of optical systems, hands-on work gives engineers the practical skills to apply this knowledge. This experience can be gained through internships, cooperative education programs, or entry-level positions.

What is the level of responsibility for an optical imaging engineer?

The level of responsibility can vary based on the complexity of the project and the engineer’s experience. Their duties range from designing and improving optical systems to overseeing a team of engineers on large projects. These professionals need to be detail-oriented and precise, as any errors in their designs can lead to significant issues in the final product or system.

What is the hardest part of being an optical imaging engineer?

The most challenging part can vary from one individual to another. For many, the complex nature of optics and imaging principles can make the work challenging. Others might find the need for ongoing learning and adapting to new technologies and methods the most difficult aspect of their profession. Regardless of the specific challenges, it’s a rewarding field for those who enjoy problem-solving and working on innovative technologies.

What professional growth opportunities exist for optical imaging engineers?

They have considerable opportunities for career advancement. Experience, combined with a strong track record of success in managing projects, can open up opportunities to become a senior engineer or manager. They can also specialize in a certain field area, such as infrared imaging, which can lead to more advanced roles. Additionally, ongoing technological advances mean there’s always something new to learn in this career.

What types of projects do optical imaging engineers work on?

The range of projects can vary widely. They may work on developing a new piece of imaging equipment for medical use, or they could design a new imaging system for use in satellite technology. They might also be involved in enhancing existing imaging systems for better resolution or functionality. This wide range of potential projects makes this a dynamic and exciting field to work in.

How important is communication for optical imaging engineers?

Strong communication skills are essential. Since these professionals often work as part of a team, they must be able to communicate effectively with their peers, project managers, and other stakeholders. They need to clearly explain complex technical concepts to team members and sometimes even clients who may have a different level of technical understanding. Having the ability to facilitate understanding through clear and concise communication is crucial.