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Photographer Career Guide

What is a photographer?

A photographer is a professional who creates compelling visual images using a camera. They capture significant moments, tell stories, and document events or environments. Photographers can specialize in a range of areas, including but not limited to portraiture, wildlife, travel, commercial, and fashion photography. The value they provide depends highly on the field they operate in. For example, a commercial photographer helps businesses showcase their products or services to potential customers, while a wedding photographer captures key moments of a couple’s special day that can be treasured for a lifetime.

Duties and responsibilities

A photographer’s key responsibility is to take high-quality photos. This involves choosing the right equipment—such as a camera, lenses, and lighting—and employing their knowledge of photographic techniques to capture images effectively. They plan and set up photo shoots in line with the desired output, including location, composition, lighting, and angles. Post-shoot work often consumes much of their time and involves editing and retouching photos using specialized software to achieve a certain look or meet the client’s needs.

These professionals also handle the organizational aspects of the job. They negotiate terms, costs, and, in some cases, copyrights of images with clients. They also need to advertise and promote their work to attract clients, particularly those working in private practice or freelancing. Depending on their work setting, they may also have to stay informed about industry trends and technology advancements to remain competitive.

Work environment

The work environment of a photographer can be diverse and dynamic. It largely depends on their photographic specialty. Some spend most of their time in studios, controlling the environment to create the perfect shot. Others work in various outdoor locations, adapting to changing light conditions and capturing spontaneous events as they unfold. Those who specialize in event or news photography often find themselves in crowded and busy environments.

Photography often involves heavy lifting and transportation of equipment. It can also involve standing, crouching, or lying down for extended periods, depending on the nature of the shoot. For certain types of photographers, like wildlife or aerial photographers, the job can involve potentially dangerous conditions or remote locations.

Typical work hours

The work hours for photographers can greatly vary based on their area of specialization and work setting. Commercial photographers, for instance, often work regular office hours, particularly if they are employed by a company. However, they may need to extend their working hours to meet tight deadlines or cater to specific client needs.

Freelance or event photographers tend to have irregular work schedules. Their work is often dictated by the timings of the events they are covering. This can involve working weekends, holidays, or evenings. Those specializing in areas such as wildlife or landscape might have to work during specific natural light conditions, which can occur early in the morning or late in the evening.

How to become a photographer

This career guide section outlines the process of becoming a photographer. It involves acquiring applicable skills, understanding different types of photography, obtaining the necessary equipment, and building a portfolio to showcase your work.

Step 1: Learn about photography

Begin by learning about the basics of photography. This includes principles of composition, color theory, lighting, as well as understanding how to operate a camera. Many online resources are available to learn the art of photography at your own pace, or consider joining a photography class or workshop.

Step 2: Get a camera

Acquiring a camera is the next step. A DSLR camera is recommended for starters, as it provides a broad range of settings and allows you to take high-quality photos. However, high-end compact cameras or mirrorless cameras can also be an excellent choice for beginners.

Step 3: Experiment and practice

Familiarize yourself with your camera by experimenting and practicing. Try different settings, and take photos in different lighting conditions and various perspectives. Frequent practice helps improve your skills and understanding of the camera’s functionality.

Step 4: Decide on a niche

Figure out which types of photography interest you most. It could be portrait, food, event, wildlife, landscape, or fashion photography. Concentrating on a particular niche can help you build specialized skills and make your work stand out.

Step 5: Take photography courses or earn a degree

Many successful photographers are self-taught, but taking photography courses or earning a degree in photography could enhance your knowledge and give you a competitive edge. In these programs, you can learn about different photography techniques, photo editing, business aspects of photography, and more.

Step 6: Build a portfolio

Creating a portfolio is pivotal. Potential clients and employers will want to see examples of your work before hiring you. Your portfolio should include your best photos and be regularly updated. It can be a physical portfolio, but an online platform showcasing your work can reach a broader audience.

Step 7: Market yourself

Once you have a portfolio, start marketing yourself. Create a website, use social media for promotion, network with other photographers and potential clients, and freelance on different platforms. You can also enter photography contests to win awards and recognition, enhancing your credibility.

Step 8: Consider professional accreditation

Although not required, professional accreditation can boost your reputation. Associations like the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) and Wedding & Portrait Photographers International (WPPI) offer membership and certification programs.

How much do photographers make?

Photographer salaries vary by experience, industry, education, location, and organization size. Factors such as specialization in a specific type of photography (for instance, wedding, commercial, or nature photography), owning a private studio, reputation, and continual professional development can greatly impact their earning potential.

Highest paying industries

  • Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing – $79,130
  • Motion Picture and Video Industries – $75,680
  • Scientific Research and Development Services – $72,530
  • Computer Systems Design and Related Services – $69,370
  • Broadcasting – $57,190

Highest paying states

  • California – $84,520
  • New York – $78,710
  • District of Columbia – $73,096
  • Massachusetts – $64,110
  • Minnesota – $63,810

Browse photographer salary data by market

Types of photographers

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for photographers. This section highlights the various fields and specialized paths within the field of photography.

Portrait photographer

If you enjoy capturing human expressions and love creating timeless mementos, portrait photography could be your calling. These specialists aim to capture the personality of an individual or group. It is a popular choice for events, like weddings and corporate gatherings, or studio sessions.

Commercial photographer

Focusing on the business aspect, commercial photography is a viable specialization. It involves creating high-quality images for businesses, mostly used in advertisements, sales pitches, brochures, product placements, and company portfolios. Their goal is to promote products, services, or corporate values professionally and compellingly.


In a role that is as exciting as it is demanding, photojournalists tell stories through images. Capturing newsworthy events, they document impactful moments in real time. If you have a knack for storytelling and staying neutral amidst the chaos, this could be an engaging career path for you.

Nature and wildlife photographer

For those with an adventurous spirit who admire the natural world, a career in nature and wildlife photography can be appealing. This field requires patience and resilience to capture animals in their habitat and beautiful landscapes. Their images can be used for various purposes, such as educational materials, magazines, or environmental campaigns.

Sports photographer

As a sports photographer, you will capture high-speed moments highlighting athletes’ prowess and agility at play. This pathway requires quick thinking and a comprehensive understanding of various sports to anticipate and capture moments of action, emotion, and glory.

Fashion photographer

Within the glamorous world of fashion and modeling, photographers play a pivotal role. In this field, you focus on taking pictures of models adorned in fashion products for promotional campaigns, magazine editorials, or runway shows. An eye for fashion trends, creativity, and teamwork skills are vital for success in this field.

Food photographer

Securing a niche in the culinary world, food photographers specialize in bringing dishes to life through images. Their work adds appeal to cookbooks, menus, advertising campaigns, and social media feeds. If you have a passion for food and an eye for detail, this could be an excellent setting for you.

Top skills for photographers

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a photographer. In the following sections, we will explore these crucial attributes and explain how each can contribute to a successful career in photography.

Artistic ability

A key trait of a successful photographer is their artistry. This involves having an eye for detail, a sense of color, and an understanding of lighting. These artistic elements allow them to capture images that tell compelling stories or convey particular emotions. This skill is often developed through practice and experience, and it helps draw attention and intrigue to your work.

Technical skills

Understanding and mastering the technical aspects of photography is vital to becoming successful in this profession. These include knowledge of camera settings such as shutter speed, ISO, and aperture, as well as equipment maintenance. In addition, they must comprehend editing software to enhance and correct images post-shoot.

Business acumen

Many of these professionals are self-employed, which makes having business acumen a necessary trait. This ability encompasses marketing skills for promoting services, handling finances, and understanding contracts and copyrights. Artists with strong business skills can effectively manage their photography business, ensuring long-term success and sustainability.

People skills

Interacting with people is a large part of the job. Whether it’s working with clients, models, or team members, effective communication is essential. Good people skills also mean being able to make subjects feel relaxed and natural for a photo shoot, resulting in better and more authentic portraits.

Patience and flexibility

Photography requires a great deal of patience and flexibility. Factors such as lighting, weather, and subject availability can be unpredictable, requiring these professionals to adapt quickly. Additionally, ideal shots often take time – waiting for the perfect light or capturing a fleeting expression requires a calm and persistent attitude.

Photographer career path

If you’re a photographer who wants to plan out your career route, there are various paths you can take, depending on your passion and your ultimate professional goal.

Self-employed and freelancing

Many professionals in the field choose to work for themselves. This means you can run your own business and be your own boss. Under this path, you could become a wedding or event photographer, focus on studio photography, or specialize in commercial or advertising photography. The desired outcome here is to establish a successful brand, gain a broad client base, and create a reputation for unique, high-quality work.

Employment in media companies

Another path open to you is employment within a media or publishing company, where you would work under art directors and alongside graphic designers. As you gain more experience, you can aim to become a senior or lead photographer. Progressing further, you can aspire to move into positions such as photo editor or even art director. This path gives you the chance to focus your creativity while working within a team.

Venture into teaching

If you’re interested in sharing your expertise and passion for photography, a career in teaching could be your ideal progression. Becoming a photography professor at a college or university, conducting workshops, or leading photo tours and expeditions are all avenues you can explore. This would allow you to shape the next generation of photographers while continually honing your own skills.

The photography profession is seeing changes with emerging technologies. Digital cameras and smartphone photography have significantly lowered entry barriers. This trend has resulted in an increased interest in this profession. The popularity of social media platforms has opened up new paths for these professionals to showcase their work to a wider audience without investing heavily in physical exhibitions or advertising.

Simultaneously, the emergence of cloud-based storage and editing software is also shaping the profession. These software systems are making it easier for professionals to store, edit, and share their work. Drone photography is another trend gaining momentum, contributing to expanding the dimensions of this profession.

With a sharp rise in digital content consumption, companies are extensively employing those who can capture captivating images. This expands the job market for this profession from traditional arenas like weddings or commercial products to the internet content industry. Meanwhile, freelancing is also becoming a highly preferred work style among these professionals because of its flexibility.

Employment projections for photographers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for photographers is projected to grow by 9 percent through 2031, faster than the average for all occupations. The need for these professionals in fields related to online media may result in more job opportunities due to an increase in the number of people who use digital media.

Photographer career tips

Understand your niche

It’s not enough to simply know how to take a snapshot. With an industry as competitive as photography, it’s important to stand out. This requires a solid understanding of the specific niche in which you methodically work. Whether it’s wedding photography, wildlife, portraiture, or any other niche, a thorough understanding of your chosen area will help you discover a distinct pathway to success. This involves knowing your subject matter well, being aware of the latest trends, and mastering the skills specifically needed for your specialty.

Ensure proper gear

Having the right tools for your specific photography niche can improve your work quality. Invest in quality lenses, camera bodies, tripods, and lighting equipment suitable for your niche. You should also consider investing in good editing software, as post-processing is a significant part of the photographic process. Additionally, maintaining your gear and understanding its capabilities can greatly enhance your efficiency in producing quality photographs.

Engage with clients

In professional photography, client engagement is essential. One way to achieve this is by understanding your client’s needs, expectations, and vision for the project. A satisfied client is more likely to recommend you to others, enhancing your networking opportunities. Therefore, it’s worth investing your time and effort into ensuring your clients have a positive experience working with you.

Build a professional network

  • National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)
  • Professional Photographers of America (PPA)
  • American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP)
  • Wedding and Portrait Photographers International (WPPI)

Continually learn and adapt

The world of photography is constantly evolving, with new techniques, technologies, and styles emerging regularly. To stay ahead of the curve and keep your work fresh, it’s pivotal to dedicate time to learning. This could involve:

  • Attending photography workshops and seminars
  • Enrolling in online courses or webinars
  • Staying current with industry publications and blogs
  • Participating in photography competitions

Consider certification

While not necessarily a requirement, professional certifications can boost your credibility and show that you’re serious about your work. Certifications from reputable organizations can provide you with increased opportunities and recognition. For example, the Professional Photographers of America certification validates a photographer’s skills and knowledge, potentially making you more attractive to clients.

Where the photographer jobs are

Top employers

  • Getty Images
  • National Geographic Society
  • Magnum Photos
  • Shutterstock
  • Associated Press

Top states

  • California
  • New York
  • Florida
  • Texas
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • SimplyHired
  • Creative Hotlist


What skills are necessary for a successful photography career?

Being a top-notch photographer requires a blend of creative and technical skills. An eye for detail, creativity, and a deep understanding of lighting and composition are all critical. In the technical realm, you’ll need proficiency in using digital cameras, photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop, and possibly even traditional film development processes. Good interpersonal skills can also bolster your career, as you’ll often work with clients and subjects of all types.

How do I build a portfolio as a beginner in photography?

Building a portfolio starts with taking lots of photos. Shoot in various settings and conditions to showcase your versatility. Over time, select the strongest images that best showcase your visual style and technical skills. It can be beneficial to include a variety of photo types, such as landscapes, portraits, and action shots. Digital portfolios are common, and having a well-organized online space to showcase your work can be a great way to attract potential clients.

What are the physical demands of being a photographer?

They often find themselves in physically demanding situations. They frequently need to stand or walk for long periods, and carrying heavy equipment is common. Some assignments might require physically strenuous conditions, like hiking into a remote location or navigating through crowded events. Adapting to these physical demands can be an asset in this field.

What type of training does a photographer need?

Formal education isn’t always required. Still, many obtain a bachelor’s degree in photography or a related field to develop technical proficiency and gain exposure to various photographic styles and techniques. Internships or apprenticeships can also provide vital hands-on experience. Beyond this formal training, continually practicing and experimenting with different techniques will help you evolve your craft.

What are the differences between commercial and editorial photography?

Commercial and editorial photography fulfill different purposes. Commercial photography typically involves producing images for advertisements or marketing materials to promote a product or service. Editorial photography, on the other hand, accompanies text in publications like newspapers or magazines. Its main purpose is to give visual context to a story rather than directly promote a product or service.

How important is post-production in photography?

Post-production, which involves editing and enhancing images after they’re shot, is a central part of the photography process. With tools like Photoshop or Lightroom, you can correct color, adjust lighting, remove unwanted elements, and improve overall image aesthetics. In many cases, the success of a photo hinges as much on the post-production process as it does on the actual shooting.

What is the role of a photography assistant?

A photography assistant helps a photographer with various tasks during a shoot. These tasks include setting up equipment, managing lighting, and helping with post-production work. Their role can also involve administrative duties like scheduling shoots, managing logistics, and liaising with clients. Working as a photography assistant can be a great way to gain practical experience and learn from a seasoned professional.

What are some common misconceptions about a photography career?

One common misconception is that they simply take pictures all day. In reality, much of their time is spent on business-related tasks, such as marketing, invoicing, and communicating with clients. Another misconception is that photography is an easy field to enter. The reality is that succeeding professionally requires a distinctive visual style, superb technical skills, knowledge of the industry, and the ability to market oneself effectively.

Is specialization in a particular kind of photography necessary?

Specializing can be helpful, as it enables you to develop deep expertise in a particular kind of photography, such as wedding, fashion, or landscape. This can make you more attractive to specific types of clients. However, too much specialization can also limit your opportunities. A balance is helpful – having a specialty to distinguish yourself but a broad enough skill set to cater to a range of photography needs.