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How to Become a Photographer: 2021 Guide

Learn how to become a photographer

Photography is one of the most interesting, engaging, and versatile careers possible. While anyone with a camera can call themselves a “photographer,” to be a true professional photographer you need training, education, and experience.

This is a demanding career that requires both technical knowledge, scientific understanding, and artistic creativity. If you are wondering how to become a photographer, this article will explain the important steps, helping you master the skills and become a happy, well-paid, successful photographer.

How much does a photographer make a year? What are the photography qualifications? Do you need a degree to be a photographer? What are the skills required to be a photographer? All of these questions and more will be answered in this article!

How to Become a Photographer

A photographer does more than just snap photographs. They develop plans for capturing images, work with clients and customers, market their services, and perform many other important tasks. Taking photos is just part of their duties. So if you are asking “what does a photographer do?”, you’ll find that the answer is “quite a lot!” This is why photographer training, which develops more than just picture-taking skills, is so important.

There are three steps to become a photographer: 

  1. Decide on the right education path for your career goals
  2. Consider (usually optional) licensing and certifications
  3. Gain career experience & build your business

If you want to know how to become a photographer, you first need to understand the educational requirements. As we’ll see, the base requirements are generally low, but you can complete a master’s degree in this profession.

Do you need a degree to be a photographer? In most cases, no. But a photography degree can be a tremendous help to your career.

One of the most attractive aspects of a photography career is that you need very little to enter this profession. Although some states and cities place licensing requirements on photographers, there really is no specific education requirement. However, if you want to have a successful career, stay busy, and earn a sizable income, there are many educational paths ranging from a certificate to a master’s degree.

Education is not required, but many photographers take classes in order to improve their skills and understanding of the profession. For self-employed photographers, this increases their ability to land jobs; for people working under photography studios, media outlets, and other businesses, education increases their chances of landing a high-paying career. Certifications help you understand what makes a great photograph, a skill that can greatly enhance your career opportunities.

Photojournalists, industrial journalists, and scientific photographers often need at least a bachelor’s degree to work in the profession.

Many universities offer classes in photography, and these courses can be found in a variety of departments. From journalism schools to art colleges, the basics of photography are taught in many settings. There are many skills required to be a photographer, making education highly important.

Step 1: Photographer Education Requirements

If you want to know how to become a photographer, you need to consider the various educational options.

Photography educations come in many different forms, but for the most part you can expect to learn about the technical and scientific aspects of photography while also learning the artistic theories that create outstanding images. Courses will have names like “Advanced Photojournalism,” “Color Management,” and “Introduction to Photography.” More advanced courses may have titles like “Motion Capture,” “Advanced Lighting Techniques,” and “Principles for Photographers.”

A photographer’s education can last from a single semester (a certificate of some kind) to roughly six years of college studies. You can complete photographer training under an associate’s degree, or you can complete six years of schooling for photography by enrolling in a master’s program. (A master’s generally will take two years, after four years for your bachelor’s.)

Prestigious Photography Training Programs

Associate’s Degree Programs for Photographers

A two-year associate’s program gives you the chance to learn about photography quickly and pursue your career immediately. If you are thinking about becoming a photographer but don’t want to spend four years in classes, an associate’s degree could be the best choice. This is a quick option for getting started with photography.

Southern New Hampshire University — Associate of Arts in Digital Photography

Schooling in photography does not need to consume numerous years of your life. With an online associate degree from SNHU, you can complete photographer training in two years or less. This program takes an all-encompassing approach to photography, covering aspects such as the business and history of photography, as well as the specific details of great photography, including design, light, color, and more. This program also addresses writing, communication, and social sciences, all designed to make you a better photographer. You’ll develop professional skills, apply the science and art of photography, and learn industry tools and techniques to become the best photographer you can be. What makes a great photograph? You’ll know after completing this education.

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Santa Barbara City College — Associate in Arts in Applied Photography

The program is specifically designed for training with the 35mm digital single lens reflex cameras. It emphasizes the importance of creativity while developing your technical and scientific knowledge. In this online associate degree, you’ll take classes that include lighting strategies, fine art photography, color management, and more. Once complete, you’ll have an excellent proficiency with 35mm traditional and digital cameras, and you’ll be able to edit and manipulate images for the best effect. Getting into photography is even easier with an online degree from Santa Barbara City College.

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Bachelor’s Degree in Photography

A four-year bachelor’s schooling for photography gives you a deeper insight into the technical aspects of the profession, and will also help develop your communication and professional skills.

Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design — Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography

Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design offers a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Painting, ceramics, and sculpture are all part of the program. Photography is another. This program is unique because it focuses more on the fine arts aspect of photography, making it ideal for people who want to pursue careers related to art. While art is central to this program, RMCAD also develops your professional skills, helping you become a successful professional photographer. Classes cover digital story telling, commercial photography, lighting, and more.

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Southern New Hampshire University — Bachelor of Arts in Digital Photography

As one of the most popular online schools in the country, SNHU offers numerous bachelor programs, including a degree in digital photography. Developing a student’s technical knowledge and visual literacy, this program gives a solid foundation in liberal arts while also creating an excellent professional photographer. This schooling for photography covers the technical and artistic aspects of photography, but it also covers business elements such as marketing, advertising, and maintaining a digital portfolio.

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Master’s Level Photography Education

If you want to significantly enhance your understanding of photography, a master’s degree will make you one of the most knowledgeable professionals in the industry. Becoming a photographer that earns a strong salary is more likely if you have a master’s degree.

Academy of Art University — Master of Fine Arts in Photography

What makes a great photograph? While it comes down to skills and talent, a master’s in fine arts with a focus on photography will lay the groundwork for creating exceptional photos. The Academy of Art University offers a variety of photography programs, including a master’s in fine arts. This program take a deep dive into the profession, looking at the history of photography, printing techniques, conceptual development, and more. In the end, you’ll have a portfolio of photography samples that will make you eligible for numerous opportunities in the photography profession. You’ll know what makes a great photograph and have the skills to create excellent work.

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Step 2: Photography Licensing & Certifications

Many people, while wondering how to become a photographer, will ask if licensing and certifications are part of the photography qualifications when getting started with photography.

Licensing and certification for a professional photographer is rarely part of photography qualifications. However, some state and local governments require that photographers be certified and have specific licensing in order to practice their trade. If you are going into the field of photography, check with your local government and state officials to see if a professional photographer license is required.

Even if no license is required, certification is a good way to boost your career. Not only will certification demonstrate your abilities as a photographer, it will also build your skills and make you a more qualified professional. When considering getting into photography, look into available certifications that will fit your career goals.

There are, however, national requirements for certain types of photographers. Most notably, photographers who operate drones as part of their profession need licensing through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). To get this license, you need to be at least 16 years old, able to read, write, understand, and speak English, and be in good physical and mental condition. If you meet the initial criteria, you’ll then have to pass an aeronautical knowledge exam, which is held at an FAA-approved testing center.

Step 3: Build a Career as a Photographer

What’s it like being a photographer? What are the challenges faced in this profession, and what are the motivations for people entering this career? In this section, we’ll help you understand the advantages and downsides of getting into photography, as well as the pay, job growth, and areas of opportunity for photographers.

What’s the Best Type of Photography Careers?

Becoming a photographer seems simple. But as we’ll see, it can be a fairly complex and complicated process. One of the first choices you’ll have to make, one that will guide your educational decisions, is the type of photography careers you want to pursue. There are many types of professional photographers, and you should understand the different tasks and requirements for each one.

While we can’t cover all the various types of photographers in this section, we can cover some of the most important. There are the wedding photographers, who focus on capturing the most memorable moments from a couple’s big day, and there are event photographers, who are employed at corporate events, concerts, seminars, and many other gatherings.

One of the most common types of professional photographers today is the portrait photographer, who captures images of people (mostly faces) for professional profiles and websites. When considering career options, this presents an excellent opportunity because companies are frequently adding bios and staff information to their websites.

Product photography is another excellent career choice. In this profession, you take pictures of a business’ products, helping to display the items in the best light. (Literally and figuratively!)

Of course, there is also fine art photography. These are the artistic minds who create art, not with clay or paint, but with their cameras. This allows for the most creative freedom, and the subject captured in the images can be anything at all.

Fashion photography is another type of photography careers. From travel to real estate to photojournalism, there are countless opportunities for aspiring photographers.

Anyone thinking about becoming a photographer should research each type of photography careers so they can make the best choice for their future. If you want to understand what does a photographer do, you need to remember that there are many different types of photographers.

Pros & Cons of a Photography Career

Like any career, becoming a photographer has its positives and negatives. Mostly, this is a career for people who are passionate about the process of making and sharing visual images as a form of communication. Although there are high-pay opportunities, it is rarely a profession for people who are motivated by high salaries. In other words, to be happy as a professional photographer, you have to love photography!

The benefits of being a photographer are job satisfaction and the ability to work in a unique, interesting, engaging profession. Depending on the type of photography careers you choose, you get to work with people every day, travel to interesting areas, and engage with others to create top-quality images.

Another advantage is the flexible and unique hours, although some may see this as a negative. Photographers work evenings and weekend, and are often working long shifts followed by long periods of no work. Workload can also fluctuate by the season, so many photographers enjoy a unique lifestyle that is not realized by others in more “traditional” professions.

How Much Does a Photographer Make a Year?

Photography is not a profession that is typically marked by high salaries. However, there are opportunities for strong pay if you work in the right field and build your skills and experience. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, photographers have a median salary of $36,280. In May of 2019, the median hourly pay for a photographer was $17.44. This is actually less than the national average, which is $19.14.

But there is the opportunity to earn more. If you work your way to the top 10% of this profession, you can expect hourly wages over $38.19. Assuming a full year of 40-hour work weeks, this would equal an annual salary of almost $80,000.

Photographers working for broadcast media tend to earn the most. These professionals have median hourly wages of $22.83, which equals roughly $43,500 a year. A professional photographer working for a newspaper outlet earns $21.74 an hour, while someone working for a photography service only earns $15.15 an hour.

Becoming a photographer may not bring the highest salaries, but the chance to work in a unique, engaging career is often motivation enough. How much does a photographer make a year? It all depends on your skills, talents, and how hard you are willing to work.

Career Outlook

Unfortunately, there appears to be a general decline in photographer careers. For a variety of reasons, the BLS predicts that the photography career will decline by 4% between 2019 and 2029. This should not, however, deter aspiring photographers. It simply means you need to shift your goals and expectations.

For the most part, the decline in opportunities for a professional photographer will be driven by an increase in high-quality digital cameras and a larger number of amateur photographers. For example, instead of hiring a wedding photographer, some people may choose to have a family member snap photos with their camera. Stock photo sources also provide access to a variety of images, reducing the need for in-house photographers.

But there are opportunities. Drone technology, for example, gives photographers a unique edge in the market. Operating a drone often requires licensing, and these technologies are not as wide spread among the general public. Therefore, a photographer with proper training and the right technology could have excellent opportunities.

Self-employed photographers, however, are expected to grow, so there may be opportunities for entrepreneurial-minded professionals.

Begin a Photography Career Today!

Whether you decide an associate’s degree in digital photography or an MFA in photography is right for you, online photography programs make it easy to gain the skills you need to begin this exciting career.

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