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What is a Photographer?

A photographer is a trained professional who records images using a camera, special lights, and other tools to enhance their subject. Photographers tend to fall into one of four categories: commercial, fashion, journalistic, and fine art. Commercial photographers work for businesses and often take photographs of products for use in catalogs, on websites, or other purposes. They might also have businesses that focus on, or feature, portraiture, including wedding photographs.

Fashion photographers are much like commercial photographers in that they capture images for the sole purpose of product promotion. However, their primary focus is fashionable clothing. They often work with human models with the goal of creating a glamorous image.

Journalistic photographers work for newspapers or magazines and capture images that pertain to news stories. Some travel the world and photograph war scenes, while others take photographs for hometown daily newspapers in relative safety. Some also specialize in sports photography, or even hunt celebrities as paparazzi.

Fine art photographers are often off-duty commercial, fashion, or journalistic photographers who capture images that are intended to evoke emotion or tell a story that has a wider social application than commerce. They still offer their work for sale, but in fine art galleries. That is, they are not commissioned to photograph a product, but their work is valued based on its compositional and artistic merit alone.

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Steps to Become a Photographer

Anyone with a camera can be a photographer. The simple act of snapping a selfie does not make a career, however. To be a professional photographer you need to learn how to manipulate your camera's settings so that your subject is highlighted in an expert and professional manner.

Your training can come from an academic institution or you might learn everything on your own. There is no set path to developing the necessary technical and aesthetic skills needed to thrive as a photographer.

  • Step 1: Find a passion for photography

  • Step 2: Academic Training

  • Step 3: Internship

  • Step 4: Career Paths


Step 1: Find a passion for photography

Many photographers discover a love for their art and craft as youngsters. If, in childhood, you were intrigued with capturing new or unusual images you might have a spark of what it takes to build a career in photography. You might also be fascinated with the character of light through a window or at certain times of day. Future photographers often are intrigued with sunsets or sunrises.

Many photographers have interests in other art forms as well. Film and cinematography might be an early passion, as well as drawing and painting. Photography has much in common with these expressive forms. No matter what sort of photography you pursue, you must have a passion for capturing an image in a way that best expresses its essence.

Step 2: Academic Training

Once you've established that you are driven to be a photographer, you should seek out formal training. In an academic environment you will learn to have discipline in your art form. Classroom assignments might seem boring or mundane at times, but you'll be learning key skills that you can apply later. Other assignments might push you to new heights as a person and artist. During the course of your schooling, you will learn the technical aspects of your camera, the properties of light, and how to manipulate and print your photographs in the most effective way possible.

In an academic setting you will have access to experts in your field who will give you the benefit of their experience and knowledge. You will also be given the latitude to experiment in ways that the working world does not allow.

Step 3: Internship

There is no substitute for experiential learning and that applies to photography, too. By the time you are ready to work as an intern, you’ll likely have enough experience to know in what direction you wish to push your work. You could seek out an internship with a commercial photographer who spends their days shooting products for catalogs, a photojournalist for a local paper, or a fashion photographer. The work might be mundane, such as setting up lighting or adjusting clothing on a human (or not) model, but that sort of experience will allow you to observe the inner workings of the profession.

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Step 4: Career Paths

Once you have completed formal training and a period of experiential learning, you can strike out into the professional world. The main concern you might have starting out is with your equipment. While cellphone cameras have undoubtedly come a long way, most professional commercial photographers still use much of the equipment that has been in use since the mid-20th century. They use standard-looking cameras, known as DSLRs, with detachable lenses, tripods, and large lighting rigs. You’ll need to make your best decision based on your knowledge of the technology and your intended use.

You might then go to work as an independent businessperson who focuses on commercial, portrait, fashion, or journalistic photography. You might find work as an employee for a newspaper, magazine, or marketing firm. You could also strike out as a freelance photographer and seek the shots that magazines pay big money for, such as celebrity sightings.

What Does a Photographer Do?

If you work in a studio as a commercial or fashion photographer, you will probably spend your days setting up lighting for and photographing various products or models. You could also have a practice that involves portraiture, such as professional head shots for executives or actors. Your studio could also be used to capture the essence of families, including wedding photographs.

Journalistic photographers could work in the field shooting various events. On the other hand, some photographers work in the editorial side of a publication and thus select, enhance, crop, and place photos alongside copy. These editors need to master photo editing software packages such as Adobe Photoshop, which is the industry standard, or Gimp, which is a free alternative.

If you are a commercial or fashion photographer, you may need to spend a good deal of your time marketing your business. Freelance journalistic photographers will also need to market themselves to photo editors and also sell their images. If you have captured a rare image you might need to juggle negotiations between numerous markets that vie for the photograph.

Skills to Acquire

  • Photographic Eye:
    This is a skill that will surely develop over time. It's almost impossible to define what makes your eye better or worse than another's, but trained and experienced photographic experts know it when they see it. Essentially your eye is an intuition for the best camera angle and framing that works best for a specific image.
  • Photoshop:
    Taking a well-framed image is one thing but processing it can turn it into something special. Photoshop is the industry standard tool for image manipulation. It allows you to enhance brightness, contrast, hue, color saturation, and also crop your photos. This tool also allows you to eliminate blemishes on a model's face or erase distracting elements in a background.
  • Timing:
    This is especially important in journalistic photography. Whether you are shooting a sporting event or stalking celebrities, you need a good sense of when a subject will move in such a way to create the best photographic opportunity.
  • Technical:
    Every photographer needs to master the fine balance between ISO, shutter speed, and f-stop. You will also need to know how your specific digital camera handles these things and understand your device's strengths and weaknesses. There's no substitute for a keen intuition for what makes a great image, but the technical aspects of a photograph dictate how the light actually creates an image in your camera.

Alternative Paths

These days, anyone can become a photographer. In the past, there was no substitute for formal training, and it was very difficult to process film and print images. Since the advent of digital photography, you can easily shoot and print images.

However, to achieve mastery over your craft, you still need some instruction. Rather than attending a traditional college, you can find many online courses that will impart the knowledge you need to succeed. Then there are online forums for photographers where you can compare your images against others. You will also find that photographers love discussing how certain f-stop settings impacted an image, or how some new technology informs their craft.

You can also find that you love photography and dive in as a photographer's assistant and get paid while you learn the world of photography. If you find the right mentor, they will teach you want you need to know. You might even elevate your status and work alongside them on various shoots.

Photographer Careers and Salary

Where Might You Work?


Photographers generally work for smaller independent businesses and the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that up to 60% work as independent contractors or are otherwise self-employed. Commercial and fashion photographers might be part of a studio that employs as many as ten people, but often fewer. Portrait photographers also work in studios, but a large part of their business might involve on-site work such as taking school photos, corporate portraits, or weddings.

Journalistic photographers work in the outside world, tracking down images to fit certain stories. They might accompany a writer or reporter. Some journalistic photographers even work for travel magazines and spend their time traveling the world to photograph exotic holiday locations.

The only photographers who work in a typical office environment are photographic editors. In fact, they probably spend much of their time in darkened rooms examining and enhancing photographs. They use their trained eyes and editorial sensibility to select the right image to accompany stories. They also use photo enhancement tools such as Photoshop to put the finishing touches on an image.

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Potential Career Paths

Art Director:
These professionals set the aesthetic vision for projects such as advertising campaigns and filmed productions. Commercial photographers often work with Art Directors on product campaigns and even catalog jobs. Art directors not only need a strong aesthetic sensibility but project management skills, too.

Fine Artist:
This profession is perhaps one of the more difficult pursuits for making a living. However, some painters, photographers, writers, illustrators, and sculptors are able to sell enough of their work to ensure a steady living. Very often, fine artists work for a commercial concern as a way to make money.

Desktop Publisher:
People in this occupation design newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, among other printed or otherwise published items. They use specialized software that requires a good deal of study and practice to master. Given the ubiquity of the internet and electronic media generally, desktop publishers often need competency with web publishing technologies, including the primary web languages, HTML and CSS.

Where photographers take still photos of events, videographers use moving images to capture things as they happen. Videographers not only need skill with a range of video cameras, they also need a strong vision for their projects, and then must be able to edit it all together later.

Graphic Artist:
These professionals create images that are used for the purpose of showcasing commercial products or services. Graphic Artists generally use software tools such as are found in the Adobe Creative Suite, to manipulate photographs, digital drawings, and text in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

Photographer Salaries

Occupation Entry-Level Mid-Career Late-Career
Photographer $30,000 $49,000 $78,000
Photographer, News $28,000 $45,000 $80,000
Videographer $39,000 $48,000 $59,000
Art Director $51,000 $70,000 $75,000
Photographer, Commercial $35,000 $48,000 $61,000
Freelance Photographer $26,000 $44,000 $75,000
Photographer, Fashion $31,000 $43,000 $65,000
Photo Editor $43,000 $58,000 $60,000

**Salary info provided by PayScale

Career Outlook

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that this occupational group will see a decline through 2026. Presumably the ubiquity of stock photography outlets, the advances in cellphone camera technology, and the availability of affordable photo manipulation technology has devalued the profession. The BLS speculates that the profession will decline in terms of salaried photographers as more companies resort to freelance workers.

Thus, if you still feel the calling to pursue photography as a profession, you should venture forth and follow that desire. There will always be a demand for skilled artisans who can bring out the special character of their subjects in the photographic medium.

Advancing From Here

Since 60% of all photographers are independent contractors or small business owners, most will find that there is no occupational upward mobility. That does not mean that you can't advance or develop your career. After all, your profession is one that exists in the general realm of art and creativity. Thus, your aesthetic sensibility will need to constantly evolve to keep pace with the constant shifts in public taste. You will also need to stay current with new photographic technologies such as cameras, sensors, and photo manipulation software.

You can also develop your career by mentoring young photographers, teaching photography courses, or simply finding new markets to explore. That is, if you are working as a travel photographer you might decide to expand on that by covering newsworthy events in the areas you travel to. If you gain acclaim for your journalistic photography, you are bound to find that more opportunities suddenly appear.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are some different careers in photography?

Some careers in photography may have include: portrait photographers, commercial photographers, fine art photographers, scientific photographers, fashion photographers, wedding photographers, news photographers, aerial photographers, commercial and industrial photographers, and freelance photographers.

What do portrait photographers do?

Portrait photographers specialize in taking pictures of other people. Portrait photographers use studios and photographic equipment to capture planned pictures of people and sometimes animals.

Do I need to go to college to get a career in photography?

While a degree in photography is not required for most photography jobs, it may be helpful to have the skills a degree may provide.

How to become a freelance photographer?

Freelance photographers usually begin working independently after they have built their portfolio and have returning clients. Freelance photographers will be responsible for the entire photography process. Freelance photographers will find clients, take pictures, edit pictures, and delivering or sending the pictures to the client.

How much do photographers make?

Photographers on average make between $30,000 to $78,000 annually.

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