Students with the right combination of education and experience can pursue careers in photography.
Photographers capture images for commercial, private, industrial, fine art, and journalistic purposes. Most photography degrees also emphasize digital photography skills for the technology age, along with business, computer, and interpersonal career development coursework.
The following guide explores all facets of pursuing careers in photography.
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Why Pursue a Career in Photography?
Students with innate artistic ability and technical skills can thrive as photographers. Since more than 60% of photographers are self-employed, the field attracts personable professionals with excellent customer service skills and acute business sense. Most photography programs develop skills in marketing and communication.
While some fine arts programs incorporate traditional film-based photography, the majority of photography degrees train students in digital photography techniques. As such, most programs emphasize advanced computer and technical skills. Students may aspire to a particular career with a photography degree in a specialization such as wedding photography, photojournalism, or fine arts.
Photography Career Outlook
Photography careers vary in terms of salary and job outlook. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), photographers earn a median annual salary of $36,280. However, specialized careers in photography can yield a higher salary.
Similarly, while the BLS projects negative job growth for photographers overall between 2018 and 2028, the bureau also projects a 10% growth rate for self-employed photographers during the same period.
As the declining cost of digital cameras and a surge in online stock photo services in recent years have contributed to a diminished demand for traditional photographers, the BLS projects lucrative opportunities in new technology, especially in commercial and drone photography.
Skills Gained with a Photography Degree
Photography degrees provide a distinct combination of creative and technical skills, enabling students to practice photography as an art form. The best photography programs teach students business, interpersonal, and computer skills.
- Technical Ability
While capturing an image requires more than just technical ability, technical skills are critical for students entering the profession.
Whether an aspiring photographer chooses traditional (film) or digital processes, they must thoroughly understand how to operate a camera and use photographic equipment. Although most photography programs focus on digital techniques and forego traditional development processes in the darkroom, many degrees include training in aperture, exposure, and shutter speed.
As most students who pursue an education in photography have innate artistic ability, most coursework in a photography degree is designed to expand on this skill set. Students learn to consider creative aspects of photography when choosing the subject, composition, and lighting of their images. Students also learn to be resourceful and adaptable.
- Business Sense
Basic business courses for photographers train students to manage their clients, schedule, and finances, while also preparing students for portfolio development, marketing, and self-promotion.
- Computer Skills
Aspiring photographers need computer skills to capture and process images using a digital camera, as well as for storing and editing digital images. Basic computer skills are also critical for professional interaction with clients, employers, and media publishers.
- Interpersonal Relations
Aspiring photographers with advanced interpersonal and communication skills enjoy better job opportunities. Whether a student plans to work directly with clients, multiple media outlets, or a single employer, photographers should be personable and professional, especially those who aspire to be self-employed, work freelance, or manage their own small business.
Photography Career Paths
With a degree in the right specialization, students can pursue their choice of careers in photography. While each program provides its own unique career path in photography, the following represent some of the most popular specializations.
Also called news photographers, photojournalists capture images of current events to accompany human interest stories for print news and broadcast outlets. Photojournalists may photograph people, places, or events.
- Portrait Photography
Portrait photographers take pictures for a variety of clients. Some portrait photographers, such as wedding, newborn, and school photographers, travel to a particular site to take portraits, while others who specialize in editorial or fine art portraiture may work from their studio.
- Fine Art Photography
Fine art photographers often develop their own distinctive method of creating images and aspire to publish or exhibit their photos to build their portfolio.
- Commercial/Industrial Photography
Commercial and industrial photographers capture images of subjects such as buildings, merchandise, landscapes for clients like engineering firms, catalogs, and real estate companies. Some photographers in this field may specialize in drone or aerial imaging, both of which require training on special photographic equipment.
- Fashion Photography
Fashion photographers take photos for marketing campaigns, fashion shows, and editorial projects. They work closely with designers, advertisers, and magazine editors to develop a cohesive brand identity. Fashion photographers may work out of their studio or on location.
How to Start Your Career in Photography
With broad applications in fine art, media, and communications, careers in photography suit creative professionals with an entrepreneurial side. Regardless of specialization, employers and clients typically value professional photographers with education, experience, and a strong portfolio.
While not all photography careers require a formal education, associate, bachelor's, and master's degrees provide students with the skills they need in the industry.
Graduates of an associate program can pursue careers as freelance photographers, photojournalists, and camera operators. Bachelor's degree-holders can graduate to art director, graphic design, and multimedia artist positions.
Photographers with master's degrees may qualify for careers as college professors. Many large media outlets favor highly experienced photographers with an advanced degree for leadership positions.
Associate Degree in Photography
As the minimum requirement for entry-level positions, an associate degree in photography prepares students for careers as freelance photographers, including wedding and portrait work and technical positions like camera repairer or camera operator.
Associate programs typically introduce students to the art of photography, training them to operate a traditional or digital camera and consider elements like composition, exposure, aperture, and lighting in creating an image.
As many photographers aspire to become freelancers or self-employed, most associate programs also include coursework in customer service, client management, and computer skills.
What Can You Do With an Associate in Photography?
- Freelance Photographer
Freelance photographers take pictures for private clients or publications. These professionals often specialize in portraiture or event photography or sell their photographs to media outlets. While no formal education is required, earning an associate degree provides students with both the creative and business skills needed for a freelance career.
- Wedding Photographer
Wedding photographers need advanced customer service skills. These professionals are typically hired to capture images for weddings, including portraits and candid shots. Some photography degrees offer concentrations in wedding photography.
- Portrait Photographer
Common subjects for portrait photographers include students, couples, families, and pets. Portrait photographers may earn a general photography degree while building experience and developing their portfolio.
- Camera Repairer or Technician
Students can expand on the technical training provided by an associate degree in photography to become a camera repairer or technician. As part of its foundational photography curriculum, an associate degree teaches students to operate and maintain various types of traditional and digital cameras and equipment.
- Camera Operator
Photography employers often value experience over education; however, professionals with an associate degree in photography may hold an advantage over competitors for these coveted jobs. Many photography students aspire to become camera operators for large media outlets or the film industry.
Source: BLS, PayScale
Bachelor's Degree in Photography
While an associate degree prepares students for careers in freelance photography, earning a bachelor's degree qualifies students for related jobs in graphic design, art direction, and multimedia art and animation. Additionally, many graduates of a bachelor's program in photography choose to become fine artists or photo editors.
Aspiring fine artists often pursue studio-based programs through a BFA. Meanwhile, a BA in photography develops a student's innate artistic ability and also provides technical training for careers in graphic design and animation.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Photography?
- Art Director
Art directors design the layout of images and overall style of print and digital media publications and advertising campaigns. Entry-level jobs typically require at least a bachelor's degree in art or design and work experience.
- Graphic Designer
Graphic designers are responsible for most of the visual communication in the world, especially in advertising and print and digital media. While many jobs require a graphic design degree, some employers hire artists with a photography background and work experience.
- Fine Artist
Fine artists specializing in photography often aspire to exhibit their work in a gallery or museum setting or sell to private collectors. This career suits photography students seeking the freedom of a self-employed lifestyle. These professionals must have the business sense to find their niche. Most fine artists hold a bachelor's degree.
- Multimedia Artist or Animator
Some photography majors take an interest in incorporating other artistic media or setting still images in motion. Becoming a multimedia artist or animator is a common career choice among photography students. Most employers require a bachelor's degree in art or design, work experience, and a strong portfolio.
- Photo Editor
Photo editors review, edit, and select images for print and online media, including magazines, catalogues, and advertising campaigns. They typically perform tasks like color correction and airbrushing. Most employers require at least a bachelor's degree in photography or photojournalism.
Source: BLS, PayScale
Master's Degree in Photography
Widely considered a terminal degree for photographers, a master's degree qualifies students to become postsecondary photography teachers. While not all jobs in photography and photo retouching require a master's degree, many employers prefer candidates with experience and a strong portfolio for senior positions.
Many schools offer students the choice of an MA or MFA in photography. A master's degree typically includes multiple specialization options, such as art education, biomedical photography, and digital media.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Photography?
- Postsecondary Teacher
Due to the rarity of doctoral photography programs, earning a master's in photography is widely regarded as a terminal degree and prepares students for positions as photography teachers at the college level.
- Senior Photographer
While requirements vary by employer, photographers with a master's degree often qualify for more senior positions and higher salaries than entry-level photographers. National media outlets and well-known publications often prefer senior photographers with years of experience and an advanced degree.
- Photo Retoucher
Photo retouchers need a unique combination of artistic and technical skills to enhance images for print/digital publications, advertisers, and real estate agents. Most employers require at least a bachelor's degree in a related field and prefer experienced workers for senior positions.
- Scientific Photographer
Scientific photographers take pictures of scientific and medical data and specimens. These professionals typically need special training in using photographically enhancing software and capturing microscopic images.
- Drone/Aerial Photographer
Similar to scientific photographers, drone/aerial photographers need unique career training. Aerial photographers must learn to operate a gyro stabilizer camera to capture high-quality aerial images. Drone operators must also undergo training on unmanned integrated devices and obtain licensure through the Federal Aviation Administration.
Source: BLS, PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Photography
Regardless of education and experience, professionals can always seek out ways to advance their career in photography. Some states require professional licensure for photographers who sell their work, although most states offer licensure as an optional resource to photographers.
Many photographers pursue others paths toward career enhancement through continuing education units (CEUs) and networking opportunities. Students can gain an edge over competitors and increase their earning and advancement opportunities by enrolling in CEUs and joining a professional organization in their area of expertise.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Each state determines licensure requirements for professional photographers and related occupations. While most states do not require photographers to obtain a license to own and operate a photography business, some states do. Students should consult the business division of their individual state board for more information.
Photographers may also pursue the certified professional photographer (CPP) credential through the Professional Photographers of America. CPP certification demonstrates to clients that a photographer meets the highest industry standards of professionalism and expertise.
Photographers specializing in drone imaging must hold licensure in unmanned aircraft operation from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Students can advance their photography career through continuing education. Learners may return to college at any time to earn a higher degree; however, many employers seek out photographers with extensive work experience for senior positions.
As programs increasingly move online, students can earn a certificate in specializations like digital photography or image editing software. Sites like Coursera and EdX also offer free online courses in photography, art, and design. Many students gain industry experience through internships and fellowships in their area of photographic expertise.
Whether a student plans to begin their career immediately after completing a photography degree or transition from another field, the next steps toward entering the industry are critical. Many students pursue continuing education through a fellowship or internship to gain work experience and develop their portfolio.
Students can also benefit from networking at this phase of their photography career, both independently and through membership in a professional organization like the Professional Photographers of America or American Photographic Artists. These organizations offer annual conferences, job boards, and group meetings.
How to Switch Your Career to Photography
As most entry-level photography jobs only need an associate or bachelor's degree, aspiring photographers with a degree in a related field such as fine art, design, or communications can easily transition to a similar photography program. Some of these professionals pursue employment as assistant photographers to gain work experience.
Freelance and self-employed photographers may decide to focus on a different specialization later in their career. For example, a photographer might transition from photojournalism to wedding photography to work locally instead of traveling. Likewise, multimedia artists sometimes transition to photography as their primary medium after experimenting with other practices.
Where Can You Work as a Photography Professional?
Equipped with education and experience, photographers can begin lucrative careers in print and broadcast media, publishing, and motion pictures.
- Radio and Television Broadcasting
Photographers often pursue entry-level jobs in radio and television broadcasting as camera operators or production assistants to gain experience. Experienced photographers in this industry may qualify for senior positions as camera operators in larger media markets or as directors of photography for high-level projects.
Average Salary: $52,020
- Newspaper, Periodical, Book, and Directory Publishers
Recent graduates of a photography program often begin their career by submitting freelance photographs to news media outlets, while more seasoned photographers may qualify for full-time positions as photojournalists or at a publishing house.
Average Salary: $52,820
- Motion Picture and Video Industries
Some students aspire to become still or set photographers in the motion picture industry, while others seek industry experience and additional education to pursue a role like director of photography.
Average Salary: $71,670
- Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers
Many photographers seek freedom and autonomy through creative pursuits. Most jobs in the fine arts value experience over an advanced education, enabling photographers to enter their choice of nontraditional occupations in the creative sector. Students often become self-employed as freelance photographers or explore photography as an art-making practice.
Average Salary: $46,170
- Other Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services
This sector often includes photographers with specialized skills, such as scientific photographers who capture microscopic images or drone camera operators. Additionally, some students earn an advanced degree to become postsecondary photography instructors.
Average Salary: $41,040
Employment rates and average salaries of photographers vary by location. California employs the highest number of photographers (6,600), followed by Florida and New York.
While California houses the most photographers in the U.S., the District of Columbia pays photographers the highest average annual salary ($89,310).
Beyond location, employment also depends on a candidate's education, experience, and artistic ability.
Interview With a Photographer
Michael N. Meyer
Michael N. Meyer runs Picture More Business®, a New York City-based corporate portrait photographer studio focused on the needs of professional services firms. His clients include a long list of law firms, financial services firms, nonprofits, and media companies. He is also the host of the Legal Marketing Studio, a podcast devoted to exploring trends in legal marketing. His fine art projects have been exhibited and published internationally.
- Why did you decide to pursue a career in photography? Is it something that you were always interested in?
I borrowed my father's Nikkormat in sixth grade to take pictures for my class's yearbook. After that I was hooked and couldn't imagine doing anything else. Around that time Nikon was running advertisements that romanticized the life of a working photographer. The journalistic mode they depicted isn't where my career has gone, but those ads certainly led to my early interest in pursuing photography.
- How is a photography program different from other college majors?
Photography as an area of study can be many things: a technical skill set, a commercial trade, an artistic practice, a historical progression, or a theoretical or conceptual framework or support for practices in other fields. Programs at different schools will balance these competing photographic possibilities in different ways. When looking at studying photography, a prospective student should look closely at whether or not their idea of photography matches a school's idea of photography.
- What was the job search like after completing your degree?
My path after graduating was slow and meandering. For the first year I jumped between odd jobs (teaching photography at a summer program, working retail at an art supply store, designing collateral for a small non-profit) before landing a job managing a photographer's studio.
In this position I spent most of my time keeping up the books and doing portfolio drops but also learned how to produce high-end corporate, editorial, advertising, and music shoots; negotiate contracts; and run a business. This first job in my field came through an introduction in my school's alumni network.
- Is photography a versatile degree? Or one that has a clear career path?
Photography can be a versatile degree depending on which "photography" one studies. I would encourage students to look at photography as one would any liberal arts major: as a means of learning how to think critically. Technical skills are the easy part, but they are not enough by themselves to build a career upon. One wants their studies to illuminate what one has to say about the world and, to a lesser extent, how to turn that into a viable career (or more likely into a viable business).
Whichever "photography" one studies, photography ought to sit at the center of a constellation of other topics. Subjects like history, philosophy, anthropology, or literature will help with learning what to say, while subjects like business, accounting, or marketing will be useful in building one's career.
There isn't a clear career path in photography in the sense that there are many paths within the field. I can only speak to my own experience as a corporate photographer. In the commercial space, most photographers are freelancers who work for many clients and have to solve different problems every day. One doesn't have a job so much as one runs a business. While a corporate shooter's business will look different than an advertising shooter's, the career path will likely be similar: years of assisting and building experience before moving out to build one's own business.
As a commercial photographer, this was more or less my path. Over time, my business evolved as I honed in on a niche that was best served by my particular skill sets and engaged my core interests. In the end, by recognizing a particular kind of photography I was good at and building a network of relationships within a potential client base, I've managed to garner a steady flow of corporate projects.
- Is your career path typical of someone who graduates with a photography degree?
I wouldn't say that there is a typical path for someone who graduates with a photography degree. Among my friends in the field, we have followed many different career trajectories.
Most of the folks I know are commercial photographers who specialize in shooting business portraits, architecture, advertising, or advertorial content. A few have glamorous careers (or so it would seem from their social media) as fashion photographers or fine art stars. A handful work as journalists or documentary photographers. A couple shoot personal events. I know still others who teach or have support roles in university settings or have become photo editors, retouchers, printers, curators, designers, and archivists. I also have many friends who have moved into other fields but continue to shoot as their passion moves them.
Many of us wear multiple hats within photography. As an example, I make my primary living as a corporate photographer but also teach as an adjunct professor and exhibit my fine art projects.
- What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job? The most challenging?
The most enjoyable aspect of my job is the variety of people who I get to interact with on a daily basis. On one day I may be shooting executives for an international conglomerate, and then on the next working with volunteers at a local nonprofit. Each of my subjects has a fascinating story to tell. This constant engagement with people in the world has been what I've enjoyed most in my career.
The greatest challenge is that I spend far more time promoting my services and doing administrative tasks than I do actually making photographs. I think this is a common complaint among commercial photographers. However, I've also taken it as an opportunity, as it allows me to balance my client work with my own personal projects that continue to drive my passion for the medium.
- What advice would you give to students considering a degree and career in photography?
The best advice I could give is not to study photography with an eye only towards finding a job. Photography is a process of finding understanding of oneself and of the world. Study it with this in mind and the world will open up to you. If one is looking for a clear career path, study accounting.
Resources for Photography Majors
The photography industry offers several professional organizations for photographers, artists, and editors. Membership can provide unique networking opportunities, industry news, and job advice. Many organizations attract students and recent graduates with discounted membership rates.
- Professional Organizations
Photographers often rely on referrals and professional networks to gain new clients and find projects. The following professional organizations can help you get more direction when it comes to technical advice, job leads and educational resources.
Some of these organizations host annual award ceremonies and competitions, which can give students and professionals the opportunity to challenge each other for academic funding and prestige.
Professional Photographers of America: Since its founding in 1880, the PPA has gained over 26,000 members in 54 countries. Photographers can study for and take the CPP exam to earn a professional credential that shows employers that their skills meet certain standards and ethics.
National Press Photographers Association: This organization was established in 1946, when the first issue of the National Press Photographer was launched. The NPPA is dedicated to professional advocacy and continued education for photographers that work in journalism. Members gain exclusive access to insurance and product discounts, are listed in the "Find a Photographer" database, and get a subscription to News Photographer magazine.
National Association of Photoshop Professionals: The NAPP was created by the Kelby Media Group and is based in Oldsmar, Florida. Subscribers gain access to professional software tutorials, exclusive member forums, Photoshop User magazine, webcasts, and an online photography helpdesk.
American Photographic Artists: The APA has three primary missions: advocacy, continued education, and setting professional standards for photographers within the United States. Members gain access to discounted business insurance rates, exclusive APA newsletters, training manuals, and discounts. Based in San Francisco, the APA operates six regional chapters across the U.S.
- Open Courseware
Open Courseware are free, online courses offered by some of the best higher education institutions in the U.S. The following courses explore the fundamentals of photography and photojournalism.
Introduction to Photography: This MIT course is comprised of video lectures, example photography projects put together by the Fall 2002 class, and computer lab work. Topics include digital imaging, lighting, color processes, and several other technical photography skills.
Fundamentals of Digital Image and Video Processing: This course explores the fundamental tools and methods used to produce and process digital images. Students learn still and video imaging techniques, including enhancement, editing, and manipulation for various artistic, scientific, and commercial applications.
Seeing Through Photographs: This course encourages students to turn a critical eye to photographs in the MoMA collection. Topics include the difference between photographs and photographic images, how the context of an image informs its creation, photography as a mode of communication, and historical storytelling through photographs.
Cameras, Exposure, and Photography: This course introduces students to all aspects of traditional and digital cameras, equipment, and accessories. Instructors help learners select the right camera to produce the images they seek.
- Publications - Open Access Photography Journals
These open access journals allow you to get in-depth analysis and insights into photographic theory and technique. Photographers submit their own work to these publications to gain artistic exposure.
Trans Asia Photography Review: This international publication is edited by faculty from Hampshire College, the University of Wellington, and Jamia University. New issues of TAP appear twice a year, covering photography in Asia. Previous articles have included commentary on Ai Weiwei's work, explorations into the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts in New Delhi, and a description of archival collection processes used by Harvard University.
Philosophy of Photography: This international publication includes articles that focus on the theory, techniques, critical approaches, and philosophy of photography. This periodical is published twice a year, with an editorial board hailing from multiple academic institutions across the globe.
Journal of Mass Communication & Journalism: This publication highlights the importance of photography within new media. Authors can submit research papers, commentary, case studies, book reviews, and opinion pieces that pertain to mass communication and journalism. New issues are released every other month. The editorial panel consists of professional journalists and educators based in Rome, Egypt, the UK, and several U.S. states.
Open Arts Journal: This journal showcases essays, reviews, and research pertaining to visual arts. This publication is released twice a year, with an editorial board that consists of several faculty members from The Open University.
- Publications - Photography Books
The following books are highly regarded by students, academics and practicing professionals within the fields of art photography and photojournalism. They can help you hone your craft and produce high-quality shots, even if you do not have the best equipment or technology. Many of these guides focus on photographic composition and shooting techniques.
Slightly Out of Focus: Photojournalist Robert Capa survived five wars to record combat in stunning detail with his photographs. This is his memoir, chronicling his experiences during World War II as a professional documentary photographer.
Learning to See Creatively: This immensely popular volume by Bryan Peterson emphasizes how individuals have dramatically different views of a situation. Your sight can be a rich field of ideas -- you just need to know how to look. Peterson's book shows you how to infuse your work with creativity.
Photographic Composition: A Visual Guide: This popular textbook was written by Professor Richard Zakia and author David A. Page. It covers the fundamental process that occurs before you take a photo. Topics include framing the scene, choosing a vantage point, considering proximity, controlling light, and using post-processing effects in Photoshop.
Photojournalism: The Professionals Approach: Professor Kenneth Kobre of San Francisco University explores the techniques, equipment, and ethics of effective photojournalism. This guide comes bundled with a DVD, which shows footage of photojournalists on the ground, capturing events as they unfold.
- Publications - Online Photography Magazines
Digital magazines are a perfect medium for showcasing photography, since high-resolution images can be displayed in multiple sizes without print degradation or cost. The following periodicals can help you keep up with modern photography trends. Equipment reviews can also help you make informed tech purchases.
British Journal of Photography: This is a multimedia resource that collects articles on gallery showings, photography equipment, noteworthy photographers, and academic developments. This publication does have a print periodical that is published on a monthly basis; however, the digital version features news that is updated several times a week. Mobile users can also purchase subscriptions formatted for iPhones and iPads.
F-Stop: This digital publication showcases contemporary photographs from all around the world. It features new artists and group exhibitions that focus on a specific theme. Previous F-Stop themes include "The Natural World," "True/False" and "Juxtaposition." Each photograph is presented in a high quality digital format with a dedicated slideshow feature built into the F-Stop interface.
LensCulture: This Paris-based online magazine is known by professional photographers for its prominent annual award ceremonies, such as the LensCulture Student Photography Awards and the LensCulture International Exposure Awards. This magazine accepts photo submissions in dozens of categories, including fine art, urban, alternative process, still life, festivals, and portraits. The magazine also publishes book reviews and interviews with professional photographers.
Nature Photographers: This is the official publication of the Natural Photographers Network, a professional organization dedicated to nature photography. This magazine showcases galleries in the following categories: flora, avian, environmental photojournalism, wildlife, and human interactions with nature.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is photography a good career?
It depends. Photography careers can be lucrative and long-lasting, especially for self-employed workers, and drone and commercial photographers.
- What kind of jobs are there for photography?
Photographers can specialize in many different fields, including wedding photography, commercial/industrial photography, and photojournalism. Photographers tend to gravitate toward self-employment through freelance and contract opportunities.
- What is the highest paid photography job?
Commercial photographers are among the highest paid workers in their field, typically earning a starting salary of $35,000 and as much as $55,000 with nearly 20 years of professional experience.
- Is a degree in photography worth it?
It depends. Creative students with an entrepreneurial streak often benefit from photography degrees.