How To Become a Professional Photographer: A Complete Guide

Updated February 3, 2023

A career in photography may be an ideal choice for someone who wants a creative and flexible role that allows them to practice their artistic talents. Photographers can work in a variety of settings, so there are many opportunities to consider if you're interested in pursuing a career in this field. Learning how to become a photographer allows you to determine whether this job suits your personal and professional goals.

In this article, we explain what photographers do, share the steps you can take to become a photographer, provide their salary and job outlook and list related careers you can consider.

What does a photographer do?

Two people in the foreground adjust a light on the set of a photo shoot with two people in the background.

Photographers take professional photographs of various subjects, such as events, people, animals or landscapes. They use lighting and an artistic perspective to record moments and evoke a viewer's response. Specific tasks vary by role, but the primary duties of a photographer typically include:

  • Advertising services to attract clients

  • Researching photography trends and methods

  • Planning approaches to completing photo shoots

  • Evaluating unedited photos to choose optimal shots

  • Using editing software to enhance photos

  • Maintaining and using photography equipment

  • Keeping an updated professional portfolio

Some photographers work in a studio taking photos of their clients, while others take photos for a media outlet, such as a newspaper or news service. Photographers may also work for themselves as freelancers or by setting up their own photography studio. You can find a wide range of specialties in photography. Some common types of photographers include wildlife, news, event, wedding and family.

Related: 32 Careers in Photography

How to become a photographer

Follow these steps to become a professional photographer:

1. Find your niche

Photographers are creative professionals who typically work in specific environments where they capture one or more types of subjects. Before you start your career as a photographer, it's important to find your niche, which is the focus area you want to work in as a professional. Factors you might consider when selecting a specialization include:

  • Your favorite photography subjects

  • Whether you prefer working indoors or outdoors

  • If you like taking photos at live events

  • If you enjoy working with clients in a studio setting

  • Whether you find fulfillment in taking photos of clients, events or products

  • The voice, vision and mission of your brand

Related: 6 Ways To Find Your Passion for a More Fulfilling Life

2. Develop your skills

One way to develop technical art, aesthetic and photography skills is to pursue a degree or related courses. Employers may not require a degree in the field, but receiving an education can enhance your resume and help you build a quality portfolio. Photographers may pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) with a concentration in photography, and some continue their education by earning a Master of Fine Arts (MFA). You can also take individual continuing education classes on photography at your local college or university. Examples of courses that may help you succeed as a photographer include:

  • Fundamentals of photography

  • History of photography

  • Digital photography

  • Editing skills

  • Color photography

  • Black and white photography

  • Photojournalism

Related: FAQ: What Are the Education Requirements for Photographers?

3. Buy photography equipment

The photography equipment you may use depends on your photo subjects and work environment, but most photographers use different cameras, lenses, lights and tripods. Most photographers capture photos digitally, which requires additional equipment like memory cards and editing software. If you plan to use film and develop photos yourself instead, it's important to invest in and set up a darkroom with development chemicals, trays and lines to hang photos.

Related: 10 Portrait Photography Tips for Skill Development

4. Learn how to operate your camera and editing software

Once you purchase your equipment, take time to learn what each camera setting is, how to activate it and what the digital symbols on your camera display represent. Familiarizing yourself with your camera takes practice and experience, which can help you develop your skills as you learn. It's also important to learn how to use editing software so you can present your employer or clients with quality work. There are many online courses and tutorials that can teach you to use popular editing programs.

5. Do your research

Especially if you choose not to pursue a formal education in the field, it's essential to research important concepts in photography that can allow you to better develop your skills. Resources like textbooks, digital art publications, magazines and influencer social media accounts can give you an understanding of the techniques and methods used in photography. They can also help you stay updated on emerging technologies, new equipment options and photography trends.

Related: Setting Goals To Improve Your Career

6. Take lots of photos

Practice is one of the most important steps in becoming a photographer because it allows you to get comfortable with your equipment, develop your skills and determine the techniques you enjoy the most. It can also provide you with valuable experience using the tools of the trade, including getting to know your camera, learning how to set up shots, adjusting lighting and using filters properly. Consider taking photos of many subjects in different environments, which can help you find areas of photography you may pursue as a career.

Related: 15 Photography Composition Rules To Improve Your Skills

7. Build a portfolio

Your portfolio is a collection of your best work that shows clients and employers your skills. Be sure to include a variety of photos based on the area you want to pursue. For example, if you want to be a family photographer, you may include candid and posed photos of children, babies and families in different settings. To display your portfolio, you can build a simple website that features an organized collection of your work.

Related: How To Create an Art Portfolio (With Definition and Tips)

8. Use social media

Photographers often use social media to market their services, connect with clients and potential employers and display their work. Forming professional relationships is critical to sharing your talent, finding jobs and making yourself known in the industries you want to serve. Some social media platforms are photo-centric, which allows you to showcase your favorite photos. You can also include a link to your portfolio on these pages.

Related: Become a Networking Expert in 7 Steps

9. Find work as a photographer

With the right skills, experience and equipment, you may find an entry-level job with an established company or start your own freelance business. Here are some ways you can look for work as an employee or a freelancer:

  • Connect with your network. Let them know you're looking for a job as a photographer or that you've started your own business.

  • Offer freelancing services. List your services on marketplace websites where visitors are looking for photographers in your area.

  • Use freelance platforms. Many freelance sites allow photographers to advertise their services and search for projects.

  • Create a professional website. Having a website for your business and not just your portfolio can provide credibility and define your niche or brand voice, which can help you find the right jobs.

Read more: How To Find Photography Jobs (Plus Common Skills)

Photographer salary and job outlook

A photographer's salary can vary widely depending on their type of employment, the type of photography they do and their experience in the field. The national average salary for a photographer is $43,711 per year. Entry-level, freelance or part-time photographers may earn less than the average salary, while established photographers with a large clientele or extensive experience in their roles may earn more. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) expects employment opportunities for photographers to grow by 17% between now and 2030. This is much faster than the average rate for all occupations, which is 8%. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, please click on the link provided.

Related: How To Determine a Salary

Careers related to photographer

If you're thinking about becoming a photographer but want to explore other options before you decide, you can consider other roles for creative professionals. Here are some related career paths:

  • Video editor

  • Film director

  • Graphic designer

  • Art director

  • Creative director


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How To Get Commercial Photography Jobs (Plus Salaries)

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