A photographer is somebody who gets paid for taking pictures. Photography is one the rare industries in which your educational background is secondary. Some photographers study photography in school but many don’t. To be a successful photographer, you don’t even need a high school degree. What you do need is a good ‘eye,’ and the technical means to produce a picture that people will pay for. 

Starting Out

There are many different types of photography in which a photographer can specialize. When you’re first starting out, don’t worry too much about the specifics of your career arc. You need to learn what makes a good picture and the technical aspects of developing a good picture. 

There are many photography degrees and certificates available, but going the formal education route can be expensive and time consuming. Remember, people who hire you don’t care too much about your educational background; they care about the quality of your pictures. The majority of photographers have an undergraduate degree in something (often something other than photography), but otherwise their focus is on their craft as opposed to academics. Many elements of photography can be self taught and reinforced through practice. So if you have some extra money and time to spare, a photography degree or certificate program could be a good way to learn the ropes of the industry—especially the technical aspects—but let’s assume that you choose to bypass the academic route and dive right into the industry. 

First off, when you’re establishing your photography business, you should hold onto your day job just so that you have a base level of income. Photography may not work out for you or you may find that the job isn’t fulfilling, so have a fallback just to be safe. 

You’ll need a good camera, which will probably cost you around $500. You can also buy a used camera for half the price. Regardless, you need a high quality camera.  The price of this camera will also be tax deductible if you actually become a photographer, so keep that in mind. 

Once you have a camera, immerse yourself in the industry. Read your camera’s manual; study the manual. Learn every setting on your camera, every way in which you can manipulate the photos you take. Experiment with light and shadow, different lenses (your camera will likely come with more than one lens) and play around with digital editing software. Very likely, your camera will come with some basic digital editing software. Most Canon cameras, for example, come with their in house software. You can also mess around with Adobe Photoshop just to get a feel for how to edit photos. Some common editing needs are to remedy blurriness or ‘red eye.’ 

Read photography books, books that talk about both the theoretical aspect of photography (i.e. the role of light and angles) as well as the technical aspects (i.e. when to use certain lenses, which cameras are best for certain types of pictures, etc.) You can also read books about the business side of the industry. What type of photography do you think you’d like to specialize in? Wedding pictures? Family portraits? Fine art photography? Look around on the internet for websites that specialize in certain photography niches. 

Most importantly, get inspired! Find pictures you love and post them on your wall. Discover photographers you admire and read their biographies. Study their work and their philosophies. The photographers who have the most success are the ones who are inspired and sincerely love what they do.

That said, photography is a very competitive business. Photographers, especially when first starting out, aren’t guaranteed big paychecks. Don’t get me wrong, you can make good money as a photographer (we’ll cover that later), but earning those big paychecks takes time, effort and some struggling at first. You have the best chance of making it through those tough times if you love what you do.

Launching Your Career

As the video above discusses, once you feel as though you’re able to take good enough pictures, you’ll need to market your services. At first, take any job that you can. People often hire photographers for wedding photos and family portraits. This type of photography could be a good way to gain traction in the industry even if you’re primarily interested in other types of photography. 

There are many different ways to market yourself. You can start a website that advertises your photos. (If you go this route, be sure to put a watermark on your photos so that if people “borrow” them, they won’t be “stealing” them. A watermark is also free advertising.) You can put listings in directories, put up fliers locally, use directory websites such as Angie’s List, or You can also just walk around with a camera. If somebody is staring at your camera or makes a comment about your camera, engage them in a conversation that ends with you handing them your business card. The hardest part of photography is building a client base to start your career. Once you’ve built up a client base, you’ll start to get referral business and build a reputation for yourself, especially locally. 

But before anybody hires you, they’ll want to see your portfolio. You need to make sure that your portfolio consists of very high quality pictures. Ideally, your portfolio will help distinguish you from other photographers in some way. What’s your brand? What makes you and your pictures special? Your portfolio is a visual representation of your brand. 

Also, a great way to advertise your photographs is through social media, in particular Instagram and Flickr. You can refer people to your Instagram page as part of your portfolio. 

Salary and Lifestyle

Photographers can make good money. The median salary for photographers differs by state and niche, but most photographers who work full time are making at least $50,000 per year. Aerospace and Product Manufacturing photographers have a median salary of around $75,000 per year. Medical Photographers have a median salary of around $70,000 per year. Before and after plastic surgery photos can be a very lucrative business as well. The key is building a client base that allows you to have a full time workflow. If your plate is full with clients, you’ll have no problem making money as a photographer. 

The lifestyle for photographers varies greatly depending on what type of photography you do. If you are a concert photographer, for example, you’ll work on site at night and perhaps travel a fair amount. Similarly, if you’re a wedding photographer, you’re weekends will be jammed pack whereas the middle of the week will be less busy.

Let’s just make this fact clear—becoming a professional photographer involves many, many hours of perfecting your craft. And once you have a steady stream of clients, you have to make sure that you’re photos continue to be top quality. In a perfect world, you’ll love spending time taking photos and editing your photos so your “work” will feel like play. But remember, photography is a service industry. Your clients’ desires/aesthetic preferences will override yours. Give the client what the client want so that you can charge that client lots of money. 

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