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It would be easy to believe that anyone can snap a professional-level photo with the right smartphone. And in some cases, you can get incredible results from an inexpensive piece of gear. But there’s so much more that goes into creating the types of images that you’d see in a magazine ad or billboard—and that’s why demand for professional photographers is on the rise. While pursuing photography as a career can be daunting, it’s entirely possible to turn your hobby into your full-time job. But as we’ll emphasize throughout this guide, it will take some serious work and a decent amount of patience. Let’s talk about how you can get started and ramp up your career as a photographer.

Photography Career FAQs

sunset photography
Source: Pxfuel
A professional photographer shoots photos at sunset on a beach.

Is This a Viable Career Pivot?

Like many questions we’ll discuss, the answer to this one is that it depends. (You’ll quickly find that Google results run the gamut, to say the least.)

Based on what several experts have written, here are a few things to keep in mind as you explore what it takes to be a photographer, profession potential, and salaries:

  • Becoming a professional photographer can absolutely be a viable career pivot—but don’t expect it to become a lucrative business overnight.
  • The best photographers tend to focus just as much on honing their skills as they do on scoring new clients and projects.
  • As you get started and are building your portfolio, try not to be too picky about assignments—as long as you’re working (somewhat) in your desired industry and don’t have ethical qualms with a project or potential customer.

What’s the Average Salary for a Photographer?

As most people explore photography as a career, one of the first things they want to know is: How much do photographers make? Or if you want to get specific, what’s the average photographer salary?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2020 median photographer salary was roughly $41,000 per year or $19.85 per hour. Like most jobs, this can vary based on your location. Glassdoor says that the average photographer salary for someone living in New York City is close to $44,000 per year. Conversely, one living in Austin, Texas, earns a photographer salary of roughly $42,000. 

That said, a large majority of photographers operate on a contract or freelance basis, so the salary data that’s out there is often unreliable or unavailable. Another thing to note? Top photographers often create income streams from a variety of sources, including selling their work on online marketplaces or stock photo sites, which can boost those numbers quite a bit.

Do I Need to Become a Certified Professional Photographer?

The Certified Professional Photographer (CPP) designation is offered by Professional Photographers of America (PPA), which is a nonprofit trade association for professional photographers. Its website claims that PPA’s certification program will give you the knowledge you need to start and succeed in your career as a photographer.

While this is certainly one option for building your skills as a photographer, it’s definitely not the only way to level up. Additionally, many clients don’t require—or even know to ask for—official certifications for open job listings or contracts. In most cases, potential employers are far more concerned with the quality of work in your photography portfolio than they are about the list of certification programs that you’ve completed. 

Find Your Shooting Style

The Art of Photography: Defining Your Visual Style

Jobs for Photographers

OK, we’ve talked about a few of the career basics for new photographers. Now it’s time to explore the different types of photography jobs that you can consider as you begin your new professional path.

We’ve culled a few details about several industries that photographers work in below, but keep in mind that companies across all industries often seek professional photographers for a wide variety of applications. But here are a few that you’ll run across frequently.

Fashion Photographers

photoshoot of girl in strawberry dress
Photographer Jessica Kobeissi shoots a model during an outdoor fashion shoot.

When many people hear the term “photographer profession” they tend to think of fashion photographers. These folks are responsible for working with designers and models to create images for advertising campaigns across multiple mediums, including magazines, billboards, social media, and digital ads. They also play an integral role in determining how the clothing is presented and the scenes in which the models are photographed.

A common perception around getting a fashion photography job is that it’s virtually impossible. In some ways, this is justified, since lots of aspiring photographers dream of working in this industry. But according to several insiders, there are three keys to getting your foot in the door:

  • Build a book. Websites are great for showcasing your work, but fashion industry execs tend to ask for physical books.
  • Research your photo editors. Every editor has his or her own preferences for handling submissions. Make sure you understand who you’re submitting your work to—and what they’re looking for.
  • Find a photo agent. Once you have a book of work, explore the possibility of working with a photo agency that has connections across the industry and can re-sell your work in different markets.

Real Estate Photography

interior design
Source: Property Shark
A talented real estate photographer can make a home listing stand out from the competition.

If you’ve ever looked at a listing on Zillow or Redfin, you understand how a good photo of an average house can make it look like the most attractive property in a neighborhood. While many real estate agents take their own photos, other home sellers turn to professionals to take high-quality images of the houses they’re trying to sell.

Here’s some good news: The barrier to entry for how to become a real estate photographer tends to be lower than it is for many other industries. To get started, build a portfolio of photos of your home, and ask your friends if you can take photos of theirs. Over time, build relationships with real estate agents in your area as you figure out how to become a real estate photographer. While the upfront cost of your services might put them off, a folder full of high-quality images will ultimately set their listings apart from the competition.

Freelance Photography

man with camera
Brandon Woelfel is one of the most well-known freelance photographers around.

We alluded to this earlier in the guide, but freelance photography is both the easiest and most difficult entry point to a career in photography. This is a great way to work on a wide variety of projects and make a lot of connections. However, like most freelance jobs, freelance photography will require you to build a lot of connections. In the early stages of figuring out how to become a freelance photographer, you might spend as much time talking about potential jobs as you will spend working on projects.

Travel Photography

street corner
A travel photographer can make vacation destinations shine across a variety of advertising campaigns and mediums.

Travel photographers have an insanely fun job. In some cases, magazines or television stations will send them to some of the most beautiful places on earth for weeks-long projects. But in other cases, a travel photographer might also be assigned to a small town somewhere in the middle of America to showcase what makes it unique and drum up tourism revenue. 

As you figure out how to become a travel photographer, hone your craft by photographing the scenes from every trip you take—from your neighborhood farmers market to your summer jaunt to France. You can also follow travel photographers on Instagram to get a sense of what makes each unique—and successful.

Crime Scene Photography

If you’ve ever seen an episode of the CBS hit show CSI, you know that crime scene photography is still a thing. And while it might not be as glamorous as travel or fashion photography, it’s still worth looking into how to become a crime scene photographer if you’re looking for a more lucrative option. According to Salary.com, forensic photographers in Boston can earn up to $78,000 per year.

Macro Photographer

A macro photographer does close-up photography of small subjects, including flowers and bugs. Anyone who’s ever tried to zoom in with a camera knows that it’s very difficult to get a quality shot of something up close. If you can master macro photography, you’ll distinguish yourself among a large pool of photographers and potentially launch a career in an industry like product photography.

Tools You Need to be a Photographer

camera supplies
Source: Stock Snap
A professional-grade camera rig is ready to be packed up for a shoot.

You could easily walk into an electronics store and buy a wide variety of high-end photography gear, but the reality is that you only need a few tools to start taking best-in-class photos. 

Here’s a quick shopping list for anyone who’s starting from scratch.

DSLR Camera

Duh, right? Of course you need a camera to be a photographer. But you don’t need a very expensive one to do the job, either. Skillshare instructor Aaron Alpert offers an in-depth walkthrough that will help you sift through some less expensive but excellent camera options.

Tripod

Plenty of great photos can be captured with a camera in your hands, but plenty of photoshoots will require you to have a tripod to mount your gear on. Beginners especially benefit from a tripod, which gives you an easy fallback option in the event that you’re having trouble keeping your hands still during a photoshoot.

Lenses

Even though you don’t need to have several backpacks full of lenses to get started, you should have a few common ones on hand to handle any situation you’ll encounter as a photographer. Want some help choosing? Check out this guide from Skillshare instructor Indeana Underhill.

How to Learn or Improve Your Photography Skills

Dive Into Online Courses

I always tell friends that I wish the internet was as evolved as it is today when I was trying to learn new skills. That’s especially the case with photography—and there are endless Skillshare courses to help you improve your photography skills.

Here are just a few of our favorites:

Schedule Photo Shoots With Other Photographers

Photographers that I’ve spoken to tell me that they’re always seeking opportunities to go out and take photos with other professionals. Some travel to scenic areas of their cities, while others just set up photoshoots at their homes. This is a great way to gain some experience as a photographer while also tapping into someone else’s expertise and personal style.

Publish Your Work

This is probably the scariest thing I’ve suggested so far. As you’re getting started, some of the best feedback you’ll get is from your friends, family, and any other online followers you have. Take a leap and start sharing your work on your social media channels. While you might get some harsh feedback, you’ll likely also get the tips and encouragement you need to keep going.

Build Your Portfolio on Instagram

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