In a world overflowing with multimedia platforms, well-trained photographers have a wide range of outlets for their work. Whether you want to be a photojournalist who documents important current events as they happen or a wedding photographer who brings out the joy in a couple's special day, campus-based and online photography schools and certificate programs can teach you the skills you need to succeed.
On this page, we'll discuss how to become a photographer, give you some information about photography trade schools and provide current photographer salary averages calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Read on to find out how photography programs at the college level can help you turn your passion for photography into a career.
What Do Professional Photographers Do?
There are several different types of professional photographer, each with their own subtly different set of tools and techniques, but the basic outline of a photographer's daily duties is fairly similar from one specialty to another. Here's a quick rundown of responsibilities that most photographers have in common:
- Consider, plan and compose a scene that best presents the subject matter
- Adjust natural and artificial lighting to give the subject the right look
- Use image editing software like GIMP and Adobe Lightroom to post-process photos
- Maintain a digital portfolio to market and advertise services to potential clients
Working conditions for photographers can vary considerably. Portrait photographers, for example, work in studios or travel to client locations, while aerial photographers shoot photos while flying in helicopters or small airplanes. Photojournalists often travel to exotic or dangerous locations to find their subjects and may work long or irregular hours.
How to Become a Photographer
Professional photographers come from all walks of life and take a variety of routes into the profession, but there's at least one tried and true approach that aspiring photographers in the U.S. can follow. Take a look at this series of steps that most photographers take on their way to the workforce:
- Earn a high school diploma or equivalent
- Enroll in a photography program at a community college, vocational school or university
- Shoot as many photos as you can and build a portfolio that showcases your talents
- Graduate and begin the search for clients and employers
The subjects you'll study in photography programs tend to vary from one type of institution to another. Photography trade schools may focus more on the equipment and technical aspects of the field, while art schools are likely to include robust training in composition, color theory or visual communication.
Despite some differences between schools, photography programs still have plenty in common. Here's a quick list of common photography courses at the college level:
- History of photography
- Photographic lighting
- Camera techniques
- Business of photography
- Digital imaging
- Photoshop for photographers
- Industrial photography
Photography Degree and Certificate Programs
There may be no formal education requirements for most professional photography jobs, but many employers prefer candidates who can verify that they've learned the art and the business of the profession from a trusted source. Here's a little detail about photography programs at a few different academic levels:
- Undergraduate certificate. Photography certificate programs can be a great place to start your education. They usually take less than a year to complete and cover important fundamentals of photography like composition, lighting, camera techniques and visual communication.
- Associate degree. An associate degree in photography can be a great way to immerse yourself in the study of photography without committing to the four or more years it typically takes to earn a bachelor's degree. Associate degree plans take roughly 20-24 months of full-time study and usually go into greater depth than certificate programs.
- Bachelor's degree. Certain professionals may need bachelor's degrees in photography -- scientific photographers and photojournalists, for example -- but a four-year degree may be more preparation than you need to get your career in photography started.
Advanced study plans such as the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) in photography are also available, but you're likely best served to spend several years in the profession before considering a master's degree. You may also be able to take one-off classes to keep your skills in tip-top shape.
Online Photography Schools
Now that professional photography has gone mostly digital, online photography schools have begun offering their degree programs via distance education. If you're concerned about the deep time commitment that's usually required from a traditional campus-based program, then the virtual classroom might be the right choice for you.
If you do choose an online photography school, remember to check and make sure it's accredited before enrolling. Accreditation means that the education available at a given institution has been evaluated by an independent organization and certified as meeting a national standard of quality.
Photography Certifications and Licensure
Most photographers don't need licensing or other credentials to work legally, but one segment of the industry requires it. If you're hoping to take commercial photographs from an unmanned aerial systems (UAS) craft, also known as a drone, you'll need certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before you can start work.
FAA certification for drone pilots requires that you are at least 16 years old, in good physical shape and capable of speaking, reading and writing English. An initial aeronautical knowledge exam administered at an FAA-approved testing center must also be completed.
Career Advancement Options for Photographers
The best ways for a photographer to move up the career ladder depend on the type of work they do. Photojournalists can advance by establishing effective reputations with news media agencies, for example, while freelance photographers typically advance by adding exceptional new work to their portfolios and seeking out higher-value offers from clients.
Additional education can also increase your career potential. Earning a bachelor's or master's degree in art direction can give you the skills you need to move into administrative and supervisory roles.
Program Costs and Financial Aid
Skills and Abilities for Photographers
Although just about anyone can learn the technical fundamentals of photography, having a few key traits may help you parlay those fundamentals into a successful career. Here are a few skills and abilities that can give photographers an edge, according to the Occupational Information Network (O*NET):
- Visualization is the ability to understand how an object or scene will look after it's been rotated or parts of it have been moved or rearranged
- Critical thinking can help photographers determine how to get the most out of a shoot by making use of available resources
- Arm-hand steadiness allows you to shoot with confidence when you don't have access to a tripod or other stabilizing hardware
- Time management is especially valuable for freelance photographers, who often have to finish shoots and other projects under strict deadlines
- Visual color discrimination gives you a sense of how the colors in a scene compare to one another and can lead to more sophisticated compositions
Photographer Salary and Career Outlook
A professional photographer's salary can depend on a wide range of variables. The contents of your portfolio, the amount of experience you have on the job, the region where you live and the salary standards of your specialization can all have considerable influence on your pay.
National average salary figures and growth projections from the BLS can give you an idea of what to expect once you're done with school and making your way on the job market. Here's a table of their most recent data:
Projected Job Growth
Professional Resources for Photographers
Joining a professional organization can bring added advantages to a photography career. Some may allow student membership, as well, so you can get started on your professional life before you even hit the workforce. Here's an introduction to three such organizations available to photographers in the U.S.:
- Professional Photographers of America (PPA) has a membership that's over 30,000 strong and offers a variety of incentives to join. Members get access to educational workshops, business assistance, mentorship opportunities and more.
- The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) works to advocate for the interests of photography professionals in legal and legislative matters as well as providing members-only marketing tools and a discount program designed to address the needs of working photographers.
- The International Freelance Photographers Organization (IFPO) provides valuable support for freelance photojournalists, sports photographers and other pros who often need event access to do their jobs.