Have you been told you “have a good eye” for taking photos? Do your friends always want you to take pictures at parties or even at their weddings? Maybe you went through that photography phase in high school, and it never stopped. Or maybe you love the gear – the lenses, the lighting, the filters and the props. Whatever the case, if you’re considering a career in photography, there’s a good chance that you have noticed the abundance of photography classes and degree programs offered at colleges.
What Education Do You Need to Become a Photographer?
Photography isn’t a career field where a college degree is a requirement. In fact, an actual degree isn’t among the three most commonly reported levels of study for professional photographers, even though some sort of college study or higher education is fairly common.
The Most Common Levels of Education for Professional Photographers
The largest share of professional photographers – 27 percent – reported having some college education but not completing a degree, according to O*NET. The next most common level of education is a high school diploma, which accounted for 18 percent of the occupation, followed by a post-secondary certificate, which 14 percent of photographers reported as their highest level of education. Generally, post-secondary certificates are awarded upon completion of a shorter and more focused course of study than you would complete if pursuing a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree.
The combined percentage of photographers whose education fits into the three most common reported levels only adds up to 59 percent of the field. In other words, 40 percent of photographers have a different level of education, and it stands to reason that many of these professionals probably have a college degree of some sort.
The Benefits of Earning a Degree in Photography
If a college degree isn’t required or even expected, why should a budding photographer bother taking the time and incurring the cost of earning a degree? Even though a college education isn’t mandatory for photographers, having one can be extremely valuable. For one thing, natural talent in composing and snapping photos can only take you so far in this field. If you’re really committed to developing your photography skills to your full potential, you’re going to need to learn new concepts and techniques. Formal coursework in photography can help you master your craft.
Additionally, as you proceed through your degree program in photography, you will have plenty of opportunities to curate a portfolio that highlights your very best work. Once you’re ready to start looking for employment in the field of photography, it’s this portfolio – rather than your degree itself, your grade point average or any other factor – that will primarily persuade employers and clients to hire you for professional photography work. You could put together a portfolio of your best work on your own, of course, but having guidance from experienced photography teachers can help you improve your skills to get better photos, as well as identify the best photos to select for your portfolio.
Finally, there are certain roles in photography for which you might need a degree. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that the fields of scientific photography, industrial photography and photojournalism commonly require a college degree, even for entry-level roles.
For all of these reasons, not to mention because some aspiring photographers simply want to be college graduates, photography classes and degree programs are common at institutions such as trade and technical schools, community colleges and four-year colleges. You can pursue several different levels of formal education in photography, including certificates, associate’s degrees, bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees.
Everybody thinks they can be a photographer, especially now that virtually everyone walks around with a high-quality camera constantly in their purse or pocket in the form of a smartphone. If you want to set yourself apart from the amateurs and break into the field of photography as a profession, you’re going to need formal training.
What Degrees Do You Need to Be a Photographer?
At this stage in the process of thinking about career preparation, you’re likely asking questions like, “What degree does a photographer need?” Some majors to consider are photography, journalism or photojournalism and business.
Photography degrees are often offered as fine arts degrees, such as a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) or Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree. Fines arts degree programs are based out of the creative arts, as opposed to the liberal arts – the learned skills that include studies in writing and communications, history, philosophy and psychology.
A typical BFA in photography degree program will include studies in the following subject areas:
- Photography techniques
- Studio lighting
- Color theory
- Graphic design
- Digital photography
- Artwork critique
If you aspire to go into photojournalism, or the use of photography for the purpose of telling news stories, then a major in journalism or photojournalism may be valuable. Practical and technical photography skills are valuable for photojournalists, but these professionals also need to know how to identify, contextualize and tell a compelling news story. Photojournalism is typically offered as a concentration within a journalism degree program rather than a distinct major. Students should expect to take core journalism classes like newswriting, reporting and law and ethics in news media and journalism. The classes needed for a photojournalism major may include photojournalistic style and content, upper-level project-based photojournalism courses and classes in multimedia journalism.
Since the majority of photographers are self-employed, knowing how to run your own business is particularly valuable for this occupation. Some photographers choose to major in business administration to develop a broad base of business knowledge. Others focus on more specialized majors. Studying marketing can help self-employed photographers learn how to promote their business, while majoring in accounting can assist with the financial aspects of running their own business.
Full-time photography students can generally earn an associate’s degree in as little as two years or a bachelor’s degree in as little as four years.
Photography Schooling Requirements
If you’re pursuing a degree in photography, you need to know the requirements for getting into a degree program and the requirements for graduation.
Getting into an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program in photography is, in many ways, like getting into college in other areas of study. Students typically are required to submit a completed application, letters of recommendation, copies of standardized test scores and a transcript of their high school classes and grades.
However, one requirement that commonly appears in photography degree programs that students may not encounter in other majors is the portfolio. Prospective photography students, as well as students in other areas of the arts, are often asked to submit samples of their best work to date. College admissions teams don’t expect these portfolios to show the same level of expertise as the portfolios students build throughout their college studies, of course, but they do want a glimpse of students’ potential as photographers.
To graduate from a photography degree program, you will need to complete the required number of credits – generally, 60 for an associate’s degree and 120 for a bachelor’s degree – that includes general education coursework and major coursework. Students may have to take core coursework in art more generally, in addition to classes pertaining to the concepts and techniques of photography. Often, photography students must compile and submit a portfolio of their best work in order to graduate.
What differentiates certificate programs from associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs is the shorter, more focused curriculum. Post-secondary certificate programs don’t require general education coursework, as degree programs typically do, but they also may not go into the advanced photography coursework that students can encounter in a bachelor’s degree.
What Do I Need to Do to Become a Photographer?
Because photographer is a career that doesn’t necessarily require a college degree, there’s a lot more to attaining this career than just finishing school. Employers will look at competencies in the most important photography skills and techniques. As a photographer, you will need to be familiar with how to:
- Use both natural and artificial light in a photo
- Enhance photos using photo editing software
- Use a variety of photographic equipment
How do potential employers and clients assess a photographer’s skills when deciding to hire him or her? They evaluate a photographer’s abilities based on the work found in the photographer’s portfolio. As such, it’s important to maintain your portfolio – by continually adding to it your best new work – as well as your professional website and social media accounts you use to market and advertise your services and to represent yourself as a professional.
You also need work experience and professional connections. You should start developing experience and connections as early as you can. Often, photography students can start gaining experience during college through internships and by contributing to their school’s newspaper or other publications.
Photography equipment, including cameras, is essential not only for self-employed professional photographers but also for photography students. Students may need to shell out several hundreds of dollars on equipment such as a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera, photo storage devices, film, batteries, photo paper and photo editing software.
Employment for Professional Photographers
As you might expect, top employing industries for professional photographers in America include photographic services, broadcasting and publishers of newspapers, periodicals, books and directories, according to the BLS. While most people envision photographers as working largely for newspapers, magazines and photography studios, these industries combined accounted for less than one-quarter of photography jobs in 2020.
By far, the largest percentage of professional photographers is self-employed. Self-employed photographers made up 64 percent of all photographer jobs across the country in 2020, the BLS reported. If the idea of having a boss constantly keeping you in check is daunting, a career as a freelance photographer may be a fitting gig for you.
Professional photographers work in many different functions and specialties. Among the most popular types of photography are the following:
- News photography
- Aerial photography
- Portrait photography
- Sports photography
- Travel photography
- Wedding photography
- Commercial/industrial photography
- Scientific photography
- Fine art photography
- School photography
Most photographers choose to focus on one specialty or on a few, often related, areas of specialty. That is, the same professional is unlikely to cover news stories, take family portraits, open a gallery of fine art photographs, produce scientific photos and cross the globe to capture travel photographs. Once you figure out what kind of pictures you want to make, you can narrow down your professional objectives and chart a course to accomplish them. For example, you might seek out an internship in photojournalism or scientific photography, look for established wedding photographers who could use an assistant or take advantage of a study abroad opportunity to demonstrate your skills in travel photography.
Getting Established as a Professional Photographer
Photography is extremely competitive, and new photographers may have to intern or do a lot of networking while still in college. Permanent, full-time photographer jobs in the form of traditional employment arrangements can be hard to acquire in the world of professional photography, especially if you haven’t yet built up your portfolio. Freelancing is one way to make money while developing your professional portfolio and building connections in the industry. Since self-employed photographers aren’t limited to doing photography work for just one company, you can pursue multiple paths to a more permanent work arrangement or stick to freelancing and build up your client base.
Earning Potential for Photographers
Based solely on the cost of photography services – for example, of a wedding photography package, which can easily cost thousands of dollars, or family photos, for which clients are often asked to pay hundreds of dollars – you might expect professional photographer to be a lucrative career field. In fact, the BLS reported that the median hourly wage for photographers in 2020 was just $19.85 per hour, putting photographers’ earning potential slightly below the median hourly wage for all occupations. Over a year of full-time work, this wage adds up to $41,288.
Of course, there’s plenty of variance among photographers’ earning potential. The lowest-paid 10 percent of photographers made less than $10.78 per hour in 2020, the BLS reported, while the highest-paid 10 percent of photographers earned upwards of $41.76. This salary data only pertains to traditionally employed photographers. Self-employed photographers who are highly successful can earn significantly more, but they also take risks that include a lack of consistent work and a lack of the safety nets, like unemployment benefits, that come with traditional employment.
Job opportunities for professional photographers are on the rise. The BLS predicted that employment for photographers would grow at a much faster than average rate of 17 percent between 2020 and 2030, bringing about 18,900 new jobs.
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