Photography Degrees & Career
A career as a photographer can be an exciting avenue for creative expression, as photographers have the opportunity to work in many settings and meet diverse people. Yet it is also a technically demanding profession, so those interested in becoming photographers must consider the training they will need before committing to this career path. It is also important to know how photographers compare to similar careers in terms of education requirements, average salaries and projected job growth rates. This guide provides in-depth information that can help readers decide if a photography degree can put them on the right career path.
Many photographers begin working as a photographer’s assistant. Some may have a certificate in photography – or even just a high school diploma. They may gain a competitive edge with more education because many employers prefer applicants who have been formally trained as opposed to amateurs who may not be as knowledgeable in many of the technical and creative aspects of the career.
Photographers who work in photojournalism or as scientific or industrial photographers generally need a degree. Some photographers are also voluntarily certified as Certified Professional Photographers through the Professional Photographers of America.
Photographers capture professional-quality photographs. Most use digital cameras as opposed to film cameras. Because digital cameras are electronic, photos taken on them can be stored and transported on portable memory devices and edited using computer software. Photographers may use a variety of editing techniques, such as cropping the photo or enlarging the image, or applying filters to make the photo lighter, darker or sharper.
Photographer Salaries and Job Prospects
Photographer Salary Details
As with many occupations, salaries for photographers can vary by industry and location. Some photographers earn less than $20,000 a year, while others make close to $70,000 annually. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for photographers is $30,490, or $14.66 hourly. The top 10 percent earn $68,930, or $33.14 hourly, and the bottom 10 percent earn $18,120 annually, or $8.71 hourly. However, salaries vary from industry to industry. Also, some states and metropolitan areas pay more than others.
These are the 5 top-paying industries for photographers:
|Industry||Annual/Hourly Mean Wage|
|Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing||$76,090/$36.58|
|Medical and Diagnostic Laboratories||$69,230/$33.28|
|Motion Picture and Video Industries||$67,160/$32.29|
|Scientific Research and Development Services||$63,530/$30.54|
|Other Types of Information Services||$61,090/$29.37|
These are the 5 top-paying states for photographers:
( Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics )
|State||Annual/Hourly Mean Wage|
|District of Columbia||$66,410/$31.93|
Photographer Job Growth
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 136,300 photographers in 2012. From now through 2022, the Bureau projects 5,900 new jobs will be added to the market, which represents a 4 percent job growth rate. This is slower than the 14 percent growth rate predicted for other types of jobs.
The slow growth rate is the result of several factors. The price of digital cameras has dropped significantly, and advances in technology make photography easier than ever. As a result, more amateurs and companies feel comfortable producing their own photos. A decline in newspapers also reduces the need for news photographers. However, portrait photographers are still needed for weddings, school photos and other religious and social events, and corporations are still projected to hire commercial photographers.
Top 10 states with the highest growth, 2012-2022
- 1 21.4% Utah
- 2 19.2% Alaska
- 3 18.3% Washington
- 4 17.9% Virginia
- 5 17.9% Montana
- 6 17.8% Indiana
- 7 17.4% Colorado
- 8 13.8% Iowa
- 9 13.7% Oregon
- 10 13.4% Tennessee
These are the 5 industries with the highest levels of employment of photographers:
|Other Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services||32,870|
|Radio and Television Broadcasting||3,820|
|Newspaper, Periodical, Book, and Directory Publishers||3,530|
|Motion Picture and Video Industries||1,060|
|Other Personal Services||960|
Steps to Becoming a Photographer
1 Choose the Right Education
There are photography programs designed to match each student’s career goals and level of educational commitment. Photography programs are available from the certificate all the way to the master’s level.
- Southern New Hampshire University
- Full Sail University
- Purdue University Global
2 Choose a Focus
There are several types of photography specialties to choose from. Students usually choose to focus in one area, such as:
- Portrait photography
- Commercial photography
- Scientific and industrial photography
- Aerial photography
- Fine art photography
Internships provide students an opportunity to engage in photographic workshops and fieldwork to explore the technical, creative and logistical aspects of photography both in a studio and on location. 4 Take Exams for Certificates
There are numerous certifications available for photographers, some of which are offered by the Professional Photographers Association. Examples of certifications include:
- Certified Professional Photographer
- Certified Forensic Photographer
- Registered Biological Photographer
5 Land an Entry-Level Job
Most schools have a career center that can assist with job interview tips and help students write effective resumes and cover letters. Students should leverage this resource to find a job. 6 Return to School for Continuing Education or an Advanced Degree
Each educational level provides more academic training and instruction, which also makes the applicant more desirable to potential employers or to possible clients. Even students who don’t wish to obtain another degree can benefit from non-degree continuing education options.
Photography Degrees and Specializations
Zooming In: Photography Degrees by Level
Just as there are various types of schools in which to pursue a photography degree, there are also many degree levels.
Photography certificate programs vary by school and can either be offered as entry-level programs requiring anywhere from six to 10 classes or as four-year programs. Associate degrees in photography usually take two years to finish and are roughly 90 credit hours. They provide a stronger photography and arts background than certificate programs and are more technical in nature.
Bachelor’s degrees are four-year programs of study and average 173 credit hours. They provide more in-depth knowledge and can give job candidates a competitive edge in the marketplace. A master’s degree program is typically a two-year program that includes 36 credit hours. It is an advanced program that can lead to management positions such as art director or senior photographer.
Photography certificate programs, which are usually offered at community colleges, can often be completed in just a few quarters, allowing students to learn the basics of photography to enter the field as quickly as possible. Below are examples of actual photography certificate classes and the skills and knowledge that students gain at this level.Fundamentals of Photography
Students explore the basic principles of photography in this introductory course. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn to use image-making techniques and applications.
Foundations of Digital Photography
This course examines ways for photographers to acquire and manipulate images. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to use standard photography software, such as Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop.
History of Photography
This class covers the historical development of photography. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn the creative and commercial evolution of photography.
Foundation of Film Photography
This course explores how film is developed. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to operate in a chemical darkroom.
An associate degree in photography is usually offered as an Associate of Arts in Photography or an Associate of Science in Photographic Technology. These degree programs are offered at community colleges, art schools and some four-year universities. Associate degrees in photography prepare students for entry-level positions as photographers and generally take two years to complete, or the equivalent of 90 credit hours. The coursework is technical in nature, and students in an associate degree program learn the many types of photography and techniques used in the profession. Below are examples of actual associate degree photography classes students can take at this level and the skills and knowledge they might be expected to gain.Color Photography I
This course examines color photographic theory and aesthetics. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to use transparency and negative film materials.
Students explore principles of photography in natural environments. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn specialized techniques in field settings.
Studio Photography I
This class provides an introduction to making photographs in studio settings. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to use tungsten light and electronic flashes as creative lighting tools.
Students in this course look at ways to make photographs suitable for newspapers, magazines and other publications. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to utilize lenses, film and digital media in visual communication.
The Bachelor of Arts in Photography, which may also be called a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography, is typically a four-year, 173-credit program offered at a university, art school or design institute. At this level, students explore more in-depth concepts and theories, and also learn how to refine their creative eye.
Students in a bachelor’s degree program are usually required to take approximately 36 hours of general education courses. This includes such classes as English composition, art, algebra, political science, economics and physical science. Below are examples of actual bachelor’s degree photography classes and what students can expect to learn in each.Contemporary Photography
This course examines late 20th and 21st century movements in photography. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn issues and ideas relative to contemporary image making.
Photographic Lighting Techniques
Students explore various lighting strategies in the editorial, advertising and fine arts genres. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to use different types of lighting in the studio and on location.
Narrative Editorial Photography
This class emphasizes photography in narratives and documentaries. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to develop, research and execute story ideas.
Advanced Illustrative Photography
Students in this course develop an understanding of historical and contemporary issues in illustration. Skills & Knowledge Gained
- Students learn how to use idea-based imagery in editorial, advertising and fine art photography.
The Master’s Degree in Photography, which may also be known as the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Studio Photography, prepares students to think critically as artists, instructors, and professionals. Theory and practice are also explored more critically, and students gain more hands-on practice, usually also completing a significant final project or portfolio. In addition, students learn essential business skills, such as how to market themselves to potential clients and employers. The master’s degree, which is an option for students who have already earned a bachelor’s degree, typically takes two years to complete and consists of 36 credits. Graduates of a master’s degree program in photography should have the following skills: Lighting
Graduates should have an expertise with indoor and outdoor lighting, studio lighting techniques, constant lighting sources, and mixed lighting. They should also know how to work with flood, spot, reflected and diffused light. In addition, students should understand how the time of day affects light and, by extension, the person or thing being photographed. In short, they should be able to set up a photo shoot with relative ease. Conceptual and Problem-Solving Skills
Professionals holding a master’s degree in photography should be able to effectively use concepts such as mood, narrative and the element of surprise and integrate composition, lighting and point of view to connect with their audience. Students should also be able to use critical thinking to solve technical challenges, visualize photos before taking them and generate creative concepts for photographs. Communication
Professional photographers must listen to clients and translate their ideas into images. Therefore, they must ask the right questions and communicate their concepts both orally and in writing to demonstrate that they understand the client’s desires, as well as to explain the feasibility of specific plans of action. Professionalism
Graduates should be able to create and present a portfolio that demonstrates an understanding of art and design concepts and techniques; the portfolio should meet or exceed industry standards. Students should also demonstrate an understanding of photography trends and practices.
Photographers who excel at their work and demonstrate leadership ability may become art directors or creative directors, leading design groups. First, however, many photographers start off with a specialization, gradually growing their portfolio. Although offerings vary from school to school, common specializations in photography include:Fine art photography
Students learn how to take photographs that bring out the subject’s emotions, moods, and inner being. These are high-quality works of art that may incorporate the use of lighting and color.Advertising/photo illustration
Students learn how to use photography in marketing and advertising. These works may provide shock value or generate excitement for the viewer to remember the advertising campaign.Documentary photography
Also known as news photography or photojournalism, documentary photography guides students in how to take photos of different types of people, places, and events in order to tell a story for newspapers, magazines, and journals. Students may also learn how to use video editing equipment.
Online Photography Degree Program Checklist
Some students want to pursue a photography degree, but due to job and family obligations, they may not have the time or ability to commute to a university campus or adhere to a mandatory classroom attendance schedule. Online photography programs provide a way for these students to pursue their dream of becoming a photographer. However, there are several important elements that an online photography degree program should have. Accreditation
The school and the photography program should be accredited by such organizations as the National Association of Schools of Art and Design or the National Office for Arts Accreditation. This accreditation is important because it means that the program meets strict academic standards and guidelines. If a school is not accredited, students may not be able to apply for financial aid, and any classes taken at the school will not transfer should students decide to continue their education in a different photography program. Seamless Credit Transfers
Accreditation does not ensure automatic credit transfers from one school to another. Colleges are not legally required to accept photography degree credits from other schools, and many choose not to accept credits from certain schools. Students who plan to continue their education (for example, transferring associate degree credits to an art school or design institute) should obtain a copy of the transfer agreement between the two schools before taking classes. Comprehensive Curricula and Supporting Coursework
Coursework should provide a comprehensive education in photography while also helping to develop the student’s analytical and critical thinking skills. Fundamentals and foundations of photography, digital photography and film photography, as well as classes in color, techniques, lighting and studio photography are just some of the coursework that the program should include. In addition, students should be able to take other classes essential to operating a photography business, such as marketing, business administration and communication theory. Faculty Expertise
The faculty teaching classes in online photography programs should be qualified to serve in this role. The faculty should include instructors who have not only online teaching expertise but also real-world experience as professional photographers or artists. These individuals should have the background to serve as mentors and guide students through projects. Practical Experience and Placement
In addition to academic work, an online photography program should provide opportunities to work with the type of photography equipment and editing software used by photography professionals. Students should also have an opportunity to create photography portfolios and prepare and present photography exhibits.
The program should also feature internships and other opportunities for students to gain real-world experience in the field. In addition, the program should have a relationship with companies that hire photography degree graduates, and it should have an effective job-placement program and acceptable placement rate. Finally, the career placement office should help students to practice interview questions and to create professional resumes and cover letters.
Components of a Successful Photography Career:
Skills, Credentials, Tools and Technology
Photographers need artistic ability – a “good eye” for judging what would make a good photograph. They must also have to use other tools, such as light, shades and shadows, in their work. Computer skills are essential since most photographers use digital cameras; the footage is transferred to computers for storage and edited using various software programs.
Photographers must also be detail-oriented. The ability to be careful and thorough is essential when taking photographs and completing other tasks. Finally, most photographers, even those who work alone, must deal with clients. It is important to maintain good relationships with clients and to understand their needs and wants. Photographer Credentials
Credentials can help photographers stand out from the competition. In addition to being a Certified Professional Photographer, other types of certifications exist, including:
- Registered Biological Photographer
- Forensic Photographer
- Certified Newborn Photographer
- Certified Child Photographer
- Certified Wedding Photographer
- Certified Portrait Photographer
Photographers may also be certified in specific software programs, such as:
- Adobe Lightroom 4
- Adobe Photoshop CC
- Adobe Photoshop CS6
Tools and Technology for Photographers
There are various tools and types of technology used by photographers.
|Camera flash and lighting||Camera flash attachments, focus assists, softboxes, studio strobe flashes|
|Camera lens||Macro lenses, telephoto lenses, zoom lenses|
|Camera lens filter||Graduated neutral density GND filters, haze filters, white balancing lens filters, wide angle lenses|
|Photography light reflector||Board reflectors, lamp reflectors, snoots|
|Scanner||Film scanners, flatbed scanners|
|Graphic or photo-imaging software||Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop|
|Accounting software||Blinkbid, Intuit QuickBooks software|
|Database user software||Cradoc fotoBiz, Microsoft Access, SuccessWare, Tave Studio Manager|
|Spreadsheet software||Microsoft Excel|
|Web page creation and editing software||WordPress|
Related Career Options
Overview of Related Careers
Besides photography, there are other careers that require technical expertise, creativity and composition skills to produce images that tell a story. Some of those occupations are listed below.
Salaries of Related Careers
A career in photography can be a labor of love because, like fine artist and craft artists, photographers are not guaranteed high-paying jobs. However, with solid education and training, artists in the following related occupations can make a good wage.
Photographer and Related Job Salaries