How to Become a Professional Photographer

Professional photographer pointing camera at viewer.

It is easier than ever to snap a photo on a smartphone and share it with friends or even the world. But if you are interested in how to become a photographer, you'll discover that professional photographers use a wealth of technical skills and artistic techniques that go far beyond those smartphone shots. Anyone can take a photo, but a photographer crafts images that tell a story.

Whether you want to become a professional photographer or have a budding curiosity in a career in the visual arts, you may be interested in exploring a degree program in photography. Let's look at how a bachelor's degree in photography can make a difference both artistically and professionally.

Why Study Photography?

The academic and artistic rigors of a bachelor's degree in photography can give you marketable photographic techniques with the added credential of a liberal arts bachelor's degree.

Photobody1"A photography degree says that you have made an investment in your career," said Rashida Johns, a photography instructor and subject matter expert for Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), who helped design the school's Business of Photography course. "Unfortunately, many still view photography as a glorified hobby. To have a degree shows a commitment to your craft and career."

"It's easy for anyone to take a great picture on their phone and think they're good at it, but what photography students learn is to really create an image, not just take a picture," said Nancy Horton, also an SNHU photography instructor.

Studying photography in a degree program develops artistic vision, allows you to learn how to use technology for photography and editing, and develops business sense and professionalism that will serve you in the working world.

Artistic Vision

As a photography student, you'll hone your own unique artistic perspective. Core courses in design, media and color theory create a strong foundation for more advanced photographic techniques and aesthetic concepts.

"Formal instruction gives students the tools ... they need to execute their creative vision," said Colleen Vandenburg, an SNHU photography instructor. "They explore the elements and principles of design, and learn how to incorporate line, shape, texture, and color (for example) into their composition to create dynamic imagery."

Giving, receiving and using feedback from instructors and peers is a key component of a photography program, and one that prepares you for receiving criticism in the professional world. Horton said that taking critique on creative work is initially challenging for many but that it's a critical skill to build.

Photobody2"You need to develop a thick skin," Horton said. "It is part of the learning process to embrace [feedback] and find your way with it. You need to be able to defend your work but not be defensive."

Vandenburg said that a photography degree is a great foundation in the visual arts, in general, and that exploring the world of photography can lead to opportunities in a range of creative fields.

Technical Skills

Taking a photograph is often only the beginning. Photographers deploy an array of software and techniques to deliver a finished product to their clients.

According to Vandenburg, some of the most important tech-driven photographic techniques for students to hone are how to manually control the camera and how to manipulate light. Photographers also need a strong understanding of aperture, shutter speed and ISO (the camera setting that adjusts lightness or darkness of the photo), and a high level of comfort in post-production programs like Photoshop and Lightroom.

"By learning how to manually control their camera, and harness the power of aperture and shutter speed, students can create images with intention," said Vandenburg. "With a strong foundation of technical skills, the student will become free to push creative boundaries."

And of course, you need to be able to put it all together to tell a story.

"We learn about how visual storytelling consists of all your technical choices, combined with a strong sense of metaphor and symbol," Vandenburg said.

Business Skills and Portfolio Development

Many professional photographers own their own businesses or work as freelancers. If you want to work for yourself, it's not enough to be a great photographer: you will also essentially be a small business owner. Vandenburg said students in a photography degree program should gain the ability to communicate professionally and the ability to meet deadlines and hold themselves to high standards of quality.

Photobody3According to Johns, photographers entering the job market also need a strong grasp of the legal, marketing and entrepreneurial aspects of the photography business. Students in her class learn how best to work with clients and agencies, set up their own business, develop contracts, set pricing, manage overhead, and many other skills.

"While designing this course I couldn't help but think of the lessons I wasn't taught during my formal training, such as how to build an experience for my clients [and] keep my brand consistent across all channels," Johns said.

Photographers looking for work rely heavily on the strength of their portfolio. Horton said that developing a portfolio is one of the most challenging and important things photography students do in their studies. She teaches the Portfolio Development course in SNHU's photography program.

"Students really need to think about who their target audience is [when creating a portfolio]. If they want to take a certain type of picture, who is the audience for that, and how can they connect with this audience?" Horton said.

She said the goal of a portfolio is to show a cohesive creative vision. "You want to see a visual language that's spoken within all the images, that connects them together," she said.

A Bigger Picture

A degree in photography does not limit you to work exclusively in photography; it's also preparation for careers in art direction, archiving, curating, communications, teaching and more, said Johns. Photographers can also work in the motion picture and video industries and in scientific research and development.

Many of the foundational skills you can learn in an online photography degree program will serve you well in a wide variety of careers.

Pete Davies is a marketing and communications director in higher education. Follow him on Twitter @daviespete or connect on LinkedIn.

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