How to Become a Professional Photographer

jlawsonMost of us dabble in some sort of photography. While in the past it was a hobby, today almost everyone has at least a smartphone to take pictures with. In addition to that, we might have a digital point-and-shoot camera or even an SLR, access to a variety of simple formatting software, and of course, filters, that make the colors look better and give a “professional” touch to every photo we share on Instagram and Facebook.

This, however, does not make all of us professional photographers. Not only do they make a living by shooting photos, they also have a career path, a business model and specialized knowledge in a variety of aspects of photography, such as lighting, staging, shadows, the way to use all the different knobs and attachements on the big fancy cameras; most importantly, they must also have an eye for angles and images and some talent to go with the knowledge.

So how do you take a hobby in photography and turn into a profession? After a number of interviews with people in the industry, one realizes that there is no one way of getting there, just like most artistic jobs. Some start by playing around with the camera obsessively, others by volunteering and taking pictures of anything they can find, others get a formal education.

The first step for everyone though, is deciding that they want to go professional and knowing what type of photographer they want to become. Here is a neat infographic on types of careers you can explore, locations and pay you might be looking at.


Jeremy Lawson

Wedding Photographer & Portrature

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Company/Freelancer:
  • Type of photography:
  • Twitter:
  • Jeremy Lawson
  • Chicago, IL
  • 11
  • Jeremy Lawson Photography
  • Wedding/Portraiture
  • @JeremyLawson1


I have been photographing since I was 14 years old. I self taught in high school and then went to college for photography – attending Indiana State University and then transferring to Columbia College in Chicago. I definitely think studying photography was worth it. I think that also because I am lucky and became successful doing it. I do wish I would have known more about the business end of things.  Most art schools teach art, not business. It would have been nice to have more classes about running and maintaining a business.Today, I work 7 days a week.  Work from home and pretty much make my own schedule. I usually have 3-4 shoots a week during busy season (May-October). Editing, photo shopping and general office work take up the rest of my time. I average about 50-60 hours a week.I love that I am able to make a living doing what I love. I love working with different types of people each shoot. Weddings are so great because it’s the happiest day of someone’s life. It’s nice getting to be a part of it. But, I do work from home and I think it may be nice to have an office. It would limit the amount of time I am in front of the computer! And the only thing I really do not like about shooting is the humidity! Unfortunately, I can’t change that.


Get experience

I would recommend shooting any and everything you can.  Free, paid…whatever you can do.  The more work you have to show potential clients, the better.  Look for someone in your area to assist and intern when you can.

Andy McCallie

Sports Advertising & Lifestyle Photographer

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Company/Freelancer:
  • Type of photography:
  • Twitter:
  • Andy McCallie
  • Los Angeles, CA
  • 2.5 years
  • Freelance
  • Sports advertising / lifestyle
  • @a_mccallie
jlawson (FILEminimizer)

I’m a self-taught photographer and rarely do my work days look the same, and I love that. I still assist for other photographers and producers and those days tend to start early and be quite long (10-14 hours depending on the job). On days when I’m shooting for myself, it really depends on the shoot and client but they tend to be shorter (and much more enjoyable!).What I really love and cherish in my job is the absolute need to be creative. I worked in Hollywood for a handful of years and there was very little of the kind of creativity I was looking for. In the early years, financial stability is always tough to come by, so it would be nice to not worry as much about money. The positive side of all that is I’ve learned how to adapt my lifestyle and mindset to need less “stuff”.

Everyone, especially friends and family, will tell you that being a professional photographer is hard. And they’re right. But what they don’t tell you, presumably because they don’t know, is HOW it will be hard. I knew it would be tough to make money at first. I knew it would be tough to break into the assisting world and prove myself as a reliable assistant. But what I didn’t prepare for was how to deal with the silence. In the beginning there are periods where none of your cold emails and calls will be returned. I would go for a week or two getting work here and there and feel really good about things and then all of a sudden, you’re hit with the silence. It can last weeks, which feel like months, which really take a toll on your desire to be creative and push through, which is of course exactly what you need to do during those times.


Immerse yourself

I used to try and reverse-engineer the lighting on every photograph I saw. I researched and found photographers I liked and studied what they were shooting, who was representing them, and why. Immerse yourself into the world of the best in your industry. If you like doing that and it comes easy to you, you’re on the right track.

Be open to critisism

Other than that, keep an open mind to criticism of your work and take photos as much as you can! As a photographer, you have a blank canvas and your job is to fill it with something that at the very least inspires you. It may sound silly and easy, but once I started, I became obsessed with what was inspiring to me and how to fill the canvas. I started to dislike the photos I was taking because I knew they weren’t good enough. I still feel that way. I’ve realized that I’ll never be completely satisfied with my work, but it’s the pursuit of that feeling that keeps me going.

Thomas Robert Clarke

Editorial Portraiture, Large event coverage, Product photography, Architectural details

Quick Look Bio

  • Name:
  • Location:
  • Years in the industry:
  • Company/Freelancer:
  • Type of photography:
  • Twitter:
  • Thomas Robert Clarke
  • Philadelphia, PA.
  • 16
  • Thomas Robert Clarke Photography
  • Portraiture, Architecture
  • @TRCPhotography
me (FILEminimizer)


I shot yearbook and took some darkroom classes in college, but it wasn’t until I decided to quit my job in printing to pursue my dream of being a photographer that I enrolled at the Austin Community College program. My intention was to just test the waters to see if it was really for me, but as luck would have it the program is very highly regarded and I got a great education in the vocation of photography.Unless it’s a shoot day, I spend a lot of my time at the computer. I wear all the hats in my business and most of the time is spent generating business, maintaining current client relations, editing, working with designers, ordering prints and albums, social media updates, fielding questions from clients, hashing out contracts and licensing agreements, and the occasional interview.

Nevertheless, it’s the variety that I really love. While the majority of my product work is food related I have also shot clothing, accessories, technical machinery, and more. Each has it’s unique challenges that keep the job fun. Add in a historical home renovation shoot every few weeks, the occasional wedding (I try to stick to 10-15 a year), and the editorial portraiture that has me interacting with sports icons, politicians, chefs, business owners and executives. All these aspects add up to a wonderfully diverse work life.

Given my history I might say that I wish I had decided to study photography seriously at a younger age. I didn’t make the formal leap until I was 28. I will say that formal art classes previous to that were of great help in engraining ideals of composition and light. As a child I lived near a bookstore and would frequently spend hours in their magazine section looking at covers and skimming pages. I didn’t know it then but what I was doing was laying the ground work for my visual sensibilities. Ingesting nuances that bring images to life. Learning indirectly from the best photographers in the world at that time.


Get some education

With regard to which path I’d recommend, I’d say get an education of some sort. I don’t necessarily advocate for “for-profit” art schools, but do study or apprentice/assist under a seasoned pro or two, take informal classes and attend product demos to understand all your tools, sign up for Kelby Training, and above all never stop learning.


Try to become an observer, meaning really look at things. Don’t just look at your friend, see the contours of their face. See how the light hits them as they move in relation to the light. Get in the habit of making evaluations when you walk into rooms. What is the light source, what direction is it coming from, how bright is it, given this information how would you shoot the environment or subjects within? I once had a teacher tell us to go on a photo safari no more than 2 blocks from our homes. The idea was to see the familiar in a new way. To this day I still practice this exercise a few times a year and whenever I move.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Photographer?


Now that you have at least given some thought to the idea of become a professional photographer, you will need to decide on the type of education you might need.

There is no requirement to get a college degree to become a professional. Andy McCallie, a freelance photographer from LA says:

I do not think formal education and training is necessary for everyone. I would be honest with yourself and drill down to figure out your ideal setting to learn and grow as a creative person. I know many people who absolutely loved their formal training and wouldn’t change that for anything – and on the other side I know just as many who simply had one experience with a camera that sparked an interest that caused a chain reaction of events that eventually lead them to become a photographer full time.”

In fact, you will see later in the interviews, that it’s really a personal choice. However, there are some fundamentals that you need to learn, whether they are self-taught, learnt by apprenticeship or in a classroom, is entirely your choice.

First, you need to learn to take great pictures. For this you will need to experiment and learn how your camera works. Most professionals don’t recommend investing in the lastest gear, if you have the right skill-set, you will be able to take wonderful shots with an older camera, but you need to know very well how it works. There are many tutorials online where you can learn how to use different things, a couple of our experts recommended for a good source of learning material.

This process should lead you to understanding colors, lighting and angles. And, also allow you to begin building a portfolio. Maybe the most important thing that you can have as a professional. Jeremy Lawson, from Chicago, told us: “I have yet to have one person ask to see my degree.  As an artist, they will ask to see your work.  The more you have, the more you can edit to show them the best of the best!”

Finally, learn the business end of things. Almost everyone we interviewed agreed on one thing, they really wish they had had more knowledge about how to run a business. Jessica Merritt, co-owner of Snaptacular Photos says:

“For those interested in getting into the photography industry, I would recommend investing in marketing and business classes in addition to photography education. It’s rare to find a “real” photography job; you’re much more likely to operate as a small independent business. That means in addition to practicing art, you’ll need to master bookkeeping, marketing, customer service, time management, and so much more that you won’t learn in art school.”


A college degree might not be a necessity, but it can teach you a lot and create great networking opportunities. Plus, it’s a safety net, just in case your photography career doesn’t take off, there are many jobs that will require you to have a degree.

Here are some top photography programs in the US. Remember, this is not an exhaustive list and you can always combine a different type of fine arts degree with photography or add a touch of business training in there as well.

  • The New York Film Academy
    Despite it’s name, this school offers courses all over the US and abroad. You can take a BFA in Photography, an MFA if you already have a college degree, but also have the option of taking shorter workshops, for 4 or 8 weeks. Locations include NYC, Los Angeles and Florida. Tuition ranges depending on the course you’d like to take, the BFA, for example is $13,000 per semester plus equipment, printing and lab fees.
  • Brooks Institute
    Located in Santa Barbara and Ventura, the Brooks Institute offers a BFA and an MFA in photography. The current cost is $80,725 and $44,607.50 for the full degree, respectively.
  • School of Visual Arts
    With it’s campus located in NYC, SVA is a great option for networking. They offer a variety of programs, a BFA, a number of Masters level programs, as well as continued education classes and special courses in photography. They distinguish themselves by having a mentorship program for higher level students. The costs vary, but undergraduate tution is $16,780 per semester plus a photography department fee of $1,340 per semester.
  • School of the Art Institute in Chicago
    SAIC has a slightly different approach in their program design, where you get to study a BFA and choose to focus on a subject, this can be photography and something else, or many different mediums of art, you design your own curriculum, so-to-speak. They also have Master’s level courses. Tuition currently stands at $1,381 per credit hour for undergrads.

There are also cheaper options available in state colleges and universities, so don’t limit your options to these schools. Getting yourself into a lot of debt with a career like photography can be dangerous, since many start off with low-pay and work their way up. This being said, it can open a lot of doors in terms of getting your network set up and if you are not a self-learner, then this is definitely a great option for you.


So how do you actually start landing jobs and making money? Most experts will tell you that it’s all about being patient and having low expectations at first. You will need to really get your stuff out there and meet people, all the time, every day, from every possible industry, because you never know if they will need a photographer.

If you specialize in a specific field, such as scientific photography or photojournalism, you might be looking at sending out your portfolio and resume to many, many, many companies and doing some work for free at first. Patience is key.

Larry Oskin, owner of two successful businesses, one in Fine Art Photography and another in marketing and PR advises:

To pursue a career in art, photograph, crafts or any related field, you must reach out to get involved with the community and the media.”

His career path reflects on how true this can be. He started out very young, volunteering with local organisations, telling his story to the media and building a portfolio while he was still in college. Today, 35 years in the industry, he has a name and is often invited as the feature artist and speaker.

The reality of the business is that every one follows a different path, depending on their skills, focus, location, talent, industry and of course, a little bit of luck. So here are a few photographers who gave us a glimpse at what their careers look like and what they recommend those looking to get into the industry.