How to become a photographer

Rachel Swain, Editorial manager
January, 2019

To become a photographer you'll need determination, the motivation to network and a substantial portfolio showcasing your talent

'This is a tough, competitive career to sustain a living in, so a 'pre-flight check' that you have the personal qualities to survive, is vital,' says Rachel Rogers, marketing manager for the Association of Photographers (AOP). 'Motivation, self-belief, tenacity, intelligence and of course, creativity, are all important aspects of the personal survival kit.'

You should also contact fellow practitioners and find out what working as a photographer is like. This initial contact and skills assessment should help you to decide if this is the career for you, and if it is you need to take the following steps.

Get some work experience

'Work experience is essential if you want to develop a genuine understanding of professional life - you cannot acquire that sort of understanding by reading articles or looking at websites,' says David Dennison, senior lecturer in photography at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). 'Try to obtain work experience within the area of practice that you're interested in, but don't worry if that proves difficult - any type of work experience within any part of the sector will be useful.'

Compared with looking for work experience with large employers, you're less likely to land a week or month's placement with a photographer. Instead you may be invited to assist a photographer for a day or during an event they're covering. Make the most of any experience you're offered - it's still a valuable time to ask questions, learn photography practices and build contacts.

'The best experience is to work as an assistant alongside a photographer. It's important to choose someone who works within a genre that interests you so that you gain the best insight into what it could be like and you’re more likely to put 100% into the role if you’re interested in it,' says Rachel.

If you're struggling to secure work experience, consider starting your own photography blog. Uploading your work online will demonstrate your talent, ability to use photography software and provide instant access to your portfolio. Utilise the online photography community by following other blogs and using social media to hunt for opportunities.

Find out more about work experience and internships.

Do a photography course

Choosing to do a Masters (MA), a Masters of Fine Art (MFA), postgraduate certificate (PGCert) or postgraduate diploma (PGDip) will give you invaluable knowledge of the industry while also building your portfolio.

MFA courses are exclusive to creative subjects, and are focused more on applied, practical learning through performance and portfolio than a traditional, theory-based MA.

'You need to find the right course that will provide you with the technical, theoretical and contextual knowledge you'll need to build your own platform as a professional photographer,' advises Rachel.

The range of modules offered on MA courses is designed to give you a deeper, more rounded understanding of photography as a whole - its past, present and future. For example:

  • Kingston University London's Photography MA offers modules concerned with political debates about representation in photography and the photographer's role as an image maker.
  • Modules such as 'The Photographic Witness', 'Visualising the Invisible' and 'New Media Practices' are offered as part of UCLan's Photography MA.

To see what's available, search postgraduate courses in photography.

To gain entry to a course, you’ll usually need at least a 2:1 degree in a related subject, as well as substantial relevant experience. This could be anything from work shadowing to keeping your own photography blog.

Universities will be interested to see your own work, so you may be called to interview as part of the application process. Compile a portfolio of your work before you go and be prepared to discuss it at length.

Generally, a full-time photography Masters will take you one or two years to complete. Part-time courses can last up to three years, with the exception of some part-time MFA courses, which can take four.

Find a photography job

As a photographer you'll specialise in a certain field, such as:

  • architecture
  • events
  • family
  • fashion
  • forensic
  • school
  • wedding
  • wildlife.

Alternatively you can combine interests in photography and journalism to become a press photographer.

Each of these roles requires a different style and skillset. Photographers across the industry use a range of apparatus, working to different hours in various locations, requiring travel from local to global. For instance, as a school photographer you may work within a county or region, while as a wildlife photographer you'll need to travel to habitats in various countries and weather conditions. Because of this, finding work experience tailored to your ambitions is crucial.

You can look for photography jobs at the AOP Job Shop or Photoassist.

A lot of photographers are self-employed, which is something you'll need to consider when starting your photography career. You may want to find out what's involved in going freelance before you get started.

It's also worth getting extra support by joining a professional body as David points out, 'Students can contact professional bodies such as the AOP or the British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP) - both of these offer student membership and great access to working practitioners.'

Offering advice, inspiration and networking through talks, workshops and awards the AOP offers membership from student through to accredited photographer. It also runs the AOP Student Awards, which allow students to promote their work and start building networks by connecting with commissioners of photography.

David also recommends reading Beyond the Lens by the AOP before you embark on your career. 'It's the definitive guide to life as a professional photographer,' he says. 'It covers all aspects of contracts, copyright, model release agreements, licencing and just about anything else you might want to know.'

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