What qualifications do you need to be a professional photographer?

Leighton Emmons

Thu Sep 23 2021

What qualifications do you need to be a professional photographer?

To be a professional photographer is similar to be being any professional artist. Do you need any qualification to do so? The answer right off the bat is, well, no.

Photography is an expression of self, and there is no restriction on who can become a professional photographer. Anyone can pick up a camera and begin shooting. There is no SAT exam equivalent for photography that proves you know the basics, so deconstructing the idea of what makes a pro photographer ‘qualified’ is a little nuanced.

Having said that, there’s a reason not every photographer is considered a professional.

So when posed with the question: what qualifications do you need to become a pro photographer? We figured a better approach to answering this is by reframing the question as: what attributes/traits do professional photographers have that make us perceive them as ‘qualified’?

In this way, we’re working backwards by analyzing some of the world’s most renowned and famous photographers to figure out what ‘qualifications’ one might need to become pro.

We’ve gone ahead and broken it up into four aspects. These include:

  1. Having spent time studying photography and/or working as an apprentice
  2. Having professional experience under their belt
  3. Having a portfolio
  4. Having a strong network

1. Spending time studying photography and working as an apprentice

As we just alluded to, the fantastic thing about photography is that anyone can get started with it almost immediately. It’s simply a matter of having access to a camera. Having said that, some photographic genres will require degrees in photography.

If you’re looking to work in a photography discipline that’s anything to do with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) photography or news photography – there’s a good chance a photography degree will be required.

But keep in mind, that’s really only if you’re a younger photographer out the gate. At the end of the day, your portfolio speaks volumes to your photographic abilities (more on this later).

For now, let’s breakdown the educational journeys several famous professional photographers took, to highlight the value in learning photographic fundamentals.

Studying vs apprenticeships

Annie Leibovitz – Went to the San Fransisco Art Institute with the intention of becoming an art teacher. But she took one photography workshop and decided she was better off changing her major to photography (that turned out to be a wise decision).

Dorothea Lange – Studied photography at Columbia University and later went on to do several informal apprenticeships with New York photography studios.

Robert Frank – Began his career by training under a few photographers and graphic artists at the age of 22 as a means of escaping the confines of his business-oriented family.

The point here is this: many of the best pro photographers started their careers by learning from others. Whether this was in the classroom or out in the field, each of these photographers in some capacity made the effort to learn from others.

While we’re not trying to say you need to have spent time learning photography to be a qualified professional photographer, we’re simply pointing out that one common denominator across most of the world’s best photographers is that they’ve spent time learning the art form from other people.

So, assume you would like to learn to get better at photography, where do you begin?

First, there are many universities that offer remote programs and tons of free online courses you can sign up for. If you’re looking for a more hands-on learning experience however, consider photography workshops.

Photography workshops are a great way to learn photography fundamentals from a professional while being out in the real world. We’ve been continuously growing a never ending list of photography workshops from around the world here.

Many workshops double as vacations and holidays. Consider doing a workshop somewhere you’d love to travel. Many workshops double as vacations and holidays. Consider doing a workshop somewhere you’d love to travel.

2. Having professional experience under their belt

Despite what we just addressed, have you ever noticed that the best and most renown photographers are never talked about in relation to their photographic education?

It’s always either their type of photographic style or a famous photograph/event that they’ve covered.

This goes to show that while education is important to become a good photographer, it’s almost never the thing that defines a photographer.

In this way, the professional experience you have under your belt is a far bigger determinant of how ‘qualified’ you may be perceived as a photographer.

Here are some example to showcase this point:

Photographers who had professional experience

Steve McCurry – His photography career began by disguising himself in an Afghani garb and crossing the Pakistan border to document the war in Afghanistan. He smuggled out rolls of film sewn into the linings of his clothes which were subsequently published in The New York Times. Most famously from this collection was his portrait, the ‘Afghan Girl’, which catapulted his photographic career.

Richard Avedon – Made a name for himself as a revolutionary fashion photographer at the age of 23 by moving to Paris and photographing fashion models out in the world as opposed to in the studio. A style that had not been done before.

The point here is this: the most ‘qualified’ photographers have either photographed meaningful events and/or developed a unique photographic style. That is, the most ‘qualified’ professional photographers created something tangible to put next to their name. It’s not their credentials that gave them influence, it was their work.

We’re not saying if you aren’t regarded as a living photographic icon, you are not ‘qualified’. The comparisons we’ve used here feature some the most successful pro photographers of all time – but the point would be valid for less well-known experienced professionals who have a strong track record.

But again, we’re trying to find consistencies among the photographers we consider ‘the best’. In this case, we’re highlighting the value in developing a personal photographic style and/or photographing something unique.

Thus, your photographic experience and photographic work is going to be massively critical in how you are perceived as a photographer. Which leads us directly into our third point.

3. Having a strong portfolio

Now, while professional experience is similar to having a strong portfolio, we’ve separated the two because they can be mutually exclusive. That is, professional experience is more about the photography you’ve been involved in, while your portfolio is the actual output. Just because you’ve photographed a high profile event, or got lots of professional experience, does not guarantee your work is good.

Its important to stress that you don’t need to be covering a once-in-a-lifetime global event off in some war-torn part of the world to be taking amazing photographs.

Your portfolio is direct a reflection of what you can do with a camera, regardless of who or what the subjects of your image are.

You can take amazing photographs even in your backyard.

Here are some examples to demonstrate what we mean:

Professional photographers who had a strong portfolio

Elliot Erwitt – Is a world renowned Magnum photographer known for his black and white candid photos of ironic and absurd everyday situations. Elliot frequently uses dogs as the subjects of his photos. So much so that dogs have been the subjects of not one, but five of his books (Son of Bitch (1974), To the Dogs (1992), Dog Dogs (1998), Woof (2005), and Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs (2008)).

Vivian Maier – Didn’t become a world renowned photographer till after her death. She worked as a nanny for about 40 years while pursuing street photography on the side. She took more than 150,000 photographs during her lifetime which mainly surrounded the seemingly commonplace subjects of the people and architecture of Chicago.

The point here is this: good photography can come from virtually any context. Our examples here go to show, good photographers can make a lot out of a little.

Which is a bit of a double-edged sword argument. It implies there is no excuse for not having a strong portfolio (unless you’re just not that great of a photographer). Just because you haven’t travelled or documented some world event, doesn’t mean you can’t be taking good photos. It might just mean you’re looking in the wrong places.

Now, just as important as it is to have good work, it’s equally important showcasing that good work professionally. People need to see the work you’ve created after all. These days that means having a professional portfolio website. You can find help with that here.

An example of a professional photography website, belonging to Yvan Cohen An example of a professional photography website, belonging to Yvan Cohen

4. Having a strong network

Of all our points addressed, this one is going to be the most nuanced. It’s one of these realities we all know about, but forget to talk about. Usually that’s because there is really no cookie cutter formula for how you do it.

Let us point out: having a strong network is important to succeeding in any discipline, not just photography.

This is something we talk about in our article: how to start your photography business in 8 steps. That, your people skills are going to be almost as important as your photography skills.

We understand this de-emphasizes the value of ones professional photographic experience and portfolio. But in reality, all these factors go hand in hand. You’re unlikely to build a strong network in the photography industry without being capable of doing good work.

Professional photographers who had a strong network

Philippe Halsman – At the age of 24 fled to France and began working for Vogue magazine where he developed a powerful reputation as one of the best portrait photographers in France. When Germany invaded, he secured a visa to escape to the US thanks to family friend Albert Einstein (no joke). Later on in his career he met surrealist artist Salvador Dalí and became good friends with him, collaborating together to produce several compendiums of work.

Henri Cartier-Bresson – Considered an all-time great photographer and sometimes dubbed the ‘father of street photography’. He was also the co-founder of world renowned photo institution Magnum photos. His co-founders? Two friends he met when he was 26 years old, David Seymour and Robert Capa. Go figure.

The point here is this: succeeding in photography, as in other disciplines, is very much about who you know. Thus, in the context of being considered a ‘qualified photographer’ this can be as simple as having the right recommendation or referral from the right person.

These recommendations and referrals from decision makers can carry all the weight in landing you a given photographic job/project/opportunity. Sometimes a ‘less qualified’ photographer might earn an opportunity over a more qualified one simply because they were better acquainted. Life isn’t always fair in this way, but that isn’t to say there’s nothing you can do about it…

3 networking tips

First and foremost, build a strong reputation. This is usually done by consistently delivering high quality work or by being extremely easy to work with.

Next, network and make friends. You’ll never build a strong network without meeting others, discussing your work and theirs, and putting yourself out there. You can start with something as simple as joining Facebook groups of other photographers.

Third, no one we knew ever grew their network by being disliked. If you’re being personable and genuine and aren’t burning bridges with people everywhere you go, there’s a very good chance you’ll begin making friends in no time.

In conclusion, just as we had started off by saying in the beginning, an education in photography is not going to be determinant for doing good photographic work. Having said that, learning photography fundamentals is going to be integral to your development as a photographer. Good work, in turn, will help build your reputation, grow your network and enhance your ‘qualifications’ as a professional photographer.

Written by Leighton Emmons

All featured images all by Kyle Loftus

To read more helpful articles on photography, check out our blog page.

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