How to Become a Photographer Without Going to School

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The world of photography is vast and varied in its professional realm. From taking pictures of products and food, to portraits of famous people, to sports photography and fashion, to weddings and family portraits; the possibilities are endless for finding a niche in a career that is both rewarding and fun.

If you are considering the path to becoming a photographer and want to know one way that doesn't require spending thousands of dollars for higher education, this article is perfect for you. Although it's important to know the basic theory and history of the profession, acquiring the necessary skills doesn't need to involve textbooks and classrooms. Unlike other vocations, a Degree in Photography from an institution is not necessary to succeed as one.

Also to note: This is a very condensed and generalized article that should give you a basic idea of the steps necessary to becoming a photographer. If you follow the fundamental premise I lay out, you will be guided onto a proper path and most likely take necessary turns and alternative steps that you might find more suiting for your specific situation.

The most important factor to taking this alternative road is passion. You really have to be passionate about anything you want to dedicate a large portion of your time to.

So, you're an amateur photographer, you know a few things about cameras and have a list of famous photographers that you admire. How do you get to learn all the ins and outs of the industry without going to school?

First you should hit the books, I reference a few good theory books at the end of the article. You should be familiar with the basic operations of an SLR camera and understand exposure and aperture, ISO speeds and basic lighting types. These are the most fundamental things to know, and yes, you can learn them from a book.

You also need to find out what type of photography intrigues you. Is it fashion? Do you like product advertisements? Do you love taking pictures of kids? Do some research on your city and find a few photographers who work in a field you are interested in whose work you like. Put together some photos you've taken in a portfolio, get their contact info and make a few calls.

What you're going to say is fairly simple: speak to them and tell them that you enjoy their work very much and are interested in learning about photography. Be honest and let them know that you don't know a lot, but are more than willing to learn. Ask them if they can give you five minutes of your time and schedule an appointment. It's much better to see people face to face.

When you go to see a prospective mentor, as this is what they will most likely become, dress well and bring your portfolio of work. Because you're not able to perform assisting duties on a professional level, you should focus more on gaining an internship at the photographer's studio.  Show them your work and let them ask you a few questions. Offer your time in exchange for experience, as this is essentially what an internship is. If you are offered an internship and are truly dedicated to learning about the craft, stay focused and be open to all sorts of mundane tasks that might be given to you. You most likely won't be given any tasks that require a lot of responsibility. Right now is the time for you to watch and learn and create a relationship. See how the photographer shoots, maintain your level of professionalism, and make sure that you are comfortable with how they work and treat you.

Be prepared to intern at a few photographers' studio's. Sometimes things don't work out, or they may not have a paying position available. Your goal right now is to basically familiarize yourself with this particular type of photography and learn as much as you can.

When you feel that you are ready to assist, you can try to ask for work with the photographer you are interning with, unless you are offered compensation for your work first. Once you start getting paid to assist, you have become a photographic assistant. As time goes on and you get more comfortable with the different levels of responsibility you will progress and hopefully reach out to other photographers.

On average, I would say that someone would need to assist for a good two to three years, full time, before they have learned enough about taking pictures, running a studio, dealing with clients and other similar things depending on the type of photographer they assist. Some assistants may work with only one photographer, full time, for an extended period of time. Other assistants will work freelance with different photographers. The great thing about assisting is that you learn everything you might have in school, and more, in the same time that it would take you to get a diploma. Most graduates have to assist before they start working on their own, so you basically saved three years of your life and thousands of dollars you could use towards buying your own camera and equipment.

While assisting, you should also focus on working on your portfolio, shooting what are called "creatives". A creative, depending on your field, can be anything from fake advertisements to fashion stories. Your portfolio showcases your skill and talent and, again, depending on your chosen field of photography will get you work as a photographer. If you want to become a portrait photographer, take pictures of people. If you want to become a photojournalist, take pictures of interesting events and issues that you identify with. When you feel comfortable with starting on your own, you can use your now hopefully overflowing rolodex so to speak, and start pursuing your own clients and jobs. Make a website, print your business cards and promotional material and start sending your book out to art directors at ad agencies, photo editors at magazines. If you want to start your own wedding photography or portrait studio, get a business loan and rent a studio or office space. You are now experienced enough to begin your career in photography.

Sounds simple doesn't it? Well, if you're dedicated and focused, and most importantly passionate and ambitious enough it is. Good luck!


A list on Amazon that has a great selection, especially Ansel Adams' work, which although based on film is still fundamentally important in Digital photography.

1 comment

Jerry Walch
Posted on Jan 8, 2009