What Does a Photographer Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

A day in the life of a photographer: Artistic quality, ability to self-promote, interpersonal/communication skills, eye for detail

The Balance / Nusha Ashjaee

Photographers record events and tells stories using images. They take pictures of people, places, events, and objects.

Photographers often specialize in a type of photography. Portrait photographers take pictures of people in studios or on-site at various locations. Commercial photographers take pictures that are used in books, advertisements, and catalogs. Photojournalists, also known as news photographers, capture images that are usually used to illustrate stories on television news broadcasts or in newspapers or magazines. Aerial photographers take pictures of landscapes and structures from aircraft, while fine arts photographers sell their photographs to the public as pieces of art.

About 147,300 people worked in this occupation in 2016. More than half of all photographers are self-employed as freelancers. Others work for companies that provide photographic services, broadcast companies, and publishers.

Photographer Duties & Responsibilities

The responsibilities of photographers can depend on the medium in which they work, but some common duties include:

  • Capture and edit visual content for multiple platforms.
  • Produce photography in various methods including printed/digital media.
  • Deliver final product to various sources including internal and external customers, media, graphic designers, and corporate communications.
  • Perform retouching and image adjustments after shoots.
  • Promote the businesses to clients and the public.
  • Purchase or requisition supplies.

Photographer Salary

Photographers' salaries can depend on the medium in which they specialize. The top paid photographers work in broadcasting, not including the internet. Many photographers are paid on an hourly basis.

  • Median Annual Salary: $34,008 ($16.35/hour)
  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $76,357 ($36.71/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $19,843 ($9.54/hour)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018

Education, Training & Certification

Education and training requirements can also depend on the medium.

  • Education: While entry-level photojournalists and commercial and scientific photographers usually need a college degree in photography, portrait photographers need only technical proficiency. A degree can make a job candidate more competitive. Classes in business, including accounting and marketing, are beneficial to those who plan to become self-employed.
  • Training: While not necessary or required, getting a job as an assistant can go a long way toward learning the business and honing techniques and skills.

Photographer Skills & Competencies

In addition to technical proficiency, photographers need specific personal qualities and skills. 

  • Artistic ability: Photographers are artists who must have the creativity necessary to come up with ways to tell stories using images. They need a good eye for using color, light, and composition.
  • Interpersonal skills: Whether it's the people you're photographing, your clients, or your colleagues, you must be able to understand their needs, read their body language, and coordinate your actions with theirs.
  • Communication skills: Excellent listening and speaking skills will allow you to grasp what others tell you and help you explain things to them.
  • Customer service: Freelance photographers, in particular, must provide excellent service to their clients because repeat business and positive word-of-mouth are essential to success.
  • Business skills: Those who are self-employed must know how to market themselves. They must tend to bookkeeping tasks and keep track of their expenses and profits. They even need to be aware of legal issues, such as making sure they get a model release form signed if they were to take photos of people for commercial use.
  • An eye for detail: You can't let any details slip if you're going to consistently produce only the highest quality photos.

Job Outlook

The job outlook for self-employed photographers is excellent. Employment will grow faster than the average of all occupations between 2016 and 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at about 12%.

Overall, however, others working in the field won't fare nearly as well. Employment for the photography field as a whole is expected to decline by about 6% during the same period due to stock photography affordably available online.

Work Environment

This job might not be for you if you like to stay close to home or work from the same location every day. Photographers often spend time on the road, which can include traveling to far-flung locations.

Portrait and commercial photographers spend a lot of time in studios, but they still have to do on-location photo shoots. Photojournalists also travel, both domestically and internationally. They sometimes find themselves in dangerous locales in order to record newsworthy events.

Work Schedule

Employment in this field is often inconsistent. Approximately 30% of photographers worked just part-time in 2016. The hours are flexible, however, and some jobs are seasonal, as is the case with those who specialize in photographing weddings or graduations. Expect to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. 

How to Get the Job


Photographers must develop portfolios to showcase their work to potential employers and clients. A portfolio is an accumulation of photographs taken over the years. It doesn't just include an artist's best work but should also include pieces that demonstrate the process involved in creating a final product.

Comparing Similar Jobs

Some similar jobs and their median annual pay include: 

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018