Photography Instructor Career

Photography instructors teach students of all ages how to shoot pictures, develop film, make prints, and evaluate finished photos. They work in high schools, teaching students the basics of shooting and printing black-and-white photography. They also teach at the college level, leading more advanced classes in shooting techniques, color film developing and printing, art history, and digi­tal imaging.

Photography Instructor Career History

Though the discovery of active chemicals that make pho­tography possible is credited to scientists, Louis Daguerre, a French painter, is considered the first photographer. In 1839, he developed the first photograph using sil­ver-iodide-coated plates and a small box. The resulting image, called a daguerreotype, took a long time to create and could not be made into duplicate prints.

Photography Instructor CareerThe process of darkroom photography that we know now is generally attributed to the work of George East­man. In the late 1800s, Eastman invented a simple cam­era and roll film that could produce multiple images.

With the invention and growing popularity of digital photography (developed by such wide-ranging sources as NASA, Texas Instruments, Sony, Kodak, and Apple), the field of photography is constantly evolving. Those who teach the various processes and techniques of pho­tography must keep up with industry changes while still paying homage to traditional methods and early pho­tographers’ work.

Photography Instructor Job Description

Photography instructors teach photography to high school and college students or to adults in community centers, photography studios, or other settings. They lead class lectures on the techni­cal aspects of photography and take students into the darkroom for hands-on training in devel­oping and printing.

Depending on the nature and level of the class, instructors may limit their classes to lectures, cov­ering technical material such as the relationship between f-stops and shutter speed; how to best capture images in motion, lim­ited light, bright light, or other situations; or how to manipulate camera settings to create differ­ent effects, such as a short or long depth of field, blurred images, or high-contrasting images. These instructors are responsible only for teaching within the class­room, and students are expected to shoot and develop pictures on their own time.

Most other instructors incor­porate darkroom time into their classes. These instructors teach in the classroom a small percentage of the time, lecturing on tech­niques and educating students about other photographers’ work, and spend the remain­der of class time in the darkroom, teaching students how to develop and print their film.

There are three main chemicals, sometimes called washes, used to develop film and print pictures: devel­oper, stop bath, and fixer. Photography instructors teach students how to properly mix and handle these chem­icals. The proportions of chemicals to water must be exact, so attention to detail and careful measuring are emphasized.

Instructors also show students around the dark­room before the lights are turned off so they are famil­iar with the equipment and its location for easy access. Instructors show students how to use the printing machines, called enlargers, and how to adjust them to make prints of varying exposure time. Instructors also show students how to take an exposed image (on a piece of photo paper) and put it through the chemi­cal washes so it can be developed and “fixed” so that it is no longer sensitive to light. At this point, the stu­dent can bring the image into the classroom for closer examination.

After teaching students the basics of how to oper­ate equipment and handle the chemicals, instruc­tors teach students how to critically examine their own work to find out how to make improvements or adjustments. They also teach students “tricks” to salvage a poorly shot image (such as one that is over­exposed to light and as a result, appears dark in the print form). One of these tricks includes a method called dodging and burning, which either lessens or adds to the picture’s exposure time to light and makes it appear lighter or darker in certain areas. Instruc­tors also teach students how to use light filters and other equipment to further alter images once in the darkroom.

Besides teaching shooting and printing techniques, instructors also encourage students to be creative and passionate about their work, to study the work of ear­lier photographers for inspiration and technique, and to keep practicing.

Photography Instructor Career Requirements

High School

While in high school, take all the photography classes that are offered. If your school does not have a darkroom, consider taking classes at your local community college or recreational center. Other art classes will also benefit you by broadening your artistic scope and abilities. To be a successful teacher, you should be able to communicate well with your students, so be sure to focus on your Eng­lish classes as well.

Postsecondary Training

The level of postsecondary training required depends on where you teach. Instructors working at a commu­nity center or private high school may need only some background in photography to instruct a class. However, if you plan to teach at a public high school, you will need teacher certification and a proven background in pho­tography. If you want to teach at the college level, you will most probably need a master’s of fine arts degree (M.F.A.) to land a position at a large university. Art schools accred­ited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design are looked upon highly by employers and art pro­fessionals. Visit its Web site,, for school listings and contact information.

Other Requirements

To teach photography, you need education and ample experience in the technical elements of shooting and developing film. However, you also need to be passion­ate about the art form to pass the same feeling on to your students. Students learn at different rates; some will pick up techniques and show talent from the beginning, while others may struggle just trying to load a roll of film into their camera. For this reason, you should also be extremely patient and supportive.

In some cases, students take photo classes simply for their own benefit or “just for fun.” These individuals are not striving to become professionals, so they should be encouraged in their work and have fun learning the craft. It will be your responsibility as an instructor to create a fun and encouraging climate. In this case, you will need to be creative in your teaching methods to be able to educate your students in an entertaining and engaging manner.

Exploring Photography Instructor Career

You can explore photography by taking classes or just by practicing shooting film on your own. Even if you do not have access to a darkroom, you can practice shooting images with a basic automatic camera. In this way, you can learn how best to frame shots to create clear or even dramatic images.

To see if you have what it takes to teach photography, try to explain to a friend or family member how a pic­ture on a roll of film becomes a finished print. If you can clearly explain the many steps it takes for a negative to become a “positive” or finished print, you are demon­strating good teaching skills.

Another easy way to explore this career is by talking to a photography teacher about his or her training and tips for finding a job. Whether your teacher was trained at a large university or a small fine-arts school, he or she should have good advice to pass on to you about the career.


Photography instructors teach at community centers, high schools, community colleges, liberal arts colleges, large universities, and art schools. Some photo instructors are hired to work in full-time positions, but a majority of them work as part-time teachers or adjunct professors.

Starting Out

Instructors looking for their first job may find the most luck with community art centers or community col­leges. These classes are generally open to the public and require less formal training and experience from their instructors. From these positions, instructors can look for jobs teaching at larger schools. If they have teaching experience and certification, they can apply to teach at public schools of all levels. To work at a university or art school, however, instructors need an M.F.A. degree. Those with the degree can get job assistance from their school or through their contacts made in class or in the darkroom.


Career advancement may come in the form of higher salary, larger classes, or more prestige. Instructors that become known for their own work can command the highest salaries when teaching because the demand to learn from a “master” will be high. Instructors at all lev­els can advance by working with more skilled students, teaching advanced techniques and criticism. They may also advance by delving into other mediums, such as computer (or digital) imaging.


Earning potential will be largely determined by where the instructor teaches. A community center does not have a large enough budget to pay the same amount as a univer­sity. For this reason, instructors can earn as little as $10 an hour to as much as $80,000 a year or more.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that art teachers working at postsecondary educational institutions earned a median salary of $51,240 a year in 2005. The lowest paid 10 percent earned $28,680 a year or less; the highest paid 10 percent earned $88,380 a year or more. Art instructors earned an average of $52,920 in junior colleges and $57,880 at technical/trade schools. In 2004, self-enrich­ment teachers (including photography instructors who teach at art and community centers) earned a median salary of $30,888.

Depending on where the instructor is employed, he or she may be eligible for health benefits and free or par­tially discounted tuition for family members.

Work Environment

To teach students both technical and hands-on skills, photography instructors work in both a classroom set­ting and the darkroom. The darkroom contains chemi­cals that are toxic to ingest and harsh on the skin. For this reason, instructors and students alike are advised to handle these materials with care, using gloves when mix­ing them and tongs when developing prints.

Photography Instructor Career Outlook

As long as students remain curious about and interested in photography, there will always be a need for people to teach it. Demand for instructors should remain strong in larger high schools, community colleges, and universities. In smaller schools and community centers, demand for photo instructors will depend on the institution’s budget. Photography is an expensive art form because of high equipment, film, paper, and chemical costs. In addition, not all schools have the space for a student darkroom. However, most schools and centers that currently host photo programs should continue to do so and will need qualified instructors to lead classes.

The digital movement that has revolutionized photog­raphy will ensure a continuing need for instructors that are skilled in computer imaging and printing processes. Students of future classes should not only be taught tra­ditional darkroom film developing methods, but also know how to download and alter images with computer programs.

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