Varda intended to become a museum curator, and studied art history at the École du Louvre, but decided to study photography at the Vaugirard School of Photography instead. She began her career as a still photographer before becoming one of the major voices of the Left Bank Cinema and the French New Wave. She maintained a fluid interrelationship between photographic and cinematic forms: "I take photographs or I make films. Or I put films in the photos, or photos in the films."
Varda discussed her beginnings with the medium of still photography: "I started earning a living from photography straight away, taking trivial photographs of families and weddings to make money. But I immediately wanted to make what I called 'compositions.' And it was with these that I had the impression I was doing something where I was asking questions with composition, form and meaning." In 1951, her friend Jean Vilar opened the Théâtre National Populaire and hired Varda as its official photographer. Before accepting her position there, she worked as a stage photographer for the Theatre Festival of Avignon. She worked at the Théâtre National Populaire for ten years from 1951 to 1961, during which time her reputation grew and she eventually obtained photo-journalist jobs throughout Europe.
Varda's still photography sometimes inspired her subsequent motion pictures. She recounted: "When I made my first film, La Pointe Courte—without experience, without having been an assistant before, without having gone to film school—I took photographs of everything I wanted to film, photographs that are almost models for the shots. And I started making films with the sole experience of photography, that's to say, where to place the camera, at what distance, with which lens and what lights?"
She later recalled another example:
In 2010, Varda joined the gallery Nathalie Obadia.