Judy Dater was born in Hollywood, California on June 21, 1941 and grew up in Los Angeles. Her father owned a movie theater, so movies became the prism through which she viewed the world and they had a profound influence on her photography. From 1959 to 1961 she attended UCLA, majoring in Art. In 1962 she moved to San Francisco and completed her education at San Francisco State University, majoring in photography.
She became part of the community of the west coast school of photography, primarily represented by the photographers Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Wynn Bullock and Imogen Cunningham. Edward Weston was no longer alive, but the others all took an interest in her work and encouraged her to pursue photography as a career. Imogen Cunningham was particularly influential as she was the only one of the group whose primary work centered on portraiture.
Her career has been long and varied, combining teaching, creating books, traveling abroad and conducting workshops, making prints, videos, and photographing continually.