Should you Study Photography at College or are There Better Options Now?

Should you Study Photography at College or are There Better Options Now?

0Comments

If someone were to ask me whether it’s worth going to college or university to study for a degree in photography I would find that a difficult question to answer. I don’t think there is much value in studying photography at college, yet I don’t want to destroy anyone’s dreams (the good news is that there are plenty of other less expensive paths to a photography career).

If you are thinking about studying photography at tertiary level, these are the two most important questions to ask:

  1. What will you learn during your course?
  2. How much will it cost you?
photography education

You can learn a lot about photography by going to Amazon and spending a few hundred dollars on photography books, or purchase ebooks like on offer here on dPS. I’ve learned far more from books than I ever did from my photography degree.

What will you learn?

The first is important because, incredible as it may seem, you may not actually learn much while taking a photography degree. I know this is true because I studied photography at what was supposedly the UK’s top photography college, only to find that the level of teaching was so low, that I made my way through the three year degree learning next to nothing.

Let me give you an example. In our third year, the tutor gave a single one hour class per week. After a few weeks he gave up on doing that because only five or six students (out of a total of around 30) were turning up. The reason for the low turnout? Most of the others were so worried about writing the required thesis that they couldn’t concentrate on photography. And the reason they were so worried? The same tutor had spent weeks explaining how the thesis would be one of the most difficult things they had ever done, without giving any practical support or solutions to us.

Another example (bear in mind that I took my course between 1996 and 1999). We had one computer between 90 students, with an out of date version of Photoshop installed on it. The college had identified digital photography as an important trend – yet didn’t support the students enough to learn it.

GotCredit

By GotCredit

The truth is that degree courses are a tremendously inefficient way to learn. Whereas a typical working week is filled with 40 odd hours of work, a typical week in our course only had a few hours work. The rest of the time was wasted.

Plus, you may have the additional living costs of moving to another part of the country to study, and the loss of income from not being able to work a full time job while you are at college.

My theory is that our course was caught in bit of a time warp – the tutors probably came from an era when it was normal for arts courses to take a relaxed approach to education. University education was free in the UK at that time, and there was little concept of students paying for an education and expecting to receive value for money in return. Whether that has changed since then I have no way of knowing – I hope so.

The world of education has changed tremendously since I was at college. You can go online and learn by reading the blogs of some of the top names in the business. You can buy books, ebooks and video courses for just about any aspect of photography you care to learn about. Computers are much cheaper, and almost every student would have one.

You can also learn by taking workshops with some of the best photographers in your field. They may seem expensive, but it is a pittance in relation to the cost of obtaining a degree.

photography education

dPS writer Valerie Jardin runs photography workshops in the United States, Australia and Europe.

If you were going to study a photography degree today, the main question you have to ask is, what value does it give you over and above what you can learn from books, online resources, and workshops? Here are some ideas.

Interaction with other photography students: If you struggle to find like-minded people to talk about photography with, then this may be an attraction.

Industry experience: Does your course give you actual experience working in the area of photography that you want to get into?

Industry contacts: Very important, as these contacts will help you when you leave college to embark on your career.

Solid business training: Most photographers are self-employed, so it is essential to know the basics of self-employment and running a business. If your chosen course doesn’t teach these, then don’t even consider it. You won’t be prepared for the practical side of a career in photography.

An understanding of the newer ways of earning money from photography: Do the tutors on your course understand the emerging world of the business of workshops, and creating ebooks and video courses to sell online? This is important because these are all ways you can bring income into your business. One day there may be more money to be made from teaching photography, than from doing commercial photography assignments, and you need to be ready for that possibility.

The quality of your tutor:. Is there a highly regarded tutor at your college who can help you get started on your journey as a professional?

Another important factor is that drive and determination, combined with some innate creative talent, good business sense, and a willingness to learn are the primary characteristics you need for a successful career in photography. How many of these are taught at college?

photography education

Digital Photography School has a fine selection of photography ebooks for you to learn from.

How much will your course cost?

How much will your photography course cost you to study? The answer varies widely because it depends on where you live, and where you’d like to study. Bear in mind that graduating from college with lots of debt is a financial handicap that may hold you back for many years to come. Don’t forget to factor in living costs, and loss of income, as well as the cost of the course itself.

A good exercise is to calculate how much your course is going to cost you each week. Then, once you know how much you will learn during each week, you get a true idea of value.

In my opinion, the only reason that you should get into debt for an education is if you are studying something such as medicine, engineering or law which holds the promise of a lucrative career path at the end of it.

GotCredit

By GotCredit

Photography doesn’t have that lucrative career path. Some photographers make lots of money, some don’t. Lots of photography students (including some from my course) end up in careers other than photography. There are no guarantees in this business, and you need to be aware of that.

In the book The Millionaire Next Door the authors take in-depth look at the characteristics of the typical American millionaire. Most of them leave school early, start a successful business, and build it up. Very few millionaires have a college education. Why? The years spent studying (and therefore not working or building up a business) and the debt built up during that time prevents most people, regardless of qualifications or earning potential, from building up enough income or assets to become millionaires.

The solution

If you have a burning desire to make a living from photography, then look at these learning opportunities first.

  • Books and ebooks
  • Video courses provided by photographers and organizations like Lynda.com

    photography education

    DPS has two video courses for photographers. There are countless others available online.

  • Workshops (half-day and full-day)
  • Longer workshops (two days to a fortnight)
  • Part-time courses provided by local schools and colleges
  • Online courses provided by organizations like the New York Institute of Photography (I have no experience of these courses and no idea whether they are any good, so do your research).

All of these will be significantly less expensive than a photography degree, and can be carried out in your spare time while you have a full-time job.

Another approach is to look for a job in the industry. While you might not immediately be able to get a position that you really want (such as an assistant for a prestigious advertising photographer) you may be able to work in a related position.

For example, you might get a job working for a picture agency, a job as a receptionist in a portrait studio, a position working for a photography magazine, a job as a picture editor somewhere – you get the idea. There are lots of possibilities, and working as closely as you can to the area you want to end up will give you the opportunity to learn from established professionals and make the contacts you need to develop your career.

Given my experiences I would never advise anyone to study photography at college or university. However, I appreciate that there must be courses that are far better than the one I took. If you had a positive experience studying photography at college I’d love to hear about it, please post your comments below and let’s discuss it.


Mastering Photography

Mastering Photography ebook by Andrew S Gibson

My ebook Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to photography and helps you make the most out of your digital camera. It’s aimed at beginners and will teach you how to take your camera off automatic and start creating the photos you see in your mind’s eye. Click the link to learn more or buy.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Mark

    Colleges and universities these days are far more concerned with being businesses than seats of learning. I would have thought the best way of learning to be a photographer would be to get a job working for one. Very much the apprentice route.

  • Spoonie

    Considering how many people I see calling themselves photographers who really have no idea, and the number of high end commercial photographers being quite small and probably picky with who they would take as an intern, I think that option is probably only viable for a small number of people.

    From what I have seen in Australia the TAFE level photography courses are excellent. Tertiary level visual arts courses teach you to be a visual artist, it’s a little different from just being a “photographer”.

    If you just want to be another midlife crises photographer that thinks plastering shallow DOF portaits with a heavy handed Lightroom filter is the way to go, learn as this article suggests. If you want to really learn end to end the techniques and craft of photography, find a good course and go to school.

  • Yes, if the option is available it’s a good one. Some of the students from my college who are now working in the commercial field went on to work as assistants to pro photographers in London.

  • Yes, if the option is available it’s a good one. Some of the students from my college who are now working in the commercial field went on to work as assistants to pro photographers in London.

  • Glad to hear the TAFE courses are doing a good job.

  • BlackRipleyDog

    Has anyone had recent experience with the New York School of Photography? I already have several years into building a body of work and have had moderate success in selling framed pieces. I am seeking help with the more intrinsic side of the art aspects of it; such as understanding how galleries work and what standards apply. What is viewed as art and what is just wall decor?
    Is NYSP a worthy avenue or do I need to explore course work in a Fine Arts degree program?

  • JP

    This is by far one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject. It seems as if colleges are more concerned with the degree than real world experience. And in today’s marketplace a bachelor’s degree is what a high school degree meant 50 years ago. A master’s degree is what a bachelor’s degree should have been…and students still can’t get jobs and are burdened with a mountain of debt.

  • walwit

    I was under dental surgery while my dentist was talking with one of her colleagues who said “Having paid my actual degree, now my specialty costs $40,000 USD at my university”.
    I have to interrupt my dentist and with difficulty said to her: “With that kind of money I will never work again”.
    (I live in Mexico)

  • Angelica Tachiquin

    thank you for this webiste! You must never sleep it seems there’s mountainous literature, resources, articles, tips,…I mean you guys cover it ALL and I LOVE IT! SO thank you DPS!

  • Angelica Tachiquin

    i’m acutally mixing it up…I took 1 black/white college course but now i’m interning with a local photographer who’s been in the business for 25 years. Interning and self teaching myself through books is more my style. Since i’m not just “doing it for the money”, I get to go at my own pace while learning professional techniques, meet other pro photographers, make up artist, models, etc. This mixture of “live learning”, reading books, and websites such as DPS has def helped me! I’m not a pro yet but i’ve found a path that will eventually get me there!

  • Christine

    I am currently enrolled in the New Institute of Photography – I would say it is an excellent course at a very affordable price. I find some advantage in taking formal course work – you get presented with the material in an organized way and everything you should know is covered. Plus the teachers at this school are actual working professionals and are available 24/7 to help you should you need more advice or whatever. I am sure you can learn a lot with self directed education from workshops and books, but you need to know “what you need to know” – and in a decent school, they will present that.

    That being said… As for brick-and-mortar colleges, I wouldn’t bother – they are appallingly expensive these days and I’m not sure you get much for your money. I am shocked about your description of this photography college in the UK… At the same time in Canada – 1996 to 1998, I was attending a program in graphic design at Red River College in Manitoba and the quality of education I got there was stellar compared to your experience. We *all* had computers and there was a copy of Photoshop (as well as other necessary programmes such as Illustrator, QuarkXpress, etc.) installed for each student. Each class was 6 hours a week and the curriculum was extensive and assignments took hours of time each week. Students showed up every class. The teachers were working professionals and only part time teachers at the college, so they had a wealth of real world experience to teach us. And it didn’t cost that much in those days. This college still has high quality courses, although they seem to be astronomically expensive now – I’m glad I got my education when I did!

  • Wayne Minert

    I honestly think it depends I went to a local community college and was taught by people who had several years in the business and were successful photographers in their own rights yes a photography school isn’t for everyone I know a few people didn’t go to some form of photography school and are self taught and are doing quite well for themselves so it depends on the person really

  • David

    I guess I’m what is described as a mid-life crisis photographer (below) but having spent my entire life being an amateur photographer on the side, I’ve found that doing a course at a reputable institution which seems to achieve a relatively good balance between industry and artistic expression has been a good way to extend my photography. Of course I already knew some of what was being taught, but I’ve also learnt a lot that’s new and my photography has improved considerably. Having said that, I don’t earn my living from photography and probably never will and I can also afford the course; this would undoubtedly be a different situation if I was younger, especially now. A career as a professional photographer is not something I’m necessarily interested in, but expanding my photographic horizons has helped me to do work with community organizations who can’t afford the services of a professional photographer, which is satisfying to me. All I can say is that the ability to learn in a supportive, structured environment, the ideas which come from interaction with a creative group of students and achieving a level of technical proficiency that I didn’t have before, makes it all worthwhile for me. If you’re younger and can’t afford to or don’t want to go on this journey for other reasons, there’s still no reason that you can’t succeed with sufficient drive, energy and commitment. I’d suggest that interaction with other professional photographers and any fellow enthusiasts would be important though.

    A good photographer, no matter how they are trained, can get out there and take better photos with a phone than someone who has no idea and a swag of expensive camera gear.

  • As someone who has just finished the Diploma of Photo Imaging at Western Sydney Tafe I can say that it was the absolute best thing I’ve done to improve my photography and I learnt heaps, way more than I have from any online resources or books (and I read a LOT!). Every single teacher was either a working photographer or had been a working photographer for over 20 years before turning to full-time teaching. The knowledge and advice I got from their years of experience was invaluable, as was the chance to spend time with other like-minded students with a passion for photography. If you are in Australia, Sydney in particular then I couldn’t recommend doing the Diploma of Photo Imaging through TAFE more.

    There was a unit dedicated to working as a Freelance photographer and we had to undertake a number of “jobs” for other TAFE departments (photographing events, artwork, performances etc) to pass the unit, as well as learn about how to own and run a small business. Also, the opportunity to work in a fully-equipped and professional studio to learn studio lighting techniques is something you won’t get online. I primarily use natural light in my photography, but learning the studio lighting made a massive improvement to the way I understand and use light and has improved my skills in all lighting situations.

    The course is 90% practical with a strong emphasis on learning new skills and techniques, and at the end of the course you present a portfolio of work that is judged by 3 working industry professionals. Again, if you’re in Aus then definitely consider in investing in the Diploma of Photo Imaging, for me it was worth more than what I paid to undertake it.
    (And no I wasn’t paid to write this and don’t work for TAFE, lol!)

  • Spoonie

    Bingo.

  • dale wooten

    your experience at college seems, old school, and not recent so I can’t see where their can be a credible source of review. Here in the states, I teach at a junior college, where we have an accredited course in professional photography. We start from the basics, f stops, shutter speed etc… We teach things such as commercial photography, photography in journalism, seniors and weddings (where we actually do a hands on by having models come in for seniors and put on a fake wedding to give the kids a hands on wedding, not just course work). We also teach set and prop design, so instead of buying things for the studio, we teach them to make them, themselves so they stand out from the other photographers that buy all the same stuff. We also have course specifically designed for business photography (not just plain business), and marketing for photography and building your portfolio. We have the latest photoshop on 24 computers for 20 kids (per class), two fully equipped studios with track lighting, a commercial studio, a “selling room”, a booking computer so the kids can use it to book the studio’s….they learn hands on basic lighting techniques to advanced lighting… all hands on…and if that isn’t enough, they don’t even need their own camera to start…we have a stock of 25 canon camera’s they issued until their second year…along with a bank of lens’ that they can use through their two year career at our school… So I’m sorry I will have to disagree with you…no book, Ebook, video or online course can give you the same experience as hands on experience with professionals that have been in the business for over 40 years before retiring and going into teaching.

  • Thanks for sharing this Kylie, it sounds like TAFE are doing a good job.

  • Yes, the rising cost of education is a problem in many places. Like you I’m glad I’m not a student now.

  • Hi Dale, I’m glad to hear about the approach your course takes, although it makes me angry when I think about the course that I took and how little they taught us. Your approach is the right one. I deliberatly didn’t mention what college I went to because time has passed and they may have changed. But I think it’s important for students who are thinking about going to college to research the course before they do so. It’s no different from doing due diligence before making an investment. A college course represents a massive investment of time and money, and it’s important to make sure that you are going to receive the quality of education required to give you a fighting chance of succeeding in what can be a difficult business.

  • Ajay

    yes studying photography in college helps. My friend studied Electronic media course in anna university chennai where photography is his major. Now he is wild life photographer got this opportunity through college only

  • Ronda Harris

    Dale, I’ve been looking for a school like that. Where are you?

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed