This article was updated on March 21st, 2022.
Do you want to learn photography, but you’re just not sure how?
You’re not alone. Because while there are plenty of amazing resources available to the beginner, it’s often difficult to know where to start.
Note that there is no one best way to learn photography. Different methods work for different people, which is why my recommendations take into account various learning styles. I also include several instructorless methods, so if you’re looking to teach yourself photography, you’ll know exactly what to do.
Ready to become a great photographer? Let’s get started.
1. University/college degree
Learning photography through university studies is the traditional road, and it’s a path that many people take. You’ll discover a wide variety of photographic styles, you’ll be offered insights by experienced teachers and industry experts, and you’ll do it all in a structured environment. You’ll also have access to state-of-the-art studios with all the latest cameras, lighting equipment, accessories, and software.
Schools offer a group learning environment, which can be hugely useful for budding photographers. You and your fellow classmates can study together, practice skills, and have lots of fun. Plus, you can develop networks that’ll be useful in the future.
The big downside to formal photography education? The expense. While the cost does vary from location to location and from school to school, a degree or diploma can cost tens of thousands of dollars or more.
There’s also a significant time investment, which can be difficult to manage for older students who have families to support. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a good job (or any job) right out of school.
Note that many of the best photography schools are located in cities, so you may need to consider travel expenses, relocation expenses, or student housing costs.
If you like the idea of a university-based photography education, thoroughly research the schools in your area. Find out who the teachers are, who the past students have been, and what they’ve gone on to achieve. If you can, attend an open day and ask current students what they think of the program. I’ve known students who have felt miserable and have even failed classes because their personalities didn’t match their schools’ culture. Then, after transferring to schools better suited to their learning styles, they thrived.
2. Apprenticeships and internships
Working as an apprentice (or intern, or assistant) may not sound glamorous, but it’s an often-overlooked method of learning the ropes and breaking into photography. In fact, it’s how I – and many of my peers – worked our way up the ladder.
After graduating from art school, I started out as an unpaid intern for a celebrity and fashion photographer. Then, at the end of my internship, I was offered a full-time job. I couldn’t have landed such a sought-after position based on my portfolio and by cold-calling photographers alone.
The photography education you can get during an internship or an apprenticeship is incredible; I learned more in my first month on the job than in four years at art school. And the 18 months I spent assisting taught me tons of lessons about how to light, direct, pose, and talk to models. It also taught me how to work with makeup artists and stylists, and how to deal with difficult clients.
But most importantly, I witnessed firsthand the ups and downs of running a business. Had I struck out on my own without first assisting a photographer, I never would’ve realized that everyone experiences downturns in their business, and that nobody – no matter how amazing or in demand – is immune. That lesson was gold and saw me through many quiet times in my career.
Now, I did my interning after going to art school, but if you can find the right person to work with, you may not need a formal photography education. Sometimes, interning can be far more valuable than a university course. The person you choose needs to be generous with their knowledge and an encouraging teacher, though.
Unfortunately, internships aren’t all great, and the wrong kind of internship will get you stuck in a tiny office, answering phones, filing papers, and performing menial non-photography jobs without the opportunity to ever learn anything. So before you commit to an internship, make sure you know what you’re signing up for!
3. Blogs and other online resources
These days, the internet is full of in-depth photography blogs, and while some of them don’t offer top-quality photography education, a few of them do.
Learning through blogs offers lots of advantages. For one, you get to teach yourself photography, rather than relying on an instructor to set your path. You can research the topics that interest you, put aside the ones that don’t, and develop sought-after skills.
Plus, online learning is completely free, which means that you can level up your skills – often with instruction from world-class professionals – and you won’t pay a cent.
Of course, blog-based photography education has its downsides. It’s not especially structured, it lacks interaction, and it’s easy to miss out on huge parts of your photography education because you didn’t know any better. Blogs are also pretty theory focused, which means that it’s up to you to develop photography exercises, practice your craft on your own time, and develop a portfolio.
If learning by reading blogs appeals to you, you do have the option to supplement your education with free YouTube videos and low-cost books/eBooks. In fact, if you do decide to go in that direction, Digital Photography School offers plenty of free articles as well as high-quality ebooks (some of which I wrote!).
Workshops are intensive, generally in-person courses that last a few hours to a couple of weeks, and they’re a great way to refine and advance your existing skills. One of the big advantages of workshops is that you can select the style of photography, the techniques you want to improve, and the photographers you want to learn from so you know exactly what you’re getting.
Some workshops are local (these tend to be on the shorter side), and involve exploring a nearby city for an afternoon of street shooting, a nearby park for a day of landscape photography, and so on. Other workshops are held in exotic locations. These are great for travelers who want to shoot on location but don’t feel comfortable working on their own.
Unfortunately, exotic workshops tend to cost an arm and a leg, but you can occasionally find affordable local workshops (try checking out the websites of nearby photographers or asking around at the nearest college).
Once you find a workshop that seems suitable, do lots of research. Read testimonials and determine the instructor’s level of experience. Most importantly, find out the class size. Larger classes are fine for software workshops such as Lightroom and Photoshop, but when it comes to learning the craft of photography, smaller groups are much better. You’ll get more one-on-one time with the teacher (and you’ll have more opportunity to bond with your fellow students).
Also, be sure to ask about the level of instruction. Is the workshop designed for beginners? Intermediate students? Semiprofessionals? Many workshops will assume you know the basics and are therefore not ideal for someone learning how to operate a camera. Before paying for a workshop, ask yourself honestly: Am I ready for this? Or is it above – or below – my level?
5. Online courses
If you want to learn photography in a structured manner without ever setting foot in a classroom or workshop setting, then consider online courses, which can be highly comprehensive and – with the right instructor – very well taught.
Over the past few years, online courses have exploded in popularity. Digital Photography School offers plenty of courses, and there are also options from CreativeLive, KelbyOne, and other high-quality companies.
But because there are so many options out there, you need to be careful. Read reviews of each course before paying, and carefully examine the course topic and structure. Make sure the course teaches you exactly what you want to know – be it Photoshop, landscape photography, strobe lighting, or something else – and try to determine whether you like the instructor. (The more you enjoy and relate to your teacher, the easier it’ll be for you to learn.)
I’d also advise only purchasing courses that offer money-back guarantees. Most reputable course companies offer this, which makes expensive courses – and yes, they often are expensive! – into a zero-risk investment.
Out of all the ways to learn photography listed in this article, a mentor is the most difficult to find – but if you can find the right mentor, you can learn so much.
Note that a mentor doesn’t have to be an award-winning photographer; they can be anyone who’s willing (and able) to help you achieve your goals. This includes friends who can help you understand your camera’s settings and professionals with 5, 10, or 20 years of experience. The skills of a mentor can vary, but anyone who’s farther down the path than you has valuable information that will save time, money and effort when pursuing your goals.
A great place to start looking for mentors is in your friendship and social media circles. It isn’t as daunting as it sounds. Look for someone whose work and working style you admire and respect. Follow them on social media and look for ways you can add value to the relationship. Retweet their posts, comment on their photos, share their work, refer clients to them, and send them links to great photography locations.
Give the relationship time to develop before you ask them to mentor you. It’ll increase the chances that they say yes because they will have had a chance to get to know you. A mentor is far more likely to want to give up their valuable time to work with you if you show initiative and are respectful of their time.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with several mentors in my career, and their knowledge and guidance has saved me years of extra work. It’s also opened many doors I may never have walked through had I just stumbled along on my own.
How to learn photography: final words
There is plenty of great information out there and lots of amazing teachers, but in the end it’s up to you to take the first step.
So pick one (or more!) method of learning photography. Commit yourself. And pretty soon, you’ll be on your way!
Now over to you:
How do you plan to learn photography? What methods have you tried in the past? Share your thoughts in the comments below!