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:
- What will you learn during your course?
- How much will it cost you?
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 We had one computer between 90 students, with an out of date version of Photoshop installed on it.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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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