Is a photography degree worth doing?
The debate about whether a higher education in photography is relevant or even helps to get a job after graduation is one that has no clear answer. Many people would say it’s worth it, and just as many will say it isn’t. Both sides have positive and negative points, but what can an education offer that self-learning cannot? Is a photography degree really worth it?
I like to think that I can see both sides of the argument. I have a Foundation Degree (more on that later) in Commercial Photography, but that was a conscious choice as a mature student while I was already a competent photographer and making (some) money from photography. I’ll explain why I chose the route I did and what I got out of it, but also what I have learnt outside of the university sphere.
Before I get too far into this, here is a TL;DR: You don’t need a photography degree to be a professional photographer.
Firstly, if you want to be a photographer who takes portraits, weddings, events, fashion, products etc, then no-one will care if you have a photography degree or not. They just want to know if you’ll be able to deliver what is required on time and within a certain budget. If you’re a landscape or fine-art photographer all you need to do is take photographs that will appeal to your specific audience at a price that they can afford (or that pays the bills).
You don’t need a photography degree to do this. As with most things in life, a lot of hard work, dedication, making mistakes, learning from them and honing your craft before putting yourself out there can be done without having to go to university. The adage of not running before you can walk is key. I see many people who the second they pick up a camera have set up a website offering their services with very little knowledge of business and lacking basic artistic talent. It takes time to learn both these things. You wouldn’t call yourself a car mechanic after changing a tyre.
Today there are a plethora of online YouTube tutorials, forums, and books explaining how to take photos, how to process photos, how to light things and what settings to use. All this is mostly free, or the odd weekend workshop for a few hundred pounds. There is really no need to spend £9000 or so a year at university just to learn how to use a camera.
So, if you can become a professional photographer without needing a photography degree, why do one? There will always be different reasons for different people. For myself it was because I wanted to gain a greater understanding of photography, to be able to dedicate a couple of years to taking pictures, and to understand photography. This is the big plus for a photography degree. There’s no need to try and fit photography in around work, it was just two years thinking and doing nothing else but photography (although the occasional ale and where to drink it was also though about).
My University Experience
I went to the Arts University at Bournemouth in 2008 to do a Foundation Degree* in Commercial Photography. There we had fully kitted out studios and were able to hire out cameras such as D300’s and D3x, Phase 1 backs with Hasselblad’s, and large format cameras. ProFoto location lighting kits and in-studio Broncolor lights. We had a digi-suite with Mac Pros, large format printers, Imacon and Nikon film scanners. As well as colour, black and white and E6 developing and processing dark rooms. All of which could be used any time for free.
We were encouraged to shoot as much as we could and make use of the facilities. To learn and figure out things ourselves outside of time-tabled workshops. University also meant no lack of assistants or models with which to help either. If we got stuck or needed help, we had technicians and tutors who were all practising photographers.
As well workshops we had lectures on photographic theory, professional practice, costing jobs, branding, and every few weeks a guest lecturer who came to talk about their work. Amongst others we had Chris Floyd, Sølve Sundsbø and Laura Pannack.
Our briefs were commercially orientated, sometimes live briefs with outside agencies, and at the end of the project the much-dreaded critique. Presenting our work to the rest of the group then listen to feedback from them and our tutors. These were always critical. How well we answered the brief, what shots stood out, what were weak and where we could improve. I had my work very unceremoniously torn to metaphorical shreds on more than one occasion, but I did learn from it. I also learnt how to take criticism as well as give it, which is one thing that self-learning, especially over the internet, can’t really do effectively. Yes, there are online forums offering critique, but quite often this is not well received. Usually because the person never asked for a critique, or if they did they really wanted praise, or are unwilling to take criticism. You also may not know who is giving the critique which can have a baring on how useful it is.
For me, a photographic degree helped me focus and ground my work and learn that there is a lot more to photography than just being able to take photos. Ironically it wasn’t until a few years after University that my photography noticeably improved. Comparing my pre-University images, the step-change that two years solid of University gave me was huge. Personally, I think it would have taken at least five or six years for me to make the same improvement if I’d not gone to University. However, my critical and theoretical knowledge of photography and visual culture would have been very lacking if not non-existent as this was never a consideration for me, and I doubt if I would have read and understood it if it wasn’t for studying it at University.
So, is it for you?
If you just want to learn how to take better photos, then no. There are plenty of online tutorials as well as workshops that will teach you all that quicker and much, much, cheaper.
If you want to have a greater understanding of different aspects relating to photography, such as critical theory, visual culture, creating new networks though your peers, trying out different genres of photography and building up a professional portfolio all while getting feedback from tutors and industry professionals, then a degree could be for you. But only you can decide if it’s right. Should you, like myself, want to head more into the academic side of things, writing as well as practising, then a degree is most certainly worth pursuing.
Many of my fellow students decided not to pursue a photographic career after University. The ones who did and are successful, started that journey at University. From work experience, assisting, and creating contacts through the tutors, they pushed themselves and did the projects that they needed to get where they are today. Yes you can do this outside of the university world, but I believe that it’s a lot easier from within. Especially if you are contacting an alumnus of the same course as you for work experience. The old adage ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’ comes into play a lot post-university.
If you are thinking that a photography degree would suit you, then take time to find the one that’s right for you. There are a lot of photography degrees out there, so read up about what the course offers, visit the university and talk to students. On the matter of cost, currently university fees are about £9000 a year, and that’s not taking into account living costs. This is a lot in anyone’s book. However, if this is what you want to do then go for it. If you’re on the fence, then make sure that it’s the right choice before you commit. There is no harm in deferring a year, or even going back when you decide its right. I went to University at 26 and it was great (and I wasn’t the oldest!).
If you’re thinking of being a professional photographer, then a lot of hard work and persistence will pay off whether you have a degree or not. It is very competitive; the market is very small, and you won’t earn all that much. If you can pull together a decent portfolio and stand out from everyone else, then there is no reason why you can’t. However, you are one of tens of thousands all trying to follow the same path. Will a photography degree help? If you use it wisely it may do, but in reality, what’s more important are good business and people skills, knowledge of marketing and standing out from everyone else.
Photography ‘degree’ on the cheap
So, you like the idea of learning about photography in order to start making money from it, but don’t want the expense of a degree, what can you do? The following would cover most things that a degree covers at a fraction of the cost, but you wont get a certificate at the end of it:
Find some like-minded people who share the same view on photography as you so you can learn together and share tips and techniques. Go on a day trip and set a mini-brief, then feedback on the results.
Take a lot of photos. Digital has made this easy so there is no excuse. Look at photographs you like, then try and replicate the ideas behind them. You can’t take photos from behind a computer. If they don’t work out, take more.
Learn from mistakes. The first roll of film I ever took after picking up a camera was blank. That was also the last. Making mistakes is how you learn.
Attend some workshops. Either a day or weekend with a pro-photographer to hone your skills and offer worthwhile critique. Even ones on darkroom techniques will help ‘round out’ your photography knowledge.
Buy some books on photographic theory and art history – This will help you understand and consider photography a lot more (see The Library).
Emerse yourself in photography. Read everything and anything. Seek out new photographers, new practices, new theories. Extend this into other artistic areas such as painting and sculpture. Don’t limit yourself from learning and understanding.
Practice taking photos. This seems a strange concept for photographers, but you should practice a lot. Try new things and experiment. If you see something and don’t know how it’s done, figure it out. You may find a new way of doing things along the way. Just asking how it’s done isn’t learning.
Find your own style. Through practice, your own style will start to show though. Don’t imitate others, but be influenced.
Find a mentor, in a practising photographer but one who is in a different sector. If you want to be a commercial photographer in a small town, then asking someone who would be in competition with you won’t get you very far.
Don’t get bogged down with the technical aspects of photography. At the end of the day, if the photograph is well exposed, it makes no difference what settings you used, what plugins you used, or how you processed it. The photograph should be the result of your own vision, not someone else’s. The technical side can be more important in certain situations like in a studio, but nowhere near as important as you think. The photograph should tell the story, not how you made it.
Look for an evening course on business and/or marketing. There is a lot more to just setting up a website and Facebook page. This also has the bonus of looking good on the CV anyway.
Specialise – I was given this piece of advice by Sian Bonnell right back when I was starting out in my academic photographic journey, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s very confusing to have a portfolio with landscape, fashion, wildlife, flowers and portraits in. Find out one thing you enjoy photographing and stick to it. There may be some natural overlap but sticking to one subject will result in a stronger portfolio. If you enjoy two things, then start a separate portfolio. Some things compliment each other like fashion and beauty, or landscape and wildlife, but be aware of what you’re covering.
Editing – I don’t mean Photoshop but working out what pictures to leave out. Ten strong photographs and five weak means 15 mediocre photos. Only ever show your strongest and best work.
Print – Photographs are meant to be a tangible item, not looked at on a computer. Print out your photos and mount your best. A photograph isn’t a photograph unless it’s printed.
When all that is done, hire a space with some others and have an exhibition. Gather feedback on your work, then work on producing more.
To take it further, email photographers asking for any assisting work, and work up from there.
As with anything else on the internet, this is all my opinion. However, I picked up a camera in 1998 and have been taking pictures ever since. Since I left University I’ve only learnt more and continue to learn. I also teach photography, so I hope that some of the above is useful. If you have any other questions on photography or university, please leave a comment or email me.
* A Foundation degree, or FdA was a two-year vocational course with an optional third year ‘top up’ to a BA(Hons). As far as I know, AUB now only offer commercial photography as a straight BA(hons) degree.