Fstoppers Answers - What Is Your Photo Education? How Important Do You Think Formal Education Is In The Field?

Fstoppers Answers - What Is Your Photo Education? How Important Do You Think Formal Education Is In The Field?

Each and every week, we feature a segment called "Fstoppers Answers", where we invite our community to ask a question to our writers to answer. This week, you asked "What Is Your Photo Education? How Important Do You Think Formal Education Is In The Field?"

Mike KelleyAssociate Editor | Architecture Photographer No photo or video education, but extensive training in fine art (painting, sculpture), music (jazz theory) and digital art (graphic design, digital installations). I don't think an education in photography is necessary at all, but I do feel that an education in the arts is a great help. The act of physically taking a picture is not hard - you can master shutter speed, ISO, and aperture within six months - the hard part is learning how to compose, use light, understand color theory, and being able to answer 'why' you shot something a certain way. I'm very grateful that I learned all of that through my art education.What I really wish I had, though, was a business education on top of the art education. But that's just getting greedy.


Jaron SchneiderFeatures Editor | Commercial Photographer I learned photography by assisting and helping other photographers in various styles and backgrounds over the past twelve years and videography from working with broadcasting students, personal projects, assisting Lee and Patrick and trial and error on my own. It's been a long road to get to where I am, and I'm still learning every single day.
I honestly think the best way to get better is to apprentice/assist someone who does great work. You can take classes or go to seminars too and those are great to learn the building blocks, but you will only get reach the next level through actually working on real jobs. You can only learn so much from books or lectures. Nearly every single one of the pro photographers I know has either very little or no formal education in their craft. I do, however, know quite a few graduates of photo schools who are not working in photography.


Peter HouseStaff Writer | Commercial Photographer I've been involved in the arts my entire life. Since a very young age I was enrolled in after school art programs where I studied history and techniques of various painters. Later in life I attended an art high school and that is where I was first introduced to photography. Prior to that moment I never had the opportunity to get into photography. I immediately took a liking to it and within a few months had my first camera. As much as I liked photography my formal education towards the field stopped in high school. I was accepted into several business and marketing programs at university and decided to pursue those instead. I kept photography as a hobby and kept shooting and learning in my spare time. Once I completed university I realized I could merge my hobby and my formal education to create a career for myself that made me happy.
Frankly I think pursuing a photography related degree is a wasted effort. Photography is like a sport, the more you practice, the better you will be. Pick up some books, watch some videos, join some clubs, and get shooting. You may want to take an intro class to get yourself familiar with the equipment and basic concepts. Beyond that what and how you choose to create is up to you. It might help to have some sort of general arts background but I find photographers have a knack for drawing inspiration from all sorts of backgrounds. Ultimately, you either have the vision, or you don't.
The only formal education you should pursue in this field, in my opinion, is to improve your business sense and your people skills.


Dave WallaceStaff Writer | Commercial Videographer I did a two year applied media program that gave me a huge range of skills including video. A lot of what I learned in college sits in the back of my head collecting dust, but has proved to be a life saver in a few situations. I'll echo most of the pros and say "Get out there and shoot". 90% of my skills are the result of learning as I go.


Noam GalaiStaff Writer | Commercial Photographer After finishing 12 years in school, I decided formal education is just not for me. I skipped college/university, and started working instead. I felt that going to college will just waste 3-4 years of my life, 3-4 years I can work, make money, learn a lot and 'climb the ladder'. I knew nothing about photography until I was about 20 years old. I used cameras for many years before, but only on auto-mode. Just to capture moments in life. Because I had no formal education, I decided to learn things my own way - so I experimented a lot, I tried different techniques, I played with settings and later started watching Youtube videos or read on Wiki (when they came along).
I did take a short course at SVA about Studio Lighting few years back. I had no access to studio space or equipment at the time, and it made sense. It was fun and not-so-formal, but I feel I learned more by doing my own shoots.


Lauren JonasEditor & Office Operations | Wedding Photographer I went to school originally for graphic design. I love design but turned out I actually loved the darkroom more so I switched to photography and got my BFA in photography.I think it's nice to say "Yeah I have a formal degree in the field" but I don't think it's necessary at all. There are so many resources online and workshops that literally will teach you everything it took me 4 years to learn. Getting that formal education wasn't about learning but more about the experience....that I'm still paying for.


Dave GeffinStaff Writer | Fashion/Music Photographer & Videographer All self taught. Learnt how to develop film in an attic/darkroom by my dad, grew up making movies on a camcorder, learnt camera movement by jumping out of planes with a video camera attached to my head and flying my body/camera around a 3 dimensional space. This last year has been full time, focused on studio, stills and lighting which translates to my video work. Been very fortunate to work a lot with Lindsay Adler here in NYC who has amazing lighting expertise so have been lucky to learn through osmosis. I'm not against formal education - but I believe drive, determination, hard work, self motivation, being friendly and having integrity are far more important than a piece of paper.


Gary MartinStaff Writer | Studio Manager I got into photography/film making a few years after college while working in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe. At the time I was living in Europe's only Communist country and decided I could make a documentary about the social and economic living conditions the people faced compared to the Soviet Union with no experience whatsoever. I had no idea how difficult the making of "Ca La Moldova" would be and it how much I really needed to understand about color, audio, story telling, composition, retouching, and editing. The film turned out ok at best but only because the content was compelling. I definitely could have used a mentor in the process and relied heavily on Youtube to teach myself most of what I needed to know. Had it not been for the Interwebs I would not be where I am today, wherever that is. I think the same applies to this industry. If you dedicate your time and submerge yourself into learning, especially learning from mistakes you can master anything. I think the quote "A master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried" applies perfectly to this industry.


Taylor MathisStaff Writer | Food Photographer After earning a B.S In Financial Planning, at the University of Wisconsin, I went to Brooks Institute for about a year and a half. I stayed until I felt I had learned enough of the technical side of photography and was ready to go out and pursue a career.
Having a photography education did help accelerate the learning process, but I’m still constantly trying to learn new techniques and further hone my skills. I think a lot of photographers underestimate the value of a strong business education. If you are planning on running your own photography business, understanding accounting, marketing, and finance are skills that will help tremendously.


Zach SuttonZach Sutton PhotographyAssociate Editor | Headshot Photographer I have no formal education in photography. I actually went to school for Business and I think it has helped me a fortune when it comes to running my photography business. I have spent thousands of hours learning photography, through DVDs, workshops, and basic trial and error.
I'm really unsure on how I feel about the formal education of photography. I really think that if you have enough drive, getting a degree in photography is not entirely necessary. The calling card in this industry is your portfolio, not your degree.

As always, feel free to share your answer in the comments below. If you have a question you'd like to see answered, feel free to ask it in the comments below, to see if it'll be featured in next weeks Fstoppers Answers.

Zach Sutton's picture

Zach Sutton is an award-winning and internationally published commercial and headshot photographer based out of Los Angeles, CA. His work highlights environmental portraiture, blending landscapes and scenes with portrait photography. Zach writes for various publications on the topic of photography and retouching.

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Long internet rant ahead (sorry):

I think that saying "a degree in photography is a wasted effort" is a bit harsh. I have a BFA in photography and while I don't believe it is entirely necessary, i do think it comes in handy. For me the decision was made to go to school because I eventually want to get a MFA so that I can be a professor later in life.

Going to school is a great way to fast track not just the technical side, but the creative side of your work. It teaches you how to critique and almost more importantly how to take a critique. I spent my first year there shooting everything on black and white 4x5. However, polaroid wasn't really available to us so if we got something wrong, we didn't know until the next day when we actually had time to go to the dark room. Personally i think think this experience was vital to the way i make images now. I know exactly what i'm going for and how I am going to do it before i ever pick up a camera and that is more than I can say for a lot of people who learned their craft in a reactive way.

BUT, i will say that you get what you put into it, just like any degree. A degree has never and will never assure someone employment. I am doing a lot better than a lot of my classmates(that i know on Facebook anyway) that went to the Art Institute. At least I get to say that I do what I love full time, and that isn't making coffee. in the end, the school didn't make me who I am, the school provided a venue.


I agree with this. A degree on its own isn't going to get you a job, and it doesn't necessarily provide you with knowledge you can't learn from other sources - however, being in a learning environment can be enormously beneficial to your creative processes and thinking. You may also meet other people who inspire you or you can feed off of and inspire each other, which drives you forward faster than trying to do things on your own - of course this can happen by assisting or other means as well. But I do see values to studying Photography besides a direct relation to getting jobs.

Also, as it happens, my degree did actually land me a six month job once - my portfolio helped but I know that my degree shaped how those reviewing my portfolio viewed it.

Totally agree that there are other important things to educate oneself in such as business, finance and administration, and of course Art History and Art theory.


Well a BFA like a BS, BBA, etc. is a general degree and they force you to learn other areas so for your time and effort, you're getting a complete education. I think people like me who think going to school for just photography is a waste of money say it because it's just one specific area of art where a degree doesn't make a difference in whether you make it or not. Most people go to a doctor because they have a medical degree. They hire an engineer to build a bridge because they know he's had formal training in math and the bridge won't collapse (or less likely). People don't hire someone to shoot their wedding because he had a degree.

Indeed they don't, but that's not it's only value and many of the things that it brings you might make you more likely to get hired to shoot that wedding or whatever else you may shoot. There's more to it than picking up the degree title, it's about what you do during that time and dedicating that time to Photography and exploring your creativity can be valuable in many ways.

I received a BFA from RIT recently, and I have to say that it's been incredibly helpful and, in many cases, necessary to what I do. As a shooter, assistant and social media manager, knowing how to light, what equipment is needed/new, and what's happening in the photo world has allowed me to get jobs that I never would have been able to handle without going to school to learn all of those things.

how much does it cost? it's 4 year?

RIT is a 4-year school for photo. And,honestly, it was really expensive, but I'm from NYS, so I paid in-state tuition and I received financial aid. But, I knew I was going to go to college and, for me, what better way to spend my money than learning valuable information about a subject I love?

You could have learned the same thing for about $100 in price of books and started working 3 years earlier?

School's not for everyone, but I do not regret my degree at all.

With peers and mentors you can learn anything. The technical side can be learned easily through the internet and experience.

The real challenge is to learn the creative process which, despite what people outside of creative fields believe, is a skill that has to be learned. And, it is a process. This is where my formal education came in handy. It forced me to actually think through what I was doing (and analyze that process) rather than acting on instinct.

The most important thing, though, is to have peers and mentors. You can learn from them by just being around them and picking up on the things that people don't think to teach.

I know old pros who like to compare their profession to that of a doctor, engineer, or even a plumber get mad when I say this, but anybody can learn to be a good photographer and most people can produce professional quality pictures, consistently if they put in some effort. The same can't be said of an amateur doctor, engineer, or plumber. So the first step in being a good photographer is to accept that it's not rocket science. Your goal of taking a picture is finally done when you look in a viewfinder and press a button.

Having said that, there is a technical part to photography that is really easy to learn if you just read a few books on exposure and how to properly use lights. All it takes for that to sink in is use what you learned and get out and shoot. Do a long exposure at a low ISO narrow aperture, do a short exposure with raised ISO and wide aperture, do work in harsh lighting, do work in good lighting, use a tripod, try to handhold, etc. Easy easy easy.

The last step is to develop an artistic eye. Again, there are plenty of books on composition, youtube videos, meetup groups, and hey, newspapers and magazines still have pictures so look at what looks pleasing and see why it works. That's it. Congratulations. You're a photographer.

95% of the same business knowledge that applies to a plumber also applies to a photographer. Except unlike a plumber, you don't need to be licensed and pass a bunch of tests and get permits. If you want to wet your beak at being a professional, and you're already a good photographer come on in.

I think it's a waste of money to go to a photography school because again, this isn't rocket science. Those guys have already wasted their time and money and if they were any good, they wouldn't be teaching photography at a JR college and instead would be out making money with their photography. They'll blab about this history of film, maybe have a few math problems to see whether you really can calculate your fstops, etc. but at the end your photography certificate from the Blahblah school of photography isn't going to be worth anything and you'd be out 20 grand.

If you're really an arts person and want to go to college then at least be a fine arts major so when your photography career hits a brick wall and you're working at Starbucks, you can get into other fields like marketing because you have a 4 year degree and people still respect that. Better yet, try to become a doctor or engineer and do photography as a side gig.


Disagree. A couple of the best engineers I've worked with (at companies like Intel and Microsoft) were self taught.

“A master has failed more times than the beginner has ever tried”

Thanks Gary, that's a great quote.

It's not even a fair question to ask in today's world... Where we skimped and struggled eating Mac & Cheese, borrowed money from back home, work part-time jobs just to get chemicals and paper to do our Photo-Arts degrees.. With the exception of in camera exposure -- control, lighting technique, and composition. Everything has changed.

The entire post process which made up the bulk of creativity is no more..

30+ years shooting, 18 a software engineer, and Ps was one of the toughest pieces of software I've encountered in 23 years of computing.. I'll never know all of it.