Are College Graduates Unprepared As Photographers?

Are College Graduates Unprepared As Photographers?

One question most aspiring photographers ask is "should I get a degree in photography before starting my business?" Maybe a better question is does going to college actually prepare you for a career in photography? A recent article published by Kiplinger suggests that Film and Photography students (as well as graphic designers) are ill prepared in finding paying jobs upon graduation.

According to the study, the unemployment rate for accredited photographers is 7.3% with recent graduates reaching as high as 12.9%! The median salary for those majoring in photography is a mere $30,000 (only about twice that of jobs paying minimum wage). According to the article, those who graduate with a Bachelor's degree in the arts are likely to make $10,000 less than a student graduating with a BS in any other major.

Here is what Kiplinger has found for Film and Photography students:

Unemployment rate: 7.3%
Unemployment rate for recent grads: 12.9%
Median salary: $45,000
Median salary for recent grads: $30,000
Projected job growth for this field, 2010-2020: 13%
Likelihood of working retail: 2.6 times average

I'm not sure exactly what to think of these stats. On one hand, I feel like the market has grown for professional photographers. Whether it be headshots, weddings, real estate, commercial work, or small business marketing, the need for professional photography has never been greater. One the other hand, since photographers do not need to be accredited or licensed, the number of people working in the photography field has grown exponentially since the introduction of the digital camera. All that usually separates the successful professionals from the amateur photographers is the work itself and most importantly the marketing behind the business.

My own bachelor's degree was in Biology, and never in a million years would I have expected to become a photographer. In fact, the only photography class I ever signed up for was during the last semester of my senior year (it was either photography or another language). As any graduate knows, paying back college loans can be a tremendous burden. It is pretty scary to think that after you graduate, not only are you going to have a hard time building a sustainable career but you are likely going to start the whole process in tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt. Furthermore, in my experience at least, I've seen many professionals who have studied in fields other than photography (like business, marketing, or even science) build a successful photography business sooner and more profitable than those who have graduated from a 2 or 4 year art program.

The overall value of a college degree cannot be under valued, but I do find this topic interesting especially after reading such startling data. What do you guys think: on average, does pursing a degree in photography ultimately help or hinder the aspiring professional?

-via Yahoo Finance

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Andrew Griswold's picture

Great article, I don't think pursuing a degree in photography or any fine arts degree for that hinders the aspiring profession. It just helps it grow and evolve into the future. Yes you will get some people that will get into it from strange paths and others that go through 9 years of schooling just to get to where they want to be. Overall its up to the person, their personality and their drive to become what they want to be, a professional at something. In this case a photographer, over time the ones with the passion and the drive to do better and greater things with each shot will shine over the ones that get into it for the wrong reason or dont have the same motivation. 

Douglas Sonders's picture

i 100% agree

Andrew Griswold's picture

Thanks for that man! You are a huge inspiration to me and appreciate the reply. 

I think that can be said about any profession, Andrew.

TWO's picture

can comments be deleted?

My degree in photography has done nothing for me. So yes this article is very true.

I agree

I also agree. I have just finished studying in Scotland and I don't feel like I've learned anything I hadn't already learned from youtube prior to my enrollment in the course. The only things I got advantage from was the use of their equipment and studio space / equipment. 

I am going to school right now for business, am a sophomore in the program, but have an intense passion for film. To my knowledge, I have been fortunate enough to have more real-world experiences shooting for clients than my peers that are seniors in my college's film program. Sure doing this in my free-time takes a little toll on my social life (I'm in editing a recap video for a DJ while all my friends went out!) but I love what I do! I feel like what I'm studying in business compliments perfectly what I'm wanting to do in film, and that though some seniors in the film program may forget more about proper film technique then I currently know, that's all that a lot of them have; technique, not experience. I value experience. 

What DJ?

Literally just saw this sorry for the 4 month late response!, it was Vanilla Ice

Regan Shorter's picture

This how I feel about the photography students at my school. I'm also a business student and I shoot in my free time, along with 4-5 other "photographer" students on campus. The thing is... it's us, the students who aren't studying photography, that are out there making money and have much better photos.

ristin D's picture

I think getting the degree in Photography does nothing but give you the knowledge of how to take better photos. I studied wtih the NY Institute of Photography course for professional photographers. That was a teach yourself program. It helped me understand the basics of how to use my camera and how to compose a photo. I would still love to go to school and learn ALL the stuff about photography.. Getting a degree in photography may not be worth it economically, but personally I would love to spend the money if I had it..

My guess would be that knowing how to run and market a business far, far outweighs book-learning photography. 

Understanding how to run a business and assisting are far more important than a photography degree. 

agree on that

Completely agree!!!!

Kawika Lopez's picture

Even more important then that, I think having good character and knowing how to effectively communicate with with people are even more important.

I do not have a degree in Photography, but I do have a degree in Mass Communications. I received my degree right before the beginning of the DSLR revolution as I call it. I graduated in 2008 and in 2009 the Canon 5D Mark II was born. Add in the advancement and accessibility of non-linear software such as Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, Lightroom, etc. I began to see an increase in more people looking to get into a field they once never considered working in before, which added to the amount of competition one with a degree has to deal with. So now one might question going to school for Photography or Video Production today since there are creative professionals who never went to school for either and are working in both fields. 

It seems to me that it's only truly worth it if you're in a rock solid photo program. I majored in photo and I'm sad to say I learned more from watching tutorials online and shooting for the school paper than I did in any of my classes. The teachers were nice enough, but only a couple of them were actually what I would consider capable photographers. That, and the program had a HARD bent towards "fine art" photography, while I'm much more interested in portraits and "creative" advertising.

I had a VERY similar experience at American University. They definitely taught me the darkroom side of photography, but when it came to everything else (things I could actually make money off of), I learned that on my own by shooting for my newspaper and yearbook, and watching youtube videos.

Find a school with a string business department and a good photography program. Get the degree in business with an emphasis on marketing a small business. Use all the electives you can on photography and related courses. If your school requires you to declare a minor, all the better: minor in photography. The college degree might not help your art a great deal, especially in the short term, but it should give you the tools to maximize the earnings potential of your work. A few years down the road as you discover your own artistic vision the critical thinking skills and exposure to other horizons that any degree program should include will be beneficial in allowing you to communicate that vision to a broader audience.

Trisha Evens's picture

We can't underestimate the value of critique as photography graduates. We have hopefully learned to think more critically about what we're doing, and that kind of feedback and criticism helped me grow exponentially as a photographer. Asking "Why" we shoot something and being able to answer is so important. Having said that, I wish there was a greater emphasis on business in my program, specifically marketing. That is probably the one thing that has hindered me the most, but it's gotten better as I've gotten older and put some distance between myself and college. I don't feel like a student anymore, and that's helped my confidence when approaching clients. 

A minor or duel degree in marketing would help any photography student a great deal. A lot of fine art programs don't even touch on it, but you can't really blame them. Fine art study and business study don't directly dove tail until you graduate. 

John Barduhn's picture

couldn't have said it better! 

I completely agree. 

I have a degree in design (photo-media) I did it because I wanted professional standards as a benchmark for my work. While the degree itself doesn't prepare you for the industry, it gave me a foot in the door to many professional photographers to assist them, and did so for 3 out of the 4 years. I graduated last year,  I hold all my work up to their standards, because of this now I have a regular contracting work as a real estate photographer making a bit of cash that I use to fund and expand my folio

chris d thompson's picture

As a graduate with a BFA, it was late in my junior year when I realized that my school of choice had no interest in preparing me for a career as a professional in the arts. I immediately started preparing myself - if they weren't going to do it, I was. I was too deep in to switch to something more 'safe' so I doubled down, did an unpaid internship at a magazine 2,000 miles from home, and today I work at that magazine. Yes, the debt burden has forced me to dedicate the majority of my working time to a 9-5, but it is in both my field of study & expertise as well as my passion - snowsports. Am I a lucky mf'er? HELL yes, but I helped my luck along by researching and focusing on what actually matters in the real world. No, not everyone needs a BFA to be a professional photographer - but the time you are afforded to explore your own voice, figure out the direction you would like to work towards, and plan and work towards that direction is a valuable time - it's just up to you to make your tuition worth it. The work someone without a BFA does to make professional photography work is the same work someone with a BFA needs to do. An institution is never going to do that for you - be wary of those who say they will. Same for 'agents.' Hit the ground running or forget it. 

I think the problem lies in the "get a degree to get this specific job" mentality we're mired in. An overall education used to be worth the price of any degree, however standards are so low in most schools today that even a general background education is becoming worthless. With art degrees I think it still boils down to individual creativity and talent in the end, if your portfolio is fantastic fewer people will bother to check your educational background. 

Ollie Gapper's picture

Just finished my first year of my BA photography course and I've already racked up work for James Villas and The Discovery Channel, the latter I got through a lecturer. I think this depends entirely on the university in which you study, the country in which you hope to work and the area of photography you specialise in. 

As Benjamin Disraeli said, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics" 

Agree, a uni that gets you into the working field via real life projects with clients you want to work for, is going to give you experience with business and marketing. What school are you attending?

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