Do I Need a Photo Degree? Thoughts After the SPE 50th

Do I Need a Photo Degree? Thoughts After the SPE 50th

After spending last weekend at the 50th Annual Society for Photographic Education’s National Conference in Chicago, a sold out symposium attended by more than 1,000 photo educators and students, I decided to examine the question: What is the value of a photo degree? Here are the pros and cons.

Created in 1963 as photography was emerging as a course of study in art departments rather than strictly journalism programs, the Society’s initial conference was attended by such photographic legends as Beaumont Newhall, Aaron Siskind, John Szarkowski, Jerry Uelsmann and Minor White. Today, SPE occupies a unique role in the photographic industry as it promotes “a broader understanding of the medium in all its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, and criticism.”

Held at the Palmer House hotel in downtown Chicago and hosted by Columbia College Chicago’s Photography Department and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, the conference highlights included keynote presentations by Magnum photographer Martin Parr, fine art landscape photographer Richard Misrach, and fine art portrait photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa. Daily programs offered over the three day conference included Lightroom Seminars by Julieanne Kost of Adobe,  ASMP presentations by Peter Krogh, Richard Kelly and Judy Hermann, bookmaking tutorials with Blurb and a variety of talks on subjects ranging from the Garry Winogrand archive to mobile photography’s role in social activism. The exhibition hall featured a wide range of industry booths with major displays by manufacturers Calumet, Canon, MacGroup, Sigma and Sony.

During rare breaks in the conference schedule, I was able to sit down with photo educators Stan Strembicki, professor of art at the College of Art at Washington University, Jay Gould, professor of photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and Steve Benson, associate professor at Daytona State College to discuss the merits of a photo degree.

2012_JayGouldProfile_900px-240x300StanStrembickiSteven Benson-Photo by Gaye Ajoy

Pictured from left: Jay Gould, Stan Strembicki and Steven Benson.


  1. Peer criticism and peer-to-peer learning. “It’s hard to think about making work in a vacuum, without peers to push you,” said Gould. “Critique is incredibly valuable as you have to give someone feedback. I do believe in a certain competitiveness that student’s have and they see what someone is working on and they want to do better. It does seem to elevate everyone’s work as they are aware of a certain threshold.”
  2. Presentation skills and the ability to talk with visual literacy about why a photograph is successful or not. “Even though we are making pictures, we still communicate through words, we still have to describe them, we still have to work with art directors and use words to come to terms with what we want,” said Gould.
  3. The academic community and exposure to ways in which photography intersects with other disciplines. Good schools have regular photography exhibitions, guest lecturers and visiting artists. Many degrees will allow for experimentation in related disciplines like graphic design, film, and digital media. "If the interest is commercial photography, there are two primary paths — assisting, workshops and tutorials or an applied photography program like our's at Daytona State College," said Benson. "It is worth noting that your chances of getting better assistant jobs will be  much easier if you have a formal education in the field."
  4. Guidance and mentorship by a professor or group of professors who often have multi-faceted careers in the medium ranging from fine art to photojournalism. “Art schools and educational programs teach us to be self-critical, they give us a methodology and guidepost for moving our work forward,” says Strembicki.
  5. The ability and freedom to experiment with formats, cameras, lighting and types of imagemaking beyond simply digital.
  6. The ability to problem solve as technologies continue to evolve. “We are in a rapidly changing technological environment and in that kind of environment, you have to teach people to be creative problem solvers just as you teach students within their own work to discern what is good and bad in you're their work,” said Strembicki.
  7. A network of alumni that are working on some level in the field of photography and creative arts. This can often be a gateway to an internship, assistantship or first job right out of school. "It is not absolutely required to have a degree to be successful career as a commercial photographer but it can help to open more doors," said Benson.
  8. A degree makes you more well rounded and more interesting as a creative individual. “We all want to work with people who are interesting to us,” said Gould. “We base things on portfolio but we also base it on ‘how can we connect with them, what is it like to spend a great deal of time working with this person?’”


  1. A college degree is expensive and photographic study costs money for cameras, computers, software and printing material that other disciplines don't require. Saddled with loans, it can be an expensive burden to manage when a young photographer comes out of school ready to launch a career.
  2. Photo editors at magazines don't care about your degree or where you went to school. They care about your portfolio and if your images will solve their needs and work in their context of their project.
  3. You can learn a great deal by working as a photo assistant in a major market and fill gaps in your knowledge base with workshops and seminars.


While not a required ingredient for success in photography, formal academic training can foster a robust technical foundation for aspiring photographers. Ultimately, the decision is a personal one but the financial investment in a two to four year course of directed study in photography can be intimidating and a significant hurdle to manage when kickstarting a photo career. Should you ever hope to teach photography (and many of the great photographers of the 20th century were also educators), an undergraduate degree is essential when pursuing advanced degrees like a Master of Arts in Photojournalism or a Master of Fine Arts in Photography.

So, do you need a photo degree? The choice is yours.

More information on the Society for Photographic Education can be found online here:





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You know, every person I have known who graduated with a photo degree (a few even from Brooks) have been outstanding technically, but mediocre when it comes to actually creating images. It's a lot like going to college to learn how to paint: there will be others who are just born with the talent to make beautiful paintings and will just be better due to raw ability.

Exactly. People put a school they graduated from, or a camera club they belong to as if it's validation of their skills and a reason to pay them. If your photos are good, that's all that matters. I had coworkers go on about how you need a degree to be a photographer. I had to teach them basic lighting concepts, camera controls, how DOF is controlled, and other basics of the software we used. I don't have a degree. Somehow I manage. The other problem is that these students are using a school's $100,000 studio to build their portfolio. When they get out, they can no longer produce the same work and end up tricking people and scamming them out of money. It's really frustrating seeing kids advertising as "professional photographers" and then they have one consumer camera, variable aperture lens, and sometimes not even one flash.

" When they get out, they can no longer produce the same work and end up tricking people and scamming them out of money." I'm sorry, what?...

These people have paid the tution fee to be able to use that equipment. They have worked hard to be able to practice how to properly use the studio so they are prepared for a professional environment. The students who practice a lot in the studio are probably going to be the ones looking for jobs working in the commerical industry and are using this oppourtunity to further their portfolios and technical skills in order to have a better chance at getting those jobs.

Also, what does it matter what equipment you own? That doesn't qualify how 'professional' you are. Anyways, surely if you wanted to be working in a studio environment often you'd rent all your equipment?...

It'd be fantastic if only the quality and content of your photos mattered but in industry that's only one factor; you need to be able to evidence strong technical skills and practicing in the studio is one of the best ways to do that.

Michael Samaripa's picture

Tricking and scamming them out of money? They still have the knowledge they acquired in school. Equipment can be rented at a fraction of the price it cost to buy new (and in some cases, it makes WAY more sense to rent than to buy). I can rent a set of Profoto strobes from my local camera shop for about $75/day, and pass that cost onto my customer as part of their fee for hiring me. Also, working with those expensive Profoto or Hensel sets prepares the student for the industry standard equipment when they DO go out and assist others - they won't be tripping and fumbling over themselves on where that cable goes or how to adjust light output or setting wireless channels on the strobes.

Does it matter if I shoot with an Einstein, Profoto, Elinchrom or even dinky little speedlites as long as I KNOW how to use them to achieve my ends? Yes, there are limitations to each lighting piece. The key is knowing how to work around those limitations, and create those images your client needs. A photographer isn't just a "clicker" of the shutter button, they problem solve, light, direct, among a multitude of other things.

My work covers a wide breadth. My education helped me get that wide breadth, otherwise I'd be another one of those "natural light" photographers who limits themselves. I'm very glad I spent the money to get that education, and for what it's worth, my school required business classes towards earning that degree.

Re: $100,000's highly unlikely you are going to have this available to you on your graduation. How many schools do a "Shoot with what you Got" course? That is more realistic. Perhaps something else to try is mandating that their final portfolio is to be done with only rented kit and a limited budget. Nice to have the equipment the school provides but you can't go back to use it when you are out their doors.

That's exactly what every person that didn't go to school says about people that did go to school. Photographers that are formally trained are often looking at different elements of a photograph than non-educated people will look at. What a self-taught person might call "creative" ...a formally taught photographer might call "cliche." Most graduates from the better photo programs are not impressed by cheap photo gimmicks in the same way that self-taught people are, so their portfolios always seem boring to people that like gimmicks. All self-taught photographers fall for gimmicks. Don't kid yourselves, you all fall for them LOL

Nursultan Tulyakbay's picture

Funny. That's what most people with a photo degree say. Is it part of the curriculum or your own way of justifying the amount of money you spent?

Read my previous post (below in this thread) to get the answer about money.

I can personally attest that, while I did not go to school for photography myself, I am CONSTANTLY being emailed by graduates or soon-to-be graduates of a well known photography school asking for an internship/appreticeship/job. Just sayin'

That's a good point. The bulk of my assisting work was done for photographers that had never gone to school. I was always puzzled by the situation. I thought that surely formally taught photographers should have an advantage in business over self-taught photographers. So the paradoxical situation just didn't make sense. Over time, I observed patterns of behavior that finally led me to a conclusion as to why more professional photographers appear to be self-taught rather than formally educated....

The reason is because the vast majority of clients know close to nothing about objective form in the arts. For this reason, they cannot validate work based the abstract properties of self-expression that are necessary for determining art. Instead, they look for OBVIOUS novelties that make work "stand-out" etc. In other words, they need in-your-face gimmicks that cannot possibly be ignored and don't require sophisticated levels of abstract thought to notice.

At first, the requirement to stand-out may sound quite reasonable. But remember, if a circus clown were walking down a city street on a weekday then he'd probably stand-out too. Would that make him an artist, or just a freak? The reason he'd get attention is because he's making a spectacle of himself when considered in relationship to his environment. The keyword is "spectacle."

Most photographers that were formally educated in the major photo schools understand that spectacle is something to avoid when working seriously in the proper arts. Meanwhile, most photo clients actually look for spectacle when they are assessing the value of a photographer's work. This creates a strange situation where self-taught photographers are actually at an advantage over formally educated photographers when it comes to getting clients. The self-taught photographer actually knows less about form in the arts, which actually makes him/her better able to relate to the majority of clients that don't know anything about form either.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Ugh, god no. The last thing you should do is start your career $40,000 - $70,000 in debt from school loans etc. This goes for any art school major, as a degree from art school is essentially useless.

The best advice I could give is just take an internship when you're 18-23 years old. You will learn as much or more by working in the industry. If you really need help understanding the technical aspects of cameras, you can always take a few select workshops and pay out of pocket.

While I am in complete agreement on the difficulty with student loan debt can play on future aspirations - all degrees are expensive, how is one from an art school "essentially useless"? There was a report recently that some of the poorest individuals in terms of net worth vs student debt vs job prospects were recent Law School graduates. A profession that is usually stereotypically seen as "important" and "prestigious" and "wealthy".

I chose to get a MFA in photography from an expensive art school. Totally my choice, and there are times when I wish I didn't have the student loan debt I do, but I don't once regret getting my degree. The pursuit of a degree opens one up to a variety of educational experiences and information that isn't readily available otherwise. True, you don't need many of these to be a "professional" or to succeed in the industry commercially, but those experiences can impact the work you end up making, and who you are as an individual, so its still valid.

Another reason I chose to get a MFA was so I would have the opportunity to teach, at a college level. I feel like its a way that I can give back to the future of our industry. I could hold workshops on my own, but that may or may not be successful. Joining the faculty at a school (of which you need a MFA to do) allows me to give back, as I have been helped by so many of my professors and peers in the past.

Same here. I don't think anyone should get a BFA in Photography to be honest. You can learn everything they try and teach by simple having the initiative and making images on your own. But I'm all for the MFA "if" you want to teach as your end goal. Which is why I got mine.

Antonio Carrasco's picture

Your argument is invalid because in most non-art profession a degree is mandatory for the career path after getting out of school. To use your example, you simply cannot practice law without attending law school first.
That is not the case with art school. I see virtually no art jobs that require a degree from art school.

Good article, I think you meant "intimidating" instead of "intimating" though :)

I think no one needs a photography degree to succeed as a photographer. Not a single client has ever asked me if I have a college degree. My portfolio is all the credentials I'll ever need. Having said that, here is why you should go to college regardless: To get a degree in business, mainly in accounting and marketing. After all, that's how you'll spend the most amount of time. I still kick myself for not having done it that way...

Antonio Carrasco's picture

yeah, I agree 100%. If you want to make your life photography, then business is a far more important major.

I agree with you completely and also Antonio. But I would also augment your business education with a strong salesmanship course. One has to know who their potential markets are, but how to reach and sell them. A good salesmanship course also teaches about rejection, helping the entrepreneur to understand that not everyone is going to want your services or buy from you and to keep forging ahead despite lost 'potentials.'

A course on sales is usually part of a marketing track in college.

I don't buy this argument. I doubt if publishers ask writers if they have a college degree, but there's no doubt that the education has been crucial to many writers. Of course it depends on how you want to use photography.

As someone with an MFA and an instructor at universities (SAIC, SFUAD currently and UNM earlier) that teach photography and award photography degrees, I'd have to say that my educational experience on both sides of the lectern has been critical to who I am as an artist. Could I have done without it? Yes but my art career and life would have been the poorer for it. Even my commercial work (I am an architectural photographer for 34 years), like my b&w art, IMHO has benefited from the critical and nurturing environment of the university photo programs I have been associated with. As university trained artists themselves (architects) my commercial clients respect my art degrees. Need? No. Useful? Absolutely.

Jamie Maldonado's picture

I could be wordier, but my experiences with both approaches leads me to believe my photographic education is far more enlightening and enriching than the alternative. It definitely depends on the program, the cost and what the other options you have available, but I'd choose my photographic education every time. Also, all of those other classes you can take to enrich your life in college do far more for photography than you might think. (Business, art history, history in general, etc.)

Andrew Griswold's picture

I have said it before but its not all about the degree, its about the person and their drive towards a career in the arts.

Hey Joseph!
Great article I really liked it. I am a student in photography however I didn't apply to college for photo instead I studied Criminology for two years and really not enjoying what I was doing and more importantly I knew that law was not something I ever wanted to do. In India doing art for a degree isn't praised by many but I really wanted to put my life in college to good use so I decided on doing photography which yes puts me at financial and experience disadvantage but the way I see it if you have time to learn it I rather not waste it on a degree I really wouldn't want to do.


Timuçin HIZAL's picture

today, degree is advantage but not essential. it just a label. a good one. but before the google, history(art&photography), concepts, techniques, styles, without a 3"display medium and large format in studio, b&w processing, color film print, rayogram, media and advertising bla bla, just focusing on the art of photography. the decision is yours.

Photoschool may not be a requirement today, but if you do attend a school, it does matter which one you go to since not all schools are created equal. If the instructor thinks Photoshop is the same as lighting… chances are it is the wrong school, LOL.

I attended Brooks from 1987-89, back when it was all film and we shot with 4x5's and Hassy's. The instructors were great and I got my technical skills down pat. I wanted a technical education and not an artistic education, I already had two years of art college under my belt.

Art school was fun, but the instructor said he could not teach me technical lighting so he recommended Brooks, Art Center Pasadena and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Looking back, I would recommend business and marketing as a major and photography as a minor. I spend 75% of my time marketing and 25% of the time shooting.

I also recommend assisting the best photographer you can for about a year. I assisted 3 of LA's top fashion and product photographers and I learned more about creativity AND lighting in one year of assisting THAN in 5 years of shooting on my own.

School also reinforced and taught me what a good image should look like. At the risk of sounding rude or arrogant, I can care less what 40 people on think of an image. It might look great to them, but will the image fly on or the clients I shoot for.

Would I recommend spending $100,000 for a photo education in todays market….nope!

I am a on again,off again hobbiest photog but I have spoken with many Pros and your 75% Business / 25% Photography is also what I hear from them. Great reality check.!

"All art is quite useless." - Oscar Wilde

Nobody should go to school for photography to make money. A proper education in the arts is supposed to be "worthless" because art is not a utilitarian enterprise. People that want to learn something that earns money should become accountants, not photographers.

Photo school is just one way to learn these things. Both technical skills and conceptual thinking can easily be learnt just by creating a huge volume of work. Which is basically what school forces you to do, otherwise you'd have to be self-disciplined enough to do so.
By far and large most photographers would benefit more from any form of business education, if their goal is to live as a professional photographer.

I think I might try to see when the photo classes at my school are and then sneak in.