The First Step To Becoming A Successful Photographer: Don’t Go To College

The First Step To Becoming A Successful Photographer: Don’t Go To College

We have been sold on the biggest myth of all time; In order to succeed at anything and have a lustrous career you must spend 4 years in an overinflated educational institution and spend a small fortune, which doesn’t include costly textbooks, supplies and living expenses. All in exchange for a fancy sheet of paper we call a degree… a piece of paper that gives us instant credit and a golden ticket to the gravy train. Right?

A close friend of mine, Chris, spent nearly 10 years in college. Chris has two college degrees and is probably one of the smartest persons I know. He excels in 3D modeling, graphic design, photography, video, carpentry, engineering and just about anything creative. Chris currently works as an architect despite his degrees in game design and graphic design. Chris does not like his job, and aspires to be a game developer in his spare time through his company Visual Villains. He has been out of school for nearly a decade and is still paying off student loans. He soaked-in the book education, but didn’t get the experience that is needed to thrive in today’s market. So, Chris works at a day-job not in his field of study to pay off a piece of paper that has brought him little to no income. In this day in age, Chris didn’t need to go to school to learn how to design games or design a brochure. Sadly, this is the case for many young adults who graduate college. Once the college cord is cut, they are suddenly swung into a fast-paced commercial river, cold, naked and without a paddle.

Unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Not to mention, those graduates owe a thousands of dollars in student loans. For decades, the cliché term “Work Smart Not Hard” has been ingrained into our conscious. Mike Rowe, host of the popular Discover Channel series “Dirty Jobs” noticed such an epidemic in this country, that he started a foundation called mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which he promotes both working hard and working smart, giving opportunities to those that display a good work ethic in a specific trade.

Like many young Americans, I was thrust into college at the discretion from my parents without an option for anything else. It was just the thing to do. I was fortunate, my parents had saved thousands of dollars to fund my college education and it was the next logical step. But, my mind wasn’t ready for another four years of education and I certinatly did not want to waste thier hard-earned dollars. I was living and breathing music, it was my sole focus and it was a strong passion that clouded anything else in my life at the time. After a semester of living in a dorm and skipping class, I decided to confront my parents and do what most 18-year-old’s are afraid to do. Tell the truth. Fortunately, my parents were completely supportive of my dream, which in the end, was to simply create art.

I digress, if you want to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant or plan on leading a Fortune 500 company you’ll probably need that degree by your side. But, if you are looking to flourish in anything creative all you’ll need is some experience, a solid portfolio, a set of business skills and the ability to talk to people. This most definitely applies to the world of photography.

Invest The Money

Over a small conversation recently, I was told that a new breed of parents were giving their bright-eyed high school graduates a choice. Take $40,000 and use it towards owning a business or use the money towards a strong college education. All this in attempt that their children they may learn the business-world through experience and failure, rather than textbooks and education. Imagine what a photographer could do with $40,000? Not only would that be able to purchase several camera bodies, but that would cover a range of high-quality glass and a top-of-the-line strobe kit (within reason). But, I wouldn’t advise that one go gear crazy with any large amount of cash. Instead, I would recommend one investing into the business, such as expenses and marketing. Gear will come and go, but your brand has to stick to continually make income.


While most students are yawning over textbooks, they could be hitting the “digital streets” and getting their name out there. Coming from the music business, I had to work from the ground up, which included street promotion, online promotion and picking up the phone. I spent hours hanging flyers on dozens of lamp posts and spent even more time online networking. Perception value and quality advertising always played an important role in achieving a sold-out show. And, as photographers, musicians or artists our goal is to always leave a good impression. At the end of the day, what’s going to leave that good impression for a future client… a degree or a strong portfolio? My first publication didn’t come from an interview or random email. It came from confidence in my portfolio and making friends with all the right people.

Attend A Workshop

I can sit here all day and debate how easy it is to learn for free, online with only a laptop in hand. However, there is a lot of noise and mis-information out in the world-wide-web. So it’s important to do the research and find a quality class that will not only benefit you as an artist, but also inspire you to challenge yourself. You can sit on YouTube for days, but there has to be a catalyst or a spark of inspiration to get you off your feet and trying what you’ve read or watched. For me, it was attending one workshop that changed it all.

Shameless Plug Alert! I’ll be hosting my annual “Masterclass” October in Louisville, Kentucky. The workshop will cover absolutely everything. From my philosophy to lighting to post processing to marketing and back. It’s just so revealing that I can only have this workshop once and year and it’s limited to just 14 photographers, so if you’re interested, then don’t miss out on the opportunity.


I had the amazing opportunity to travel all over the nation as a touring musician during my time as a young adult. From the age of 18 to 26 I visited every state and witnessed a lot of crazy things. But, it gave me wisdom that not many can claim and it’s the sole reason I’m a full-time professional photographer today. I learned how to talk to people, to live on a budget and run a LLC. I made connections that still benefit me in the photography industry to this day. I’m not saying to pack up and hit the road tomorrow, but get out and experience the world if you can; you never know what connections you might make.

Mentor or Internship

I have 4 amazing interns that assist me day-in and day-out. Each and every one of them currently attend a university and they all know my stance on college education. The reason I welcome interns who attend college is because I want to make a difference and give them an experience that no university can. My interns do receive college credit for the internship, but it's worth much more than that. They receive the knowledge of networking and true-life experience that most professors cannot teach.

“Working with Clay for the last six months has given me more invaluable knowledge of photography then my entire college career” – Brandy Fulton (2014 Intern)

When I started my photography journey, I had mentors such as Josh Eskridge and Joey Goldsmith who really paved the way for where I stand today. If you’re a young photographer looking for more, then network with other photographers and research internships or assistant position. Soak-in the knowledge and apply it to your own style, you’ll be glad you did.

While I fully expect backlash from those who have spent thousands on a college education or those who perhaps teach, I challenge you to step back and re-evaluate the world we live in. I'm not trying to downplay a great education or insult those in the profession. There are many great photographers and legendary artists who once attended college, but in this day in age if you’re looking to run a small business in the creative realm, you don’t need a degree-on-the-wall to do it. What you do need is a strong body of work, some experience and a lot of good friends.

If you’re a young photographer yawning over textbooks and looking for more, I’m currently accepting applications for a 2015 internship. Email me a portfolio and resume:

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Filip Wesołowski's picture

Andreas Gursky
William Eggleston
Martin Shoeller
Annie Leibovitz
Eliott Erwitt
Sebastiao Salgado
Mario Testino

Filip Wesołowski's picture

Henri Cartier-Bresson
Richard Avedon

Filip Wesołowski's picture

"if you’re looking to run a small business in the creative realm(...)" I missed that part. Makes my comment pointless. Sorry about that.

Clay Cook's picture

Indeed all legendary photographers Filip, all of whom are older in age. Point being, the world is a much different place then it was in the 60's and 70's. The same rules don't apply.

Filip Wesołowski's picture

I was waiting for that comment :) Couldn't agree more that world is a much different place any many rules have changed. But I still think that formal education in arts is a very important aspect of medium development. To be honest I don't know many contemporary and young artist in the filed of photography from North America but in my region (Poland/Czech Republic) twenty-something acclaimed photographers (and by that I mean people actually featured in museums of contemporary art) are mainly graduates of art schools, photography institutes etc.

I agree completely that for running a successful photography BUSINESS no degree is necessary. But when you start treating photography as fine art its a quite different world. And formal education gives lots of amazing opportunities. Many of which you mention in your article (mentoring, networking, travel). I'm not saying that you cannot accomplish anything in fine art without a degree because there are many people showing that it isn't the case but education in a great institution can offer multitudes of advantages.

For disclosure, I'm not blindly defensing institution that I am somehow connected with. Actually I recently dropped out of university of technology to pursue life in photography and cinematography. And I understand what you mean by this article. But I think you are just too dismissive of formal education.

Clay Cook's picture

Filip, great points! I think America's standard of education is much different then the rest of the world. There is a stigma here that college is the next logical step. So young adults are born with the conscious that you have to do it in order to succeed.

I would never discount a formal education, there is nothing wrong with it, it definitely has its advantages. My point with this article is simply the fact that you don't need the education to run a photography business. Just from what I've heard, professors don't cover how to shoot a wedding or build a reputation. After all, that's what Fstoppers is for! ;)

Sebastian Mikita's picture

Great article! Thanks Clay for that :)

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you for reading Sebastian!

Karma Wilson's picture

I'm all for people being educated. Education comes in many forms, and with the advent of the internet it's all changed. Colleges are still important, especially for certain jobs requiring intense hand eye coordination (brain surgery) and high technology fields requiring the skill to run very technical equipment.

But many careers, like photography and many types of writing, are hardly "degree dependent". I became a children's book author just as the big change hit in 1997. Email queries were banned then (they now are the norm), google didn't exist, and online forums for writers were just emerging. The days of the "New York Author" were slipping. The internet was closing distances dramatically.

Enter me: First time computer owner and young, poor mom. No college education--just a GED and a year of community college which helped me exactly ZERO in getting any sort of income.

But through the emerging internet and online communities, I studied, I networked, I joined chats with agents, I talked to other authors, I joined critique groups--and I learned as much as I would have learned in college, just quite a lot faster and more efficiently. Five NYTs best selling children's books later I can very honestly say that for me, college probably would have not been a good thing. I now get paid to speak to librarians and teachers at colleges and libraries around the country, giving speeches on using children's literature in the classroom. I am educated, just not college educated.

I hate the message that society sends to "drop outs" and people who don't have degrees, bandying about terms like "losers" "lazy" and "ignorant" with abandon. Sometimes good people get in bad situations. Sometimes "bad" people change, and weren't really "bad" at all, just prone to making some bad mistakes. I always encourage everybody to get as much education as they can, but if failure occurs it doesn't have to be permanent. Education is just knowledge. Careers are applying that knowledge. College is the right way for some, and completely wrong for others.

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

Totally agree with what you are saying, I do believe that a lot of the people that promote not getting a degree do it because things worked out for them. But it does not mean it will work out for others.

Education is important, education will allow you to organize your thoughts and ideas faster and more efficiently. Education could expose you to real world problems before they happen to you. I do believe in trail and error, i learn something everyday, but i also avoid a lot of problems from being educated properly.

Can someone make it without a degree, Sure they can. When we say "a successful photographer" what does that mean ? what sort of lifestyle does a successful photographer have ? what sort of income does a successful photographer make per year ? how many successful photographers live with zero dept ? so many things to think about before we drop out and live our dream and promote it.

Karma Wilson's picture

I don't promote "not getting a degree"....I simply point out the cases it's a wonderful, incredible journey in life, as full as college. I see what you are saying. The fact is, there are a lot of fulfilling jobs that don't require a degree but do demand a good salary. The millennial are getting it. Bring an educated mind and work ethic to a job--if the skills don't require a degree, it won't be demanded by employers simply seeking the best. They will pick the problem solvers, regardless of background.

That said, I know a lot of people who had fantastic experiences earning their degree and have a high reward for it. It's a case by case situation in my opinion. Don't fear failure though. Don't think "oh, I missed my chance". Your chance is today.

Mokhtar Chahine's picture

Completely Agree, you have a very clean way of thinking.

Rahim Gupta's picture

I would just like to point out that college education doesn't have to cost a fortune and put you in debt for the next decade after graduation. Nobody needs to go to overpriced private institutions especially these days when job after graduation is less than certain. I graduated from a city university without any debt. I'm now working alongside those who paid ten times more for their education and do exactly what I do and earn probably about as much as I do. I do consider some level of higher education important even in the field of photography simply to gain general knowledge, like writing skills, some history, mathematics and time to mature as an individual...

Michael Steinbach's picture

Then there are the specific classes that would have made my learning curve (30 years ago) a lot simpler: Marketing, the one place that many of us fall flat on when we think that our "art" will carry us through. There is great deal to be said for being well rounded as well, that really is a huge part of the college experience.

Ralph Berrett's picture

I am going to say I sort of disagree, here. It depends on the career path. I went the college route and it was very beneficial for me. Now I will say that, I majored in photojournalism minored in photography. College open many doors for me.

I got access to to shooting college sports,and the first time I shot the NFL was from a college paper assignment which lead to a regular gig was when I was 19. I was able to shoot every format of cameras including a 24 x 36 inch Polaroid Viewcamera. Most companies like Gannet, Reuters, Associate Press, and Lee Enterprises require a degree especially if want to work for a daily.

Now I am going to say this too, I was already a working photographer when I was in college. I worked as a stringer for one paper, was a part time shooter/ lab tech at another paper and was shooting for the college sports information office of a JC. And as a side note shote my first wedding at 16 with a Canon F1. While at college I also started to work for a Scripps League daily paper full time, which was one of the opportunities that I got through school.

I sort of skipped the assisting thing. Now we did have a joke about untraining college interns at the papers I worked at. Also I will not say that college is the only route, there are also places like Brooks.

I also there was some practical benefits, I had a larger knowledge base than to draw from than a lot of local shooters.

Today the company we have will not hire a shooter, unless they have some sort of certification, degree or a lot of experience, all the portfolio will do is get your foot in the door.

One last note is the contacts you make can also help in future endeavors.

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for sharing Ralph! You're right, everyone has their own path and there are many roads to travel. I do think if you want to have a career in photojournalism a formal education might be the way to go. Many of my friends who work at a paper went down that road. But, I'm freelance and will always be freelance, so I needed to know business first. My clients don't care about a certification or degree they care about my work and confidence in my work. A formal education can't teach you confidence, you teach yourself that through experience. Just my path! :)

Ralph Berrett's picture

Don't think....feeeel. It's like a finger, pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory. - Bruce Lee

I known several people who, have gone through Brooks and they also got a degree. To me College like anything is what you make of it. College or any school is not about teaching confidence or talent it is about teaching the skill sets, techniques. I will say this all the knowledge in the world will make no difference if you don't put it to use.

I also known some awesome self taught photographers. Of course these days I am an independent contractor. One does not live on journalism alone.

The trick is we all have to find our own way.

Slave Viktorijoski's picture

I'm an fine arts academy educated visual artist(painter,sculptor,print maker) I i thank my education everyday!!!!!!!

Clay Cook's picture

As you should, there is nothing wrong with that! Cherish it, as you have something many people don't! This article just happens to be my path and recommendation. :)

Martin Van Londen's picture

Clay Clark is "Legend" for this one! I could not agree more. 90% of the technical and professional skills I have I learned from internships and from other veteran professionals. My artistic eye and style came from my mom who is a life long artist and from digesting art through out my whole life.

On top of all that I have seen so many great artists and photographers get there careers start in high school and just go full throttle from there. Collage is a great experience but it will not make or break you.

Slave Viktorijoski's picture

Can you talk about history of fine art(without googling or wikipedia) and what's important and characteristic about certain periods of fine art(ancient greek,roman art,gothic art,renaissance,mannerism,pointillism,dada,etc),characteristic types of lighting in different periods of painting,architectural styles,etc.?

Eric Filson's picture

To play devil's advocate here, as I have taken college level art history... None of that is a requirement to running a successful business OR creating gorgeous photography. In fact, I would argue that the vast majority of people I've come across who focus on and discuss art history regularly come off sounding quite pedantic. The only portions of learning this history that actually matter to a photographer is the recreation of light, composition, color, etc... the artists' names, periods, locations, etc... don't actually make any difference unless you're trying to socialize at modern / fine art gatherings; which will never be a requirement for the overwhelming majority of photographers.

Martin Van Londen's picture

I can talk about that stuff because Ive read books, traveled, been to lots of museums and galleries around the world. But now because of google and wikipedia people who do not have access to that stuff or a fine arts education can learn about art history. Its great! You do not have to be an elitist to be an artist.

Slave Viktorijoski's picture

So you educated your self on the same way the art academy educates students! :) One way or another you can't be professional and successful without any education at all former or self education!

Karma Wilson's picture

Some of it. I can talk about Fibonacci's ratio and it's relevance to photography. I can talk about light, and how painters have been influenced by photography and photography by painters. I understand the joke, "If it ain't Baroque, don't fix it."

Now, can you have a conversation about how rhyme influences vocabulary and it's usefulness in helping Autistic children vocalize words? Can you tick me off a list of 5 modern picture books written in rhyme that have been shown to be very successful in helping lay a foundation for improved literacy? Can you have a relevant conversation with me about boys reading levels and their dramatic fall in reading comprehension tests in recent years, and how trends in curriculum, modern literature, and classroom have influenced this trend? It's fine if you can't, I hardly expect you to since it's my field of expertise and not yours. But I wouldn't just count you out as I have no clue what you know about those topics. And if you did I wouldn't care if you learned it in a lecture in school or a google article online. But I can and do and get paid to speak about all those topics and more, without a degree. I even speak, gasp, in university classrooms.

School is good. It's a medium for education, but hardly the only one.

Slave Viktorijoski's picture

Sure can't talk since your text is not art related,its psychology - medicine related(I guess)

Karma Wilson's picture

No, it isn't psychology-medicine related, it's cultural and literature related though. But see, (and I kind of can't believe I have to spell this out) my point was that I am educated and competent in my line of work, without a degree. And many art careers are much more friendly to those without degrees.

And honestly, it would be beneficial to you to figure out how to educate yourself without a classroom, at least sometimes, because there are a lot of topics beyond your art degree that you may find yourself having to discuss competently. I suggest google and wiki. They are free, and very useful tools.

Slave Viktorijoski's picture

So you prefer wiki to be your mentor instead of someone who's professor-doctor in art,person who had exhibitions around the globe?Do you know someone uneducated to work on high position in art gallery, someone uneducated to be art critic?What you will say to a president Obama(for example) if he visit the art gallery where you work as curator?"Hey look this is artwork by Van Gogh,he cut his ear,he committed suicide,and...? You can be a race car driver without driver licence but what if you want to drive passengers?Maybe you don't need college diploma for fashion/beauty/editorial type of photography because even grandma can place large parabolic umbrella dead center in front of the subject and set DSLR to 1/125 f11 iso 100/200 but for fine art photography degree is a must.Those without college diploma will always have complex of lower value and always will be rebellious anytime education is mentioned.Have you ever exhibited internationally?

Karma Wilson's picture

No I don't prefer it, it's what was available to me and many thousands of others. Some people make do with what they have. And for me, it was actually the better route. I don't think I even would have thought to do what I do now if I was busy in some job I felt obligated to do because I had invested so much in it already. I have said numerous times there are art jobs that do require a degree. But to answer your question, I think a self educated person COULD be an art critic and be perfectly capable of chatting with Obama about Van Gogh. I'd rather discuss Bernini though. I love Bernini!

Also, I'm all for mentors. I mentor a lot of new writers. I think mentors are found in a lot of places that aren't universities or colleges.

I think we may be dealing with a language barrier here, since I am having a hard time making out what you are trying to say. Since when do you need a degree to "drive passengers"? Taxi cab drivers need degrees now? Do you mean a pilots license?

Have I ever exhibited nationally? I'm not an visual artist, and this article wasn't about exhibiting nationally, but I think Ansel Adams did, correct? He's fairly popular in photography, correct? Ansel Adams was a high school dropout.

No I haven't exhibited internationally in photography. I am a writer. My work has been published nationally and internationally. If you would like to know my accomplishments google me or. I use my real name here. Trust me, I don't have a complex about my education, and I feel very happy to charge the fee I do for my services, both speaking and writing. I am a competent educated professional in a line of work much more competitive than photography and I make a very good living and am very content in my work. I am not college educated, true. It makes zero difference to me or the people that hire me.

Slave, I'm very happy you are happy with your education and feel your money is well spent. But there are a many people who don't need a degree and are very successful without one. I am one. I will never insist that anybody shouldn't go to college. If it's available it's great. If it's not, there are other routes to success. I and Ansel Adams are both proof.

Karma Wilson's picture

PS: If I were to chat with Obama about Van Gogh, I would be sure to mention he dropped out of all formal education relating to art, never making it in art school more than three months, and never earned a degree. But you knew that, right? ;)

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