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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Previous comments
Slave Viktorijoski's picture

Admit you googled it!!! ;)

Slave Viktorijoski's picture

Admit you googled it!!! ;)

Karma Wilson's picture

I have never denied using a tool that thousands of professionals with degrees and without make use of daily. ;) I google a lot of stuff, in the pursuit of knowledge. But I actually did know this about Van Gogh from an article I read years ago about famous "drop outs". :)

Thomas McInnis's picture

It is unfortunate that over the last 50 years we have lost sigh of what a college education should actually be. The separate ideas of education and training have been conflated because business minded people started claiming that college could 'train' someone to be qualified for a particular job. Unfortunately outside of Med/Law etc that is a fallacy. A marketing degree doesn't actually qualifies you to be a professional in marketing any more than a photography degree allows you to be a photographer.

The real value from college has and always will be, an education. College is not actually about learning the facts of a subject, but learning how to learn, and learning how to reason.

I was a political science major - and because the faculty were under no allusions about the practical applications of such a stream there was no pretence about learning 'key competencies'

I now work as a photographer in fashion mostly, and I also run the marketing and product development for my brothers business. I studied neither of these particular things but I utilise my college education every day. I wish more people have the opportunity to receive a 'non-training' education, but I fear in these days everyone is looking for a direct return on investment.

It is not surprising that some of the most successful photographers working today either have no college training, or a degree in commerce, or art history, or philosophy!

Most colleges now market themselves as "training you for a particular job". Touting their job placement rates, etc... and for the rapidly increasing cost of higher education, I don't blame anyone who feels they should be ready to obtain a job after shelling out that kind of cash. College / University becomes more of a luxury though if we're calling it 'non-training' education; when it should be a training + education. The necessity portion should not come in the form of a trade school, apprenticeship, or internship *only*.

Mike Kelley's picture

Great post and I agree completely. We have almost identical stories.

Justin Haugen's picture

I'm jaded on the college education 'industry' too, but if at age 18 to 20 my parents had given me $40,000 for my business aspirations, I'd be telling everyone about how I used to own a photography business.

The best investment right up there with money that any of us can invest in our craft and business, is time. I wouldn't trade 10 years of learning and experience for $40,000 instead of the time I spent in college for a degree I'm not currently using.

It's alright to go to school, it's alright to work your way up on menial jobs until the time is right. Whatever it is you choose, do your best at it.

Corina Marie Howell's picture

Or if you DO go to college, go to one where you are sure to meet important people for future networking purposes. Like USC. :)

Justin Davis's picture

I have such mixed feelings about this. I totally agree that a degree is no longer necessary for a good career, but at the same time, my years in college were some of the best of my life. I don't regret it in the slightest, and would still highly recommend it to most. My college, at any rate. I was blessed to go to a very unique school (Berry College) that focused more on experience rather than textbooks and lectures. My classroom time is towards the bottom of the list of things that were good about college. The experience, the connections, the friends, the life ethic, the adventure, etc all play into how I manage my life and go about my career. I certainly would not be the person that I am without my years at Berry, and I wouldn't trade anything for it.

So, I suppose in summary, my view is just that there is no universal right path. Skipping out on college obviously works well for many people. I probably would have been fine as well, had I followed that path. For others, college is a wonderful experience that is well worth the investment, be it monetarily or otherwise. Each to his own.

I agree with Filip, don't go to school for photography go to grow as a human and learn to think, communicate and express under guidance. So many of the great photographers are critical thinkers
that developed their sensibilities and references in university.

Fritz Asuro's picture

I totally agree. Back then I was taking up B.S. Architecture (ArchiTORTURE) and I was having a hard time and photography as my extra curricular activity saves my day from all the stress my course was giving me. On my 3rd year, I decided to drop the whole course and run my own advertising business. It didn't go well at first and had to sold it. When everything feels so wrong, there I met more people and had more x-deals to build up my portfolio until then I flew to Dubai and found my career here. The ability to communicate, the drive to what you want, and the strength to hang on - these are the things why now I am working for a good paying magazine company here in UAE. If I continued my university life, I might have finished just a year ago and maybe still looking for a job, and maybe not enjoying life the way what I am loving now.
Follow your dreams, it's not always about the degree but the passion you hold for your craft.

David Vaughn's picture

That's the worst clickbait title I've read in a long time.

Let me know when you graduate from a small high school with $25,000 in scholarships that were funded by the people in the community. And those scholarships are not transferable to other students.

Me not attending college would be a spit in the face to some of my financially less fortunate peers and friends whom I grew up with.

I didn't go to college to get ahead. I went out of obligation and respect for the opportunity I had been given. Squandering that because of some romanticized idea of being successful without a degree would have been selfish and stupid.

I don't regret it one bit, because I am not a naturally social person. College forced me to be social and to make connections. I met my partner in college. We're now living in L.A., a city that many of my peers moved to after graduating.

You don't need college to be successful, but then I'd rather be where I am now because of college instead of God knows where without it.

The most insufferable people I know are those who didn't go to college and won't shut the eff up about it.

Rex Larsen's picture

I know some very creative photographers who are unable to write an intelligent sentence.
When I talk to young people interested in photography, I suggest they teach themselves the craft and get a good liberal arts education. It is especially important for photojournalists.

Jozef Povazan's picture

Not going to the college does not guarantee you are going to start up a photography business easier then those who did go to one. I have personally finished University with master degree in criminal law, worked in my field for couple years and then realized photography was what I really wanted to follow. I moved to the UK to study English and art of BW photography at a college. It did not cost me a fortune but it was a great start up for a guy who bought his first camera at age of 22! I do not regret I left law for photography, I love what I do and would never changed anything from my past, including the education I gained. I think learning new things on daily bases is a must for us to grow, and with current school systems around the world it is a shame that parents ask their kids after they come home from school question - Did you have fun?
How about to ask - what my grand parents used to ask me every day - What did you learn today? Think about it, education is the key to better future of individuals in any country. Well in some countries not everyone can afford a good education, so sadly only the chosen and rich will have their children properly educated in near future, Which means, middle class is going to slowly disappear and richer gets richer and poor you know ... Even artist need some education from history, philosophy, mathematics or physics to start their journey with good base knowledge and then to build on it by try and error ... I think educational systems need a revolution so schools start again do what they were supposed to be doing for centuries ... give education without ripping your bank account off!!! Proper one! just my opinion :) thanks.

Timuçin HIZAL's picture

art school is a mind f***er. turns unused sections of the brain than cpu overheating. blends theory and and philosophy of art and a lot of boring stuff. big books, complex articles, academic discussions, googling and a lot googling.
unfortunately can not gave strobist hdr hss dodge and burn. all fun things must can do it yourself. hell yeah.

Dave Blinder's picture

Great article! I learned how to master Goldeneye 007 (N64) and how to budget my skateboarding time in college, not much else.

Clay Cook's picture

Ha! Thanks Dave. Hey, Goldeneye for N64 was worth it!

Dave Blinder's picture

Yeah, becoming an expert in proximity mines has its advantages!

Tim Fitzwater's picture

If someone wants to get a college education I have no problem with it - you'll learn a ton. That being said youtube and digital have completely replaced the need for it.

Clay Cook's picture

Totally! YouTube and this site called "Fstoppers" is how I learned everything! :)

Tim Fitzwater's picture

Woops... that's what I meant!

William Wright's picture

I think this is the one article that is directly hitting home with me.

I am already $20k in debt with an Associates Drafting/Design degree and working towards an Industrial Engineering Tech. degreee.

I am taking a semester break right now (working full time, all of my classes are online). I can't stand the fact of adding more debt on to what is already there. The only reason I am getting this BS is so I can hopefully make more money doing something that I don't really want to be doing anyways.

I've got the solution for all. Do as I did when graduating high school. First off, I knew at the age of 14 that I wanted to be a photographer. I think that's the first and most important step. Do what you love and stick with it. Second take a year off after high school to relax and enjoy life. Third, go to a community college (by the way I got accepted to Brookes institute of photography and its way overpriced) and don't start with your basics that's a waste of time and money. Fourth, take all the photo, video, editing, and business courses that colleges allows and then drop out. All in the mean time your building your craft and business. If your smart you will skip all the history, speech, and English classes and the other bs they FORCE you to BUY in order to get a degree. Also if you know that your not a business person then partner with someone that is. You have to be able to hustle and think like a creative in order to succeed!

David Justice's picture

I'm very interested in applying for your 2015 Internship, but I have a question. What is the time period of the internship?

Clay Cook's picture

David, thanks for the interest! My internship is one year. I currently have an intern that is getting credit for two semesters.

Good Article, But from my experience people not working in their field had less with getting a degree but more to do with how they managed their education. All the thing you mention in your article a person getting a degree should be doing. No on in school should be waiting to graduate before interning, networking, and traveling in connection with their major.

My friends who only went to school and took classes struggled after leaving. I on the other hand interned the summer before I started college and every summer while in school. I also found opportunities to work in jobs related to the field during the school year. So while my friends where working in retail I was getting paid as a design assistant and had a pretty decent portfolio and strong work experience when I graduated.

I guess the moral to the story is that there are an underlying set of skills needed to be successful in any field and you should be getting those skills and experiences as early as possible whether you are pursuing a four year degree or not.

Nicholas Hrycun's picture

Photographers wanting to start their own business maybe should go to business school. Learn marketing, human behaviour, economics, writing and accounting. This will be much more helpful than throwing your money away at an arts degree. If you a passionate about something like photography you will seek out resources to learn all you can about it. All that being said, Bcomms are still not a trade. They don't guarantee you a job when you are done just like arts. If you don't have the motivation to work toward your own goals and you need someone to hold your hand the entire way then school in general will not get you anything. Your attitude would have to change for you to get anything from school.

Bill Klingbeil's picture

Meet the new class of Americans...The Educated Poor. I work in Human Resources during the day and I see it every day, the bitter pill that the "American Dream" is not about the piece of paper.

Education is a wonderful thing but going into debt for the rest of your life is not. There are many ways to learn and the classroom is just one.

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