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:

Clay Cook's picture

Portrait and Editorial Photographer, Clay Cook has learned the importance of going the extra mile, after a long, arduous run in the music business. Clay has shaped creative projects with History, Lifetime, Comcast and Papa John's Pizza. In addition, he has photographed assignments for Time, Forbes, The Guardian, W Magazine, USA Today, ESPN and Inc.

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Previous comments

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.

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

Woops... that's what I meant!

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!

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

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.

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.

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.

Thanks for reading Bill, that's a great statement.

I am current enrolled in college and was originally somewhat forced into by my parents. Its been 2 years and I have tried several programs (at one point I was taking classes to even be a paramedic) and still haven't even gotten my general AA degree. At this point I am only continuing just to get that AA degree (which will probably be useless) because I am only 2 semsters away and already have saved up all the money to pay it off without having any loans.

Yet in the end I could care less because it hasn't helped me further my career. I even took 2 advance photo classes (was able to skip the intro classes after showing the school some of my portfolio work) and I wasn't impressed. Don't get me wrong the classes werent bad and some of the teachers were really helpful but I only felt like I was paying large sums of money to take photos on a deadline. I had to drop those classes halfway through for a job (to pay for college) but I continued to constantly force myself to shoot. Needless to say I kept on improving because I was self motivated and determined to learn.

I've learned more from workshops, dvds (thanks FStoppers) and just shooting than I did going to college. The only advantage of college I can see (for a photographer, other career paths can be different) are business classes. I plan on taking business classes for the rest of my degree because we all know a photography business is only 20% photography.

Thanks for sharing Austin. Take business and marketing classes if you have to, you'll see an ROI from that. Keep your head up and keep shooting. By all means, touch base with me if you need anything!

No, success is just have a silly computer and a lot of fans in istagram, facebook, google and so on thanks to a mediocre artwork collection of paintings, photographs, writtings etc.
These are the times we live

Just to remind you guys at fstoppers. This site has visitors from all the world. Not going to college in a country like mine, where college is free is just passing up on getting to meet and network with experienced professional photographers and evolve together with other people with the same interest. I think this article is a bit too US-centric.

You are right Tobias, apologies! This article is concentrated on those who reside in the US. I can only write from what I know and I know that there is an educational epidemic here in America.

Educating and understanding the arts from masters is the best avenue to becoming a solid pro.... Skipping out on all that is known is lazy and often foolish way to become knowledgable about art.

College is the most organized and quickest way to get the skillset but its only part of the process that leads to mastering the craft.

If you don't believe in mastering the craft then you arnt a true professional but a good actor or salesman. Regardless

You can learn everything about photography outside of college. But who you get it from more than likely paid to get it from there!

If I don't see a student in training or a degree on the wall I don't trust what I hear or see from whoever is passing the info.

Good work or not.... The passion and skill that comes from formal training is unmatched skill wise.

I say GO to college, but don't study photography or art, get a major on business management or marketing, that way you can develop your photography skills on your own as MANY photographers have been doing.

If you take the money from college and invest in a business without any real world business skills the chances of failing are high. But if you invest the money on creating some basic skills for yourself you can market yourself into the most competitive niches of the business.

Anyway... that's just my opinion, based on personal and close experience.

Would college fix these errors below? Haha... Kidding of course. Well, I mean they are errors, but I loved the article. As a non-college grad myself, I tend to agree with you and don't see how a degree would help me at the moment. Take classes and workshops, learn how to run a business, then build a portfolio... Not always in that order.

"But, my mind wasn’t ready for another four years of education and I certinatly did not want to waste thier hard-earned dollars."

It is urged and respected for one to quickly come up with a career choice, jump into college right after high school, and at least take all the general education courses that are required, without really knowing what you would actually WANT to do, which is THE time and money waster. It's usually not until folks are in college or out in the workforce that they realize that whatever hobby they're into in their spare time is what they would rather be paid to get to do because they actually enjoy it!

I work full-time at a university (photography is a hobby /2nd job) and I know a lot of kids that are about to graduate high school. The advice I ALWAYS give is to think of something they like to do as a hobby, then find a pathway to getting to get paid for doing that hobby as a career, because that's ultimately what's gonna get you out of bed every morning, lol. My FT job allowed (and still allows) me to pay for my gear, which is the route that one can take if they aren't lucky enough for the parents to hand over $40K right off the bat. I love my FT job as it allows me to interact with a wide and diverse range of personalities and cultures (sometimes through photographing campus events), and I've spent a great deal of time learning photography techniques and lighting from tutorials on YouTube, KelbyOne, B&H, and just getting out there and shooting!

It would be beneficial for one to go to school for business if they already know that they'd want to do photography as their FT job, that would actually be smart-thinking. But the main lesson every photographer should learn is how to make their subjects jump right through the lens, while the photog him/herself disappears except in terms of style (editing, lens choice-per-subject). Connecting with your subject is definitely a key to photography success.

Sorry man, but your article is very small-minded I think. College is not just about the degree, if you study arts you know when you start your eduction this degree is going to be useless anyway. But that's not a reason to skip college. College doesn't only help you develop a skill set, it helps you develop as a person in many different ways. Hell it's a life experience.

I agree on the fact that you don't need to have a college education to make it (plenty of autodidacts in the business to prove that). College is not a guarantee to succes but I'm sure more people need the experience and the education (both technically and theoretically) to take these first steps into adulthood just to be able (mindset wise) to make a business for themselves then the other way around.

What also bothers me is that you are acting like being in college takes away the chance for traveling, networking, etc,.. as if it's one or the other... The only thing I can say to that is you should choose your college more carefully then. In a proper college (like were I went) you have all of that (and more)! The possibility to travel abroad to make a series for a school assignment, regular introductions and portfolio viewings with people in the business therefor allowing you to network, workshops, masterclasses and lectures with artists/photographers from all over the world, a mandatory (international) internship and maybe the most import thing off all, the ability to spend years working on a strong portfolio in the safety of an institution! A.k.a, not having to worry when the next paycheck/assigment is coming in and therefor having the freedom to build your portfolio as you like as well as being able to use all the material your school has to offer in order to be able to do this. Also the institution offers you constant feedback on your work which allows you to better your self constantly. This freedom and constant feedback often makes that people coming out of college have put together a very strong portfolio for them to build a business on. So contrary to what you think, a lot of photographers come out of college with a pretty solid base to continue on (and if they don't it's likely their fault for not working hard enough during these years). When it comes to college I believe you get out of it what you put in, but the circumstances in college make it so that you can get a lot out of it for what put.

I'm personally very fed up with the fact that people keep on screaming out loud you don't need a college education to be a photographer (or artist in general). I think a little nuance is needed, SOME people don't need a college education to be a photographer... but others (I actually think most) do!!!

I can tell from your article that leaving college was the right step for you but please don't generalize. Not all people have the same drive to make something out of their lives or have any idea exactly what they want to do with it... especially when their eighteen years old and fresh out of high school.

I'm pretty neutral about this. I'm planning on doing a Master's ( because I would like to teach down the line when I get older and achieve a personal goal) I have an Associates in Business already and a Bachelor's in Social Sciences. Photography came kinda natural to me so I just ran with it (decided to go full-time after being laid off the job in Social Sciences-and it's worked out well) BUT everyone doesn't experience that and sometimes training/education is required ( there's nothing wrong with that)

I would say don't splash the cash on 90,000-250,000 art school (unless it's grant or scholarship) but don't leave out state college/university options nearby. Tuition is relatively cheap. But whatever you do just take one or two business courses along the way.

My connections I met while working on my BS have been priceless in me succeeding as a photographer too! When my Alma mater needed work done for athletics, I was the first person who came to mind!


as a graphic designer and photographer I've learn though time that ... to the point! Now I'm studying business administration and accountancy because as a g.designer or photographer I'm really quite messy at those other

I have just completed a three year degree, to be honest the paper means nothing practically, uni gave me the opportunity to give up full time work at throw everything into learning photography. It worked very well for me. What i will say, it is rather easy to get a photography degree, what is important is the self led learning. There are many people coasting through these degree courses who are just not prepared to put in the hard practical work.

Mr. Cook I hope this gets to you my name is Hector Fuentes and I am a young male from a small town in North Carolina. I know I'm destined for Greatness and I have a strong feeling that photography will play a big role in what I will become of. I'm currently on my summer break having completed my first year of college, I feel that we both share the same opinion when it comes to our education system of our time hopefully without souding like I'm being contradicting. My love for photography was a blessing and I would be honored to learn from you first hand if the opportunity ever came.

I need to a photography course but without going to high school

I would think one thing we can all agree on is that going to college for photography can not teach you to “see” that perfect picture through the lens just as going to college for music can not teach you to carry a tune.