Should You Go to College to Become a Photographer?

As professional photographers, there's no doubt in our minds that making photography into a career should be considered "a real job." However, the path you take to become a professional may make or break your career choice. 

Choosing whether or not to go to school to become a photographer will have a huge impact on how your long-term career will likely pan out. Before you dive into a choice one way or another, take some time to listen to some experienced voices. Lee Morris, co-owner of Fstoppers, chose to go to art school and has now worked as a professional photographer and educator for over a decade. Mike Kelley did not go to school for photography but is probably now the most well-known architectural photographer in the world. In this video, they take the time to break down the choices they've made and how they think school has affected their career paths.

If you're considering paying for schooling to pursue photography or any other creative art as a career, take the time to watch this video first. 

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35 Comments

John Dawson's picture

College is one of the biggest scams going! If you need it for professional licensing (doctor, lawyer, architect, teacher, etc.), fine. Otherwise there are so many more efficient and cost-effective ways to learn.

John Dawson's picture

I'll amend my comment to acknowledge that there are some people that, for a variety of reasons, need the structure of formal classes to more effectively learn. I suppose that it's a sort of self-starter thing.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Warning, long comment :-)

I listen to about ten minutes and decided to comment. This is a very complicated discussion but I will say that the title "Should You Go to College to Become a Photographer" is very different then the direction you chose to take in this debate.

In general, you do not go to school to get a job, you go to school to learn the skills you will need when you get that job. But even that is not accurate. For example, you could graduate with a history degree and end up in administration or managerial careers or whatever. All three of you are an example of that.

School -a good one that is- is a lot more than stuffing your head with information and multiple essays. School should teach you to be organized, methodical and being able to approach a project in an constructive manner to accomplish the most in the shortest time.

When working on a project or a research paper you need (and must) investigate and research in many direction that could be beyond what you are studying. In doing so, you learn to broaden your horizon and be creative in acquiring the information to accomplish the project.

Do you need to go to college to "become" a photographer? That's not the right question. Should you go for higher education? Absolutely!! A hundred percent!! You should go to university or college or whatever you call it. YES!

Do you need to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars? Well, if a community college offers cheap or maybe even free education take it. Any education is better then none.

But if you choose to invest in a photography school know that you will learn a lot more than just how to handle a camera.

Learning how to operate a camera should take a few hours at most. The rest of the four years (or three or whatever) are going to teach you how to envision, how to approach a session, how to mix colors to achieve the impact you are intending to. You will learn how to pose, how to direct a client or a subject. How to improvise with what you have.

You will be asked to visit museums and analyze various painting learning color mixing techniques, light and shadow, how different fabrics flow and much more.

All those things are invaluable when you first take a camera and do a paid job. However, you should know that the real learning starts when you take your first paying job.

Reality and school are two different things and in the beginning you will feel that school was a waste of time but as you start gaining more confidence you will start applying what you learned. BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY, you will have the confidence to experiment and practice the same way you were thought in school and that's how you will really grow.

Yes! Go for higher education! Do not expect it to get you a job but use it to learn how to grow when you have that job.

I remember speaking to one of my client, a partner in a large law firm and he told me that when he graduated law from McGill university (on of the best law schools in North America) he was walking on clouds. The clouds part ended abruptly when he started his new job realizing that the "lowly" clerk knew way more then he did about cases, court procedure, how to question witnesses and just about anything else. He realized that he now really started his education. School gave him the tools to handle those tasks.

GO TO SCHOOL!!! I didn't... and man, do I regret it. Over the years I took as many courses as I could on just about anything I could find in the local college. I regret not going for a degree. If I could I would take two years, enroll in a photography program and do nothing else but learning.

Sorry for the long comment but I get really passionate when speaking about higher education.

Maybe if you went to University, you'd know the difference between "compassionate" and "passionate". ;-) Just kidding.

While I agree with your comments (yes I read the whole thing) in general, I would qualify it by advising to be *very* careful in selecting a school. Some will offer everything you mentioned, and more. Others...not so much.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Thank you for reading the whole thing and for the correction. Yes, I meant passionate. English is my second language :-)

As for choosing a school carefully, it's a little different where I live. In Montreal we have one main English art school that specializes in photography, Dawson College. It's a known school for graphic design, film and photography.

If you want a degree in any of those fields and if you want to study in English that's the only one. We do have small private schools but why would you go there when college is so much cheaper? You can study as an adult student in the evenings or take a full program.

Tuition in our school is a joke, really. It's not free but not far from that.

I know that in the US things are different and you have many private colleges to choose from some are just money makers luring students so they take those crazy loans.

Not here, we don't have that risk so it is very different.

Alex Cooke's picture

Read your entire comment, and as someone on the cusp of a doctorate, I agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of going to school for the life lessons it teaches you and the skills it equips you with. It teaches you a way of thinking and conducting your life that is enormously beneficial far outside the immediate application of whatever you studied. And beyond that, spending four years learning to become an adult alongside your peers gives you a bit of a safety net as you transition into true adulthood and it's just plain fun. You build a ton of memories, and the truth is, you will never have such a vast network of readily available friends and relationships waiting to be formed like you do when you're in school.

The one place I'd always be careful is regarding student loans. I have friends who are engineers, doctors, and lawyers who are currently saddled with six figures of student loan debt, but that's ok. They knew what they wanted to do, they knew that school was the only pathway that would get them there, and they knew the career on the other side would likely be financially secure enough to allow them to be able to handle the debt, and in those cases, it has been. The second point is really important, though. You can't be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc. without going through higher education. That's the one and only path. You can, however, be a photographer without it. I know people who have six figures of student loan debt for degrees that had no real impact on their career prospects. More importantly, they knew going in that these degrees wouldn't help much, but they subscribed to the notion that all education is a noble pursuit and worth the metaphorical and literal taxes that come with it. I do subscribe to the first half of that notion, but that needs to be tempered by pragmatism. Much as I would like to live in a society where quality higher education was affordable for any who wish to undertake it, that's simply not where we live, and one really needs to consider that. If someone came to me and asked if they should study photography in college and accrue major debt or go into some sort of apprentice work, I would tell them the latter 10 times out of 10 (and I have when asked). Being 22 and starting as an assistant in a studio or trying to get your business up and running while Sallie Mae is sending you massive loan payment notices is not a good situation, and I don't think an 18-year-old generally has the requisite foresight and maturity to see that eventuality for how serious it is, which is why I think it's reckless to encourage students to think this way. Find a studio to assist in and take a few nighttime business classes instead.

tldr:

1. If college is the only way and the career is what you truly want and will enable you to handle the debt, go to college.
2. If college is not the only way, but it's monetarily feasible for you to go there without accumulating major debt, consider it, as the friendships and knowledge you gain there can be great.
3. If college is not the only way and it will cause major financial strain, find a different route.

Motti Bembaron's picture

I am realizing now that I look at things a bit differently then most here because in Canada and especially in Quebec, education is accessible to EVERYONE. Tuition fees are very low and I mean very low. A school year in McGill university, one of the most known in North America is around $5,000 and even that can be reduced if you apply for some assistance (not loans).

Tuition in our main, and practically only English Art School in Montreal (In Quebec colleges and universities are either French or English), is around half that for a year.

The reason I strongly lean towards starting your life with a skill and a degree is because I see the difference between those who acquire good foundation in art and the business side of photography and those who did not, like me.

Again, I realize that it is vastly different in the US. However, regardless, I say go to school. If all you can do is take night courses, then do it. Do business or art courses or whatever can enhance your knowledge.

If school cost $5k/year here I would have a completely different view.

Motti Bembaron's picture

If I had to pay the fees you pay in the US my approach to higher education would be no doubt different.

It is $500 per semester in Switzerland. State heavily sponsors this area.

Motti Bembaron's picture

In the Czech Republic you only pay registration fee of 180 Euros
:-). I believe that higher education should be available to anyone who wants it not anyone who can afford it.

I can only imagine how many really smart people will never realize their talent and intellect due to their inability to pay for education.

-"School -a good one that is- is a lot more than stuffing your head with information and multiple essays. School should teach you to be organized, methodical and being able to approach a project in an constructive manner to accomplish the most in the shortest time."

That's certainly what they'd like you to think. The thing is though, a lot of times this isn't even true. School gives you assignments that require those skills (being organized, methodical, constructive) but often you end up having to figure that part out on your own anyway. It's not like there's a class called "How to be organized, methodical, and constructive". (I'm sure there's probably an optional class somewhere that helps with this, but it's not the primary focus of the educational system).

-"When working on a project or a research paper you need (and must) investigate and research in many direction that could be beyond what you are studying. In doing so, you learn to broaden your horizon and be creative in acquiring the information to accomplish the project."

This is all "true", but often they don't teach you how to do this, you just have to "do it". It's true that they may be giving you work that helps you develop these skills, but that is still different than teaching the skills themselves. You end up teaching yourself, to a degree (no pun intended).

Barring the exceptions that many have mentioned (law, medicine, etc), I think the trick to a good education is realizing two things:

1) School is not teaching you how to think, it is teaching you rote memorization in a way that can be easily judged by a number/letter, which in turn allows them to place you neatly and comfortably into categories (passing, failing, etc.), and this allows other people who don't know how to think (some future employers) to judge you as well.

2) Outside of high level research being conducted by graduate level students/faculty/experts, school does not possess any knowledge that cannot be found elsewhere. It may possess resources (like labs) that allow you to pursue and realize your own ideas, but it is not the sole distributor of wisdom (some would argue that it isn't even a distributor of wisdom at all).

Once you realize these things, the path to self-education becomes much clearer, although the one thing it requires (which also cannot be taught) is the motivation to pursue it.

The problem these days is something Bill Nye pointed out during an interview, which is that when he was a kid, the number of available resources was small, but well-regulated and reliable (encyclopedias, journals, etc)... the trick was just tracking them down. Now, sources of information are everywhere and easily accessible (thanks to the Internet) but many are unverified and unreliable. The trick these days is something Carl Sagan wrote about extensively in "The Demon-Haunted World", which is to develop a good B.S. detector. Sadly, this is a skill that has escaped most people throughout history; it's just more noticeable now because of the Internet. I also think that schools are used to the idea that they are the purveyors of knowledge specifically because of Bill Nye's example, and that if they want to be relevant today they should teach logic and problem solving, not "memorize this date and repeat later when asked".

Motti Bembaron's picture

You have a lot of very good points especially regarding the method of teaching (memorizing and repeating). You are right, there is no one explaining how to do things or how to be organized. You have to find a way yourself and that's how you get better. In school you have a chance (many chances) to try and learn without loosing customers and reputation.

Furthermore, working with other students who have different ways of doing things you have a chance to learn from others. Many assignments are done in a group for that reason. When I said that school "teaches" you to be organized I meant that you learn how to be effective and efficient on your own and have fellow students and teachers to bounce those ideas and methods.

You say that school have the same knowledge you can find everywhere and you are right however, when it comes to photography or film school that's where ACTUALLY school has a huge advantage. From expensive gear to studio space to models and MUA's, you have so much at your disposal. I know that many locations that are not open to the public welcome photography students and let them use it for free.

I have to say that I am a bit amazed at the level of respect (or lack of it) to higher education that I see in this article. However, knowing how much it costs to get education in the US I can understand the attitude towards it. It's really too bad.

In one of our vacations abroad my wife and I met an American couple. The husband was freshly retired but previously worked in a Google subsidiary (can't recall the name) and before that worked for Microsoft. He said that when he retired the number of foreign employees in those companies was so high it was like working in another country.

When your Senate wanted to limit the visas for foreign employees at the high tech industry Bill Gates went to testify that it would be a disaster if they did it.

What I am getting at is this, from my point of view -north of the boarder- it seems that there is this notion in the US that if education is accessible to everyone than it's like socialism and well, that's very bad. The thing is, Americans not only loose jobs to other countries, they loose jobs in their own country. There are over forty thousands Canadians working in the US, most are highly educated and with well paying jobs. This is a small number compare to other foreign workers (Canada's population is very small).

I hope that this changes and everyone can walk through the gates of a college or university and have the great experience of meeting like-mined people and experience the joy of learning.

Cheers.

Andre Goulet's picture

Knowing what I know now (at 53), I would go to business school prior to becoming a photographer and learn photography through apprenticing and practice. Odds are pretty good that if you're interested enough in photography, you'll gather the skills you need as you work. But, the business side of it is, like for most self-employed people who work their passions, the tough part. In my opinion it's the major factor in the failure of most unsuccessful small businesses.

Brandon Adam's picture

I did it myself. Don't do it. Go for business and learn how to run your own.

Blake Aghili's picture

DEPENDS ...
If it is Syracuse and thought be Gregory Heisler : YESSSSS

Dallas Dahms's picture

Sorry, got as far as "sponsored by squarespace" and had to run to the bathroom...

Alex Armitage's picture

Something you guys didn't touch on enough is that colleges are businesses. Using your example of art school. If every person that goes to art school is fully aware of where they will be once they graduate and they still continue to pursue it, to me that's okay. If you love art and enjoy the formal learning colleges provides while also knowing that you very likely won't ever use your degree to earn a living wage, that's okay to me.

I got a degree in Electrical Engineering as a backup if my creative pursuits didn't work out. I still work on a college campus. I interact with newer and older students all the time. The inherent issue I still see today is that kids coming out of highschool are pushed by their parents, teachers, and society into these dream lands that a degree equates to success. It doesn't. Things have changed in the 30 years since our parents generation.

At the end of the day college's are businesses. However they are completely veiled in this shadow of a place to go to pursue your hopes and dreams. It's honestly one of the more fascinating marketing topics in the last 100 years. It's why there are so many online universities now, why tuition has tripled in 10 years, and why there are so many unemployed graduates. I could talk about this topic for hours as I'm completely on the same page as all of you. I do think college has merit- social aspects, connections, specific degrees (doctors, lawyers, engineers etc). But it all comes back to a business selling you what you want. If colleges turned away all the people who graduate with degrees they don't use, they'd never stay afloat.

Also one other thing to keep in mind is that if the world only consisted of the people like you 3 (Lee, Mike, and David) it would be a completely different place. Just imagine a world where everyone had the drive and passion you guys do. It wouldn't be feasible. There will always be diversity and people who don't make the cut which goes against the idea of "You can be anybody and do anything if you set your mind to it." Which I think is just giving some people false hope, just like colleges tend to do to so many young and unknowing teens today. There is only so much room in the world for people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, etc. Society needs to change it's tone to realize that if you end up as an electrician or carpenter - that's okay. We need those people too and they shouldn't feel any less about themselves because they didn't get a masters degree in art history.

Motti Bembaron's picture

And that is the major difference between schools in the US and elsewhere. In most countries universities are an engine or a tool supported by the government to make sure as many as possible people go through its gates for a more knowledgeable and successful future.

And as we all know, success does not mean money or the ability to buy a house with a pool :-).

Mike has hit the nail on the head with what he said at minute 34 about how Art schools don't set their students up for success by reflecting the real world. I work in education and the whole problem starts much earlier than that with school in general. In 2006 Sir Ken Robinson gave a Ted Talk about how every education system in the world is designed to kill creativity in students because they are based on the needs of the Industrial Revolution. That is so true. I have teenage students who have no passion for anything and go to college or university to study what everyone else does or worse, what their parents tell them to study.

About a year ago I was talking to the CEO of the European Design Institute who echoed this comment saying that over the next 5-10 years there will be a shortage of design graduates because school leavers go for the traditional degree courses: science, tech, engineering and maths as Mike mentions in the video.

I don't know what it's like in the US, but in Europe there is an over-inflation of qualifications needed to get a job. Where in the past an apprenticeship or vocational qualification was enough, now you need a university degree, where you needed a degree you now need a Masters degree and so on. Unless you set up your own business, which is full of its own challenges and problems, society forces you to follow a particular path rightly or wrongly.

Motti Bembaron's picture

A colleague of mine, a Scott , told me that in the UK trade schools are very popular. He told me that there is a system in place to help direct individuals to where they can be productive and not just to get a degree.

I agree with you that many schools are still at the mind set of the 50's and in desperate need of revolutionizing themselves. Many private schools picked on it and provide training and education for the future, however, they are expensive and obviously self served.

However, agreeing on the limitation of higher education, won't you agree that the level of knowledge, literacy and proficiency of an average person is much higher today then it was let's say 30 years ago?

It's true that the Internet has a lot to do with it but it's also the accessibility of higher education to many more people than before.

Things have to change and in some countries they do change but it is a slow process.

There's a big debate going on in the UK at the moment about having too many people at university, and how some students would be better off going to vocational colleges where they can obtain qualifications equivalent to university degrees. These courses cost much less and you can work and study at the same time.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking the education system in its entirety. I agree that the average person is far better educated now than they were in the past, and universities are more accessible. However, the system needs to be modernised to reflect the world of today, and the needs of both students and employers.

Motti Bembaron's picture

When the Canadian sand oil started to gain momentum out west they were looking for welders like you would not believe. I heard that experienced welder were making comfortable six figure income. However, the quest for skilled employees was a long one and they had to bring many outsiders to fill those positions..

Skilled people are hard to come by and some of the ones we hire are not that good.

Unfortunately, trade schools always had bad reputation, they are seen as schools for those who failed school. We need skilled people. We cannot be a society that provide service only. The Chines and the South Korean are so successful in manufacturing because they train people for specific skills.

Now, as for modernizing schools, that will not happen any time soon unfortunately. Teachers and professors have a way too comfortable life to want any change.

The Tenure system has to go, that would be a good start...Oh yes, and stop with the aggressive activism in university halls. Way too much of that these days.

Michael McCray's picture

Did not go to an art school for photography, but pursued a degree in Photo-illustration from Kent State University the major was part of the School of Journalism. When ask me what classes they should take to become a professional photographer, I say business. You can learn photography skills if that is your passion. However, I learned a lot more about the technical side of imaging than I would have ever been able to learn elsewhere easily. Photography is more than pretty girls and landscapes. Imaging is part of everything from medicine to space,

I went to college for both photography and design. I personally have found it very helpful for the following reasons:

>School resources. I was able to use the studio, lenses, flashes...etc.
>Relationship with other departments. I was able to work with graphics design department of the school. Working with art directions and graphic designers and design students.
>Have someone to give me guidance.
>Helps me to form a better relationship with the industry- such as internship.
>Art history...etc. Now, you may think its useless, but honestly, it isn't. It is good to have a common language across different disciplines is very helpful.
>Understand how stuff works. It helps me with problem solving.

Now, I understand you DON'T need a degree to do art. However, I think it is useful for some.

Aaron Bratkovics's picture

I won't regret getting my education from Brooks Institute (RIP) I like what Motti Bembaron said "You go to school to learn the skills you will need when you get that job."

My education and the community kept me accountable. Did I want to spent 12hrs days shooting a mirror cubed or writing pages on the qualities of light all night? No...ugh ...but hell looking back I'm sure glad I did. The lessons I learned there really shaped how I photograph subjects today. I felt prepared and confident to take on a lot of paid assignments.

You can learn a lot from online/assisting but you need to go out there and put it to practice over and over again like anything else to be successful.

k back to applying to police departments.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Maybe. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

If you want to teach (in a real school) or a corporate / government photo job. Then probably yes.

If you want to have a studio, run your own business, teach workshops, become a youtube sensation or NikonCanonSonyAmbassador-masteroflight-geniusoflighting-spokesmodel-CarnyBarker then no, that is done by marketing and having a ton of followers. A lot photographers make tons of money doing more branding, promotional videos, workshops, tours than taking pictures

It is easy to learn on your own. These days there are no magic photo secrets... There used to be, but today there is a how to on Youtube for every trick, technique or style. If it's not there today it will be there tomorrow. Plug-ins, Presets and an endless stream of experts starting their videos with "Hey guys!"

One thing nobody has mentioned about going to school - Connections. I went to art school and met a lot of fellow students who were in the design / art direction classes. These connections (and connections thru these people) lasted for 10-15 years resulting in maybe $25-50k in billing per year. So add that up.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Right on! Spending years among people of the same interest and goals have huge advantage when building a career. It's who -and how many- you know.

Tony Clark's picture

There is no substitute for education, it gives you a base for life. For photography, I see Business Courses as the basics of the profession. Once you graduate, a couple years of assisting is invaluable because you learn real world problem solving, interacting with Clients and if you are lucky the photographer will share fees, licensing and how to negotiate a job.

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