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Why I Think Photography School Is Worth It

Why I Think Photography School Is Worth It

Over the past few years there has been a lot of negativity thrown at attending school for photography. While there is some sound wisdom and reasoning behind these arguments, I would have to say that I am extremely proud to have gone to Columbia in Chicago, and I think most of my friends that have done so would agree (those at other art schools as well). Now, I must admit that I didn’t even graduate, or spend four years there, but my photo school experience has been invaluable to my career. I don't believe a degree will make any difference in the photo world, and it all comes down to who you know, your character, and your portfolio.

You Don't Have to Spend $100,000

To save money, I spent the first two years at a local community college. I’m not sure why most people don't talk about this as an option to save money and still go to good school for a couple years, but most community colleges will offer a couple of photo classes that will transfer into a bigger school. This allows you to take some design and web classes that will become helpful in running your business later.

I transferred into Columbia my third year of school, and spent three semesters there. I had bad grades in school most of my life. Not because I wasn't smart, but I just didn’t care and class bored me. Columbia pushed me in a way that I had never experienced before, and through a combination of talented professors and peer competition, I ended up maintaining a 4.0 GPA during my time there. I probably worked an average of 60 hours a week on assignments and shooting which prepared me for what it takes to make it happen in the real world. I competed with other students to win critiques and stand out, which is also similar to what happens when you are competing for jobs in the real world.

Most importantly, the craft and art of photography were drilled into me very deeply. That is the thing about the art world in comparison to most fields, you are learning two separate things that are both very hard on their own. Art and craft. Learning to see, think, breath, relate, translate, and communicate as an artist, all the while learning a relatively complicated craft and skill set, and then bonding the two together until they are synonymous.

Have a Plan, But Be Willing to Change It

Going into photo school, I knew that I wanted to be a portrait photographer. Editorial was what I really loved, and I also knew that advertising was a good way to really pay the bills and fund personal work. I didn’t look at school as a way to get a degree and have someone recognize me for anything. It was just a tool to get where I wanted to be. Having a mindset that let me constantly evaluate school as a tool let me focus on my larger life goals and then fit what school offered into that plan, rather than just planning my life around what the school's statistics promised me upon graduation.

Aside from doing the required course work, I was constantly pushing myself to do what the next-level students were doing. Things like figuring out studio lighting on my own, and adding it into assignments a semester or two before other students were, and other various technical things that I wouldn’t have done for another year or so in school.

During my third semester there, I accepted an opportunity to start assisting and working with a film crew. I had utilized the school's resources and knowledge as much as I could in three semesters, and decided saying yes to a real world opportunity was better than sticking around for another year.

Art and Craft

There are a lot of great photographers that have never spent a day in school, and others who have master's degrees in photography. My point isn’t that school is necessary for success, but that it shouldn't be written off as a waste of time that holds you back from the real world. Look at it as a tool just like any other business investment, and see if it makes sense for you.

Photography is much more than just learning a craft or being an artist. So many people nail one and miss the other. How many photographers do you know that are brilliant creatives, but couldn’t light a backdrop and are living on beans and rice, or others that are amazingly technical image makers, but don't really have any images that define who they are as artists? As photographers, whether we go to school or not, we need to constantly be pushing ourselves in both our craft and artistic vision. We stand on the shoulders of many generations who have gone before us to make us who we are today.

The people that master both art and craft are usually the ones that stand out and are looked up to for years. Be it photo school or not, we have to be constantly pushing and allowing ourselves to be put into situations that make us better at both. Only you know where you truly want to be. Trust your gut and not just some other photographer's opinion and experience, or you'll end up spending a lot of time trying to emulate them and not be yourself.

Seth Lowe's picture

Seth Lowe is a portrait and advertising photographer located in Peoria, IL. He works with a variety of clients ranging from industrial photography, to lifestyle, and editorial assignments.

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As a former Ringling student, I have to very strongly disagree. There are schools that are the exception to the rule, but they are few and far between. This article is very idealistic and not necessarily from a realistic standpoint.

1) Most schools will not accept transfer credit. The accrediation is different between community college and the majority of private art schools so the course requirements are different. This isn't set in stone by the schools as much as the accrediation board. Plus, the school still has to function. The advantage of a small private school is they cap the class sizes. My entire program had 24 students. They don't have the space available to accept a lot of transfer students and the kids paying the big bucks for small class size would not be too thrilled to have a sudden influx of new students they then have to compete with for computer and studio time.

2) The price tag on private art school education has become so astronomical that new graduates will almost certainly not be able to afford to repay their debt. Most parents do not budget $150,000 to pay for their child's 4 year degree. It's not possible for a 19-year-old to work it off waiting tables. A few $500 scholarships aren't going to make a dent. Even Pell Grant is nowhere near enough. So you have student loans. Once you're looking at repaying more on student loans than you're spending on rent, the reality is you can't afford to be a professional artist. 4 students from my entire class of 2004 are full time artists, and all of them with computer animation studios. In an interview, one of my former classmates said that there is no way he could afford to be an animator if his parents hadn't footed the bill for college. Another couldn't have afforded it if his mother hadn't passed away, leaving him some life insurance money, and his dad worked in the photo lab at WalMart to make up the difference. Oh and here's another fun surprise... you can complete 3 out of 4 years and no longer be eligible to finance your education because you've taken out too much loan money, so no degree and $100k of debt. The rules of government guaranteed loans do not apply as private education is more expensive and has to be financed privately. This kind of debt is why the Millenials are unable to become homeowners and why they put off starting their families.

3) The advantages of art school can be had elsewhere if you know where to look for them. Most of the instructors teaching at the super expensive art school aren't paid very well. Sad, but true. Most supplement with teaching other places, whether it is community education or at community colleges. I took a lot of photography classes at the local community college, just to have darkroom access. Guess who my teacher was..... the program director of the photography program at Ringling. The figure drawing teacher was also my figure drawing teacher at Ringling. My graphics design teacher was the graphics design teacher at Ringling. I have taken some workshops, at little to no cost, with some pretty big names in the art world. You just have to really look for those opportunities. After all, the big names have actually made it as artists where the art school instructors are not full time professional artists.

4) Art school does not allow you to take a variety of classes. As a photography major, I was not allowed to take any classes outside my major. Once I completed my studio classes, it was nothing but photography unless I wanted to go to the local community college. It was not a rounded education by any stretch of the imagination. I was bored out of my mind. As someone who spent every opportunity possible showing my work, taking workshops outside of school, doing my work/study as a lab monitor to have unrestricted access to the studio and computers, and honing my skills beyond the classroom, I wanted more than I could get there. My instructors didn't know what to do with me either because I was exhibiting work alongside them locally. By the time I reached my third year I was bored and unchallenged, like I was on cruise control. For the then price tag of $20k a year, challenge me.

5) Art school does not teach you how to set up and run a shoot. Studio time is extremely controlled and not at all the real world. It does not teach you business skills or workflow. The best way to learn is to assist, take workshops, and shoot in real life. Photography classes teach you the technical stuff and the rules of art. This sounds ridiculous, but I swear if they had a class like a reality contest show where the students had to run an actual shoot, it would be worth the money.

6) The school name can work against you. Ringling... aka one of the Ivy League of art schools, right? Ringling is known for super artsy personality types. Try getting a job at a newspaper or a commercial photography studio. They think all the students and grads are flakes. I got my internship with an architectural photographer through my program director who put my letter of recommendation on community college letterhead. For real. It's sad because I got in to the school by being professional and presenting a professional portfolio and my CV (yes, at 18), yet I couldn't get a foot in the door because the image of the school was flighty artists.

Most of what I learned in art school, I learned my first year when I wasn't allowed to take photography at all. Having never drawn, I had to learn to look at things differently and this changed how I took pictures. But honestly, I could have learned to draw with the same teachers somewhere else. And it would have been a less hostile critique environment.

Jennifer, sorry you had bad experience. Most my experience that I shared is about not doing the typical way, so I think you may have missed my point, and how I used it to benefit my career. I would not encourage the experience you had onto potential students. I did transfer all of my community college classes into Columbia however, which was really nice. My parents couldn't afford to send me for 4 years, and I definitely didn't want that much debt, so I was smart about my approach and using school to my advantage.

And potential art students may come across this article only thinking of the artistic benefits without weighing reality. It's great that you had a good experience, but that is NOT going to be the case for 95% of the art students out there. I understood your point, I just disagree. I also think it's slightly irresponsible to peddle the advantages of something that could and has changed the lives of many people for the worse.

Frankly, as a parent if my son came to me and said he wanted to spend $20-40k on 1-2 years of college for which he will earn no degree, I'd wonder what was wrong with him. That isn't logical thought process. If he told me he read it on a website about his intended career path, I'd ask him "if that guy jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?" I'm really glad it worked out for you to have done that, but it is far from a responsible choice for the vast majority.

Not to say that photography classes wouldn't benefit me greatly.. but at this point, I think a business and marketing class would help me out much more than any photography school. lol

Good article tho. Thank you!

This article needs a different headline like "Why I Don't Regret Going to Photography School."

I don't see a single valid argument here that supports the idea that photography school is a good idea.

In fact, the author comes out and says "I don't believe a degree will make any difference in the photo world, and it all comes down to who you know, your character, and your portfolio."

So why bother with school?

There is so much great free and/or affordable educational information available out there today that the idea of paying college tuition for photography instruction is completely absurd.

This industry is moving so fast that you're better off jumping right in it than going to school where you'll always be behind the times.

Now, I've freelanced part-time and don't even consider myself a pro, so take what I'm about to say with a grain of salt.

But if a child of mine said "I want to go to photography school!", here's how I'd reply:

1) I'll give you $3,000 to buy educational materials and attend classes and workshops.

2) Work a sales job for 1 year to learn how to generate business from scratch and really deal with people.

3) Intern one day a week for a working photographer, for free if necessary.

And on a related note, I often hear photographers say "I wish I studied business!"

Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong.

I studied business and it taught me NOTHING about how businesses actually operate in the real world. You'd be much better off taking sales and negotiation seminars.

You'd be much better off following around a plumber or lawyer to see how they work.

"So why bother with school?"

He says so in the article. He stayed long enough to gain the skills he wanted. He made the absolute most of it while he was there. When the real world came calling, he stopped paying the school money and started making money.

I feel like there is a lit of whining from kids these days. My son's school was $108k for four years. He worked his ass off applying for grants and scholarships, and worked for his school after his first year. He graduated with honors, and about $22k in debt.

The problem is not that a degree can cost $100k or more. It's the sense of entitlement. No, you won't pay off that debt waiting tables. But if you weren't smart and hard working before college, you won't be when you graduate either. Instead of moving back home, my son went out and looked for a job that matched his skills and interests. He's 24 now, and I don't know how much he makes, but he started at $70k two years ago. Also bought his first house this year.

It's not the cost of an education, or lack of opportunity. It's lack of motivation.

Something to be pointed out is the wisdom of dropping 100k on a degree with a 20k a year earning potential in the first place. Or the lost potential on not earning the degree in the field you will eventually work in. I told my son I'm happy to foot the bill for college as long as his degree is in something that will earn in a year more than a year's college tuition. That seems ridiculous. But if you think about it, a year tuition at SCAD is $33k. 60% of people under 35 years old earn less than 30k a year, people with degrees in communications, accounting, psychology, architecture from respected schools. There are a lot economic studies about why this is, but it doesn't have to do with lack of motivation as much as lack of opportunity for a certain age group and their unique set of obstacles. I count my blessings every day that I managed to do better than that for myself, but I did so because I was willing to jump into a career I am good at rather than my field of education. I'm not married to the education like so many. There is money in construction? Here's my number.

That's amazing your son has done so well. You certainly did some things right :)

School doesn't teach you how to work hard, or how to think, and it definitely doesn't guarantee you a job, or specific salary... no matter where you go or what you study. What it does is offer an opportunity for the people that work had and think for themselves a place to do so, and to practice and refine their ideas and work alongside experienced professors or more advanced students. It's %100 up to you, %100 percent of the time. Luck happens to the prepared people who recognize and know how to utilize it.

You seem very young. Your entire way of thinking dismisses logic, reason, and financial wisdom. I don't even think this "article" should have been put up on Fstoppers because the advice given is completely careless. Drop outs should not be advising people to go waste $20k a year on college.

First up, wasn't encouraging dropouts. I am sharing my experience, and encouraging people to think for themselves. Everyone is different, and should be allowed to approach the more standardized systems in a way that benefits them, and not feel like failures for not just going with the flow. Clearly you are bitter about some past experiences, and I think that is a far more dangerous place to be giving advice from, then a "seemingly young degree-less dropout." I speak as someone who is a working photographer, making a living, supporting a wife, and paying for a (small) house based on the decisions I made. I wouldn't have shared any of it if I didn't think it was an experience that someone else who maybe wants to be a photographer, and a willingness to work hard couldn't benefit from.

But I'm not peddling advice to go drop $20k a year on college just for the hell of it without the advice to actually complete college. You made the best out of a careless and irresponsible approach to life. It's ridiculous to encourage other people to do this. It's absurd Fstoppers even published this BS.

Haha, my decision was hardly careless. I didn't drop out on a whim or because of laziness, but because the work I was going to school for was within grasp. I put a lot of thought into it, and sought the advice of several mentors, photographers, and professors that I looked up to. My recommendation was the fact that there is value in an education, and people shouldn't write it off as a thing of the past. How much value someone places on it is entirely personal. You know what? I may even go back some day if I come to a point where a degree in photography would benefit me.

Just because you think the youth is "entitled" doesn't mean the inflated tuition bubble isn't an issue. enough.

Brian, thanks for sharing this! I had the exact same approach and worked before, and throughout school, found cheaper living situations rather than high priced student housing, and cooked at home a lot rather than eating out a lot or buying pricey meal cards. I have been working my butt of since then, and am on track to pay of my student loan pretty early. There are other ways to get through school, and I don't know why people don't emphasize them. I didn't quit before graduating because I didn't know any better, or was stupid. I knew that you have to go find opportunity, and not wait for it to happen. I would love to say I graduated from Columbia, but I am totally glad I made the decisions I did to find my own path. My point in this was to make your own way. There is a lot of value in higher education, but you don't have to spend a ton of money, or just do it how everyone else does. In the creative field a degree doesn't mean anything (unless you want to teach or be a curator, etc...). Connections, experience, and quality work are what make you. Use whatever resources you can to build those three things. School can be a good resource for all of them if you are smart about it.

My son's mom works at a university, and he could have attended that school for free. But he chose a school specific to his degree, so we told him he would have to pay for it himself. I think that also helped motivate him academically. He didn't own a car until the day before he started his job, because that was an expense he chose to do without.

One of the reasons I joined the Army was so I could afford Photography school after lol. I'm like two months out from graduating Brooks Institute. I couldn't imagine myself as a photographer without it. It really helped me developed my skills and gave me great advice for the future.

Thank god or I might still be holding a reflector the wrong way LOL.

Wow, great article. I expected to strongly disagree but I really think this is great advice. There are tons of people out there with a very expensive degree on their wall who are not working in their field and are trying to figure out how to pay off six figures of student debt. Shifting back to an idea of attending school to learn something and gain the real skills you need to actually do a job rather than chase a degree that few people will care about is smart. In creative fields, it's hard to imagine sitting in a job interview with a great portfolio and some real world experience to show off and have the interviewer say "this all looks great but do you have B.A. in photography?" Seriously, has this ever happened?

For the record, I review resumes and hire people (for non-creative positions) as part of my job. We have gotten to the point where a degree means very little. We have had some very bad results from those with four year degrees (how do you graduate from college in 2012 and barely know how to use a computer???) and great results from those with only a high school education.

Bill, thanks for sharing your thoughts. There are some good points in here, and I agree with a lot of it.

A title like "Why Photography School Isn't Always A Waste" might fit better. It sounds like your'e saying that not going isn't always the wrong choice, but that there is no downside to going, which isn't true IMO.

Hey Caleb, thanks for reading and commenting. Debt is definitely a downside, and there can be others depending on an individuals experience and expectations. I looked at it as an investment that would add value to my career rather than just meaningless 'student loans'.

Art schools and photography schools are fantastic, if you live in a country which cares for the development of its citizens and provides them with free education.

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.

With in first couple of semesters of school I was exposed to simple things like Scheimpflug principle, lighting principles such as manually figuring flash fill, light fall off, bounce flash and the beginnings of the zone system.

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. I also got to meet many different skilled photographers like John Sexton when I was 16. 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 had 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.

As far as successful shooters with art school backgrounds a few come to mine:
Richard Fegley - Art Center College of Design in Pasadena
Arny Freytag - Brooks
Mario Casilli - Cleveland Institute of Art
Michael Thompson, photographer; clients include W, Details, Allure, Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Tiffany & Co., and DeBeers. - Brooks
Javier Manzano, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his work in Syria. - Brooks

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

Thanks so much for sharing this. I really would have liked to attend brooks, but it was a little further from home then I wanted to be, and a little more expensive than columbia as well. Even Leibovitz went to art school (I believe she studied painting), but still having a solid art background can have a huge impact on your vision as a shooter. The contacts you make are another huge reason to go. A lot of your peers end up in photography related but non shooting positions where they need to hire photographers... and guess who they end up looking to first? Shooters they went to school with, and know and trust.

Love Love Love this! I am 28 years old. I took 1 year off after high school then went to an amazing community college - College of DuPage in IL. Got my AAS. I then wanted to continue my education but the school I chose had some warped ideas about transfer students and I walked out of the orientation. Many people looked at me like I was crazy. I then spent the next three years working at a studio while starting up my own photography business. I was doing well but felt I still needed to obtain the higher education. I attended ISU and busted my butt for two years full time student, including the summers, and working my full time photography business. I would drive back and forth every Thursday evening from ISU to Chicago and then back on Monday morning to walk straight to my fist class. I was able to graduate with honors and be the only of the five kids in my family to get a Bachelor's Degree. (Same story for the AAS). I didn't want the $32k loans sitting over me so I paid them off over 6 months all because I worked for it from day one out of high school. Working toward our future rather than just the weekend or next new iPhone is something many people seem to forget. I am now an instructor in photography at the community college where I started. The school is offering wedding photography specifically because I am an instructor. I still have my full time photography business and now I also run a podcast called Take & Talk Pics (I interview Lee Morris on my show just a few weeks ago). Working hard has never hurt me. It isn't always easy but doing the best you can with what works for you is really what sets one person apart from another. My story is nothing compared to so many others out there who have had a harder life and more success. I'm not special or an exception to any rule. The truth is I just try my best and keep going. School is not for everyone and I will say you learn faster working with others rather than in a class (or at least I did). School can be the right path for some. This is an excellent article and those of you who are angry or had bad experiences you can't move on if you keep blaming everyone and everything that happened to you... You can change if you want to change.

Now a bunch of people don't like me because of this comment. oh well, I'll keep trying and keep going. Seth thank you for this post.

DUDE! Thank you so much for sharing this. Glad to hear from a fellow IL citizen. I am from the Peoria area. I am definitely not as fast as paying mine off in 6 months, but mostly because I just spent a lot of time and extra money traveling. Your comment is really great, and so true. People forget to work towards a future rather than just the next cool thing. I still shoot with a 5D2. Far from a flashy camera, and there are a lot of armatures that have better stuff than me, but who cares? I am running a business, people are happy with my work, and when a job that requires more than that comes up, I can rent a newer body. Thinking long term, and working for what I want. Not holding grudges against bad experiences or 'learning times' from the past. Thanks again!