The Difference Between Studying Photography and Teaching Yourself

The Difference Between Studying Photography and Teaching Yourself

As a young, rebellious teenager in love with music and films, I discovered my love of photography when I was handed an old Olympus film camera and I have since fallen deeply in love with the art of photography. Years went by as I experimented with different ways of shooting and discovering new ideas I wanted to pursue in this medium until I finished school and needed to think seriously about what I wanted to do in life. The choice was easy: either become a musician or a photographer.

So I decided to pursue a career in photography after joining a few failed bands and realizing my ears were going deaf from sitting behind a drum set for eight hours a day. My parents were adamant that I study and perfect the art if I decide to make a career out of it, so I did. I embarked on a two year studying career to perfect my passion for photography. I learned a lot through the two years of studying while also having had the opportunity to shoot and use proper equipment in a professional studio. It gave me the feel of what to expect when I finished my studies and take this challenge head-on in the real world.

The experience of studying also granted me the opportunity to meet like-minded creative individuals and collaborate with them, which showed me the importance of collaborating at an early stage. And it didn’t end there. After my studies, I still kept in contact with some of my peers. I was even invited to start up a production company with my lecturer.

The biggest thing I learned during my two years of studying was how to accept criticism and to learn from it as well as learn from mistakes my fellow students made. We also learned from each other by discussing different ideas and applying them to our own forms of photography, slowly but surely creating our own style. The experience in studying photography early in my life taught me exactly where my strengths and weaknesses lie.
I found I was strong in certain genres of photography and also found a love for retouching. Meanwhile, I was disinterested and weaker in other forms of the art, thus leading me to specialize in a few areas that I felt strongest in.

Some might argue that studying isn’t necessary or that if you have a natural talent, you don't need to study to perfect the art. They would tell you to keep shooting instead of studying. I'm not saying I have a natural talent, but to some degree, I agree with them. Studying photography didn’t teach me anything new in terms of holding a camera and how to compose, etc. The benefit of it all was to give me a chance to network with like-minded individuals from an early stage, feed off the creativity of others, and prepare myself for what’s out there. It gave me the opportunity to experiment with different forms of photography in a facility that had everything I wanted, from darkrooms and studios to lights and different cameras — and all of this while showcasing your work to a group of people and receiving advice and criticism in order to take your work to the next level. If anything, studying photography only sped up my experience which would’ve otherwise taken a few extra years to achieve while figuring things out on my own.

What studying photography didn’t teach me was how to deal with clients who never pay, how to work under the extreme pressures of a paid shoot when you only have five to ten minutes to get that perfect shot, as well as various administrative headaches. Many of these issues can only be taught through experience.

While I feel it’s not imperative that you study the art you want to specialize in, doing so gives you the opportunity to grow faster than you would if you were self-taught.

I still have vital contacts from when I studied, and we pass along work or seek advice when times get tough. I feel these contacts and the overall experience would’ve taken much longer to build up had I not studied. If anything, it gave me a platform to present my work to a small community of people while also gaining knowledge and contacts in the industry.

Did you decide to study before pursuing a career in photography? Let me know in the comments.

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Nathan Balavoine's picture

I'm not professionnal and i didn't study photography..
I didn't do the studies corresponding to my work.

Justin Sharp's picture

Excellent article. My story parrelels yours closely, but I chose music as a career. I know several very good self taught musicians as well as photographers. Success doesn't depend solely on a structured education, but nothing else can replicate that wonderful experience.

Charles Gilmore's picture

I have approached photography as only being self taught for awhile now. Two weeks ago I decided to go to school to hone my skills because though I'm making money I truly believe there are holes in my skills. Wish me luck!!!

Andrew Ashley's picture

I wish I had taken the time to go to school for photography. It took me years to master techniques that a few months of structured training in concepts and with the proper equipment could have done. I would love to say I don't regret it at all, but I have a pang of regret... I am not a professional, but that initial kick-starting of a network might have changed that trajectory. Maybe a second career? Looked into it recently, and damn have costs gone through the roof! $22,000 per semester at SVA? That makes $36,000/yr at Yale seem like a bargain (But would I be one of the 9 students selected for their program?). So I guess if you can get a free ride then the connections and the network you develop would make it worth while. But damn... I think that ship has sailed I'll just stick to capturing images for the love of it. But glad you had the opportunity, I'm sure it will serve you well in the future! Just be sure to stay in touch with your classmates.

Anonymous's picture

I study every time I grab my camera ;-)

Marc DeGeorge's picture

Hi Fred, I agree with you. You don't need to go to school to learn how to use a camera. School should give you the time to learn how to see, and also how to learn how to be a better photographer. Also, as you mentioned, school should, but doesn't really, teach you the business end of things. Pressing the shutter button is not the most important part of being a successful business owner. Understanding marketing and accounting, taxes, handling difficult clients. That's what can make or break your business.

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romain VERNEDE's picture

Came back to Art school at 30, now I'm 34YO, as a photographer it was some very fresh air!
I used to illustrate things, my photographs were the final product about an idea, now I use them to question ideas and concepts, it's the most valuable thing I've ever learnt.
Showing my photographic approach to teachers who don't really understand /love photography is great to focus on what you do and move out your regular stuff and confort zone.

joe o sullivan's picture

Thanks, interesting article. So basically studying photography means taking pictures with a group of people, and not actually studying photography? :-)

Ralph Hightower's picture

I got interested in photography in high school using my parent's Polaroid Land Camera. In 1980, I wanted to get an SLR camera. Back then, there was no internet; it was just magazines and books. I subscribed to Popular Photography and Modern Photography and bought books by Ansel Adams, John Hedgecoe and others and taught myself photography through books and magazines. Photography is not my vocation, but after retirement, I'm thinking about taking some college courses in photography.

Chris Johnson's picture

I'm not a pro, or even semi pro (whatever that means) but I would like to be able to make something out of photography or even videography.
I was completely self taught and I think you are spot on. It took me years to learn certain techniques, many of which I'm still working on perfecting. And also have zero contacts in the photo world.
I think the biggest draw back to being self taught is there is almost no way to have your work reviewed and critiqued by peers or teachers. I just spent years clicking away and sitting at home comparing my work to stuff I saw online or in books. I do realize photography is all objective, but I still have no idea what makes a photograph "good" or "bad", all I know is what I like and don't like. I would give anything to have a group of people combing through my work but at this point in my life I just can't see taking time off (and putting myself into debt) just to have that.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

Fred, when I started taking photos there was no such thing as a photography school, only a handful of text books of any use, and very few people you could ask for advice. Photography clubs & magazines came later - by that time, I was pretty much self taught anyway.

These days, everyone has the option. And sensibly, anyone contemplating a career in photography really ought to do a decent photography course. Knowledge usually beats ignorance any day.

Not always - one that amuses me enormously is the relentless pursuit of more pixels, so that sharper images can be displayed on "blunt" screens. At the moment, the OLED screen with the highest pixel rating has only 33MP - you can't buy it yet, because it's due to be released at a coming show - and no, it won't fit on your desk, it has an 88 inch screen! Who the hell prints photos that size? Yes of course, in advertising and so on - but as a percentage of all photos taken around the world, hardly anybody does. So what on earth is the point of spending $5 grand on yet another new camera, because it has a 40MP or 45MP sensor, when there's nowhere to show off all those extra pixels.

Not always - some people actually DO produce large prints, and their work CAN benefit from the additional pixels. But I still think most of the people buying these cams could do more to improve their photography by buying some gear they DON'T already have, instead of upgrading the camera body they DO have.

Fred - I don't know if this is of any use to you - but as a kid, I was shy & had very few friends. But in my early 20s I suddenly became aware of something. Most other people are nervous, in a large group - and prefer it, when someone else takes the floor and has their say. You can practically hear the sigh of relief they give, when the speaker starts talking to them. After a while I filpped - and I found I had to stop myself from talking too much, instead of not talking enough. Somewhere, the nervousness simply vanished.

David Wilson's picture

The difference is huge. I believe that with the help of every photographer out there will have an opportunity to study what they want and how they want. I hope that it will be a great thing for every person who aspires to be a photographer.