Would You Spend $20,000 on a Photography Degree or Gear?

20 or 30 years ago, the benefits of going to college for photography were pretty obvious. But nowadays, there is a veritable plethora of premium education available for free or for a fraction of the price of a degree, and as such, the value of going to a university isn't as clear cut as it used to be. This excellent video examines whether it's more worthwhile to go to college or just drop that money on gear. 

Coming to you from Kai W, this great video discusses the idea of going to college for a photography or media degree. Personally, I just don't think it's worth it anymore when one can take the money that would be spent on college and spend just a fraction of it on good gear and online education, save the rest, and spend those four years apprenticing with a professional, where they'll get a lot of those same skills and build solid experience and connections. That's not to say there aren't unique experiences to be had in college or that it's not worth it for other areas of study, but personally, for photography or video work, I just don't think it's worth the steep cost and time commitment. Still, it's a discussion worth having. Check out the video above for the full rundown. 

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Rob Mitchell's picture

Not one client has ever asked to see my degree, Which isn’t in photography. It’s in modelmaking.
Going to start out in photography? it’s not rocket science, buy some kit and get experience under your belt.

EL PIC's picture

I went to Rochester Institute of Technology in 70s for Photographic Engineering. Many others did same and we blanketed the semiconductor industry with engineering. That is what created the micro electronics revolution you all so adorn. Digital Imaging and Technology is used in so many fields .. it has changed your life. It changed my life and economic status.

If you don't create a revolution .. go back in evolution.
Don’t think many artistic photographers can do that !!

Ted Mercede's picture

Being that this was in Rochester, NY and the nature of the studies, I will assume this had some ties to the Kodak industry?
I myself have a BSEE and would not be able to do any electrical engineering through youtube video's, nor would I have been able to find work without having this degree.

I think the jist of this article though is not about an engineering job within the photography field, but as a photographer. I doubt anyone would believe that to work on the technology to provide us our camera equipment, that this could ever be done without formal training.

That being said, I have a huge amount of respect for those engineers that had developed, and still are developing the "toys" that we get to use for our photography needs.

It sounds like you were part of this breakthrough technology during the early years, greatly appreciated!

EL PIC's picture

Photo Mask ..
Or if you prefer technical photo.
The step between circuit design EE guys and Wafer Fab.
The alumni at RIT directed me to this field from Professional or Commercial Photo. I became convinced after seeing many from artistic photo struggle and fail.
Most photographers don’t think Technical Photo and or get the jist.
It was catch the wave time for this speciality and this photographer learned how to swim in Engineering and I was a Professional Major.
But Medical Photo, Photo Science, and Astro Photo would also pay 6 figures for an entire career. There are other ways to apply photo than being a picture taker and I highly recommend it.

Rob Davis's picture

A degree can very well move you forward whereas there are no guarantees with gear. We all know the guys with dream gear and crap photos. There’s value in the networking most art schools offer. There’s also value in being around other creative people, face-to-face, not just seeing their curated online personas. Income isn’t the only good reason to get an education. Still, don’t screw yourself over with more debt than you can handle.

David Penner's picture

Business school would benefit most people more. For networking just network in whatever city you live in. Be active with groups of creatives on social media. Find people that are on the marketing side. You just need to know what type of photography business you are trying to run and get your name known with people that are actually in that industry. With instagram it's pretty easy to accomplish that.

Jon The Baptist's picture

I went to school for photography, 4 years with a BFA. I busted my butt in this industry and paid off my loans in 5 years.

I don’t regret school, but it did hold me back 4 years. I think my career would be in a better place had I just started to assist right out of the gate

Gear. The end.

Sean Sauer's picture

Gear. You can wipe your butt with a degree... that's all it would be good for as far as getting jobs.

Go to school and get a business degree. There are way too many photographers out there that have no idea how to run a business and that is why they fail to make make a living just on photography. Buy some gear. It doesn't have to be great gear. Learn how to use it. There is plenty online to learn from. Shoot, shoot, shoot (Anything). Find a professional or more than one that is willing to be a mentor. Be their assistant. Work your ass off and pray it pays off. Don't blame the industry if it doesn't.

Dwight Erskine's picture

$10k in gear. $5k in online business courses - especially sales and marketing, $2k in marketing investments (website, brand development, etc) and $3k in the bank for a rainy day.

Mike Ofstedahl's picture

I am educated as a commercial artist. My education was based in the 80s. The best thing about that was developing skill sets in several mediums. There was absolutely no photoshop or really any cgi at all. Now at 50 years old that education is moot to a large degree. You can learn so much online today your education in photography is basically free. The biggest thing that holds true is you can not train someone to have an eye. You can develop skills and gain fundamentals but natural ability and vision are reserved for talent. What a degree does give you is a easier ticket into management should that be a direction you should choose. It could also be a difference maker in job competition where skills sets are equal.
But today I would rather have the gear than an expensive education I can get for free.

I went to art school and my friends were photographers, artists and graphic designers. While I started to assist photographers, learning the business behind the camera, the design students went off and got jobs at magazines, ad agencies and corporations and guess who they called when they needed photographers...probably someone from school. I can trace more than ten years of clients and jobs with big fancy agencies for Fortune 500 clients, little local companies and local, regional and national magazine jobs directly back to contacts I made in school.

Maybe today IG and Facebook and Myspace have replaced all those personal connections and learning how to bill a job or the care and feeding of client relations. Seems like the high end and low end are all that's left of the once profitable photo industry.

If you buy gear it'll be worth 1/2 what you paid for in a couple years. Maybe rent $20k worth instead of buy. You can learn all the tricks of the trade from both qualified and unqualified people on the internet. Gear is easy. Learning a technique from a guy who says "Hi Guys!" while wearing a baseball cap or fedora is easy. Your friends will all support you but can they hire you?
Learning why the same image is worth $350 to one client and $6000 to another is a little tricky.

No one has asked to see my degree, but if I wanted to teach at a certain level or a staff photo job at a corporation or government agency a degree is required so they can weed out 1/2 the applicants

Rk K's picture

I wouldn't even spend the time on a photography degree. Better off with tutorials if you need them.

michaeljin's picture

If all you're planning to be doing is standard photography work, then skip school and buy the equipment. If you want to get a well-rounded education with a solid foundation in multiple artistic disciplines and art history that can inform your photography, then college is probably a good investment unless you're also an avid reader.

One thing about a lot of photographers without an art education is that they lack a lot of fundamental knowledge of artistic concepts and many end up treading old ground because they haven't learned that what they think is novel has been done by a renown photographer whom they never heard of in the 60's. Even if you don't get a formal education, I would encourage anyone who is serious about photography to research other artistic disciplines and the history of not only photography, but art as a whole. The knowledge that a person misses out on from not getting a formal education can certainly be gained through self-study, but many photographers are too busy arguing about bokeh or dynamic range to dive into the essence of their craft. It's a lot easier when you have some person forcing you to do reading and guiding you toward reading that is actually beneficial.

Also, if the photography thing doesn't work out a degree is still a degree and even if it is completely unrelated to the job you apply for, it opens up a world of employment opportunities that $20,000 of rapidly depreciating gear won't. Besides, if you're worth anything as a student, you likely won't be paying the full $20,000 because you'll have scholarships and grants.

Will Murray's picture

Get a business degree. A degree in photography is a waste of coin.

Gordon Cahill's picture

5K on gear. 15K on studio hire, models, travel and business training. What trumps both gear and photography school is experience.


Simon Patterson's picture

I got a university degree. It was that degree that enabled me to work well paid jobs to afford camera gear. Obviously my degree was not in photography...

Reginald Walton's picture

Well, ummm, I do have $20K in gear.

Gil Aegerter's picture

I have a degree in photojournalism, but have never made a living directly as a photographer. I may have been better as a journalist by majoring in biz, poli sci or econ and doing the photo thing on the side. As others have said in these comments, there was however real value in the networking in j-school -- but those connections can come through a variety of avenues.

Dan Howell's picture

A great failure in this video and the information presented is the lack of any mention of networking, specifically integrating with people who will be in a position to hand out assignments in the future. No investment in gear will provide that. The video makes virtually no mention of any skills or practice that actually gains a photographer or future photographer actual work.

I have a a degree in journalism with emphasis in photojournalism. Apart from a six month stint for a wire service immediately after graduation, I really haven't practiced photojournalism, or at least newspaper photojournalism. However, my education, contacts and experience I gained at my university allowed me to secure an internship at the National Geographic Society. I can state without any hesitation that I couldn't have secured that on my own without that guidance and experiences I gained in my education program. That internship could have led me to a contract or staff position had I chosen to continue at NGS (some days I wish I had!), but I did leave their with both experience and contacts that have led to jobs and sustaining clients, some of which I still have today (20+ years later).

In addition, interacting with other students (at the time) who have gone on to being writers and editors at national magazines has similarly led to ongoing client relationships and have been responsible for taking my work in different directions.

From that perspective, I found the video lacking or at least vastly incomplete as a discussion for the relevance of the educational experience broadly and the experience of being in the business of photography specifically.

Gary Gray's picture

If you were a traveling mechanic, would you spend $20,000 on a pickup truck and tools?

When I started my business 15 years ago, I dropped much more than that on gear and equipment for the business.

I don't know that a degree in photography is going to help you much though. It's kinda like having a degree in fishing.

Spy Black's picture

Gear and specific training as needed.

marc gabor's picture

Gear does not matter. If you have a good eye and good ideas you can make compelling work with the cheapest equipment. I've seen loads of young photographers working with Canon Rebels and their garbage kit lenses make work that looks absolutely fantastic. I've seen work commissioned by the top luxury fashion brands that was shot on antiquated garbage that looks fantastic because it has great style. Does anybody care about your degree? no. But a good school will have good professors who can be your mentors. You will be in an environment where you are having a discourse about art and image making. You'll learn how to conceptualize and execute personal projects. You'll learn about art history. You'll learn the value or printing your work and having it critiqued. You'll learn how to edit a portfolio or have other people around you who can help you edit your work. And finally you will be part of a community of artists who you can grow with. You can always rent fancy gear if you need it but you can't put prints up on the wall of an online course and you won't have it looked at by someone who has looked at hundreds if not thousands of young talented photographers before you. All that said, you don't need school to learn technique and I think any program that is too focused on technique is a waste of money. In fact, I think a more general art school where you are mixed with students working with different mediums is way more valuable. If you just want to learn about lenses and lighting and stuff, there's plenty of online classes to learn how to do that.

Dave Terry's picture

The first question to ask yourself is do you want to "make money" as a photographer or do you want to "be" a photographer. The path for becoming a photographer (or maybe more accurately, discovering that you ARE a photographer through exploration) can originate inside or outside of formal education.

So how do explore photography?

I think going to school has many benefits other than teaching a specific vocation, but photography is insanely easy to learn in the modern era. You don't need to go to school to get educated. If you're not very talented or very driven, going to school might help develop some skills, but it's not going to make you a good photographer. Neither will buying $20K in gear.

Talent and drive (and a little good fortune) are what make you money ultimately, regardless of whether you go to school or buy the gear and learn on your own.

My recommendation is spend only $2,000 and buy a used Nikon D700 or D800 (or something along those lines) and a few decent used primes (a wide lens, a standard, and a minor telephoto). Put the remaining $18K in a savings account (unless it was borrowed, in which case - PAY IT BACK!), and go shoot for a year or two - NOT CONCERNING YOURSELF WITH MAKING MONEY, CONCERN YOURSELF WITH NOT SUCKING AT PHOTOGRAPHY - while maintaining a regular job and paying your bills. By the end of a year or 2 you will KNOW whether photography is something worth continuing to explore and then do what's best for YOU (going to school or investing the rest of you saved cash in gear).

The other thing I would highly recommend is develop as many artistic abilities as you have some talent and interest in. Ultimately, they all contribute to your overall artistic prowess over time. There is no path that guarantees you will ever make a dime as a photographer... and honestly, with each passing year it's going to become harder and harder and more competitive. There's no point in feeling entitled to make money just because you want to feel justified in your expenditure of time and money to become good at photography.

C Fisher's picture

I'm going to be taking a professional photography course, but it's not at an art school so half the course is hardcore business classes. I'm a very visual hands on learner, youtube videos are good but aren't what I need to really learn. I need someone to show me irl, and I'm willing to pay for it.

Professionals looking for apprentices are common?

Nicholas K's picture

The joy of writing for a living is that all you need is a cheap computer and you're away. You can practice to your heart's content for free.

I think it's fair to say that the majority of modern degrees are worthless. If your choice is between some 2nd rate institution languishing halfway down the league tables and studying under people who barely have a name in the photographic world - spend the money on gear, take a short business course too and get a 3-year headstart in practice over the guys at uni.

If, however, you are among the lucky few to score a place at a prestigious institution taught by luminaries in your field - then university may be the better choice. Not only will it look good on a CV but if you use the opportunity wisely, the networking opportunities may be priceless for your future career.

The key to all this is a business term - Return on Investment (ROI). Which is likely to bring you the bigger rewards in the short-term and the long-term? Work that out and you can make this decision wisely.

No, I definitely would not do that. It will not help. I have a lot of friends from college who have studied this on their own. And achieved success. Here the essence is not in education. By the way, they didn’t spend time on it and ordered their tasks on https://essayyoda.com/best-essay-help/ and saved a lot of time. There really is the best essay help and a great opportunity to solve your problems with your studies and continue to do your own business.