'You'll Never Get Anywhere Without a Photography Degree': Is a Photography Degree Worthwhile?

'You'll Never Get Anywhere Without a Photography Degree': Is a Photography Degree Worthwhile?

It is a strange claim to make, but is it right? Is doing a degree in photography worthwhile, or are you better off getting into the industry instead?

I was accepted into a university here in the U.K to study writing and journalism. I was already a photographer, albeit mostly amateur, making some pocket money here and there, so when introductory lectures for other courses were offered, I attended several. The photography degree offered was not remotely interesting to me, and as I leafed through the syllabus, I became progressively more sure that it would be a waste of my time. Instead, I became enamored with philosophy after a taster lecture, and in my second year, I dropped everything else to concentrate on a philosophy degree with no minors to accompany it. During that decision period, however, I went to several receptions to discuss options, one with some photography undergraduates.

My classmate introduced me to a girl sipping on a bottom-shelf red provided for the bare-bones soirée, and in the interest of setting us off on the right path, he informed her that I too was a photographer. We exchanged pleasantries before she asked a question about the photography degree I couldn't know the answer to and I had to correct her: "I'm a photographer, but I'm not doing a degree in photography." She asked why, and I remained polite, doing my best to emphasize my interest in other courses rather than disparage the course she was enrolled in. There was no escaping. She asked whether I was going to pursue photography as a career, and I honestly didn't know whether I ever would, so I said as much. "You'll never get anywhere without a photography degree," she opined with little wiggle room for interpretation. I disagreed, pointing out that would be like telling an Olympic-level sprinter that he can't compete without a degree in Sports Science — a loose retort, but she had me rattled.

My friend and I left that evening, and the jerk held back by social graces was loose. My poor classmate — who had no interest in photography — received the 20-minute sermon I wanted to give the young lady, who was likely just defensive over her course choice. Not unreasonable given the fees, but it irked me. It has been something I've thought about on and off for the years since that conversation, and this week, it reemerged after a conversation with Alex Cooke about the value of a photography degree.

Is a Degree in Photography Worth It?

Well, I have to answer the foundational question first: Is a degree worth it? In my opinion, yes it is. Higher education teaches in a different way to high school insofar as it's less rote style learning and more of an exploration of a subject and the teaching of how to think about problems. What gripped me about philosophy was not the theories of Socrates or Descartes, but how it educated students on how to approach any problem, to turn an obstacle on all sides and work through it, no matter the subject. There are a whole host of other skills that come with higher education I would say are important and useful, albeit not so essential to be irreplaceable. You can obviously do just fine without further education, as is proven time and time again, but I think a degree or equivalent is worthwhile if nothing else has to be undertaken right away — that is, bringing in a wage, responsibilities prohibiting more education, or an opportunity that cannot wait, etc.

I would also argue that most degrees are worthwhile in one way or another. But is a degree in photography one of those? Well, it depends on what your objective is. I'd say the young lady's statement that no one (she could have meant just me, but we'd only just met) can get anywhere in the industry without a photography degree behind them is demonstrably false, so much so, I feel like it's taking on a straw man to pick it apart. What I would say of a degree in photography — unfortunately in lieu of necessity — is it's a luxury. It isn't valueless, and I'd never suggest it was; you will inevitably learn a lot of theory and history, as well as practical instruction. However, if you want a career as a photographer, I doubt it has almost any impact on your odds of success at all.

I have seen certain in-house studios at brands put in their job specs a photography degree would be preferred, but that requirement is easily bypassed by ticking the other boxes of character, a successful interview, and a strong portfolio. What's more, as I go through the most successful photographers I know, far more don't have photography degrees than do. That's not to say that doing the degree would put you at any disadvantage — far from it — it just doesn't appear to increase your chances of "making it," and so, it remains firmly rooted as a luxury. 

What Do You Think?

This article is, of course, one man's opinion. I've been in the industry for a decade or so, and as I said, the question always stayed in and around the back of my mind. I'd make a mental note whenever a successful photographer had a photography degree in their credentials, and it wasn't often. Another can of worms I'm not opening quite yet is related degrees, like Fine Art. I have far less experience with their content or their alumni, so I won't speak to the value of it until I've done a little research, but on the face of it, I'd recommend some alternative visual degree like Design, or even Art History over a course in photography.

In fact, for writing this article, I did some research on photography degrees to double-check content and see if I'm wrong about anything. One common question that was answered by the university or website was "what else can I do with a photography degree?" The answers were slim pickings, with graphic design, digital marketing, and some vague role in TV or video being the most featured. In the first two cases, doing a degree in graphic design or digital marketing — there are courses dedicated to those disciplines — seems preferable. I have friends in both industries, and no one I had asked had heard of someone coming into that area with a photography degree. The third may be more likely, but I doubt a degree in photography would be the most sought after.

Have you done a photography degree? Has it paid dividends? Am I completely mistaken? Share your comments in the section below.

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29 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

Absolutely not worth it in the slightest (even if it's free) unless you are specifically looking to become an artistic photographer, i.e. exploring mediums, having gallery shows, etc. on the back of training in traditional artistic history, philosophies, and techniques or possibly if you are going into photojournalism.

If you are in the 99% who want to make a living in photography through things like portraits, weddings, etc., it's a tremendous waste of time and likely money. Those four years could be spent apprenticing with a professional and building your business, leaving you with no student loan debt and far more practical, immediately applicable experience. Not a single client in any of these fields will care about a diploma.

While I don't have direct experience with these programs, I have met with some of those who have gone through them, and it also appears that the training has failed to keep up with the advances of technology, at least in some cases. I'm all for education and enriching and growing yourself, but if the end goal is being a professional who makes a living, nope.

Just me's picture

A bit weird to heard advice from someone who said he have no experience with such.
How do you know what you missed if you never been there?
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To enroll for a long training program also show commitment to get things done right, and yes, some high paid job for corporate client need such if your portfolio is a bit empty at start.
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A school will also sent you with photographer in real life situation with studio ready to spend time to train you.
You will have support and advice when failing.
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Going for assistant may work but it's not for everyone to do a job and train, correct and improve at the same time. This may have worked for you, but I don't see this as mainstream path to follow.
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Schools will directly show you where are your weakness and where you should improve; in many aspect of this business where life will teach you the hard way only.

Edward Blake's picture

If you are thinking of becoming a professional photographer you should already have photographic skill, technical ability, and aesthetic sensibilities, and anywhere you are lacking you can get for free on the Internet. However, business and marketing skills are far more important - a lack thereof will kill any business - and that is where your educational focus should be placed.

But most schools at least in this state teach "Fine Art" photography so their graduates end up with less than zero business or marketing knowledge. Most people pushing degrees for everything are doing it because the degree assembly line is part of their livelihood

Just me's picture

This is another debate about how many useless school are out there.
I will be 100% agree with you.
Focus on photography as a business if you want to make a living. And this is something you can learn in a school only.
Choose a school where you learn marketing too.
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Artistic only school are a bad idea. If you need to go to such; you should question your art ability at first. Photography may not be for you.

In the US at least most major cities have small business development centers that are on the scale of free to cheap as they have already been paid by taxes and have actual business people not theoreticians.

Ted Mercede's picture

I couldnt agree more, so much so, I am looking into marketing classes or courses to help in this. So far, I have wasted a lot of money in wrong marketing decisions, probably much more money than the cost of the education.
Also, NO marketing service will volunteer to tell you that you are spending your money wrongly.

It has provided some additional opportunities for me.
I wouldn't have the job I've had for the last 17 years if not for some special training I received during my time in College, but not because of the degree.
I feel like it has been helpful.
'In no way do I feel it's necessary.
Your portfolio is whats important.

Forty years in and not one client has asked where I went to school or even if I had a degree in Photography. I know graduates of RIT down to those with no degree in anything competing on a level playing field where the results matter. A degree doesn't hurt but is not a deal killer. Working as an assistant, with a variety of photographers, for a few years would have the same results. Granted, in general, a few courses in Business and Marketing would be useful but that would be true for most anyone.

The only people I've seen require a degree are educational institutions requiring them to teach

Jon The Baptist's picture

As someone who went to art school, I'd say it's not worth it. And as someone who has since evicted Sallie Mae from my house, College in general isn't worth it at all if you need to take out a student loan to do it.

That being said, I don't regret going to art school, though in retrospect, it did set me back 4 years.

If you're gonna do college, get a real degree, and pay cash as you go. Yes, you can work 40hrs a week while in school!

Tony Clark's picture

People takes many paths and you have to figure out your own way. Some earn their degree in other disciplines and are still able to find success in another field. I was working on my Business Degree and stumbled into photography. I assisted while working on my technical skills and style and met many other assistants that had their degree in Photography. Some people can only see in black and white while others have a broader vision.

As someone who has one I can tell you that it is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Rod Kestel's picture

After my degree - not remotely photograhy - almost everything I've done is self-taught. 'Self-taught' however is misleading because I've learned from so many other people.

My biggest tip is to observe people you respect.

Mr Drizz's picture

Spend the money of a good business course, taking pictures is the easy part of being a working photographer, running a successful business isn't.
Clients don't give a fook if you have a photography degree.

Gil Aegerter's picture

If photography is your passion and you hunger for more knowledge about, then it makes sense. My degree is in photojournalism, but I stepped out of college directly into editing and never used that degree, except peripherally. I really enjoyed the experience of getting the degree but given my path would have been better served by an economics, poli sci or even history degree. Oddly, at msnbc.com circa 2007-2015, there were three of us out of the same tiny photojournalism program.

"Absolutely not worth it in the slightest " Interesting comment but IMO not very thought out.
I can offer a different angle. Because I do have experience with college level art school.

When you go to an art school with a major in applied photography there are classes that you take for 3 or 4 years with people who are in the graphic arts department. There was a lot of criticism and feedback and photo talk at the bar after school...After art school they go get jobs as jr. art directors and photo editors and us from the photography department went off to assist established photographers to learn the business and how the real world works.

For at least 10-12 years after school, I worked with former student friends and their colleagues at magazines and ad agencies. In those years estimate $40-$70,000 per year in billings came directly from me going to art school.
If you want to teach at a legitimate school (not Brooks lol) work as a staff photographer at a corporation, or a newspaper or government agency you will most likely need a degree...it's a way to weed out applicants.
A friend from art school just retired from being a photographer for LAFD then LAWA (City of LA) with full medical and retirement.

So yes you can learn a trade and how to do photography online from the "hey guys" youtubers and in workshops or by yourself and since most photographers are sole proprietors a degree is not important. No one has asked to see mine. But the contacts I made with other students and the faculty were very valuable. The teacher I had was one of the pioneers of car photography at GM and was friends with Irving Penn, he opened a lot of doors for me at studios around town. Not many youtubers do that for their followers.

Just another viewpoint.

Agree. It's more helpful than many folks think.

Spy Black's picture

Is that the same gal on the right as in this pic?...

RIGHT????!!! I was thinking the same thing!
Kudos to the photog for knowing how to make in-demand images if it is. And model ;-)

There is a huge series of these three folks. I hope some one got paid for some of the uses!

Ted Mercede's picture

For me, its a simple answer.
If your profession requires a degree, then there is no choice.
If not, can you learn the technical skills without the education? If you can, then skip the formal education.

Best summerization I ever heard on this is that the schools provides you with the tools in your toolbox, it does nothing to teach you how to use them in the real world.
Any carpenter can go to the store and buy a hammer, it takes practice in use to fully get good at using it.

I learned more about photography and the business of photography assisting as many photographers as I could when I was young than I ever did in college. Not that college is bad, but it really doesn't give you a full view of what the business of photography is.

I went to a small art school a long time ago, and there was one very simple business class. But If you go to school for engineering, communications, law, philosophy, STEM does the school also teach the business side of the field of study? I have heard that medical schools do, but I guess it depends on how big the school is.
I went to school AND assisted a few photographers who shared some of the biz side - I know people who are self taught or went to YouTube U you are good photographers, but don't seem to have a good understanding of how things work on the biz side.

If you want to be a full time professional photographer, a business degree would be way more useful in my opinion.

Ted Mercede's picture

With a strong side of marketing...

Rob Mynard's picture

Having a degree in photography can be helpful (but not necessary) if you would like to get a retail position in a camera store.

You know where else? When grading images. A really deep understanding of color theory is actually quite helpful. Also when training completely green new staff. Nothing like trying to explain things like depth of field and the circle of confusion to complete noobs.