The Simple Guide On If You Should Go to Photography School

The Simple Guide On If You Should Go to Photography School

Deciding if you should go to photography school takes more than looking at its perks. First, you will have to realize who you are, where you are coming from, and where you want to go. Looking at the outrageous amount of money you will have to spend in order to attend university, the answer should be based first and foremost on what your needs are and what the school can offer you in order to satisfy those needs. Our society is pushing the belief that college education is intrinsic to a successful career, but modern facilities and prestigious professors won’t be justified as long as they are not essential in achieving your personal goal. Once you realized that, the decision is actually not that difficult.

Disclaimer: In this article I will not talk about the opportunities for self growth and understanding that a university education will provide. This article is catered towards people that want to photograph and make a living off of it. 
Let’s get to it.

Do you think successful photographers studied photography at college/uni? I am having second thoughts about studying photography at college. (user: Hh via yahoo answers)

With a little bit of help of American Sociologist Richard Sennett, I grouped us photographers into two types. However, the transition is fluid and you will have to decide for yourself which one you identify with most.
The first type is the craftsmen. The craftsmen are mainly concerned with the perfect execution, and the advancement of their craft. Those photographers are in the highest demand as the market is extensive. There will always be somebody who needs a good beauty shot, a product, event, or architecture photographer. Craftsmen are often times able to serve more than one or two genres.
The second type is the artist. They usually work a niche, be it in terms of what they photograph or how they photograph it. They are often times highly specialized, are innovators in their respective niche, and are trying to talk about relevant socio-cultural topics. The market for artists is smaller, due to their narrow orientation and often more expensive pricing of their work.

What Are Your Ambitions?

If you want to get started as a craftsman you are probably already well on your way. What you need is a camera, a subject, a lot of practice, dedication, and the motivation to market yourself. In university, you won’t learn secret lighting techniques or magical ways of posing your subject that would be worth the financial investment. If this is you then you can stop reading this article right now and move on to the ones that are really important for you. Take for example this one by my fellow writer Jeff Rojas as a starting point: 5 Things to Know Before You Start a Photography Business.
If you want to become an artist then you will have to take the second factor into consideration.

What Environment Are You Living In?

The artist’s photography market is strongly driven by two aspects: connections and awareness. Awareness of the art market itself and awareness of your socio-cultural environment. You will have to understand the themes that the society you are living in is talking about and you will have to take part in the conversation. From personal experience, I know that for an outsider this market can be a peculiar one, non-intuitive, and following its own rules. Attending university will give you insight into the logic of the market. It will teach you what the themes and the shared values are and it will teach you how to partake. However, A major in photography is not necessarily the only way to understanding this; A different path through higher education might still prove valuable. Take for example Tom Ford (Architecture), Bruce Weber (Social Research), or Robert Capa (Journalism). If you are equipped with an extraordinary ability to structure your learning, to discover trends and if you have somebody to ask for advice, be it a dedicated person or portfolio reviews, you might also be able to teach yourself. No matter how you achieve it, awareness is key… but probably not without connections.
I have met people who are living in New York that did not study photography but are still landing high-key photo jobs. Those people moved into or were born into an environment with sufficient potential for connections that could help them on their way. If you are one of them you might be able to skip university as long as you are still able to teach yourself the intuition for the art market.
I myself, was born in Germany and have been living in small towns in the southern state of Bavaria for 21 years. Most of my friends were engineers or lawyers which did not provide fertile ground for my growth as the photographer I wanted to be. As a result, my best bet was to move to New York City, study photography, and surround myself with like minded people. Connections to fellow students and people in the industry will help you grow as a person, grow as an artist, and might also open a door or two.

Now people will say that there is an array of successful people working in any field of photography, coming from backgrounds of both going to photo school and being self-taught. Andreas Gursky (Kunstakademie Düsseldorf), Steven Meisel (Parsons School of Design), and Platon (Saint Martin’s School of Art) being famous representatives of the university faction and Ansel Adams, Terry Richardson, and Jimmy Nelson of the opposite. However, the pitfall here is that, logically, we predominantly hear of photographers who succeeded on the paths they chose, not of the ones that failed. Those stories should therefore not cloud your judgement. Of course, there are many ways to achieve your goals but the ones above make the most sense as seen from the perspective of somebody who tried both. I don't claim universal truth for the advice I just gave you, I just wanted to tell you something that I wish somebody else would have told me earlier.

Recap

If you want to be a photographer of great ability and you don’t necessarily need to exhibit in the most famous galleries or photograph for i-D Magazine or the New York Times, then don’t go to University.

If you really can’t live without the above, you are currently living in an environment with a good connection to the art world and you have outstanding trust in your abilities to learn on your own, don’t go to university.
If you really can’t live without the above, you are currently living in an environment with no notable connection to the art world, and you don't have a mentor, go to university.

Did you find this article helpful? Did you study photography or are in the process of it? Are you self-taught and how did your career develop from there? Let me know in the comments.
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13 Comments

Anonymous's picture

"If you want to be a photographer of great ability and you don’t necessarily need to exhibit in the most famous galleries or photograph for i-D Magazine or the New York Times, then don’t go to University."

So implied here is that if you have not done any of those things after graduating you are a failure? Seriously, this is perhaps one of the most ignorant assessments about this i have ever read. Let's add to it to see if we can improve upon it: if you don't want to be self employed but still work as a photographer for a business or institution, go to school and get a degree. If you don't like working and learning in a vacuum, and want to be certain the information you're receiving is tested and valid, not from some dude on the internet with a funky beard or fro, go to school!

Are there reasons to not go to school? Absolutely! Are the reasons to go to school as limited and esoteric as this author has made them? Absolutely not!

The only people I've ever met who don't think an MFA in photography is worth it are those who do not have one. Should you complete your degree maybe you will change your mind. Many people drop out and go on to successful careers. Many don't.

Anonymous's picture

Replying to myself - it's like talking to myself. However, after my bike ride to work, I feel I might have been too hard on Max. Look, school isn't everything, but if he's questioning the worth of school while in school, he might look at the specific school rather than university education in general. The school he's at is, put politely, not the best school for photography in his immediate area. Within a train ride that is the equivilant of Hamburg to Munich, there's RIT, MIT, NY School of Design, and so on.

When I studied in Germany, it was hard to focus on school because I was in Germany! Who needs school, because I wanted to explore. He's in Greenwich Village, NYC - of course school is going to seem worthless and boring. And he's young; seems like everything is moving too slow.

My biggest regret is dropping out of school because of youth and a girl. I went back, but I'm 10 years behind in my career for it. Have a persistent vision of what you want in life, that does not get side-tracked by major events in your life.Take those credits (if the New School offers them) and transfer them to a school where you will learn something useful. Or drop out.

Whatever. I've spat into the wind enough. There are two rules to arguments on the internet: if you think you've lost the argument, you have. If you think you've won the argument, you haven't.

Maximilian Benner's picture

Hi Cesar, despite your first impression of me I am actually an advocate of university education. Personally speaking, receiving a well rounded education that shapes you and opens you up is absolutely desirable, however, it is not always feasable. From experience I know that a big part of our society deems a lot of what you call a well rounded education, unnecessary when it comes to photography. At many places photography is a craft that also gets thaught as such. If you live in an environment like this you are better off putting your money somewhere else than university.

Dave Coates's picture

As someone who has an MBA and BS, I can say with certainty that there is extreme value in College or University. However, I am also someone who has just recently been fortunate enough to pursue photography more seriously than a passing hobby - because of my degrees. I do not believe that every photographer should study it throughout college, or that it is even necessary to be a successful photographer.

Like every craptoid bro I meet with an MBA, it doesn't guarantee success or big money, those come later after the work and the connections. I have known many people to be just as successful without the papers. Having them does open more doors, but as the Author says, it really depends on what your goals are. If you want to be a millionaire big time "Tog" doing SI Swimsuit Editions, maybe it will help. If you just want to be a photographer, then you should spend your university money on a decent camera, some amazing lenses, and go on a road trip.

Anonymous's picture

Key here is "If you just want to be a photographer ..." Certainly, you took a host of other topics in school that you may or may not use on a regular basis, but that contributed to a well-rounded education. Topics like history, ethics, mathematics, English, etc etc. Universities are not one topic educations - unless you enroll in a funky private school in a posh section of NYC perhaps. Anyone getting a degree in photography at a decent university will learn things that prepare for life, not just what lens to use when.

The wide majority of photographers graduating from accredited universities do not go on to shoot for SI. But many of them DO go on to shoot for the other SI - the Smithsonian. And the Getty. And for Nike. And so on. Without a degree, one's beautiful portfolio won't make it past the door of any hiring process of any large institution. Don't want to work for an institution? Great! We have several photographers on staff here, all with MFAs. Sometimes we hire a freelancer - to shoot our social events, because we don't have to do that kind of work.

Dave Coates's picture

I was only stating that having a degree doesn't make one a successful photographer, essentially what the Author was saying. I am sure that many industries that hire staff photographers look for some standard high education in the discipline, which was my SI comment. I can't imagine any magazine hiring any joe blow (like myself) off the street for large scale high profile projects. Certainly there are exceptions, but much like any other industry, for a "regular" type of job, most places want documented proof that you know what you're doing.

But working for yourself, as a freelancer or small business owner, customers don't usually look at your wall for a degree. And I have yet to see any photo contest or open submission require one either.

>> As someone who has an MBA and BS, I can say with certainty that there is extreme value in College or University.

You got a BS at College? Really? Ok...

>> If you want to be a photographer of great ability and you don’t necessarily need to exhibit in the most famous galleries or photograph for i-D Magazine or the New York Times, then don’t go to University.<<

Except that people who did not go to university actually do these things. Admittedly very few of them - but the % of photography school graduates who manage these things is tiny too.

To me this reads like an article by a kid who hasn't done and anything but run up a lot of debt and who is now trying to reassure himself...

Dave Coates's picture

Perhaps he is trying to reassure himself, have you never had to do that? What's your alternative?

Almost anything that doesn't involve BSing other people into what I now think may be a mistake. Otherwise I wouldn't be trying to reassure myself, yes?

(Congratulations on completely missing why this sort of thing is problematic.. Unfortunately, it's also common.)

Maximilian Benner's picture

Hi David, by no means am I trying to lure anybody into anything. This article is one about probability. Of course, there are different paths that you can choose but there are some that are more likely to help you towards your goal than others.

Tony Teofilo's picture

Editorially speaking, the title of this story should be reworked.

Sandro Loos's picture

Good article. For the lucky few who can decide if they want to go or not.