You Don't Need a Photography Degree
When I was in high school, I planned on getting a photography degree. It was all I thought about. I even narrowed my options down to two schools.
Brooks Institute, which sadly closed last year after 70 years of education was at the top of my list. That's because I spent time interviewing photographers and it came highly recommended. One of them told me to get a photography degree from Brooks and I could write my own ticket anywhere. Probably an exaggeration, but it worked on me.
The other was Daytona Beach Community College (now Daytona State). It had the advantage of being much closer to home and has a reputation that was nearly as good as Brooks.
Either college would've been a fine choice, but I got distracted by a new invention: personal computers. That lead me into a rewarding career in IT. I'll never know how life would've turned out had I gone the other route with a photography degree. The nice thing about my IT career is that I learned most of it on my own, and a former employer paid for my complete college education. No debt.
I didn't need an IT degree to know how to do my job. The only reason I got it is because corporate IT jobs were becoming impossible to get without a degree.
What You Get With a Photography Degree
Please don't misconstrue this as an anti-education post. It's not. I've worked in the education field (as IT) for a couple of colleges. As a result, I know that some people truly benefit from a structured, educational program for their career. I also know that some people really don't need to learn their craft at a school.
Both paths take time, and the lessons are remarkably similar.
If you go to a photography school, you should expect to receive some of the following benefits:
- Learn how to build a portfolio
- Get professional feedback on your photography
- Work with gear that you probably can't afford to buy
- Get job placement assistance
When you think about it, a photography school is a trade school. It's on par with schools that teach you how to be a chef, a welder or a medical assistant. You'll learn the basics of your field, and you'll very likely have school debt to pay off.
It's up to you to decide whether the benefits are worth the cost, and if a structured education is the best way for you to learn.
Based upon my years in education, I can tell you two things about going this route.
1: If you pay attention and do the work, you will emerge as a functional practitioner of your subject.
2: A photography degree does not guarantee success.
The Fatal Flaw of Education
I live in Central Florida and we have a school called Full Sail University. It's a very popular school that teaches music & recording, art & design, film & television, video game development and more. One of the things I like about this school is its Hall of Fame – alumni who are very successful.
I know people who graduated from Full Sail. Some I met at my gym years ago. It was right across the street from the EA Sports offices where they create Madden NFL Football. Those folks had decent jobs.
Far more of the Full Sail graduates I met are cashiers at photography and musical instrument stores. They got the same education, but they never lived up to it. They're always looking out for their big break.
The problem is that big breaks don't just land at your feet. You have to go out and make them happen.
No matter how well educated you are, it doesn't mean a thing if you don't have the drive to make things happen for yourself. The same thing is true of a photography degree. It's basic preparation. You still have to take that basic knowledge and amplify it with your own creativity, talent and ambition.
How to Learn Photography Without a Degree
Since I didn't go to a photography school, I had to use alternative methods of learning. You're probably familiar with some of them:
- Trial and error
- Photography workshops and conferences
- Networking with other photographers and trading tips
- Doing something else that needs photography, but isn't about photography
That last item, more than anything else, is what's really comparable to getting a formal photography education. When you go to a photography school, you're doing to have assignments that put you in a position to learn by solving problems. The objective is to give you experience with different photography styles and forcing you to figure out a solution.
The problem with doing that in a school environment, at least for me, is that you know it isn't real. Yes, your grade depends upon doing the assignment, but that's it. If you don't like something, you can probably shirk it off and make up for it somewhere else.
That doesn't happen in the real world where people expect results.
Having a responsibility that demands results will drive your ability to learn. Responsibility changes how you view your photography when you have to serve a purpose other than your own sense of creativity.
It doesn't matter if you work as an assistant, shoot for wire services, news papers, magazines or your own blog. When you need to think and create photos for some purpose – outside of photography then you see the world in a new way. You have to solve problems that never appear for a hobby.
The problems you solve doing this kind of work will have more impact than your assignments in photography school. In my opinion, they will also be much more memorable and rewarding.
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THE PHOTO FLUNKY SHOW: Episode 86
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William: Thank you very much for joining us on the Photo Flunky Show, Episode 86.
Today we are going to be telling you why you really don’t need a photography degree.
Hi, my name is William Beem.
Lee: Hi, my name is Lee Beem.
William: I don’t want to be down on education. As a matter of fact, I’ve worked in the education field for quite a number of years, but we really want to go over reasons why you may or may not want a photography degree. But you definitely don’t need one.
Before we get started with that, I just want to let you know that show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode86 And of course you can find a transcript of the show there for free. Also you can find links to subscribe to the show on Apple Podcast, Google Play and other sources. And you can find links to subscribe also at photoflunky.com We’ve got a player there and you can listen to this and other shows. We hope you enjoy it.
So let’s get into why we think that you don’t need a photography degree.
Lee: I can give you a very practical, real-life example.
William: Please do. Give me one.
Lee: Who do you impress with a photography degree?
William: There are some people that think that degrees and certifications are good tools for marketing.
Lee: Yes. But if you go and flash your certificate with your degree, you are trying to impress …. another photographer.
William: Either that or you are trying to get hired as a staff photographer someplace and they require certain certifications of a degree as a way of weeding out people who don’t have them so that they don’t have as many resume’s to look at.
Lee: Right, now here is where real life comes in. People who need or want to hire someone to take photos are not looking for credentials. When I want to book a doctor or dentist appointment or a physical therapist, I do scroll down to see what their certification is. I want to make sure that they are registered and somebody qualified, which … I’ve never found a problem.
When I am looking for a photographer – and I have done so for baby photos, portraits, we’ve done it for our wedding.
William: Wedding photography, you did it with Tove as family photography.
Lee: It never crossed my mind to look for any certification. I went straight into the portfolio and everything I needed to know was there.
William: And quite simple: Success doesn’t care if you have a degree or not. You are either a good photographer or you are not and the results will show up in examples of your work.
Lee: That’s fine. Also what might be a good photographer to you for your needs or whatever you want to get from them today, might not be the same as what you are looking for tomorrow. I might be wanting something different – so good is a very broad term. You need to appeal to your own market.
William: Like I said, I am not putting down the notion of getting a photography degree. There are a lot of people I know and respect that have degrees. They learn quite a bit from them, but I also know quite a number of people who are very successful that maybe have a degree in a different field or don’t have formal photography training, that are excellent.
Lee: I tell you who might benefit from a photography degree. Not necessarily the degree, but some kind of formal teaching, is somebody who is wanting to get technical, who is naturally primarily creative.
Now, to me, I don’t see that as a need, but I can understand that there might be situations or there might be certain genres you want to go into where you need to …. I would probably benefit from that if I wanted to start paying attention to the technical aspects. Now I just learn from William.
Everybody who has been listening to us for a while very quickly realizes that I have very little regard for the technical side of things.
William: But you have a natural creative instinct that came from other aspects of your art background.
Lee: Yes, but I’d been having some fun with very casual, informal what I call product photography, because it is specific brands and products. There are certain things that I need to achieve. I do have to call on some kind of technical knowledge for that because if you are taking a photo of Coca Cola, that red needs to be Coca Cola red. That is a silly example. There is a place for the technical side that you cannot completely disregard. I wouldn’t say necessarily a degree for me, but there have been times where I have had to go and educate myself on the technical aspects.
William: Well, let’s talk about some of the things. What do you get with a photography degree? Or at least formal training that way. So a couple of things you are going to expect from coming out of the school is you are going to learn how to build a portfolio, which is no small thing.
If you want to go off and be a commercial photographer, you want to be a fashion photographer, you want to get work …. you need to be able to demonstrate your capabilities and you need to have a portfolio that isn’t going to tick off the person who has very little time to review your work.
And they are kind of picky about how they want to see it so you want to know how to put together a really good book.
Lee: I think that’s a good thing to get.
William: It is a really good thing to get. And it’s the kind of thing you probably want to be able to work on and practice and maybe redo it a few times before you do it for real. Photography school will help you with that. It will also help you get professional level feedback. In other words you’re going to have assignments that you have to go do that may or may not relate to what you really want to do, but that kind of rounds you out –supposedly – and then your instructor is someone that hopefully has experience and they are sharing their knowledge with you and they are going to tell you here is what you did here…. it’s not all going to be about technical stuff, it’s not all going to be about creative stuff. It’s going to be a mix of both and you’re going to get that kind of feedback.
Now sometimes feedback is opinion and you can decide: This is my style. This is what I want to do. It may or may not get you any work or it may make you the next big thing. I don’t know. But at least you get the feedback. You have got something to bounce it off of rather than thinking in a vacuum and not knowing what anybody else believe. This is something that would be a trade school almost. You are going to get job placement assistance. That really depends again on what you want to do. What kind of job placement assistance do you want to get? Do you want to be a photographer at Walt Disney World, dressing up in costume and taking pictures of people on the street? Are you going to be working for a newspaper?
I don’t know what job placement you’re going to get. Being a photographer means that you can work almost anywhere that you want. People need photos all over the place. But job placement assistance? I don’t put as much weight on that these days as I probably would have when I wanted to do this when I was coming out of high school.
Lee: The world has changed. The world of photos has changed. Everybody has a camera. Your five year old has access to a camera at any given time of the day.
William: Yes, and another aspect you get is you get to work with gear that you probably wouldn’t be able to afford on your own if you’re just beginning. Particularly if you are school age, just coming out of high school. You’re going to go to a photography school that is going to have access to different cameras, different lenses, different systems and different lighting. And you’re going to get a chance to work with all of that as part of your degree program.
Doing portraits with lighting is a big deal. Doing product photography or doing sports photography, you’re going to work with different systems and different gear for all of that. And if they are going to take you through that within the degree, that gives you again, more experience with different stuff.
And finally, you are going to meet people.
You are going to be able to network with folks and I think that is generally a very good thing as well.
Lee: That is an advantage. To me that is probably the biggest advantage of all, alongside maybe building a portfolio, which I think can be quite a stressful and intimidating job. When somebody says, “Put together a portfolio,” where do I start? What do you need?
And learning how to assess what you need and how to work it for that specific purpose is something that most of us would benefit from some guidance. I know that I would want input for anything if I were asked to build a portfolio right now.
William: This can work out to your advantage. It depends upon the person that you are and how you learn.
When I was coming out of high school, my senior year I was really into photography. I wanted to be a photographer. I didn’t even know what that meant at the time, but I was already looking at schools.
I was looking at two of the best schools in the nation at the time. One was Brooks College out in California and the other one was here, just an hour drive away. It was then Daytona Beach Community College and now Daytona Beach State College. They had an outstanding program. Something happened. Personal computers came around and I took a completely different tack going off into IT.
Someone that I really admired for coming out of photography school and built a career out of it is Brad Moore. Brad went to photography school and through some circumstances that I don’t totally understand, I believe Joe McNally knew his instructor and I’m maybe getting this story wrong, but Brad ended up working as an assistant for Joe McNally and then later on working as assistant for Scott Kelby.
And working with Scott, he got to meet a ton of other photographers. Brad is probably one of the most well networked photographers and he is an outstanding photographer too.
Lee: He’s really good. And he’s a nice guy.
William: He’s a great guy. I think photography school served him very well. he learned his craft, hopefully learned business out of it as well and he worked for some of the top names in the photography industry within the United States. And he’s got connections everywhere. And now he is around Nashville, Tennessee working with someone doing music photography.
He has done concert photography for a few years. I think they are also doing music videos now. He has got his own business. He’s doing what he wants. I think that is an outstanding story. So that’s why I’m saying I’m not trying to put down a photography degree. It can work for you, but for every Brad Moore that I know, I probably know a hundred other guys that are working as a cashier in a camera store.
Lee: Here’s the thing thought. I was just listening to you talk about Brad and as we spoke about the benefits, I think that the biggest benefit of doing a photography degree has nothing to do with the degree. Sadly you have to pay for it or I would just say don’t bother about the piece of paper; it doesn’t matter if you fail or not. But I think the biggest benefit you get is actually going through the course with other people and being exposed to different ideas. It’s really the experience that makes the photographer.
That piece of paper and passing the theoretical exams and things, I think is completely irrelevant. You don’t need to prove anything on paper. Obviously to get the experience you’re going to have to pay the bucks and go through the whole thing.
William: And it’s a lot of bucks. I mean trade school diplomas, you’re talking about tens of thousands of dollars for these degrees.
The reason I bring this up and I’m not trying to be mean, but locally in the Orlando area we have a school called Full Sail. They do a lot of creative stuff and I meet a lot of their graduates who are cashiers; some at camera stores, some at music stores. I’m thinking, man you got all this training. You’re supposed to know all these things. You need to take advantage of it and push it and make it work for you.
I’m not saying that the problem is with the school; I’m saying that if you have the motivation to take what you’ve learned and apply it someplace.
Lee: I’m just trying to think. I’ve read a lot about Full Sail and everyone seems to really enjoy their courses, but I have yet to hear of anybody mention, working as a photographer and earning, saying anything about the fact that they had a history with Full Sail. The reason I know about Full Sail quite ironically, is because of all these people who love it but complaint that their degree still doesn’t have them a job fifteen or twenty years later. But they keep going back for more.
So what that says to me is that – and this is just an example that we are using with Full Sail; this is not to call out the place – people love it. People are enjoying the experience and having a good time learning with them ….
William: I don’t think there is anything wrong with the education.
Lee: It’s not getting them a job!
William: I don’t think there is anything wrong with the experience that people are getting from Full Sail. I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting a photography degree. I really wanted to do that when I got out of high school. I just simple fell in love with something else at the time. I told you the things that photography can do.
Here is what a photography degree doesn’t do. It can’t guarantee success. Then I come back and I learn that there are people who do photography for a living and they do it quite well and they make a living at it. Not just a living, but they actually really succeed. And they’ve done it without a photography degree. They’ve done it through trial and error.
Some people attend workshops and conferences. I know I’ve done that for a while. You network with other photographers and then here’s the biggest thing that really helped me advance my photography. Do something else that needs photographs, but really is serving another purpose.
And by that I mean being a photographer for the sake of serving clients, there’s nothing wrong with that. But understanding how photography works and then doing something else and calling on that knowledge to support you (which is kind of what you are doing with your site and your business) really forces you to say you’ve got to solve a problem.
William: So in other words if you need the light for, like your meal prep stuff that you share with people or your product photography, you’ve got to figure out problems and forces you to be a better photographer.
Lee: It really does. I’ve had some hilarious situations where you’ve offered help and I’ve gone, “Nah, it’s too much trouble.” Then 45 minutes later I come in and say, “I think I might have got one ….”
You do learn from this and you’ve got to have an extended sense of humor sometimes, to get through a day. That goes with anything.
William: Here’s the difference I’m talking about when I say do something else that needs photographs. If you are a photographer and you’re walking around and would like to take some photographs, you take whatever makes you happy.
But if you are laying out a blog or a magazine or something that is on a specific topic, then you need photographs that communicate part of the story and that totally changes how you approach walking around to take those photos.
Lee: It really does. Even knowing how the crop format is going to work for that affects how you have got to think when you’re taking the photos.
William: Well, you’ve got to think: What kind of post processing am I going to do before I take this shot? What kind of crop am I going to do? Where does this need to show up? Is it going to have to be big enough to print off? Large? Is it going to fit on a blog post? What format does it need to be in? All those things you need to know before you even take the shot.
For example, we’ve mentioned before, one of our other websites is called Orlando Local and you went off to Epcot to cover Flower and Garden? Or Food and Wine? I think you’ve done both.
Lee: I’ve done both of them.
William: What you would shoot just walking around there on vacation is very different than what you had to shoot to show people: here is what you can experience.
Lee: Yeah and I think that was the thing. I used to typically do square or landscape format scrapbooks and all of a sudden I had to think that for your website you wanted the 16:9 crop. So I was trying to think hang on. I’ve got to get more space above and/or below for that crop so I can use it as well in whatever else …. It definitely made me think on my feet more than what I would usually do. And I learned that there is sometimes where it’s necessary to recompose and take multiple shots of the same photo to crop differently and put out in different places.
William: Well, here are some of the silly things that you learn when you are doing photographs for a blog. You need to use this photograph for a header image. You need to use this for an Instagram image. You need to use this for a Pinterest image. And what’s the difference?
I’ve got 16:9 for the header image. I’ve got 1:1 for the Instagram image and then I’ve got 3:4 or maybe longer … 735 pixels across and at least 1100-1200 going down or maybe more. The way that you photograph these things and where you display them are very different even all for the same article.
Lee: Here’s another thing. I’ve got the crop thing kind of down; more or less. I still mess it up from time to time, but I realized when I was taking some food photos in the last month or so that I want to put text into the thing to turn it into a graphic. Sometimes that means I need to rearrange the food. It’s harder to do this with a subject that is a human being or something that’s fixed in place, but it might mean you need to recompose. So I’m thinking: I want to put text over here and I’m not really sure yet what I’m going to say on here. Maybe you are, but you’ve got to try and figure out where you want the space. That means you don’t want competing colors and shapes and things in the background so if you don’t have a neutral background, are you going to gray it out with a box or crop it ….? Really, it teaches you to plan. Sometimes it means separating the food because I want to put a text bar through the middle and it means I need to move and clear a space here and scoot these over a little bit. So it’s really … there are little technical things that are maybe not so technical, but they come with a creative approach to things.
William: That’s why I really wanted to throw this in here on how to really learn without a degree because when you are going through photography school, they are going to give you assignments designed to get you to think about things. If you have a need for a photograph, there’s got to be a certain way or certain shape; it’s got to tell a certain story – it’s kind of serving the same purpose. It’s forcing you to think. How are you going to use this photograph? What do you need? How are you going to light it? What available light are you going to use?
All those little issues, both creative and technical, have to fit in and you can do the same thing without a degree. Depending on your personality, it may be better if someone tells you or you’ve got someone to show you how to do it rather than asking …
Lee: Or working with people.
William: Yeah, or figuring it out on your own. All those things are there, but you can make progress and learn as an individual without getting a degree and still be successful.
Lee: Absolutely. I agree with that.
William: We just wanted to bring that up and some of the things we thought about was what if you want to learn to make money from photography without being a professional photographer? How do I use my photography to make money, but I don’t want to serve clients? And that is kind of where I am.
Lee: You can be a professional photographer without serving clients.
William: Some of the ways I make my money is selling prints to corporate buyers.
Lee: that’s clients but they are not really calling the shots. They like it or they don’t.
William: I’ve already done the photography. I’ve done it the way I want to do it and if they like it they will buy it.
Lee: You’re selling to clients but you’re not creating for clients.
William: Maybe, maybe not. We did have that one person who said they would like more abstract work from New York City. I thought if I really wanted to do that I could fly up to New York, walk around and look for things that were abstract and she would probably buy more. It really isn’t the same as having a studio set up where people come in and get portraits. I would probably poke my eyes out if I had to be a glamour shot photographer.
That’s a way of making money, but it’s not as creative. That is kind of a cookie cutter approach. There are so many options and what I found is that I can make my own purpose and use that. I’m not necessarily making money directly from photography for the Orlando Local blog. The opportunities are there.
Lee: I’m not making money from mine for social media for running.
William: You just started, though.
Lee: I’ve just started. But I love it and the photos get engagement. The photos get …. I’ve actually networked through photos I’ve taken with people who have nothing to do with photography because of the photos. It’s maybe started a conversation. I’m just a plain, simple person. There is nothing complicated about my photography.
William: you’ve also got an ambassadorship because of your online presence and you’ve gotten a job with someone else that is probably because somewhat of your photography, because you’ve been showing daily what you are doing with the runs. So you are making money. It’s not directly like I click this picture and get paid for it. But you made money from your photography. And you’ve got potential for more because one of these sponsorship photos you told me, their photo really stinks. I can do better on my own. And you did and they liked it.
Lee: They did and you know I am also not afraid to take a risk. They could have struck me off as an ambassador because they were doing a nationwide promotion for US and Canada and they had their stock photo and this is what we were supposed to put up for their promotion that they were doing. I looked at it and the first thing I thought was: what a terrible photo!
So I took the information part of the photo and I took my own photo, which I thought was much nicer and I made my own and put it up and still promoted the thing and they actually did come and say great photo.
William: Yeah, they loved it
Lee: Those were the social media managers. I’m pretty sure that the big cheeses if they had seen that would have struck me off. But I was willing to take that risk because I am who I am.
William: We just want to say that if you are looking at a photography degree there is nothing wrong with going to do it but make sure you understand you don’t have to have it in order to succeed. And there is going to be a school debt to pay down from that degree. It’s not for everybody and there are other paths to it and maybe finding something that needs to be done and learning on your own can help get you where you want to be in order to be a successful photographer.
Thank you very much for listening to the Photo Flunky Show. Show notes are going to be available at williambeem.com/episode86 and of course you’ll find a transcript of the show for free. We also have links to subscribe to us on iTunes, Google Play Music and Blubrry and others. Hope you enjoyed that. We really enjoyed brining this show to you and we look forward to seeing you again next week.