PetaPixel

Do You Need a Photography Degree to Be a Successful Photographer?

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As the recipient of a great education (thanks in no small part to my parents), I’m always fascinated by discussions of how college influence what we do and achieve later in life. As a music major, I could have never fathomed that I would one day become an entrepreneur, and when I think back to college, it had very little to do with the acquisition of technical knowledge, and more about being exposed to a wide range of subjects, people, and social situations.

And thus I read Joseph Gamble’s essay on the 50th Annual Society of Photographic Education’s National Conference piece with more than a passing interest. It was an essay in which he interviewed photographic educations, and then came to the conclusion that the “pros” outweighed the “cons” 8 to 3.

My position isn’t meant to be a cynical look at photographic education, but we must acknowledge that there was massive selection bias in talking to people whose livelihoods depend on a constant study body. So let me provide a constructive counterpoint.

photoclass

First, I agree that being immersed in a subject and surrounded by others who are also immersed is invaluable. When you live and breathe photography on a daily basis, and your peers and instructors are pushing you to do more, it’s almost impossible to regress. Students who are particularly introspective will gain an enormous advantage from regular “crits.”

But photography isn’t organic chemistry. It doesn’t require beakers and exotic chemicals (anymore). A $500 DSLR and a copy of Photoshop will generally suffice. You can do an awful lot of experimentation and self-directed study with simple motivation, despite what the pundits say about having access to expensive lighting equipment and a studio.

cameraphotoshop

Photography is also somewhat unique as a profession in that most practitioners are sole proprietors immediately after graduation. When you work at McDonald’s or Google, you are a cog in the machine who is responsible for a specific component of success. Flip the burgers, write the code, cash a paycheck. The extinction of the staff photographer job has made this scenario virtually impossible for the recent graduate. The freelance photographer is responsible for every aspect of their success.

When I joined an Internet start-up right out of school, we were four people, but I wasn’t responsible for incorporating the company, filing taxes, or submitting the payroll. I was just responsible for helping to create a website. As the years went on, and we became more successful, I assumed I knew everything about business. But when we started PhotoShelter, and I was suddenly the boss, I realized how little I knew.

Suddenly, I wished I had taken a business or marketing class in school, or paid more attention at my previous company. It took me several years to understand that our success was as much a function of marketing as it was of our technology. Customer service, social media, DMCA takedowns – it was a steep learning curve, and quite honestly, without a great team around me, I don’t know that the company would have survived with my spartan knowledge.

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That brings us back to the photographer. I suppose that pedigree is marginally beneficial, but in truth, I’ve never hired a photographer because of the school he/she went to. I hire on reputation and portfolio. Similarly, I’ve talked to dozens of photographers who have revealed how little they know about business, and many of them have told me that their schools didn’t offer relevant business or marketing instruction (or they didn’t pay attention).

The challenge is that “business” is not only boring academically, but it’s very abstract. When you don’t have to worry about your next paycheck or paying for your camera because you have a student loan, you have very little time for such frivolity as business. But freelancing is a fact of life for millions of people in today’s economy, and thus understanding how to build business success is imperative. So I would challenge educators to build curriculums around the following.

Before graduation, make your students:

  • Create an LLC. There are dozens of online services that are relatively inexpensive.
  • Open a business bank account so that they learn the value of separate account and accounting.
  • Use the NPPA’s cost of doing business calculator to estimate a daily “cost” so they understand how to price their labor without going out of business.
  • Build a marketing plan that identifies a) their target market, 2) activities that will help them reach that market, and 3) an estimation of time per week spent with each marketing activity.
  • Talk about business use cases on a weekly basis.
  • Make sure they have a very functional understanding of web technologies and analytical packages so that they can make data-driven decisions.
  • Bring in small business owners and entrepreneurs to talk to your students, so that they begin to understand the challenges of running a business.

business

Photographers too often fall back on the excuse that “we’re visual people” and “we don’t get this business stuff.” That, my friends, is a perfect attitude for failure.

My best advice is to never major in photography (a minor is fine). But knowing that this is an impossibility, both students and teachers alike can help the profession by making sure that it is viewed as a profession, and not a hobby. And the barometer for that success is staying in business.


About the author: Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and Co-founder of PhotoShelter. Allen authors PhotoShelter’s free business guides for photographers and marketing professionals, including topics like email marketing, search engine optimization, and starting a photography business. Allen is a graduate of Yale University, and flosses daily. This article originally appeared here.


Image credits: Workload by Gamma-Ray Productions, Photography gifts by APM Alex, Office cubicle, circa 2001 by ilamont.com, Johns Hopkins Carey Business School by MDGovpics


 
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  • MMielech

    What exactly are you going to learn in school? The one thing I see happening in school in spades is talk. Talk talk talk. Sitting around, talking about photos. What a waste of time and money.
    Buy a camera. learn photoshop up and down, and assist an established photographer. When times are slow, try to pump him/her or his/her front office person about the boring paperwork stuff as mentioned above. If he/she has an agent, talk to that agent about the business. trust me, that agent knows more than anyone.

  • Swade

    Not to mention photography specific schools are absurdly more expensive that most colleges. Debt is one of your worst enemies.

  • Kodachrome64

    Like it says in those bullet points, I think knowledge of business is much more important in deciding whether or not you will be a successful photographer. Marketing, finances, sales, setting prices, etc, is all the stuff going on behind the scenes that people overlook. I taught myself photography, through books, websites, blogs, whatever else, and I think what you can teach yourself is equivalent to what you will learn in any school. I know from experience there are things that even my friends who have degrees don’t know (“Hyperfocal distance? What’s that?”). The whole point of what I’m saying is that if I were going to do it again and I wanted to have a successful photography business, I would focus on the business part in my college education.

  • http://profiles.google.com/kalavere Chris Popely

    This same topic was discussed on FStoppers five days ago.

    http://fstoppers.com/do-i-need-a-photo-degree-thoughts-after-the-spe-50th

  • Josh

    I don’t think you bothered to read the second paragraph of this article. He is responding to that directly.

  • http://albatross.org/ Albatross

    First, define “success.” If “artistically respected but broke” is nevertheless
    your definition of “success,” then success is easier and based on your innate talent. A photography degree can certainly help you maximize your potential, but isn’t “needed.”

    If “financially well off but artistically bankrupt” is your definition of success then
    you’re William Wegman or someone like him. Teaching your pony one trick doesn’t require a photography degree, but business acumen. Get an MBA, a camera, and a couple of Weimaraners.

    But if “success” is “artistically respected and financially comfortable” then the only way a
    photography degree would help would be if, as the article suggests, the curriculum included a lot of courses in small business, entrepreneurship, marketing, contracts, and taxes.

  • http://www.vincentmorretinophotography.zenfolio.com/ fast eddie

    Ah man, I’ve always hated his work. Even as I kid, I thought his photos were super creepy and to this day, I do not like Weimaraners.

  • JezSullivan

    The lecturers at my University were talented if slightly pretentious “Art Photographers” although there was a creative atmosphere, the attitude to technical tutorials was contemptuous and as a result. I did not feel competent once Id completed my degree. I think standards are all over the place. Particularly in the UK If colleges nailed the technical aspect as much as the ” it raises questions” curatorial side, things would be a whole lot better. I remember tutorial on the use of Flash being akin to little more than a Camera shop style sales demo.

  • lidocaineus

    I’ve said this before, but majoring in photography (at least a good photography program) doesn’t teach you anything about the business end of photography. It’s not supposed to – college isn’t supposed to be used as a trade school.

    What it teaches you is theory – this history of photography in depth, how to critically view a photo, how to form coherent thoughts about the photo on what works, what doesn’t work (this is sorely missing in a lot of comments at PetaPixel), to speak on it intelligently, and finally, how to take what you like, what you don’t like, and your own creativity, and make something you find fulfilling. Will that be commercially successful? Who the hell knows? That’s not what college is about. But while you’re there, you’ll be fully immersed in a world that lives and breathes photography – that’s practically worth it in and of itself.

    To everyone who just says “go grab a camera and a copy of Photoshop”, well yes, that’s one way to approach it. And yes, you can be creatively fulfilled doing that. You might even be working at your full potential doing self study – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach. All college does is improve the chance for you to reach your potential – you have professors at your fingertips with their decades of expertise in a wide variety of fields. You have students coming from all walks of life with different ideas about what to do in the photographic field. You have classes that are meant to expose you to things you would never even consider before. You have access to resources you could never justify alone (darkrooms, high end graphic workstations, all sorts of crazy printing equipment, and on and on).

    None of that is a guarantee that you’ll do well artistically or commercially – that’s just silly to think that way. But it’s equally silly to just put that off as “it’s just a lot of talk” as @MMielech:disqus puts it – the talk IS the strength. It’s a personal decision to go to school for photography versus not, with no wrong choices, just options that must be weighed carefully against how you’d like to approach it.

  • Lee Harris

    No.

  • Brendan Wixted

    Depends on what you want to do with photography. If you go to school to learn technical aspects for commercial work and make some contacts then it could be worth it, if you go to school with intentions to shoot weddings then no, you should probably get a Photography for dummies book. It never hurts to have a degree to fall back on. The degree shows you have motivation and you are hard working to obtain the degree in 4 years or however long it takes in a corporate point of view.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1357770135 Tom Bryan

    No you don’t … but it helps. Pretty simple

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1357770135 Tom Bryan

    Especially if you want to become a fine artist

  • TSY87

    I would say school just for photography is not necessary. Not with the abundance of blogs, youtube and forums, you can literally learn everything you need from the internet for photography these days.

  • pixtom

    As a relatively successful photographer, I was a college drop out, but understood tons about running your own business. I’ve always marveled at how little the “kids” get about the actual specifics about running a business from being in college, and I’ve approached institutions about setting up courses to do this, only to be rebuffed because I don’t have a college degree! BTW, most of the really successful “creative” photographers I have met, almost never come out of photography courses, and generally seem to come out of design and art courses. The reverence people seem to have for college photography courses seems to manifest results best with the photojournalism trade where many newspapers refuse to even talk with anyone for any position that doesn’t have a four year degree in something. Funny, since pre WWII, a lot of fabulous journalists never even went to college!

  • http://www.naskaras.com/ Thanassi Karageorgiou

    Amen

  • http://www.naskaras.com/ Thanassi Karageorgiou

    College is quickly becoming obsolete.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/eziztm/ Eziz

    Higher education is an investment and therefore one should consider the economy when making the choice. It’s always nice to follow your dreams but if you decide to go to a photography school now, you’re either rich or a risk-taker who is willing to live on catfood for a while.

  • Darbraun

    OP says they wouldn’t recommend a major in photography, and that might be fine for certain folks for their particular situation. Some folks do it to gain a vast amount of knowledge and technique in a comparatively short period of time, not to mention access to teachers with years of knowledge on a 1-on-1 basis. My school had 3 “master photographers” on tap for us to pepper with questions and to mentor us.

    My recommendation is for a person to be responsible enough to chose a photo degree program that is intelligent and INCLUDES business and marketing, rather than a “pure” photo degree.

    In terms of the high cost for the degree programs – that pretty much applies to all higher education. Education costs have been a scam for years. I’d expect someone to (again) be personally responsibly enough to know what they can or can’t afford before they in-debt themselves to federal and private loans.

  • MMielech

    “All college does is improve the chance for you to reach your potential”

    No, sir, it doesn’t, if it means wasting four years of your healthy youth sitting around basking in everything photography, and, more importantly, if it means starting life with a debt that may approach 50-100,000 dollars, unless mommy and daddy were real generous with the tuition. The debt could pretty much eliminate any possibility of succeeding in business, which is what it is all about, after you get away from the mediocre art photographers who “taught” you in this school, because they probably wouldn’t last a year out in the real world.
    You want talk? Today, we have this thing called the “internet”, which, sonny, I couldn’t even imagine back in the day I was walking 10 miles to my assistant’s job, every day. Uphill. Both ways. Tons of talk, and, 95% of it is free on the internet. I find new stuff every week or so, about both technique and the business.
    Why support an academic machine that is there just to give jobs to overpaid administrators and make jobs for photographers who can’t make money in the real world? That’s why those schools exist, not to actually teach young people. What, do you think so and so photographer is holding workshops in exotic locales just to impart his vast knowledge on the youth of today, before he/she passes on into photography retirement? haha. It’s a fantastic source of income and a really nice tax write-off for a sweet trip to Tuscany or Paris. Oh, and, these schools make Goldman Sachs even richer, too. They are a major owner of the Art Institutes. I never knew a good photographer that went to any of those schools, I did meet a few mediocre photographers who did, and they were quite rigid in their thinking, and always had an attitude that said, “hey, I graduated from so and so! Don’t tell me!” Indeed.

  • Mansgame

    My philosophy has been that if an amateur can do your profession better than you as a hobby, then you don’t need to go to college for it. You can go to college and major in something else of course and use those skills towards photography, but don’t kid yourself about photography as being on the same level as other professions in terms of learned skills.
    I wouldn’t go to an amateur surgeon for instance. Even a plumber requires to pass tests and be certified and insured by the state, but anybody can learn photography and if you have the artistic eye, you can succeed.

  • agour

    Here in the UK, a photography degree will put you in £30,000 – £45,000 worth of debt.

    I know people who have degrees in photography, yet can’t make a living through it… I’ve run my own photography business for about 4 months and make a comfortable living, yet I’ve had no formal education or training.

    I’ve never once been asked if I’ve had photography training, people just see what I do and recognize that I can deliver the goods. The business side of things is more important than the photography side, BUT you need both to be successful.

    If people want to go to university, let them. Just don’t expect a job because you have a degree!

  • lidocaineus

    Your rambling rant with some odd insults in there (you call people “sonny”?) boils down to one argument: you can educate yourself on the internet and with workshops. Nowhere did I say this wasn’t possible, and I actually said it’s all some people need to reach their full potential.

    But denying that an excellent photography program can help, or really ANY program at a place of higher education, is throwing blinders over your eyes. If you think a quick workshop or lecture is even remotely close to a full 4 years of intense critiques (some good, some god awful), of being exposed to things you’ve never even considered, being required to explore avenues of photography you would’ve never even given a second glance at, and having well seasoned photographers constantly teaching you things and available for discussion, well… To be honest, you sound like you have a chip on your shoulder about people that majored in photography. You’ve met a few mediocre photographers that went through programs? How exactly does that represent the whole?

    Succeeding in business is exactly what college isn’t about (I say it in the first sentence practically). Also the issue of debt is a real and must be weighed when making a decision of whether to attend college or not, and the perceived value of what you take away from it. But there are plenty of opportunities in college that aren’t available elsewhere, and there are plenty of opportunities available outside of college that you’ll never learn in a classroom or lab. They’re not comparable – they’re different approaches that someone has to decide on their own.

  • MMielech

    “Your rambling rant with some odd insults in there (you call people “sonny”?) boils down to one argument: you can educate yourself on the internet and with workshops.”

    No. Go back to my first post. You can be educated by working as an assistant, or, an apprentice, if that sounds better. You’ll actually be making money (albeit, not much, but, still……), instead of spending multiple thousands of dollars for this “education”, and be exposed to the real world of commercial photography, not to a world filled with profiteers and those that, you know, can’t, so, they teach.

    But, hey, whatever. Spend four years of your life in such a school, and go deep into debt, or waste you parents retirement fund. Good luck. Most photographers could care less. Unless, of course, they get one of those cool workshop gigs in Tuscany. Man, it’s nice there. Great light. Awesome food.

  • lidocaineus

    “No. Go back to my first post. You can be educated by working as an assistant, or, an apprentice, if that sounds better. You’ll actually be making money (albeit, not much, but, still……)”

    Same difference. And please, stop confusing being successfully business-wise, with being successfully artistic-wise. Both are completely different and independent of each other. Also please stop saying you’ll instantly go into debt by attending college; it’s not a guarantee, just like being an apprentice doesn’t guarantee you money.

    You are correct about one thing however – most photographers couldn’t care less (actually you’re wrong about that, as you use ‘could case less’ which makes no sense in modern english but regardless).

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonathan.maniago Jonathan Maniago

    And I was under the impression that almost everybody was jaded about higher education. Personally, I’d like to think of it as an opportunity to stand on the shoulders of (even more) giants. It’s no guarantee for commercial success, but at least one can have a better idea of what has been said and done before.

  • MMielech

    Sorry. I thought I was addressing someone who wanted to run a business. Good luck with your art.

  • Brett Robson

    Hi, the only photography related course I ever did was in Portrait photography which taught me alot about composition, rules of thirds, were to crop (image and post production) but I totally agree that the classroom will not give you any experience with the business side of photography.

    I have learnt more in the field and yes I have had come costly mistakes but we learn from those and our instincts kick in if such a situation arises again.

    I now shoot for a media outlet and cover many various events and also network with alot of photographers, some of which have done photography degrees and some have not.

  • Andrew

    You guys keep arguing if going to photography school is worth it or not on the internet. I will be out making money with everything I learned in photography school.

  • http://www.facebook.com/derek.tomkins Derek Tomkins

    The short answer is “no”,,,a good eye and a good imagination I find, is all you need, you dont even need an expensive camera….although some decent software can enhance your photos….personally, I would take “creativity” and “originality” and “experience” over any degree any day of the week….

  • Terry Clark

    College is not about teaching you f-stops and shutter speeds. It’s about opening your mind, giving you a foundation in many areas in which to build your life. Sure, you can maybe do some of it on your own, but what if you’re not as brilliant as you think you are, or your social media friends say you are? Better to have college and not need it than to not need it and be forever asking… do you want fries with that?

    Elliott Erwitt was asked, how do you make it in photography today. He responded, “marry well, or have a trust fund.” Truer words were never spoken. Go to college. It will serve you well in the years ahead.

  • sbw1990

    I say no. I’m doing Bach Fine Arts. It really teaches you very little. Having critique sessions are good, and knowing how to tackle new projects are key things i’ve learnt. But you can glide through with Distinctions, with awful photos, as long as you have a good Art Journal, and excellent bullshitting/art wank talk.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.suzuki Daniel Yu Suzuki

    No.

  • Sam

    True Words. Please pass this message on to the multitude of pretentious ‘art’ photographers in Melbourne Australia, who think they are on to something unique indeed. Who cares if you have a Hasselblad. You are still a mediocre photographer.

  • urmom14114

    hemotitus b

  • urmom14114

    exactly tho

  • urmom14114

    smd

  • Nancy Fontes

    hi I had a question! I REALLY REALLY want to pursue my dream in being a photographer. I want to be a photo journalist or a freelance photographer. I also want tot get involved taking pictures for the fashion industry just any kind of photography fields I can get into. I just need advice and guidance. everyones response is kind of making me stressed and confused even more on what should I do. I really want to pursue my dream in this career and learn how to financially be stable as well. I think its true how they said that you should know the business side and marketing. but is that entirely true? I’m just afraid of going to school, pay thousands of dollars for it and end finding out I don’t have a job yet or cant afford to pay that debt back and end up finding out that I could’ve taught this myself. I was planning on going to the art institutes or Otis or calarts! these are all in LA, but then I saw the price and it terrified me. I don’t want money holding me back from achieving my dreams :/ I see so many photographers that are successful and are happy living their dream, taking pictures for national geographic, or music festivals, or photo journalist! like I ask myself what did they do? did they just never gave up no matter what? and the ones that weren’t successful, did they just quit? can someone help me out on what exactly should I do? I want to travel the world and become a successful photographer. I just need advice on what to do? I thought about about just going to junior college and take photography courses and then again teach myself along the way and ask questions to other photographers. but again I’m lost and need guidance! help. I don’t want to give up my passion and dream!

  • http://www.observingtime.com/ agour

    Firstly, you’ll need to know that being a photographer isn’t easy. It’s not all shooting photos of exotic beaches, there’s a lot of hard work that goes on behind that. A lot of people think it’s an attractive job from the outside, but they don’t realise how hard a photographer has to work to actually make it.

    If you’re still not too sure on how to shoot, can you really be sure that it’s your passion and dream? A lot of people are attracted to the ‘lifestyle’, more than the job itself.

    Anyway, would I recommend going to university to learn photography? Probably not. It might work for some people who need that formal style education, but I think there’s better ways to learn.

    You can learn the basic elements of photography in a matter of weeks… becoming skilled only comes with spending hundreds of hours out there shooting and learning.

    I would recommend taking some classes to learn the basics, finding a GOOD mentor to help you out (so if you wanted to work as a travel photographer, find someone who has traveled the world doing that.. not a baby photographer who’s never left the country). Offer to some photographers to assist them for free.. you’ll learn a hell of a lot by watching someone at work.

    Read books about business, learn how to operate a small business, how to do marketing, how to do accounts… and so on.

  • http://howtobecomearockstarphotographer.com/ Matthias Hombauer

    great article and I agree. Photographers tend to underestimate the business side and therefore get stucked in the “It´s better I undervalue my work, but at least I get some jobs” mentality. I don´t have any photography degree and started with 28. After finishing my Ph.D. in molecular biology I decided to follow my passion to become a pro music photographer. I work now with artists like Iggy Pop and The Prodigy and shot shows of The Rolling Stones, Nine Inch Nails, Iron Maiden and so on. I would say finding your passion in photography and work really hard on it is the best way to get successful. Sure, a photographic degree might open some doors, but in general I think that especially in our time where you can get tons of free informations about this topic there is no need tu study it.

  • Nancy Fontes

    Thank you so much. And I know it takes ALOT of work to become a photographer, and it comes with a lot of stress and hard work. But I refuse to give up that dream and passion of mine. I know what traveling photographers have to go through in order to get a perfect of nature. From what I’ve read and heard from skilled photographers. But yes thank you for the help! This helped out a lot!