The Arcanum: An Online ‘Hogwarts’ Where You Can Learn One-on-One from the Pros

In the past, before resumes, interviews and portfolios, there was the master/apprentice relationship. If you wanted to learn a trade, craft or skill, you sought out a master of that skill and humbly asked for their tutelage.

That system has all but disappeared where most professions are concerned, but photographer Trey Ratcliff wants to bring it back into the world of the arts, and he’s doing it through a newly-formed online “Magical Academy for the Mastery of the Arts” that he’s calling “The Arcanum.”

You can get a brief intro to what The Arcanum is all about by watching the video at the top and, if you’re like us, you’ll get pretty excited at the potential here. The benefits of mentoring are nothing new, and yet, in the digital, the desire to learn a new skill or improve on an existing one usually leads us to online tutorials that can’t possibly be tailored to your individual artistic path.


The Arcanum blends the old and the new by using the miracle of modern technology to connect Masters with multiple eager Apprentices online. In this way, beginners are offered one-on-one mentorship as they ‘level up’ until they ultimately prove themselves worthy of taking on their own “Mastery Cohort” of apprentices.

As the website puts it:

Imagine a type of Hogwarts, online in Augmented Reality, where you always have a connection to your Master and your fellow Apprentices. Get your head around that, and you’ll see where this is going…

Whether you’re a beginner who is excited at the prospect of being hand-picked by one of The Arcanum’s masters to grow your skills under their watchful eye, or a professional who would like to join the likes of Thomas Hawk, Gordon Laing, Karen Hutton, Jeremy Cowart, Frederick Van Johnson and many more as a Master in the program, The Arcanum is definitely worth checking out.

To learn more, get your name on the waiting list to become an apprentice or apply to be one of the Masters, head over to The Arcanum website by clicking here. There’s no cost to get on the wait list for an invitation from a Master, but once you’re selected, tuition (special introductory price) will run you $30 per month.

  • MS

    I can’t imagine seeing a level 27 digital warlock setting up his tripod! Wow!

  • Red

    Trey has done some interesting stuff in his “photography” career, but this one might take the cake…

  • cchdisqus

    I like the idea of this, but why exactly does it need to relate back to Wizardry?

  • Dr. David Orman

    Amazing!!! Where do I sign up??

  • treyratcliff

    Hey thanks! :) Well we are very excited about this and pouring a lot of energy into the effort!

  • treyratcliff

    Because it is kind of fun… and we are not taking ourselves too seriously. Also, who doesn’t like Hogwarts and wish they had gone there??! :)

  • beautox

    Gordon Laing ? So you can get an apprenticeship on how to review cameras? Or is Gordon an artist now?

  • treyratcliff

    hehe — no he is teaching more General Photography — talking about all the basics of the camera, Aperture, ISO, lenses, etc etc

  • beautox

    So, how does this square with the spiel “”An Apprentice has been invited into the Arcanum for the sole purpose of personal enrichment through the practice of creative artistry”

    So are you saying that learning Aperture, ISO is “creative artistry”. I don’t think so. This is just another photo school dressed up with hogwarts-style BS. As for not taking yourself seriously, well, I understand that SIC is very serious about making money.

  • Curtis Simmons

    There are tracks (Disciplines) for different interests and levels of skill. Some are joining to learn the basics in the General Photography discipline others are selecting specialty disciplines such as Portraiture or even Hand-drawn art.

  • Michael S

    “… and we are not taking ourselves too seriously. ”

    Maybe not the best thing to say when asking people to respect you as a “master” in your craft…and asking them to give you money to hear what you have to say.

  • Mauricio Schneider

    I guess they relate because this works pretty much the same as the way a master wizard teaches (or used to teach) his aprentice. I really like the idea! I’m checking the website right now :)!

  • Thomas Hawk

    If I were buying a new camera that I was unfamiliar with, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather spend a few hours going over the capabilities with than Gordon. He knows so many models inside and out. He’s great with the strengths and weaknesses of cameras. It’s a different discipline, but an important one.

    He also has pretty nice shots of models. :) More models, Gordon, more models.

  • beautox

    I have no problem with Gordon’s technical skills. However, I was questioning his place as a “master” in an establishment that claims it’s all about “creative artistry”. It’s easy to see how artistry comes into Portraiture or Hand Drawn Art, but Gordon is no artist, unless you distort “art” to mean “the art of getting the exposure right”, which is hardly a creative art, any more than “the art of making money”

  • cchdisqus

    I just feel like they turned it into a game when they brand it with that message, which is fine. But that’s all it then looks like to me, a game, and not to be taken seriously – again, totally fine! :)

    I am surprised, because it’s a great idea, with potential to become a new way of learning at a higher level. I have a hard time seeing people take someone seriously if they try to cite their apprenticeship at a professional capacity when it’s based on foundations where your level of mastery in your craft is named after a fictitious character/trade.

    Apprenticeship (and I’m sure he knows this and its mentioned on the site somewhere), has a long tradition in the artistic profession(s). It’s dying out because people have limitations to physically be present to apprentice a true master in their craft – this bridges that limitation, it’s quite amazing what he’s offering. I think he’s just selling it short by branding it in that way. He reduce’s its perceived value by doing that.

    Not bashing it or anything, just offering my 2 cents. It’s cool as it is, but he’s limiting himself to a specific demographic by doing it that way. I would pay what he’s asking, and actually a lot more, if he branded and offered it in a much more academic, professional way that allows you to cite your experience in the professional and academic area, but in a way that’s connected to the artist/master. There’s a need for that these days, when people in our profession are sometimes skipping universities entirely and self-educating. Imagine if I could say I apprenticed “…”, or studied under “…”, or the school of “…”, there’s a lot of great possibilities here, I’m just sad he’s not exploring them.

    It wouldn’t completely replace the experience of a true apprentice/master relationship – which I’ve experienced first hand, but it’s a great substitute where it’s not available.

    Sorry for the novel, just wanted to clarify my opinion on the matter. :)

  • cchdisqus

    agreed. Its fine if they don’t want to take themselves too seriously, just don’t be surprised when serious masters/apprentices don’t want to partake, for that exact reason. It’s on the verge of novelty. Serious, and talented “masters” probably wouldn’t be into it.

  • Thomas Hawk

    “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”

    Andy Warhol

  • treyratcliff

    Remember that a lot of people that sign up are absolute beginners and don’t know anything about photography or cameras at all. Gordon can help people get a lot better and improve. He’ll be the Master for 20 beginners, and they will love him. You are right that he may not be “Miss Aniela” — but he can really help those 20 people improve, which is the point of the whole Arcanum.

  • treyratcliff

    I said “too” seriously. :)

    But yes, we’re taking it seriously, but having fun with it all. Either people understand this balance between fun and serious art, or they do not.

  • steveg2

    I am curious about the branding. Was permission sought to use the whole Harry Potter theme and how exactly does that work?

  • Curtis Simmons

    Harry Potter is not part of the branding. Using the phrase “a type of Hogwarts” is simply a descriptive term.

  • Steve Johnson

    The phrase occurs multiple times and various names e.g. Dumbledore etc appear throughout the website. The tie in is a very conscious one by a widely acknowledged branding expert, Trey. The whole feel of both the site and the introductory video is Harry Potter. Saying that, my question is not an implied criticism – I really am interested in the whole subject of branding and in learning as much as I can about it.

  • Curtis Simmons

    I understand. Comparison is common in advertising. (See Apple vs PC) I don’t believe we’re implying through our videos, website copy or graphics that it has any relation to HP other than a casual comparison.

  • Steve Johnson

    I think the Apple vs PC comparison is a little off as they are competitors (in a Pepsi/Coke kind of way) but certainly take your point on the nature of the relationship between Arcanum and HP. I am also sure that Trey is savvy enough to have taken legal advice on the whole marketing/promotion angle of the venture.

  • Guest

    I’m sorry Trey it lost the magic when you started charging for your google hangout videos

  • Patrick Ahles

    Can you please point out what google hangout videos Trey charges for?

  • matt jones

    ok 1000 apologies my mistake. I saw the “Landscape Photography Tutorial (NZ) – Part 6: Q&A” and it has the video icon that looks just like the google hangout and the price below so I dropped my bottom lip and thought it’s over, you now have to pay for them. But now it has been pointed out the quad copter is in fact a google hangout and they remain free I am happy. Best of luck with the apprentice program.

  • hgd

    I have really the feel that this is more about the artistry and not art.

  • Banan Tarr

    I completely disagree. If he made it 100% serious and “professional” the perception would immediately be one of a group of elitists who think they are better than everyone else. And I really don’t think it matters what you call it – what matters is the results. By opening the doors and knocking down that barrier of elitism he has ensured greater results. Just IMHO.

  • Tom

    This is hilarious! A level 27.34 Neo Shaman master? How do you gain levels? Do you buy in like Scientology? Are you sure this isn’t a Scientology sign up? This goes to show you that making money in the photography world is getting harder and harder. You guys crack me up.

  • Tony L.

    I think the core idea is great. If they could get Watson, Crewdson, or Duran, then I’d be in! For now it seems like it’s operating like a school; make money by churning out lots of students… but what do I know.

  • cchdisqus

    It’s not a matter of creating elitism, I think anyone should be able to use such a service. However I think something like this would have added value to people if they’d be able to use this experience outside of that network. Could people actually cite the master they apprenticed with directly as a reference if they wanted to get a job somewhere? Or would it be approved by a master to have their apprentice say, I was “tutored,” etc. by “…” I think there needs to be some clarification on just what you’re getting out of it for your career. Not just for fun. If you’re going to use words like “tuition” and ask people for money, you’re basically saying to them you’d like to be thought of as an academic institution. I don’t think it needs to be 100% serious, but I think there should be ways that this can translate into the real world for people paying for the service, otherwise it’s really only relevant and useful to those inside the network. Again, these are just thoughts. I’m not saying that they have to do these things for it to be considered a “good idea.” I think it’s already a great idea. I just think that they’d get even more people on board with it if they opened up the ability to use it at a professional capacity as well.

  • cchdisqus

    And that’s all great! Kudos to you guys – it’s a great idea. Having fun is an important part of the creative process. However, and maybe it’s just me, but I feel if I’m paying for a service that’s calling it’s fee a “tuition,” and partaking in classes, if there’s no way for it to be referenced or cited outside of the network in a professional capacity, why bother? Except for fun, of course! But if that’s the case, why sell it as anything other than a service for entertainment and personal enrichment.

    In all honesty though, I’m actually rooting for you guys. I think a lot of Universities take advantage of students in creative disciplines all the time (especially in areas not connected to a large city). If something like this existed for them, it’d be amazing, it could possibly revolutionize higher education for those that choose a career in the arts. And if that’s not your goal – I sure hope someone connects the dots soon. :)

  • Johnathon Shell

    This reminded me more of “Name of the wind” then Hogwarts.

  • Banan Tarr

    I never implied it was about *actual* elitism. It’s about the perception. And I don’t think the Arcanum is about being able to cite it as a reference on your CV. It’s about improving your craft. Having a better portfolio is a more powerful thing than any single line on a CV will ever be IMHO.

  • MikeD

    From what I have heard there are a few people who swing a heavy hammer protecting their trademarks and IP (for example Hogwarts). The NFL, Harley Davidson, Disney and JK Rowling. Hopefully she is on board with theprogram…

  • MikeD

    Logrolling alert!

  • Gordon Laing

    Hi beautox, we all bring different skills and experience to the project. You may primarily know me for my reviews at cameralabs, but I’ve actually been a photographer for over 30 years, with over a decade of experience with film that predates digital. I don’t yet publish my own photos at cameralabs (although that’s likely to change soon), but I’ve been sharing my images on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter for some time, so check them out and see what you think! I’m fond of technical disciplines, such as astrophotography, but concentrate on travel photography.

    My personal angle is trying to capture the essence of a scene in-camera with minimal or no post processing. This means you have a limited number of tools at your disposal, so it’s important to get the timing and exposure right, but also understand how things like white balance and the use of physical filters can impact the final image. It also helps to understand what your camera is doing under the hood concerning processing as there’s lots you can adjust to make your photos look better. Composition is of course also very important as I try to avoid cropping, stretching or rotating later. Can any of that be described as being creative? Of course it can! I am after all using technical and artistic skills to deliver a creative result, and again I’m doing it all in-camera which greatly appeals to some people.

    Meanwhile my work as a journalist and editor for over 20 years means I can share valuable insights into the publishing world both from the perspectives of a commissioning editor and a contributor. I also believe in today’s world it’s valuable to understand how to make social media and broadcast opportunities work for you. My background includes several years experience presenting on television and radio shows, including a weekly show on London’s biggest talk radio station, a gadget show on SKY and numerous gust appearances on various BBC channels including the World Service. I also run DSLR Tips, where some of my photography tutorial videos have been watched over a million
    times. And finally having reviewed just about every digital camera since they first came out in the mid-Nineties, not to mention countless lenses and accessories, I’m well placed to advise not only on how to make the most of the gear you have, but also on what you need – if anything – to go forward.

    Does any of this make me an artist? Only you can decide. Does it mean I could pass on useful skills and experience? I certainly hope so. The way the Arcanum works is Masters pick Apprentices based on what they want to learn. I obviously won’t be picking anyone who wants to master post processing, but if someone wants to learn how to get the best results in-camera, understand the nuts and bolts of their gear, or see how photography can fit into the bigger picture, then I can help.

  • Neil Howard

    I cannot think of a better “master” than Gordon for someone who has little knowledge of cameras! Geez.. He has a great way of getting points across! Learning has to start somewhere.. I painter would need to understand colour mixing, a photographer needs to understand the way the camera affects the light!

  • Che

    if I get to learn and have Jeremy Cowart as my “master” then i’m all in!

  • wick sakit

    I agree with Trey here. People who work as artist full time understand the seriousness of it but if there is no fun in your art then you might as well have any job.

  • K1

    I love the concept that in the 21st century it’s the apprentice who pays the master to learn. It seems that everything in the world has been turned upside down this century.

  • James Brandon

    Some of the people in here need to get a grip, don’t get your panties in such a wad. Props to Trey for thinking outside the box and coming up with a fun way of learning photography, rather than the usual university approach or going online and watching a seemingly endless amount of videos. The Arcanum is seeking to connect beginner photographers with some very big names in the photo industry, people that I would be giddy to train under. It’s so easy to be negative on the internet, why not try to see the good here instead of instantly bashing it while you sit in your underwear eating cheetoes.

  • wick sakit

    Gordon Laing generally my go to for the guts of a new camera on the market. I would almost say he could be considered a camera surgeon at this point ( you can add that to your job title). :)

  • James Brandon

    You’re not really comparing apple to apples though. A traditional apprentice worked for free. He/she would hold lights, answer emails, work with clients, etc in exchange for learning the tools of the trade. That was their way of “paying” for the knowledge of the master. This is just using a more traditional form of currency. Makes sense to me. I’d rather pay than do any of the stuff I mentioned…

  • beautox

    “Does this make me an artist” – No, of course not. I have no problem with you, Gordon. The problem I have is with this establishment pretending it’s an “artistic” school and then bait-and-switch it’s a basic photography school. Bah.

  • Lee

    I like the idea.

    I just not sure how the rating system goes… did you accumulate points as you joined a class? or passed an exam?

    It sound like borrowing from the ‘belt’ system in martial art — you upgrade to a different belt color as you pass an exam (and pay for it)…. obviously, you can earn money in teaching other how to pass the exam.
    Just not quite sure if one can measure level of mastery in art in similar way?

  • K1

    I’m sure a lot of 18th, 19th and 20th century apprentices spent a large part of their time answering the bosses emails. :-)
    For the last couple of hundred years at least the apprentice has earned a small but livable wage that has increased as their skill level has increased.
    I’m not complaining about this concept of Trey’s I think it’s a gtreat initiative and I applaud him and the others involved I just think it’s funny how our perceptions change over time.

  • treyratcliff

    Gordon, I want you to be my Master, and we don’t even need a safe word.

  • Alex Tardif

    You know, I’ve met Trey on a photo walk in SF few months back and his approach to photography, learning, and sharing ideas is pretty darn great. So, I have faith in the concept even though it’s…well, dorky? Based on how I understand the concept to work, the success will probably depend in large part not on the artistic/technical aspects, but rather on the chemistry between the “apprentice” and the “master”. If you “click” with whomever you’re pared up with, then there’s bound to be value. I’ve signed up, let’s see how it goes… If nothing else, this is intriguing.