Photography School: Useful or Wasteful?

I’ve had a few conversations recently on whether or not it is useful to go to school for any art, photography included. So I think it’s high time that I weigh in on the matter. I’m going to be talking about photography, but most of my statements hold true to nearly any genre of art, so just go ahead and replace the words with your own profession when it makes sense.

Of course I will not change everyone’s opinion here, and that’s not my aim. I’m providing my own opinion. I’ve even spoken with someone who agreed with every statement I put out, but still disagreed with my overall opinion. So I know there are people who won’t care and will always disagree.

First off, is it necessary to hold a degree of higher education to become a professional photographer? Absolutely not. There are many professional photographers out there who never even bother with traditional schooling and are perfectly successful.

Is it helpful? Absolutely. My past experience with school has been fantastic, dotted with the occasional professor that was ineffective, but I usually never had those for more than one class.

While you can most certainly learn everything you’d learn in college in the field, do you think it would be structured to allow you to grasp and master the basics? Maybe a nice checklist of skills you’d need to master before you venture off on your own? Not in a long shot. You’d need to either be working for someone dedicated to your learning or maybe even have a good friend in the profession who just wants to help you improve and is happy to do so. Both are decently hard to come by.

One of the big arguments against college is that it teaches you only the basics to get your foot in the industry of your choice and learn from there. One good thing in most schools is that they’ll require an internship. Even once you graduate, you can always start another internship. You don’t even have to go to school for one, just find somebody willing to take you on!

I’ve had multiple internships both inside and outside of school. Internships are supposed to help you develop in exchange for helping out someone in your field who has more experience. Of course these need to be more for your benefit than your employer, or it’s not a legal internship.

Without mentioning names, so we’ll call him/her “Null” for anonymity – I like this person. This internship took place when I hadn’t learned anything in the field and hadn’t even graduated yet. Null had a decent client base and was doing pretty well for him/herself. They were making a living on photography at any rate, which is something to be proud of!

When I arrived, I was looking forward to all the nifty new things I could learn, and working in cool and artsy downtown area was sweet! We hit it off pretty well and got along! They invited me to their next photo shoot, which I attended and was…underwhelmed. It was a bit cheesy and kitschy, but not awful.My first assignment was to edit the images they shot while they watched so they could critique my work or give me style guidelines for what they were after.

I started my work, duplicated the background layer, used the next layer to heal out any big imperfections that I saw, duplicated that and worked more (I use a lot of layers). They didn’t point anything out other than asking if I could desaturate the final image so there’s only a touch of color left, which was my last edit, since I like to use the Hue/Saturation layer for that effect. During my process, they ended up asking me quite a lot of questions. Why I did some things, how I did others, and by the end of that editing session, I hadn’t learned anything and Null picked up a few new tricks. That was pretty much the pattern of the entire internship. It wasn’t a bad experience for me, and I did learn one little trick for portrait photography, but I didn’t come out of it with any new skills, tips, tricks, or techniques to make use of except one. One. For months of work. I learned that it’s a good idea to burn the edges of the iris to make it pop more.

Null quite clearly had a firm grasp of the basics of photography. A little more even. Their lighting design was decent, photos decently framed, and just overall decent work.

Now thinking logically, here are the facts:

-The person I interned for had the basics of photography, or even a little more.

-I had no field experience and learned everything from college.

-I learned one, small, relatively insignificant trick.

-My employer learned quite a variety of new techniques and some industry standards from me.

What does that boil down to? Clearly, I learned more than the basics from college. More than a professional making a living from the field. That’s the only logical way to put those facts. Even since college, there have been relatively no new techniques to try. Not for lack of trying, but most things in photography come down to using what you know in different ways to achieve the look you’re going for. Things like aperture, ISO, and shutter speed do not change. Knowing when to use what effect, filter, or process is a feeling developed through work. School can provide a safe environment to learn, rather than being thrown out and learning on your feet.

So can you learn on your own? Yes! Is school necessary? No! Does it help? Hell yes it does. Do you learn more than the basics? That depends on a few things:

-How well your college and professors teach.

-What your college and professors teach.

-How well you are able to retain and apply what you’ve been taught.

Your ability to retain information in one of the most important skills in your life regardless of occupation. You could go to the most well rounded and highly regarded schools in the world and you won’t keep a job if you can’t retain what you’ve been taught.

If you have competent professors, like I did, that really make it their responsibility to make sure you learn what you need to excel in your field, school is very useful!

If you have the opposite, well, then it’s pretty useless. Typically though, incompetent professors don’t last long and you can see the results in that majors post-graduation employment rate.

Do I suggest school? Yes I do! I had a fantastic time learning and trying new things out with a group of like-minded individuals that I could bounce ideas off of. You don’t come across something like that too often outside academia.

Will school always work? Not if you aren’t think kind of person to learn that way. Literally every school will be different because literally every professor is different! These are the people that will shape your education. If the school doesn’t have the proper facilities for you to learn, it will also be less effective.

Do I think that it should be a major contributing factor for employment? Not in the creative industry. There are a lot of self-made people out there who didn’t go to school, but still produce industry standard work or above.

Useful or Wasteful? In my opinion, school is USEFUL! It shouldn’t be taken for granted. For employers, sure, this is a great thing to see on a resume! It means the person can stick to one thing for a long time! But balance it out with their portfolio.

With the creative fields, it is the portfolio that MUST the final say – regardless of educational background. Let education be a factor and only that. Weigh the portfolio heavier.


One thought on “Photography School: Useful or Wasteful?

  1. I agree with this. Art isn’t something can be taught, but definitely guided and it’s always nice to go to school get that guidance, and even then you’ll be able to guide yourself to higher places later too.


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