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Should You Get A Degree In Photography? | The Case For A Formal Photography Education From A Recent Grad

By Holly Roa on September 23rd 2016

There is a debate in the photo community about whether or not it’s worth the time, money, and energy it takes to earn a degree in photography. As someone who has recently matriculated through a two-year program for commercial photography, here’s my take; with the caveat that much of the experience will be based on the individual program and not all are created equal.

For two years I studied commercial photography at Seattle Central College – where Macklemore studied music and, as a notable feature in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, it earned a brief mention in Sir Mix A Lot’s “Posse On Broadway”. Photographers and graphic designers got their own little section on the fifth and top floor, which was also our own division of the school called Seattle Central Creative Academy (SCCA). With our sweeping views of downtown Seattle, the Space Needle and Mount Rainier, we were visually spoiled.


Here are ten ways that from a formal photography education can benefit:


Probably the most valuable thing I received with my college education was the access it gave me to my area’s industry network. Being in a smaller city, many local working photographers have some kind of connection to the Creative Academy. Also, the way it was structured meant each small class is together every day and can become very close, forming relationships that will likely help all of us in our careers. As they say, “It’s who you know”. Additionally, we were introduced to people at our local camera store and reps from companies like Nikon, Canon, and Profoto. As a class we visited local studios operated by Amazon, Zulily, Nordstrom and REI, and some of my classmates/colleagues are already working in these studios thanks to connections they made during school.

Hands-on education

Both Canon and Profoto supported the program and lent gear for students to use. Profoto outfitted our studio with strobes and modifiers and Canon supplied L-Series lenses among other things to our equipment checkout room. There was plenty of other useful gear too: a couple Ronins, video sliders, and audio recording equipment, to name a few. A personal favorite was the Phase One digital medium format camera with Schneider glass.

Assignments were almost always hands-on–usually to create photographs or video with specific criteria–and with professional equipment beyond the means of most students. This gives graduates an advantage in the world after school over people who haven’t had a chance to work with the types of equipment found in professional studios.



The fast pace and hard deadlines help prepare you for the industry; having a tight schedule to work within also helps to skip the overthinking part of some people’s creative process and forces you to take make a choice and take action.


In line with deadlines, knowing you need to have an assignment done within a week means that you can’t put off doing something that’s out of your comfort zone. If you have an assignment to photograph a stranger on the street, work with a modeling agency, or photograph an executive on location and that happens to make you nervous, too bad. Do it or fail. Being compelled to do things you don’t feel ready for while being held accountable for getting it done on time is fantastic for personal growth.

Body of work

Keeping busy as we are within the syllabus will inevitably result in a student graduating with a body of work ready to show potential clients and employers. The fact that this work is created with the knowledge that it will be critiqued and graded ensures it will be high quality, and the value of a solid portfolio cannot go overrated.


Exploration of self and style

Photography school is a wonderful place to try your hand at many types of photography including some you may have never tried if left to your own devices. Maybe you thought you wanted to be a food photographer but realized after some experimentation that you have a passion for fashion photography. The experiences are curated so you can actually get an idea of what each genre is like, allowing you to test the waters and then channel into your focal area. Also, in building that aforementioned body of work, your personal style will become evident to you as you keep creating.

Assisting experience

In school we were sometimes assigned to assist each other, and this exposes a student to other styles and ways of doing things, preparing one to better understand assisting, and therefore better be able to assist photographers professionally. Plus, when someone is assigned to assist YOU, it gives perspective on what a photographer wants, needs, and does not want from an assistant on a shoot which will help you do better for other photographers.



In most programs, an internship is required for graduation. This gives real-world working experience and can land you a job, as helps to build your network.

Business classes

One of the facets of being a professional photographer is being entrepreneurial; You’ll need some business skills if you’d rather work for yourself than as an employee. I’ve heard a gripe about some photography programs lacking this feature and would recommend that if you do make the choice to go to school for photography, look for business classes in the curriculum. This is probably more of an issue with fine arts programs than commercial.


While you don’t need a degree at all to become a successful photographer, depending on who you’d like to work for (if not yourself), having one can help you be seen as a serious contender for a job and give an idea of what your skills may be.

*Editor’s Note: You can read here how professional fashion photographer Nigel Barker explains to me how he feels about the role of a formal education within the modern photography realm. Nigel fully admits that it plays a role in hiring assistants because to some extent you understand the programs they’ve been through, and thus the minimum knowledge-base with which they come with.

[REWIND: Why Film Photography is Valuable Today, To The Pro & Amateur Alike]

Sadly, in these changing times for professional photography, it’s getting harder to find a good school to attend. My program, which was affordable and comprehensive, has not taken any new enrollment this year so that it can be restructured and is reportedly being incorporated into the greater Creative Academy, blending it with the graphic design program. The venerable Brooks Institute, which some SCCA faculty attended, has recently closed its doors after many years of being an esteemed source of photographic education. Still, if you can find a good technical program, I think it can be a worthy investment in yourself and your future. Just make sure to shop around.

photography-degree-education-business-5About The Author: Holly Roa is the sole proprietor of HJR Photos. With an education and love of photography, Holly love’s “the thrill of capturing the perfect moment as it appears in front of my lens. I love the feeling I get when I go through the photos from a shoot and see the “ones.” The keepers. The ones that speak. I am very grateful to be able to spend my time and energy creating and capturing moments for my livelihood. If you’d like to work together, please don’t hesitate to contact me for a consultation.

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Seattle based photographer with a side of videography, specializing in work involving animals, but basically a Jill of all trades.
Instagram: @HJRphotos

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Stephen Jennings

    I think, in this digital age, if you wanted a degree and formal education, a degree in graphic design is a better choice. It’s also more versatile, a BS in design can land you a position in a broad spectrum of fields from web development to marketing, and yup, photography too. A degree in photography is .. a degree in photography. Putting portfolios side by side you wouldn’t be able to tell the college grad from the middle school dropout. Same could be said for graphic designers. I think my point is.. art degrees are quite often useless – I know mine was. Oh the gear I could buy if I had that tuition money back… :D

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    • F Name

      Some people get more out of formal education than others– a few middle school dropouts probably improved their portfolios after a couple years of guided study.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that your experience, Stephen, isn’t an isolated one. But then again, degrees for many people are ultimately useless as they don’t pursue careers in fields they studied. To say you won’t be able to see the difference between a grad and a middle school drop out is assuming a lot, in that the drop-out would be rather developed.

      I think for a photography degree, like most anything else, its usefulness is dependent on the student and their foresight. I have pegged well known photographers about this numerous time as Holly alluded to in the post. If you know you’re gunning to go into, say, fashion, you’ll know you’re likely going to have to pay your dues an assist, if for nothing other than you experience what a large scale set is like and understand how to operate in that environment. The right school could mimic that, or at least give the kind of heads up you can’t get otherwise.

      Like Nigel told me, his assistants and those of other prominent photographers have all got degrees, not because they’re not the only ones who can do the job, but it’s a matter of predictability. They know someone coming out of certain programs will have a working knowledge in certain things, and that cuts down on time and costs associated with training. It gives a baseline, and frankly, that’s pretty much what most bachelor degrees are good for.

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    • Stephen Jennings

      No doubt, I don’t disagree. Honestly, the way I see it is less about the actual material or importance of the material than how colleges are run these days. Is it necessary, or even advisable, to attend an expensive trade school (for profit private alternative universities) to study photography? Probably not. Community college or state school? You’ll probably see a higher return on your investment of time and effort. The greatest value I can see in formal education is yes, the technical experience, but also the time devoted to discovering your style and ability or experience reflecting artistically on your choices. It’s not for everyone, and I just hate – especially with the Arts – the notion that you ‘need’ or ‘should’ have a degree. For some it would be highly beneficial, for others not so much.

      I actually got into photography by accident while at college studying graphic design. I bought a DSLR to create my own assets to use on projects so that they were a little higher quality and all my own, as opposed to buying stock or crediting sources. And for sure I benefit greatly for my knowledge of web design and editing skills I learned.. but for the value I spent on school I still couldn’t suggest it as a necessity for the average student; at least not without diligent research and understanding the commitment and reality of your expectations.

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