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News & Insight

Should I Get A Degree In Photography? | Ted Forbes

By Kishore Sawh on May 17th 2015

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It’s the latter half of May, and what that signals for a tremendous number of people is graduation season. Who couldn’t love graduation season? From lower to middle, middle to high, high to university, and then life. They should all be celebrated as receiving a degree of any kind, particularly a higher education degree is typically not a small feat; there are years of sweat and growth, and lots of money spent to attain it. It’s a point of progression that we as humans can actually measure.

This single point, however, is one of the reasons many seek out a degree. People like to measure things, but it can be difficult to measure progress, productivity, and success. So we gravitate to the generalized standards which are boxes to check off that help us realize we’ve done something. But does success have to be measured this way? No, and that’s becoming clearer and clearer in today’s world where students are realizing that many of them are being funneled into 4-year-long or more degrees, at a high cost, to get jobs that don’t exactly exist anymore – and may not be worth the opportunity cost and forgone earnings that often accompany a university degree.

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This, in particular, applies to photographers, in my humble opinion, and that of Ted Forbes. Certainly getting a photography degree, while an achievement, is by no means a guarantee of any kind of success in the field. So just how important is it to get a university degree in photography for a photographer? That’s hard to judge, but many successful photographers today are complete autodidacts.

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[REWIND: Should You Work For Free? | Ted Forbes Addresses This Controversial Issue]

In this 6-minute video, Ted Forbes addresses some of these points, stressing just how large of a decision going for and attaining a university education is. He points out some of the good and the bad, but I think if you read between the lines, what you’ll appreciate here is that it’s not necessary, and the people out there who are dominating in the field aren’t photography degree-toting individuals. It’s a creative endeavor, and I think, in our field, you’d probably be better off getting a degree in marketing and then seeking out apprenticeships and assistant positions with working pros. But what do I know, I didn’t go to the Yale School Of Fine Art…

Find more from Ted Forbes on his site.

About

Kishore is, among other things, the Editor-In-Chief at SLR Lounge. A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Joseph Prusa

    If I was starting out in photography I would get a degree in photography. Sometimes being a good photographer is not enough.
    How many people do you know that were passed up for promotion even though they were qualified , because they didn’t have a piece of paper .
    If you are in business for yourself a little accounting ,marketing is a great help also.

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  2. Justin Eid

    I’m currently in the process of changing careers and this article is exactly what I’ve been wondering for a while.
    Most of the professional photographers I’ve worked with say its not important to get a degree in photography. A couple have said to just get it so you can display to show your professionalism…….

    I could get the certifications but will my portfolio be good enough to prove what i can do…makes my certification useless.

    I’ve been working with a wedding photographer for months now and I’m getting a lot of experience, each week my portfolio is looking better and to the customers we’ve dealt with, It’s all that matters.

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  3. Jon Penton

    My answer to this, considering the direction I want to take my photography business and considering my circumstances (part-time Barista at Starbucks, which offers to pay for your Bachelor’s degree if you choose to earn it at Arizona State), is earning a degree in business management. If you are teachable, seek out the abundant available resources (online, workshops, experienced photographers), practice, and always push your boundaries, you can learn the technicalities of photography for free. What’s left (for me, at least) is: having a creative eye (usually comes naturally, is innate, and developed/matured through experience) and being able to manage your business (which is my greatest weakness yet).

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  4. Pentafoto Tm

    The romanian secretary of development offered a 25.000 dollar photography assignment for the documentation of some state projects. The requirements are that a photographer must have a specialised degree.

    While I am a self-taught photographer myself and I don’t see myself into art school anytime soon, I can say that I have a friend that went thru art school and his imagery is much more profound, more artistic.

    Nowadays, you have new photographers every minute, the market is clogged, prices are going down and clients are expecting photographers to work for peanuts. Going thru a 3-4 year degree whilst another photographer works and makes contacts might be suicide.

    But at the end of the degree you will not be a photographer, a service provider, you will be an artist. And you might discover you are into drawing, or video, or painting. Your horizon will expand dramatically, you will learn art the proper way, lighting, posing, proportions, color. On top of that, without a degree, you might not be able to benefit from various jobs offered by public or private institutions.

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  5. Fandy M Saputra

    hello, im from indonesia, I actually have a degree for photography. I studied art with a photography as my major.
    Sometimes I like to feel regret and sometimes grateful for taking a degree in photography.

    I feel regret perhaps because , when we enter the world of professional photography we will find that all photography education we get from college mostly useless . except photographic triangle lol ..

    but I am grateful , studied photography , will make us able to preserve the foundation of art , especially photography . and we can also teach if all else fails lol …

    I went to college about 17 years ago . right in the transitional period , when the film photography slowly replaced by digital photography. dark room into “bright rooms”…

    one thing is for sure , no one can give you sense of art . You will not be able to get it at regular school anyway.

    ps:sorry in advance for my bad english…

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  6. Greg Townsend

    I was very lucky in that I learnt my trade working for a large UK publishing house. Professional cameras, lenses and film was something I signed out of the store, knowledge was something I sponged up from the senior photographers and film developing was something the darkroom guys did for me. So I was very lucky to get my photography education for free.

    I may be a good, bad or indifferent photographer but I am certainly not a particularly gifted business person. So while I think a photography degree might be fun to do I should probably take a business course instead…… which frankly does not sound at all like fun. :-)

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  7. Bethany Blake

    As a photography major in her junior year of college, I’d say that I wouldn’t regret applying to school for photography. It’s the best decision of my life and I have no regrets. They teach us in school how to handle business, marketing, etc. Not to mention you can always pair up with a graphic design student and exchange services.
    I’d say go to school, because you will find things out that you didn’t know before along with a community of other students who share the same desire. You’re degree is job security. However, if school isn’t for you then expect to live on YouTube for Lightroom and Photoshop tutorials and invest on the occasional workshop.

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    • Thomas Horton

      “You’re degree is job security”

      I am not sure I understand or agree with this. Just having a degree with no artistic or business ability is not a way to guarantee employment.

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    • Bethany Blake

      Sorry, I meant , ‘Your degree is job security.” In my curriculum, it’s required for the students to take a multitude of business classes. Also, since I go to an art school, well, you get the idea, Thomas.

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  8. Michael LaNasa

    I feel like this topic can become very personal for some (or many really), given those who have degrees in photography or their current field and benefitted from that education. No one wants to discredit their own choices or financial decisions; neither be made to feel they were wrong about certain choices.

    I have always said to colleagues, technical skills can be taught, learned, read… but having “an eye” for something creative, being able think conceptually and put it into practice, is much more difficult.

    I have a degree in graphic design. I know that field is one that can be taken into various sub-fields and careers, so it’s hard to breeze over it’s application. That said, I’ve used so much of my education in design to shape the kind of photography I create along with the way I handle the creative process. I wouldn’t trade that mixture of background and experience for anything. (Full disclosure: I worked in ad agencies as a designer for 6 years prior to switching disciplines.) When people ask if I went to school for photography, they often seem surprised that I did not — and sometimes it seems as if they look at me differently (not always in a positive light) when they hear the answer.

    I think one of the values of any [creative] degree (aside from the networking and other less-measurable aspects) is how a person learns to think in different ways, not just the skills they acquire. Learning to think, plan, work and speak based on a creative concept you have or are given to work with is such a huge undertaking and I believe it is strengthened in the college environment; be it studying in a fine art school focusing on photography, or any other creative field. However, that is just my opinion on one detail, based on my own experience.

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  9. Thomas Horton

    There are some aspects of photography that can be academically taught. There is also the business/legal side of being a professional photographer that can be taught in college.

    I am not sure that “art” can be taught. Artistic techniques can be taught, but the ability to bring these techniques together to produce art (how ever that is defined) is a bit difficult.

    I have taken a bunch of painting and drawing classes. I understand the techniques and can even do some of them correctly. But my drawings suck. Despite the education I have received, I am not a paint/drawing artist.

    So yes, I do feel that a college degree that covers the technical and legal aspects of photography would be valuable. But a person with a degree in photography may still not be a good photographer.

    If you are considering hiring a photographer (or any other artist) you have to review their past work to see if it is appropriate for you. If the work is not appropriate to you, it does not matter how many degrees the artist has……but then if the work is appropriate to you, how important is a lack of a degree?

    Trying to establish a linkage between academic education and artistic capability is difficult.

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  10. Paul Empson

    Educational establishments the world over are businesses… they are in the businesses of selling you an education whether you need it or not and regardless if the industry has roles or positions available to accommodate the numbers of graduates they churn out each year…

    When you’re young, 4 years building networks and bonds with what may be influential long term alliances.. whilst having a great time socialising… may be a good / decent enough idea… and could possibly serve you well in the future..

    I believe the internet is a very cost effective way of building your photography knowledge though as others have mentioned… business acumen may require further study..

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  11. William Irwin

    As someone who graduated from a top school in Photography, I have to agree that it is better to get your degree in marketing or business administration. If you need the “education” you can join PPA or some like minded organization which provides certification and training if you feel you need it. Most of your skills are honed by daily practice and reading up on what others are doing. If I could go back and change things with what I know now, I would do so with a different outcome.

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    • Steven Mole

      Even a marketing degree won’t help too much with actual marketing. It’s a fair dirtier, more cynical game than your lecturers will ever let you know. I learned more about marketing in the first six months working in it than I learned in three years of my degree. I’ve not once used a Boston Matrix or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in real life either… money well spent on that degree…

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  12. Greg Silver

    I’d agree. There are a multitude of resources and websites (such as SLR lounge) to help those interested in learning photography or becoming inspired by other photographers.

    Although it does take disciple to become self taught, I believe it’s much more rewarding. One can learn the basics of lighting, composition, photo editing, camera controls…but i believe there’s no end in learning photography and it’s best learned outside the classroom.

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  13. Tom Johnson

    I think it makes more sense today to get a business related degree. I really dont see the long term value in a Photography degree. Especially with the abundance of information that is readily available via instructional media, web articles, and chat forums.

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  14. Rob Harris

    As someone who has a business degree and is now entering the photography field as a second career, I would advise against spending money on a 4 year degree for any photographer. The college system today is not setup to economically train an artist of canvas or photography. There are enough online resources which cost much less and provide as much information and value for those who are motivated. And since only the motivated will succeed anyway, why waste a bunch of money on something that is not required.

    The education which would be most helpful – via books, seminars, and online training – includes marketing, computers (basic web, learning different software, understanding how computers work), photography as well as some traditional art studies to better learn color and composition. Most of this data is online for free or available for reasonable prices from places like this website and others. Of course, college trains us in more than just our field of study. And curious minds should seek out that information on their own in order to better prepare them for life.

    Spending a year or two as an apprentice to a well-established photographer would be much more valuable than spending time in school.

    Any younger photographers thinking about a career in photography should analyze their choices and potentially adjust their plans accordingly. It may save you lots of money and help you learn what you need to succeed.

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    • Thomas Horton

      “Spending a year or two as an apprentice to a well-established photographer would be much more valuable than spending time in school.”

      I think that is the key. That is awesome advice… as long as one chooses wisely.

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  15. Kim Farrelly

    When I get asked what I do, (sometimes in the middle of a shoot!!) and the photographer word is mentioned the next question is, more often then not, ‘where did you get your degree’. The person in the street believes you need to have a piece of paper with you name and a recognised college’s name at the top to be a photographer these days. Or so it feels sometimes.

    Good honest answer from Ted.

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    • Steven Mole

      As someone who had to work my butt off for three years, whilst juggling four jobs to feed and clothe myself and keep a roof over my head, just to get a piece of paper that says I’m clever, I totally relate to this. Full disclosure: I’ve long since lost said piece of paper and in not one job interview have I been asked what grade I achieved, or to see proof of having even achieved one. My degree is not in photography, art or any related discipline either.

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    • Kim Farrelly

      As a photographer surly we have plenty of pieces of paper to show just how learned we are in the art. I mean, even some clients want to hang them on their walls.

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  16. Brandon Dewey

    Great answer.

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