A degree in photography: is it over-rated?

I’ve often wondered if I had to do it over if I should have majored in something else other than Photojournalism.

Perhaps I’m wondering more now than before since I left the industry and also because newspapers are going under just about everywhere in the US.

The biggest reason for a formal education for photographers, especially those who want to work in journalism, is this: a society as litigious as ours requires journalists to be aware of libel laws.

The fine art photographer is exempt from anything like that. In fact most can be self-taught. The few photography jobs or positions that require some sort of formal degree are usually teaching positions.

It is after all an art form. There is no doctorate degree in photography, is there? And even if there were, it doesn’t mean the degree holder is a super photographer. It probably means they have a formal education in the arts often are able to express themselves in the lingo of traditional artists who draw and paint.

One of my readers from the Netherlands pointed out to me that their photography schools are very expensive and that it’s often a very close-knit circle and tend to be cliquish.

I’m not surprised. It’s similar here in the US. If you were to attend say Brooks Institute of Photography, whoever is looking at your resume might notice that but once they lay down your work next to your competition, the gloves come off.

The best will be very obvious and you can bet that where someone went to study photography won’t matter as much as how good the work looks.

There is a tendency that photography schools have formulas. It’s inevitable. That’s what a curriculum dictates.
One of the better ideas for photography schools is to require their students to do internships say during the summer.

buffalo-cop

During a summer concert, as an intern at the Buffalo News, NY, I captured this image of a streaker at Buffalo’s Memorial Stadium. It was strange because the streaker was an off-duty Buffalo police officer. Sadly, I think he lost his job.

I can’t say enough of how much you learn by doing actual photography day in and day out.

The college courses, however useful, can’t provide you with what you really need. Experience. If you want to be a photographer, you have to use your camera every single day. It needs to become like what a pen and paper is to a writer.

So the biggest challenge for most of us is finding the inspiration to pick up the camera everyday.

Tips for finding good pictures

  • You should keep  a notebook where you can jot down ideas. If you’re driving around and something catches your eye, take a picture of the street sign with your cellphone. That’s a great way to remind you of where it is and you can come back with your real camera. The best part of the cellphone picture is the time is embedded. If what you saw looked great at a certain time of the day, you now know what time to return for the best picture.
  • Try to emulate picture that excites you, cut it out and study it. No, not copy but improve on it.
  • Use your interests and tell a story about it with pictures. I like meeting people, so I’m naturally drawn to events where there are lots of people having a good time. Even if these turn out to be duds, it’s okay. You’re out and about and you’re using your camera.
  • Read the local newspaper . These are often great sources of ideas. Often newspapers have a community event calendar. I stress local because if you have to travel far, you are less likely to do use your camera.This last piece of advice is a bit dicey since traditional print media are in dire straits themselves. The key is stay abreast of what is going on in your community.

Hopefully this short list can get you thinking. If anyone else has any tips, please share them.

If I think long enough, I can come up with more tips, I’m sure. The key is to not get lazy and say, “oh…it’s been done before countless times.” If every photographer had that attitude we’d never see great photography.

So is a degree necessary? I don’t think it is, unless, you plan on going into journalism. If you are, you probably might consider adding other skills besides just still photography. There’s a lot of very talented still photographers from newspapers who are out of a job.

You should add these skills: videography and multimedia authoring.

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18 thoughts on “A degree in photography: is it over-rated?”

  1. Happy New Year Beth,
    Thanks for taking the time to leave your comment. Again, I can only speak from my personal experience as student. I found the best instructors I had in college were ones who were actual practitioners who were photographers themselves, instead of just “academicians.”

    They tended to be tougher by having higher standards. Because they didn’t have to rely on student’s positive evaluations, they didn’t have to coddle them. They also made “real world” assignments instead of something outdated out of a textbook.

    Sure, as you say, some of these instructor’s work were not as good as students. But you have to remember they’re there to share their knowledge, teach techniques and fundamentals, not find clients or impress students.

  2. Art school didn’t teach me anything other than academics with inflated egos can never be wrong. they hide behind text books and dont really take any chances…. the bottom line is that the tutors work was often worse than the students.

  3. Jack,
    I have a a tendency to ignore my syllabus at times. My thinking: as long as I cover everything in there, I should be able to decide what else I want to share with my students.

    Perhaps that is all you can do. I guess you could use the business plan as a extra credit assignment.

    It sounds like you have way more experience in teaching than I do. I only teach at a junior college as they say. But I do favor real world assignments over the stuff from textbooks.

  4. A degree in photography: is it over-rated?

    Hi There,

    I’m a photographer working in London, UK. I studied Art and Art History at School before going on to complete a Bachelor of Arts degree in Photography at Nottingham University in 1997. After which I moved straight to London to pursue my career within the photographic industry.

    Did the degree open any doors? Honest answer…. no not really! Obviously it looks great on the CV (Resume ) and shows a perspective employer that you studied the medium but does that automatically mean that makes you a better photographer…. NO absolutely not.

    My first 2 months in London were spent showing my University Portfolio around various magazines to try and get some work but the magazines kept saying the same thing. Nice work but your not experienced enough within the industry. The ultimate Catch 22. How the hell do you get experience if you’ve been studying photography at University. Yeah some Uni’s do work placements whilst studying but that’s not the same as properly cutting your teeth in the fast paced world of photography ( particularly fashion )

    So I followed some advice that was given to me by an agent I went to see. The best way to get experience in London was to work for a photographic studio so i spent 3 months writing letters and basically pestering all the London studios for work and eventually a studio hired me.

    Do you know what my first job was at the studios? I had to clean the toilets!!!

    I have a degree! Yes they said but this is reality and you need to work!

    I worked for the studio for 4 years, starting out as a runner ( dogs body basically ) then got promoted to studio assistant where I painted studios and sets, set up lights and packed down all the equipment. Then I got promoted to Photographers assistant and was lucky enough to work with some of the biggest fashion photographers in the world , Nick Knight, Mario Testino, Juergen Teller and Albert Watson to name a few.

    I created these opportunities with nothing but hard work, long hours and absolute dedication to progressing within the industry and gaining as much experience as possible. I learnt more within the 1st 8 months at the studio than in my entire time at University!

    I wouldn’t change anything though,I met some of my best friends at University and I had the best time! Life experience is as crucial as work experience after all and that’s what University was for me.

    Thanks

    Ben

    1. Ben,
      I was playing devils’ advocate when I wrote if I should have majored in something else besides Photojournalism.

      I have no regrets to that decision. I only wish I knew then what I know now. That I needed to take some business and marketing classes if nothing else, for self-reliance and survival.

      Who would have thought print and newspapers in general would be in the current quagmire?

      As many here have said, it’s not the grade, or the degree, or that piece of paper you get when you complete the courses, that determine whether you get a job as a photographer.

      I never got “A”s for all my photo classes and that was fine with me. I was always more determined to get an image which I could add to my portfolio which I can be proud of. That’s worth more than an “A” any instructor can give me.

      I stress this in my classes and hopefully my student’s get that.

      Sadly some of my buddies in college who majored in photography, even though they graduated, never got a job in the industry.

      Thank you Ben for sharing your wisdom. You have a wonderful body of work and it’s awfully nice of you to stop in and comment!

  5. Pete:
    I agree. I am thrilled to know you’re out there. There are many like-minded folks out there, too. I have had the same conversation with fellow educators and education critics.
    The question is: what do we do about it?
    jack

  6. Jack,
    It sounds like you are doing exactly what I wish more teachers in J-school should be doing. Far too many get comfortable and don’t want to rock the boat.

    What kind of teacher continues down the same old path without a conscience when they can clearly see that what is happening in today’s journalism?

    I find it hard to encourage my photography students in the direction of journalism especially in the traditional sense.

    Instead I tell them that they can be story-tellers but they have to realize that since staff positions are fewer these days, they’ll have to be freelancers.

    As freelancers, they have to educate themselves on how to charge enough to pay for their own medical insurance, cost of replacing gear and other expenses. They also need to know the consequences of signing work-for-hire documents.

    I never learned these details until I was out on my own.

    I’m pleased to have found a kindred spirit in you in this regard. Hopefully we can make a difference in our little ways.

  7. Pete:
    I TOTALLY agree with you. I can’t speak for everyone, but in my situation, and with many others, the problem is accreditation specifically and higher education overall.

    Accreditation is important. It is the only oversight to ensure you are producing a good product. And it is a tool we can use to get facilities, staff, etc. We can say: “fund this lab or we will lose our accreditation.”

    The major journalism accreditation agency, the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communication views journalism education as a liberal art like English or history. As such, they wnt us to teach theory and understanding the universe. AEJMC rules effectively rule out a business minor and they discourage business courses lest we become “trade schools.”

    I have tried to fight this and strike a realistic balance. But I am one voice in a small program. I am not some big academic who-ha. A lot of people agree with me, but we have little influence in AEJMC.

    Too many people, once they get those three letters after their names become pedantic theory drones who care more for expositions on the social cnstruction of somali transsxuals in 19th century men’s magazines than with visual literacy and the nuts and bolts of the real world.

    You can only advance by becoming one of “them.” I strike a balance between the academic world and the real world. I have autonomy in what I do in arkansas, but I don’t use enough of the buzzwords to become influential within the academy. so I am a critic and a gadfly, not by choice, but by circumstance.

    OK..I will stop ranting.

    Welcome to academe.

    jack

    ps..I make my students do a business plan for a startup as a final project in my news design class…THAT is a major rebellion in higher ed these days.

  8. I’d like to thank Pete for starting this.

    Everyone has made good points.

    I tried to start a blog for journalism educators at http://www.viscommed.ning.com and and I have a Facebook page for visual communications educators. I would love to hear from anyone with an interest in this topic.

    ANYWAY, as you can guess I am a photojournalism educator. But my own degrees are in political science and public administration. I learned my journalism and photography on the job as a newspaper writer, photographer and editor.

    You are all right about portfolios and clips. No employer or ever asked me what my degree was in. They wanted to see my work.

    So you don’t NEED a photography or photojournalism degree,

    But it helps because you can talk about issues, hone your skills and compare your work to others. Ultimately you need to do it yourself, but we can provide a start.

    I would like to stress the value of the photoJOURNALISM side. Taking pictures is a skill, and one that requires talent and work. But that’s not what a college degree is about. A college degree puts skills in context. In photojouralism, we prepare you by talking about ethics. We prepare you to tell truths, and good truth telling and story telling makes great wedding photos and studio art.

    We prepare you by making you work with editors and preparing photos for presentation in print or on-line. We provide structure.

    Of course each program has its strengths and weaknesses. But most of us try very hard to get you where you’re going, whether it’s in publications, in the studio or on-line.

    With a decent photojournalism background, you get some skills, but you get a better picture of what to do with them. Otherwise you;re going it alone.

    jack zibluk, PhD
    photojournalism, arkansas state university
    jzibluk@astate.edu

    1. Jack,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I have a feeling unless some change comes to the newspaper industry soon, photojournalism–the still imagery kind– will be irrelevant.

      Jack, one thing I find lacking in college photography programs or curriculum is classes which teach you how to run a small business, how to self-promote and what your rights are as a visual artist.

      Now that I’m an educator, I make sure my students get a good grasp of what their rights are as an artist.

      Let’s face it. The number of staff positions are fewer and fewer these days. You should revise your curriculum to teach your students how to run a photo business whether it is as freelance sports shooter or a wedding photographer.

      Too many photojournalism program neglect this very important aspect.

  9. Hey Pete,

    No problem. Thank you for reading and replying!

    A rather unusual name around these parts as well. My mom was born in Indonesia, hence the choice. Indeed most commonly males with that name.

    Tuition is extremely subsidized in Belgium. Part of the reason the country is pretty broke. What I heard from my teachers they are being paid well, but healthy for a country it isn’t. It’s good to see they stimulate tuition like that but I would be willing the pay more so to say.

    That is definitely a striving for all I assume. It’s the beauty of photography along with the chemical side.

    Thank you for your positive comment on my work! I do my best but there still is sooo much to learn. All these “old” techniques and processes are so interesting I’m glad I still have a lifetime to explore it all 🙂

  10. Here in Belgium, there are at least 4 levels on which photograpy can be studied, paid for by our governement and thus dirt cheap like between 150 & 500 euro / year:
    1) secundary art school (graduating at 18) gives all you need to be a professional photographer. It’s the last 2-3 years and you study 30 hours/week, a normal workload for secondary school.
    2) professional bachelor is a 3-year higher education with only a very limited number of contact hours, a very limited number of general education (e.g. history, accounting, technology) but mainly photoshop & indesign. Basically a waste of time, it should be called master in PS or so. Little added value over secondary school.
    3) master of arts in photography: a 4 years higher education. Mandatory to become a teacher in photography. Work should be more like fine-art. But the contemoarary art seeks more to elicit emotions than to provide good photographs. Is vomitting an emotion?
    4) Adult art academy. Up to 6 years, in a very open involvement.

    Apart from that there are loads of clubs for enthousiasts.

    If you want to see nice pictures, go for the enthousiasts.
    If you want to hear a lot of stories on what a picture is supposed to tell, go for 3 & 4.
    If you want to see a perfectly photoshopped image, go for 2
    If you need a professional, go for those who felt photography early in their youth (ie 1).

    And of course, there are exceptions.

    Better still, is to forget diplomas, degrees or titles. Indeed, look at existing work no matter what, if any, education the photographer claims. An make sure there a personality match, trust, and so on.

    1. Koen,
      Thank you so much for taking the time to provide that information. The information you provided was very helpful.

      I understand what you mean when you say, “Is vomitting an emotion?”

      Over the years I’ve become more and more cynical when it comes to art. Far too many “practitioners” have become “artists” overnight just because some pretentious art critic likes the content and labels them an artist.

      But that’s the way art has always been, so we should all know not to listen to those art critics and just create it for ourselves first. If someone likes it enough to buy the work, then I would say you have arrived.

      Too many people out there in the digital age borrow from images online, make a composite, colorize on their computer and next thing you know they call it their own. They don’t even pick up a pencil or brush.

      Some musicians of today do the same. They re-mix and viola, they’ve recreated something new. Whatever ever happened to writing with a musical instruments and using poignant lyrics? Perhaps I’m just a dinosaur thinking like this.

      By the same token, it always blows me away how someone can become a respected art critic when some of them don’t even practice the art form.

  11. In 20 years of commercial, editorial, corporate,and architectural photography not one client or prospect has asked me if I had a degree of any kind, They wanted to see my portfolio or web site, then talk about a prospective job and finally get a bid. The only time I have ever provided a resume was when I was applying for an inhouse job at a state agency. This same job was won by someone without a degree of any kind.

    If you are looking to go inhouse at a corporation or when applying to teach are the only times actually having a degree might be necessary. In almost all cases I have seen, a photographer is judged my their work and whether they can get along with people. You may be a great photographer but if you are a big enough jerk people are going to find other great photographers who aren’t jerks to work with.

    1. First off… what a great name. Thanks for taking the time to comment. You are absolutely correct about clients not caring about whether you have a degree and for that matter what your grades you got. Those grades you get for a photography class is just one instructor’s opinion.

      What’s more important is what you get out of the class and whether you understand the concepts enough to use them creatively once on your own.

      Thank you also for pointing out that there may be a lot of great photographers but those who aren’t jerks will always be sought after.

      No one wants to work with anyone with an overbearing ego no matter how good a photographer they are.

  12. Hello Pete,

    First of all, what I am about to write has nothing to do with journalism. It’s pointed at commercial and fine-art photography.

    Interesting subject matter. I have thought a lot about that, mostly from the other point of view. I think a degree in photography is underrated. By that I don’t mean a degree automatically makes you a brilliant photographer or none makes you not.
    Over here where I live (the Netherlands) it’s not necessary to have a degree to be able to call yourself a professional photographer. It causes the market to be flooded with loads of really bad photographers on the cheap side. On top of that they think they are awesome because they think they do a good job which eliminates the ability to learn from past shoots (not all of them but a LOT of who I met).

    When talking fine-art photography where a lot of creativity of the mind comes into play I think a degree is even more of importance.
    Learning how to use the tools (and there are a lot when talking fine-art analog photography) is vital in order to base your creative experiments on. By tools I don’t solely mean shutter speeds and diaphragm but also chemical knowledge, papers, type of film, combinations etc etc.
    Sure it’s a lot about how you see and everything but a lot is about mathematics as well, the rules of physics you’re bending in order for you to get that desired result. You should learn the rules first before you know how you can bend them.
    And, most important, that way you learn how to become a critic of your own work. That’s not something you will learn by yourself. You will need decent feedback on your work and work according to lines to be able to expand your vision.

    Maybe it’s a little comparable to learning how to drive a car. Everyone says that you really learn how to drive a car when you have your license (i.e. experience) but the lessons that you need in order to get that license are also quite essential I’d say.

    Schools surely have formulas. Logically, they have to follow a path to be of guidance and help to you. Yes, it’s boring, and you think you learn all stuff that you don’t need etc. etc. but there’s no harm in it. All it really does eventually is separate the thinkers and true individuals from the sheep who blindly follow the herd because the system imposes you with boundaries which you are supposed to stretch and bend to your own liking.

    As an almost final, yes, photography schools are very expensive in the Netherlands and it is a knit (the latter probably the entire art world anyway) so I went to Belgium where it’s a whole lot cheaper and they provide you with decent tuition. Just look further besides the most obvious routes.

    As a true final, those tips of you Pete, are very very useful. That book is something I could not be without!
    Thank you for your interesting article!

    Best regards,

    Indra

    1. Indra,
      Sorry took me a while to respond. Thanks so much for commenting. I really appreciate it.

      Unusual name you have too. The “Indras” I’ve come across were mostly men from Indonesia.

      I had no idea photography is actually paid for by the Belgium government as Koen pointed out or at least it is subsidized. It is interesting that it can be expensive in the Netherlands and yet in the country next door, it is cheap.

      While that can be a good thing, it can make it very tough for someone to make a living from that.

      Regardless, the fundamentals are important because as you say, you have to understand how light and optics work before you can manipulate it to suit your vision.

      We are all striving to be master manipulators of light, isn’t it?

      Very interesting body of work you have Indra. Especially the bw ones!

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