Photography at University: Is It Really Worth It?

Photography at University: Is it Really Worth It?

The average person can place a group of people in front of a nice background and snap a picture, although, it takes a skilled and artistic person to make everything look the best that it can. Taking a photo is about more than just smiling and taking a picture. Either you teach yourself how to become proficient in photography, or you take classes and learn everything you need to know.

Getting a degree at a university is only worth it if you desire the type of instruction it offers, the potential but not guaranteed increased pay raise, as well as the prestigious degree that shows you are a reputable photographer. The equity you start with when you have a degree could be tough to rival. This can potentially get you jobs you could never land if you were self-taught.

Whether you want a degree or not, I think it’s easy to understand why there is such a debate as to if it is worth it. It's an age old discussion about many jobs as to the requirements of entry. The outcomes of each decision can be vastly different in both positive and negative ways, all while still maintaining the same purpose, learning the skill of photography. The idea that one choice would be a definite bad idea while the other is the road to absolute success is extremely incorrect. There's a lot involved in becoming a successful photographer.

Is Getting a Degree in Photography Worth It?

These are very different ways of learning the same skill and while you can end up at the same destination no matter which road you take, each path has things that can make it harder, or easier. Getting a photography degree can make the career portion easier, but the road to get there can be difficult.

ProsCons
  • The ability to work with different equipment for lower costs
  • The ability to experiment with your photography process
  • Learn techniques and processes quicker
  • Possibility for internships and jobs stemming from your school
  • Your degree gains you instant equity in the field
  • The costs associated with a degree
  • You miss industry advancements
  • Less chance of working with newer technology
  • It’s harder to create your own “style”
(Source: PetapixelOpens in a new tab.)

The Pros and Cons of Self-Taught Photography

Without a degree, you will definitely fight much harder to pave the way for your career, however, the path you take to learn the skill of photography will be much more enriching and immersive.

ProsCons
  • Leaning at your own pace
  • Learning from a trusted guide or friend
  • You have a chance to learn with the newest technology
  • You learn within the industry you will work in
  • You can start finding your own style while you learn the skill
  • The trial and error way of learning usually takes longer
  • Can be seen as not “legitimate”
  • Any new equipment or experimentation will be self-funded
  • Landing jobs is more difficult

No matter which direction you go, there are things you must know about photography to be successful in the field. The question is, which way will you learn these things the quickest, cheapest, and most effectively?

Most Effective Learning

Going to a university allows for thorough exhaustion of photography’s most basic technical terms and techniques. This allows you to learn about things from the most basic starting point and then you can build from there. You will definitely walk away from the class with knowledge far beyond what you could learn from day-to-day self-teaching.

The issue is, you most likely won’t be able to figure out your own style and preference while following a rigid curriculum. So, after you graduate, then you will have to step back and adjust your desires and ways of doing things.

Being Self-taught is one of the most immersive ways to learn. While you may not know exact definitions or be able to break down every process into multiple separate steps, being able to learn at your own pace, and tweak your own style as you go can allow for you to become an independent photographer a lot quicker than the university route.

Being self-taught allows for so many opportunities to make mistakes and fix things so you don’t do it again, this can be much more effective than having a step-by-step process laid out for you that you have to memorize.

Quickest Way to Learn

When going to a university, you will have to take some classes that have nothing to do with your degree or have nothing to do with the type of photography you want to do. You will have to learn about the techniques and skills that you may never have to use in your career.

If you choose to be self-taught, you can learn what you need as you need it. If you spend time learning something and never use it, you would probably feel like you wasted time.

Now, being self-taught comes with its own issues. If you are struggling to find equipment to try out or learn with, you can’t learn until you manage to find it. Being self-taught requires large amounts of self-dedication and patience. However, once you have your equipment, you will have immersive hands-on learning that will allow you the best first-hand education you can get.

(source: fstoppersOpens in a new tab.)

The Cheapest Way of Learning Photography

On average, most college students graduate with about $35,000 of student loan debt. Put that in comparison to your average starting salary of $42,000 as a photographer and you are looking at a very expensive class for a lower-paying job. You would be taking out loans while your self-taught counterparts would be in far less debt and only making $3,000 less a year than you. (Source: Huffington PostOpens in a new tab.)

While being self-taught definitely comes with its costs, you will still be on the lower end of debt compared to the university option. You may have to pay for your own equipment, books, or creative area, but you won’t pay for teachers, university fees, or parking on campus.

With the pay gap not being that large between the two options, you could pay off what debt you do have in a couple of years and invest money into your career and business a lot sooner.

Overall, being self-taught allows for wider opportunities on all three topics. Not going to a university allows for more time, less debt, and a better chance of perfecting your own style. These are things that are just extremely hard to do while you are following class schedules and syllabuses.

How to Self-Teach Photography

Deciding to learn how to do photography without going to a university is usually recommended, however, it is not easy. You don’t start with a defined path or an exact map of where you will go in your learning, and because of that, you have to fight to stay on the path you want.

However, allowing yourself to be shown different things than what you originally planned for all go into making your technique and allowing yourself to be ad unique as possible.

Being self-taught is always something worth starting sooner rather than later. If you jump in as soon as possible, you stand a better chance of understanding the current cultural climate and styles that are popular, whereas if you wait too long, you run the risk of becoming out of touch with what is happening in the photography field.

There are a few things you need to make sure you do so you have an equal and fair chance of learning your skill. Without doing these things, you risk missing internships, mentors, insight from other artists, and peers to learn and discuss with.

Find Other Artists in the Area

Being able to have artists in your corner will give you the open space to ask questions, get honest legitimate feedback, and discuss technique with. Without other artists, you won’t have anyone who can offer different perspectives while understanding your desired skill. Without having different viewpoints, your art won’t be multidimensional or as impactful as it can be.

Pick up Used Photography Books

While these books may not be the most recent edition, they will have the most basic terms and knowledge that allow you to build from there. You need a base with terms and techniques to make photography your own and educational books are a good way to do this.

Find Mentors Willing to Teach You in Their Spare Time

Finding a teacher, or mentor willing to teach for a lesser rate than university is a must. You need someone who is 10 – 15 years ahead of you in the photography business and who has a wide variety of past experiences. They can tell you what not to waste your time on, while also making sure you figure things out on your own.

Find 2-to-3-day Workshops Online

Frequently, you can find workshops online that last for 2 – 3 days at a time.  These workshops usually contain the same amount of information that you would get in a month of photography school. These workshops are most important if you want to look at specialties or advanced techniques.

Travel and Go to Photo Exhibitions

Traveling for photography allows you to see different techniques and styles depending on what region you are in. The areas you visit will influence your style in small ways, however, it will add up to a style completely unique from anyone else’s. This allows yourself to be influenced by other cultures which only enriches your skill and sets you apart from other artists.

Start a Portfolio as Soon as Possible

Starting a portfolio is very important for future jobs and contracts. You want to be able to show diversity, growth, and that you stand out from others. The sooner you start a portfolio, the better chance you have of being ready when an opportunity arises. Every time you intentionally take pictures you should save a few, the best, and put them all together in a folder so you have evidence of your skill to show off.

Start Looking for Jobs in the Industry

You most likely won’t be able to get a job immediately in the field or position you want, however, being able to get one foot in the door is the quickest way to get connections and move up the ladder without getting a degree.

The quicker you can get in the field of photography, the quicker you can collect letters of recommendation, job experience, and references that can back up your expertise. These things can help you advance and grow your ability to land other jobs.

Landing a Job Without a Degree

Generally, you can apply and interview for any photography job whether you have a degree or not. The issue is you stand less of a chance to get the job over someone who has a degree unless you have connections or several years of recommendations and experience that you have documented in your portfolio.

The best options for photography work without a degree are:

  • Freelance photography.
  • Starting your own photography business.
  • Landing a job with a mentor who taught you your skills.

These will be the easiest and quickest ways for you to land a job and start making money, unless you have connections at companies or larger businesses that need photographers. Word of mouth can sometimes carry a heavy weight, so if that is a tool you can use, by all means, use it.

(Source: Digital PhotographyOpens in a new tab.)

When Getting a Degree is Necessary

Sometimes, when you want specific jobs, they may not even give you a second glance unless you have a degree in photography. Being self-taught has so many positives, except for the equity that having a degree will give you.

When you have a degree, you don’t have to work nearly as hard to sell yourself as you do when you are self-taught and while you can have a career in photography without a degree, there are some situations where a degree is absolutely necessary.

Getting a degree proves several things to your future employers:

  • You have the ability to be taught a skill.
  • You have full knowledge of the skill they are asking you to do.
  • That you are worth investing money in. employers will hire those with a degree over those who don’t have one because they feel a level of security comes with the degree.

To land certain jobs as a self-taught photographer, you would need extensive recommendations from someone you have previously worked with to someone at the company you are trying to get a job at. Furthermore, you would need a portfolio that is able to show your skills in such vast ways that they are able to understand the depth of skill you possess. Without these things, you stand such a slim chance of getting the job.

Thankfully, getting a degree is the avenue that will always be around for you to choose if you decide to go to college. Universities and opportunities within them are readily available and it seems like you could jump in at the beginning of any semester and begin your 4-year trek.

Since the curriculum doesn’t change much, year-to-year, you wouldn’t be missing much if you waited a year or two before making this decision. The only thing you might miss is your opportunity to jump in on a career a few years earlier then you will be able to after needing to go to college.

(Source: slrloungeOpens in a new tab.)

Landing a Job With a Degree

Having a degree raises your chance of landing a photography job but can cause issues once you get the job. When you are taught the “right” way to do photography, it is hard to stray away from that to find your own niche, much less someone else’s.

Once you land a job, they may want you to change or conform to their style and way of taking photos or processing them. If they do things in a way that you weren’t taught was “right”, it will be much harder for you to adjust and fit-in with that job.

The best thing you can do is to be flexible. While you are being taught the “right” way to do things in school, you have to be able to take a step by and know that just because something is different, does not mean it’s wrong.  Being able to pivot and adjust your expectations and abilities will help you excel in the photography world.

(source: ProspectsOpens in a new tab.)

Final Thoughts

Overall, getting a degree in photography can easily look like wasted money if you can achieve the same thing by being self-taught. Being self-taught probably takes a little more time and dedication to putting yourself out there, however, your own desires for the direction you want to go can help you overcome those obstacles and make the best decision for your future.

The biggest thing to consider when choosing a degree or not is whether you want a job that requires one. While it is not impossible to get a job without a degree, you definitely need much more experience if you don’t have the proof that you have been taught the skill.

Roy Davis

Roy Davis is the founder of YourPhotoAdvisor. He is a hobbyist photographer that loves the business side of things. He blogs about IT, cybersecurity, business, and more at BestofRoy.com. Follow him on social media at Twitter | Instagram.

Recent Posts