20 effective ways to learn photography without going to photography school

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Photography is undoubtedly the art form of the modern day – almost everyone has access to a camera and simple, high level editing software has exploded the medium.

Due to all this, a new generation of amateur photographers are upon us, in numbers greater than ever before. But for those who want to exit the rookie realm, do they need photography school?

Teaching any kind of creative discipline enters touchy territory, especially for people’s ideals and bank accounts. But, in a day and age where many career photographers struggle to get paid work – do you need the formal training to stay competitive over the millions of images on Instagram and Flickr? First it’s important to figure out why you want the skills.

What’s the purpose of your photography?

Not everyone can take a hobby and flip it into a career, and not everyone wants to. When weighing up the importance of enrolling to study, you have to ask yourself if it’s a good investment. As anyone with a degree can tell you – they’re not cheap. The average annual cost of tuition fees in the US is $33,000. That’s a lot of money to throw at a hobby.

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Photo by Cole Keister

If you want to take good photos but don’t want to drop big bucks on being qualified, there’s a ton of ways to develop your skills – we’ll get to those in a bit.  

The pros and cons of photography school

You’re aware of the cost but want to look further into study – let’s lay out the major pros and cons of photography school.

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Photo from Pexels

Pros:

  • Better understanding of the art, its history and its development.
  • Refine your natural skills and learn from people who have succeeded  in the business.
  • Gain a thorough understanding of lighting and composition techniques.
  • Make connections throughout your degree that could help in your professional life.

Cons:

  • Tuition expense is high and average yearly salaries are low, meaning it could take you decades to pay back your debt
  • Equipment is also super pricey, making it hard to balance the cost of lenses, cameras and accessories with the price of study.
  • Employment isn’t guaranteed, especially as art and photography degrees are limiting.
  • Possibility of having to go back to school to pursue more education if your photography career doesn’t flourish.

Which side carries more weight for you?

Passion, patience and hustle

If you take a passion and run with it – can you be successful without the formality of the classroom? Can drive, a thick skin and persistence be all you need to get skills, money and connections?

For some – yes.

Take Chris Ozer. In 2010 he quit his 9-5 job to pursue a career in photography. Seven years later the self-taught photographer has an Instagram following of over six hundred thousand and some pretty impressive clients, including Apple, Target and The New York Times. In an interview with icanbesociety, Chris said ‘I made a conscious decision to improve my skills and just began studying photography and shooting like crazy.’

Regardless of what you want to achieve with your photography – here’s some sure fire ways to improve your skills without a degree.

01. Get familiar with your camera

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Photo by Jakob Owens

I know what you’re thinking – no way am I reading the camera manual. But, it really is a great tool when trying to master your chosen model. It’s not to say you have to read 300 pages cover to cover, of course you can skim areas you already know about or leave particular sections for later, but the humble camera manual holds more importance than you think. Taking the time to research your kit is important for a couple reasons:

  • You need to know about every aspect of your camera.
  • No one knows the camera better than the people that made it.

02. Watch online tutorials

With the inception of the internet making most people think of manuals as artifacts, you can also go to the net to learn. Especially if you find reading difficult/uninspiring, there will be countless videos and blogs on how to use the model you’ve picked. This is great when looking for reviews from people who have actually used the rig for a while. YouTube in particular is filled with reviews, tips and warnings for photographers, check out popular channels like Mango Street or Peter McKinnon for easy to follow videos. And remember to put what you’ve watched into action!

03. Hit the books (and online portfolios)

Indulging in a good book or online portfolio will help you absorb details in a creative, colorful and interesting ways. They will inspire you and help you figure out niches that you want to play around with. Whilst you’re learning portfolios can also be a source of great frustration, as you look at what others can achieve and struggle to mirror it. Don’t let it get you down though, just like every good art form, it takes time to master.

Here’s three great photo books to start with:

  • ZZYZX by Gregory Halpern

ZZYZX is the result of Halpern spending six years travelling to locations across California, often randomly selected from Google Maps.

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Photo by Gregory Halpern

Based on a ghost story, Mouraz explores the myth of seven mysterious women who cast a spell on his adult imagination. This is a great book for people interested in black and white imagery.

Since 2004, Misrach has been documenting the border between Mexico and America. Alongside images of landscapes and buildings, he has photographed evidence of migration, like water bottles, clothing, shotgun shells and parts of the wall.

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Photo by Richard Misrach

And, three great online portfolios to check out:

Jan Erik Waider’s online portfolio is a collection of raw nordic landscapes. He’s amazing at taking photos of misty mountains, snow covered trees and flowing waterfalls with some high profile clients like The British Museum, Apple and HTC.

If you want to see someone take black and white photography and turn it into minimalistic aesthetic perfection, have a look at Nicholas Evariste’s online portfolio.

A true testament to ‘film is not dead,’ Klos uses 4×5 film to capture insane scenes that look like they were taken on Mars, but are really in locations like Hawaii and Utah.

04. Practice, practice and practice!

Nothing is going to help you more than experience – so bring your camera everywhere and shoot anything remotely interesting! You can take fifty photography courses, read every book about lighting and exposure and talk about it all day – but taking photos is what is going to allow you to unlock your style and natural skill. As hundreds of photos build up on your memory card, you’ll see what needs improvement and where you excel. It’s good to keep some early evidence of your trials and errors so you can look back and see how far you’ve come!

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Photo by Joseph Pearson

05. Expand your network

Studying, reading and ogling photographer’s works and words is important, but you also need to hit the streets and network. Contacts and referrals enable you to gain valuable skills and, if you want to make money, get clients. Networking is all about figuring out who you need to know and how you’re going to build long-term relationships with them.

  • Photography is a very personal business, networking lets you get to know people.
  • You are your brand, making yourself known as a person and not just a photographer helps you get repeat customers.
  • Networking is cheap in comparison to other marketing strategies.
  • Without good relationships – no business will succeed.

Clay Cook is a self-taught photographer from America, he believes that solid networking is far more important than a degree, ‘my first publication didn’t come from an interview or random email. It came from making friends with all the right people.’

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Photo by Raman Oza

06. Get a mentor or apprenticeship

Mentors and apprenticeships are a surprisingly overlooked way of breaking into photography. Ask many successful self-taught professionals how they learned the ropes and many will credit working their way up the ladder at an internship.

A big tip though – do your research into who you are going to be working for. You need to connect with someone who is generous with their knowledge and encouraging in their style. The wrong kind of experience can leave you sitting behind a desk all day, filing paperwork and answer phones.

Stefen Chow is a photographer based in Beijing, in 2008 he said he saw the true power and impact of mentorship – ‘I went to the Eddie Adams Workshop… the instructors [were] from the biggest magazines such as National Geographic and Time…. they were all there for the singular purpose of teaching and imparting their knowledge and wisdom to emerging photographers like me.’ Chow said, ‘I felt there was no greater gift than to be a receiver of such unsolicited goodwill.’

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Stefen Chow talking at The University of Science Po - Photo by Shawn Koh

07. Attend a workshop

Continuing from above, going to a workshop is another great way to learn. Workshops are particularly good for people who might want to go to photography school, but don’t want to commit to 3+ years and shell out tons of cash. That’s not to say that workshops aren’t expensive, some are quite eye watering – but – put it in comparison to a degree and it’s quite the bargain. Workshops also tie in to a lot of things we’ve already discussed – they’re great for making connections, finding internships and discovering styles/niches you love.

08. Join a photography forum

Photographers love talking about photography – and where do they unleash? Forums. Whether you want some honest feedback on your work, want to learn more about a particular style of photography or have a question about your camera – forums more often than not will hold the answer. Don’t always take what someone has said on a forum as gospel though, it’s always good to back up claims with further research.

Here are some good forums for general info:

There are also thousands of forums for more specific enquiries, Google away!

09. Set yourself a photography bucket list

Is there any better feeling than writing a list of challenges and working through them till there’s none left?! I don’t think so. Your photography journey can benefit from this as well. By setting goals or a photography ‘bucket list,’ you can find yourself feeling more motivated to get out and get shooting.

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The Haiku Stairs in Hawaii are a bucket list destination for many photographers - Photo by Kalen Emsley
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Photo by Kalen Emsley

10. Enter a photography competition

Photography competitions are a great way to get some feedback on your work if you’re finding it hard to get critiques from anywhere else. Some photography competitions can also have pretty hefty cash prizes, so if you’re looking to make money off your shots then this could be your chance. But, be warned – a lot of photography competitions are more of a money making scheme for the host than a legitimate way to celebrate talent – research the comp and don’t pay more than $30 or $40 for an entry.

11. Make an online photography portfolio

Once you start building up a catalogue of work, you need a place to present it.

Here’s why:

  • Use it as a resume: show off your expertize and past clients as a way to lock down more work
  • It’s a marketing tool: gain visibility of your personal brand by giving your social media posts a call to action
  • Look back on your work: it's a great way to see how far you've come with each photography project

Here’s how:

  • Organize your work into themes: it’ll allow potential clients to quickly and easily navigate your site to see if you’re a photographer they’d want to work with
  • Show you best work: don’t make people go through hundreds of average pictures – highlight the good stuff.
  • Get your head around SEO (search engine optimization): your site won’t get a lot of action without it.
  • Use a website builder as opposed to a custom website: website builders like WordPress and Squarespace make it easy for you to design your layout – and they still look beautiful
Lisa Michele Burns portfolio on Wix

12. Present your photos to your friends

Feedback is super important when trying to learn any new skill yourself – so gather up some honest friends and get them to look through your work. Keep in mind that they may not have any knowledge of photography techniques or styles, but get them to tell you which ones they like and which ones they don’t. You'll likely get good points to think about from their opinions, and it's a good opportunity to relate it to how your future clients (some of which may also not know much about photography) could view your work.

13. Find your own style

An important thing to remember when learning how to take photos is: be inspired, but don’t copy. Sure, you could look at someone else’s work and think ‘That’s exactly the type of photo I want to take,’ but no two photos will ever be the same – so don’t bother trying to mirror others down to the last detail. The best way to develop your style is to keep taking photos – shoot as much as you can, whenever you can, until you figure it out.

A photo from The Sartorialist whose founder, Scott Schuman, is one of the most celebrated street style photographers in the world - he found his niche, so can you!

A photo from The Sartorialist whose founder, Scott Schuman, is one of the most celebrated street style photographers in the world - he found his niche, so can you!

14. HUSTLE

Hustling is the secret ingredient to winning the photographer game – take it from someone who’s done it, photographer Eric Kim says his formula for success is this:

Hustle x Luck = Success

Hustle: how hard you work. The hours you put in studying. The hours you put in creating stuff. Taking risks. Putting yourself out there. Learning how to brand and market yourself.

Luck: Being at the right place at the right time. Being given a ‘lucky break.’ Being born in the right era. Meeting the right person, or having the right connections.

We cannot control luck. But we can control hustle.”

15. Follow lots of photographers on social media

Social media is an incredible tool for photographers – particularly Instagram because it favours beautiful imagery. You spend so much time trawling through feeds as it is – why not make it so that what comes up actually inspires you? Here are five Instagram’s to follow to get your creative juices flowing –

Adam Senatori
A pilot who takes insane aerial photos

Theron Humphrey
Theron’s star subject, his adorable dog, makes his photos impossible not to love

Simone Bramante
For a lesson in timing, look no further.

Jussi Ulkuniemi
“Photographing silence, among other things”

Scott Schuman
For all your street fashion photography needs

16. Travel

Travelling pushes you outside of your comfort zone – creatively, this is a great thing. Next time you hit the road bring your camera, shoot everything that interests you – fill up your memory card with souvenirs and lessons. Especially when you’re starting out, taking photos of models or moving objects can be hard – so finding stunning landscapes to photograph is a good place to begin.

17. Learn to use post production tools

Taking a photo is one thing – editing it to make it perfect is another. Programs like Lightroom and Photoshop are an investment, but if you really want to catapult your images to the next level – watch tutorials and read up on how to use post production programs to benefit your work.

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Before and after editing on Lightroom - Photo by Adobe Support

18. Experiment and make mistakes

If you’re wanting to become a film photographer then this advice might be a bit costly, but for all those digital users – the beauty of a memory card is that you can take hundreds of duds and it doesn’t matter. Take photos from every angle, experiment with light and don’t be afraid to play around with your subject. You may see only one good photo out of dozens when you're starting out, but what's important is to look back and see what works and what doesn't for you.

19. Photograph what excites you

At the end of the day, nothing makes photography more fun or rewarding than photographing what interests you. If you love dogs, take photos of dogs, if you love flowers, take photos of flowers… you get where I’m going. Having your favorite things motivate you to do photography is what can keep you shooting and learning for a long time.

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Photo by Dorota Kudyba
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Photo by Ilona

20. Put your heart into it

Use the passion you’ve got and apply it to every photo you take, every book you read, every video you watch and every program you learn. Photography is art, and the best art comes from a place of passion.