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.
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.
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.
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.
Which side carries more weight for you?
If you take a passion and run with it, can you be successful without the formality of the classroom? Can drive, 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 I Can Be Society, 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 are some sure fire ways to improve your skills without a degree.
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:
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!
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 are three great photo books to start with:
And, three great online portfolios to check out:
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!
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.
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."
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.
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!
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.
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.
Once you start building up a catalogue of work, you need to create a portfolio.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 experiment with your photo editor and post production programs to benefit your work.
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.
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.
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.