Pet business questions: should I get a photography degree to be a photographer?
When I was in the second year of my higher education, there was a huge shift in the education system and to become a working photographer you no longer needed any professional qualifications. This meant that you can, of course, still, study and get a degree, but you didn’t need any proof of it to start your business. At that point, young and mostly unaware of what this would mean for the future, I continued- thinking to figure out the rest later.
Nowadays I often see the returning question:”Is there a value in studying photography?”. I’m aware that these days there is so much fantastic information online and I’ve seen this topic result in fierce discussions where mostly the education is called absolutely useless and a money eating time waster. I am aware that conversations online bring people together from all over the world and the education system isn’t the same in every part of the world. So yes, I cringe when I hear how young people have the burden of student loans just when they get started in life. I think my 3 educations together didn’t cost as much as a semester in the USA. In this blog, however, I want to talk about value instead of costs because in my opinion there are more things of value than money. Things like time (!!!), inspiration, mentorship, self-confidence, and freedom.
So let’s get back to that first question: should you or should you not?
My first response would be: No, unless in your country it’s still a protected profession.
But as you might have noticed, I have several degrees myself. I am a professional photographer (bachelor degree), I have a teachers degree and a master in the arts (graphic design & illustration). During the past 10+ years, I also attended several workshops, lectures, masterminds, and discussion groups. Although I’m perhaps more old skool, I have found my way online too so I could learn, connect and stay up to date. Yes, I love the internet but even as an artist I try to limit my time at the computer.
So why am I a fan of education, you might wonder?
I have seen lots of changes since I started photography. The rise of the internet, the introduction of digital photography and especially dog photography getting more popular. When I started my business, people laughed with the idea. It wasn’t common. These days, anyone who has some sort of DSLR starts his own side gig. While I absolutely love the popularity of (dog) photography (I still believe every dog deserves love and a beautiful portrait), I also notice some ‘trends’ that I find doubtful.
1. A shallow approach to the profession. On professional fora, I see people asking: “Hey, I have a shoot in 30 minutes but the sun is out, what settings should I use?!? Help!” Or: “OMG my client will have a black dog, what should I do?” And a question that I really don’t get:”Hi there, my client wants a shoot in the snow, you-you all post you snow pictures so I can find some inspiration?” Seriously? So you have a camera and clients but no idea how to use that bloody thing? It gets even worse when after the shoot I see the questions of how to save the pictures that are all blurry or badly exposed. Often the responses are video tutorials to save what is left, no info on how to actually get the exposure right. Getting it right in camera isn’t in fashion, being good at editing and saving loads of underexposed pictures seems to be it. Except for not having a clue how to adjust settings, there is also a lot of confusion of typical photography jargon- which is even often laughed at and called not so important. It’s hard to help or have a decent conversation if one refuses to learn the meaning of aperture, ISO, blur, over-exposure,… And I get it, it can be hard. I often find it hard too, especially with new technology and its new words, with the translations into new languages,… but it’s still important to understand each other. One thing I can’t stand is a lack of patience and insights in dog behavior with dog photographers- and I see it A LOT! it doesn’t matter at all if I like a style of photography or not, if you’re new or experienced, if you’re building a portfolio or having paying clients, but respect for the subject must be number one (and the same goes for people, horses, whatever). Simple.
In my opinion, having an in-depth education teaches you to deal with any situation when it comes to technique. In photography that means finding the right settings, knowing how light works, color temperature, shadows and reflections, solutions to problems that might occur,… So my suggestion would be to study the technical basics and go out and shoot as much as possible at every light situation. Early morning, middle of the night, with fog, snow,… anything and everything. Push yourself and your camera so you know exactly what the limits are.
2. A lot of the same.
A dog with adventure blanket, dark and moody themes, the European style, forever autumn, fake butterflies, … I would really only need one-fifth of the time online to catch up if it wouldn’t be so damn difficult to find some original images in the stream of all-the-same. I know it’s close to impossible to be original or to have unique images and perhaps that shouldn’t even be the main goal. What I do miss are visions and stories. Some personality of the photographer. I absolutely believe that there is a space for all of us. Every special occasion I see the same requests: “Show me your Valentine/autumn/Christmas/ blah photo’s, I need inspiration.”
That brings me to point number 3:
3. Little time to learn and explore.
I often feel bad about people that start out these days, or young people growing up in a world that is dominated by social media. There is so little time to just play, fail and try again that so many people are afraid of doing something wrong, ruining their name or reputation. It might be a whole different topic, but in some way, we need a healthy dose of free space and anonymity to become who we are. I see so much pressure to perform, to learn quickly and to get serious about things that it destroys creativity and self-confidence. If you don’t learn fast enough, post enough, get the right interactions, the algorithm deletes you from the playground.
I believe in slow but deep learning. In playing around and making mistakes. In trying different approaches and experiment. In my educations, I had to do a lot of assignments that I disliked. Going from technical homework to subjects that I didn’t care about. And yes, some were just really annoying (but yes, of value) and with others, I got challenged to find a creative approach to make it work for me. Growth is often found at times of resistance, of fight and challenges. I see that a lot of self-taught artists or photographers avoid confrontations or anything that is outside their comfort zone. Many photographers look for a quick fix to style, trying to get it by adding a preset to an image, thinking it’s the same. There is no shortcut. It’s just like growing up. It needs time. Also some food and love 🙂
For this topic I would suggest putting mental boundaries around your playground, taking the time to do things in secret, finding mentors that challenge you and taking curious steps outside the comfort zone. Also talking to other creatives, working together, not seeing the others as competition.
By no means, I think that getting a degree works for everyone, but I do think that getting an education in some shape or form is. So when is studying photography be something for you?
– When you want an all-round education that includes techniques, business, different topics, history, philosophy, ethics,… In that case, I would suggest getting the bachelor or master degree rather than the homeschooling as often the quality is better in many ways (teachers, tasks, insights, jury, degree,…). I also think that the higher education system is mostly more open-minded than the evening courses for adults. Good teachers are mentors who not just say what is good or bad, but teach you why and how to find your own voice- and this is something I haven’t found anywhere else. (For Belgium I do like the DKO system as a fine alternative but you need to find those that dare to challenge you.)
– When you’re interested in teaching. Depending on the school/country/… you might still need the degree.
-When you have an open mind and keeping options and niches open. With a solid foundation, you can shoot anything whether it’s a wedding or a crime scene, a dog or a model.
– When you’re open to being challenged and tested. I personally think it’s great to get feedback, to get a thicker skin, to learn from others and to find your own position. Though the different challenges that not always feel like a great fit, you learn to find inspiration and translating it into a body of work.
– If you have an interest in the art world, a master education will prepare you to fine art photography, writing about your work and finding your way in the art world. If you have a commercial interest, a professional/bachelor degree might be the best fit for commercials/editorials and client work.
– A school is a great place (if you pick the right one) to find focus, a creative environment to bounce ideas off, a playground,…
I hope I made clear that there isn’t a strict yes or no answer to the question and much depends on your situation and vision on life. Some people want to do one thing and don’t be bothered, others see learning as a goal in itself. There is no right or wrong, not even when I’m annoyed by the pros without inspiration :-). It’s not up to me to define the field. All I can do it share my personal experience and ideas of which I think can help others. It’s my personal belief that a good foundation is super important to build on, but after that, it’s the realm of the creative where the magic happens and I feel that this is undervalued in our fast-moving society.