To (Photography) Degree or Not to Degree, That is the Question

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Once upon a time, a photography degree could be the key to the golden door of high profile projects and the jet set life. In some ways, the digital age has leveled the playing field. In other ways, though, it has not.

Are you interested in pursuing a career in photography, but not sure whether or not you need a degree to succeed? It’s a common question among aspiring photographers. While a degree certainly isn’t a requirement, there’s little doubt it has its benefits and opportunities. Many degree graduates go to work in the more high profile types of photography, like commercial, scientific, fine arts, photojournalism, and high fashion. But is the potential fast track really worth the high cost in time and money?

While some believe a degree is a necessity to succeed in the competitive world of photography, others argue that hands-on experience and a strong portfolio can be just as valuable. So let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of pursuing a degree in photography, and help you decide if it’s the right choice for you.

Let’s start with the benefits

When it comes to pursuing a degree in photography, there are certainly some compelling benefits. First and foremost, you’ll have the chance to learn a wealth of technical skills and knowledge that will serve you well in your career. For example, you’ll learn how to properly operate a camera, manipulate lighting to create different moods and effects, compose shots that tell a story or evoke emotion, and process your images in a way that brings out their best qualities. In other words, you’ll learn to create a technically excellent photograph.

But it’s not just about technical skills. One of the most valuable aspects of a photography degree program is the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals. Your instructors will have years of practical, verifiable experience under their belts and can offer insights and guidance you might not be able to get anywhere else. You’ll also have the chance to collaborate with your peers and receive feedback on your work, which can be invaluable for honing your craft. You’ll learn not only the value of criticism, but you’ll accept and use it with a mature, objective attitude that can be difficult for informally trained photographers.

And let’s not forget about the potential for networking. By attending school events and participating in internships, you’ll have the chance to make connections with people in the industry who could help you land your first job or even offer you freelance work. Being a known quantity can mean access to companies, organizations, and types of photography that other photographers find difficult or impossible to break into. All of these benefits can help you jumpstart your career and set you up for success.

You knew there had to be drawbacks

It’s important to consider the drawbacks of pursuing a photography degree as well, as it may not be the right path for everyone. Firstly, we can’t ignore the high cost of tuition fees and the possibility of student debt that comes with pursuing a degree program. This is a significant investment that may take years to pay off, so it’s essential to weigh the potential benefits against the costs.

Additionally, the time commitment required for a degree program is something that should not be taken lightly. It may take several years to complete a photography degree, and this could delay your entry into the workforce. While you’re studying, you may not be earning an income, and this can be a significant financial burden.

As with any type of degree, you won’t be spending all your time learning about photography. If you’re already anxious to get started on a career, you’ll have a hard time working your way through all the subjects and materials you feel have nothing to do with what you want to do in life, but everything to do with whether or not you earn a degree.

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It’s also worth noting that having a degree does not guarantee success in the industry. A degree can certainly provide valuable technical and creative skills. But experience, talent, and business skills are also crucial factors for success in the field. A photography degree should be seen as one piece of the puzzle, rather than a guaranteed path to success.

What, exactly, does a photography degree entail, anyway?

At this point – or maybe even earlier – you’re probably wondering: If someone goes to university for a degree in photography, what do they actually learn? What types of things are on the curriculum?

While degree programs are put together by individual institutions and can vary significantly, a degree program in photography typically covers a wide range of topics related to the art, science, and – sometimes, but not always – business of photography. The curriculum can vary depending on the specific program and school, but some common subjects that may be covered include:

Photographic techniques and technology
This may include learning about the technical aspects of photography such as exposure, lighting, and color theory. Students may also learn about different types of cameras, lenses, and other equipment.

Composition and design
Students may learn about the principles of composition and design and how they apply to photography. This may include topics such as framing, balance, and visual weight.

History of photography
Students may study the history of photography and its development as an art form. This can include learning about different photographic styles and genres, as well as influential photographers throughout history.

Digital editing and post-production
Many photography programs include courses on digital editing and post-production techniques. This can include learning how to use software such as Adobe Photoshop to edit and enhance photographs.

Business and marketing
For students interested in pursuing a career in photography, courses on business and marketing can be an important part of the curriculum. This may include learning about pricing, contracts, and other aspects of running a photography business.

Professional practices and ethics
Courses on professional practices and ethics can teach students about ethical considerations in photography, as well as legal and copyright issues. Case studies of famous – or infamous – situations are an important part of this topic and can be incredibly insightful.

As you can see, a degree program in photography aims to provide students with a broad range of skills and knowledge to prepare them for a career in photography. It’s worth noting that not all programs cover the business aspect in any meaningful depth. If you plan to operate your own business after earning your degree, consider the business portion carefully among your options.

It’s not all about taking nice photos, then, is it?

No, it isn’t. This is where some would say the benefits of a degree really pay off. A resume with formal education opens door to a variety of opportunities, including:

Staff Photographer
Many organizations, including newspapers, magazines, and corporations, hire photographers to work on staff. This can provide a steady income and benefits, as well as opportunities for advancement.

Freelance Photographer
Freelance photographers work on a project-by-project basis and can work with a variety of clients. This can provide more flexibility than working on staff, but also requires more self-promotion and business management skills.

Photo Editor
Photo editors work for publications, websites, or other organizations and are responsible for selecting and editing images to accompany articles or other content.

Photography or Production Assistant
Many established photographers hire assistants to help with lighting, equipment, and other tasks on photo shoots. This can be a good way to gain experience and make connections in the industry, especially when working with high profile photographers.

Photography Educator
Some photographers choose to teach photography at universities, community colleges, or workshops. This can provide a stable income and the opportunity to share their knowledge and passion for photography with others.

Fine Art Photographer
Fine art photographers create images for gallery exhibitions, museums, and private collections. This can be a challenging field to break into, but can be very rewarding for those who are successful.

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Photojournalist
Photojournalists work for newspapers, magazines, or wire services and are responsible for capturing images that tell a story or convey a message. This can be a fast-paced and exciting career, but also requires a strong sense of ethics and the ability to work under pressure.

While it isn’t impossible for a informally educated photographer to work in these fields, these are just some of the many career paths more readily available to photography degree graduates.

Opportunities without a degree

When it comes to pursuing a career in photography, not having a degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re out of luck. In fact, there are many opportunities available to those without a formal education in photography. Let’s take a closer look at some of these opportunities.

First, there are countless online resources available for learning photography. From YouTube tutorials to online courses, there is no shortage of information out there. Additionally, camera equipment is more affordable than ever, making it easier for aspiring photographers to get started without breaking the bank.

Another option for those without a degree is to work as a freelance photographer or start their own photography business. While it may take some extra effort to build a client base and establish yourself in the industry, it’s certainly possible to succeed without a degree. However, it’s important to note that a strong portfolio, networking skills, and business know-how are essential for success as an independent photographer.

So, while a degree may offer some benefits, it’s not necessarily the only path to success in the photography industry. Some of the most successful consumer based photographers, such as portrait, wedding, and social brand photographers, are among the most profitable in the country, due to the fact that they run their own businesses. With hard work, dedication, and a willingness to learn, there are plenty of opportunities available to those without a formal education in photography.

So. Is a degree worth it?

At the end of the day, whether or not a photography degree is worth it ultimately comes down to the individual. It’s important to consider your personal circumstances, goals, and priorities before making the decision to pursue a degree.

If you have the financial means and time to commit to a degree program, the benefits of gaining technical skills, learning from professionals, and making industry connections may make it a worthwhile investment. However, if you’re looking for more affordable and flexible options, there are plenty of resources available for learning photography independently and building a successful career without a degree.

Ultimately, success in the photography industry requires a combination of talent, experience, networking, and business skills. Whether or not you choose to pursue a degree, it’s important to continually improve your craft, build a strong portfolio, and develop your business acumen in order to stand out in a competitive field.

You decide.

So there you have it – the benefits and drawbacks of pursuing a degree in photography, as well as the opportunities available without one. While a degree program can provide technical skills, valuable connections, and feedback on your work, it can also come with a high cost and time commitment. On the other hand, online resources and affordable gear options make it possible to learn and start working as a freelance photographer without a degree. Ultimately, whether or not to pursue a degree is a personal decision that should be based on individual circumstances and goals.

Remember to do your research and consider all your options before making a decision. Whether you choose to pursue a degree or not, with hard work, dedication, and talent, there are endless possibilities for a successful career in photography.