Should I Go To College For Photography?

Should I Go To College For Photography?



Today, I jump into a large 3-part question that I have strong thoughts on.

T Asks: Hi Mike! I have a quick question for you. We have a 16 year old daughter who wants to be a professional commercial photographer. She hasn’t decided exactly what kind of pictures she wants to take. Last summer when she was 15, she spent the summer making a beautiful and well-received food blog. She created all of the content and photography herself. My wife and I were really impressed and want to point her in the right direction for her chosen career. We are really struggling with finding the best road forward for her to learn. I’m curious what your recommendation would be. Studying photography at a 4 year university? But, do traditional photography programs prepare someone for commercial work? Should she look at a program that is commercially driven? Maybe it’s better for her to work as an intern/assistant for five years? Learn the business from the inside?

I would recommend picking a major that has flexibility beyond just photography, such as business, entrepreneurial studies, or engineering. After that – pick a fun minor. Photography, art, music. While a business major might not be the most fun major, it will set you up with a background that makes a living as a commercial artist far easier.

Creative arts degrees leave graduates woefully unprepared for the business realities of the art and photography world. We would be okay to sacrifice a few history or theory classes and replace them with business classes. Artists (and photographers) are collectively some of the worst business people I know as a result of this. I credit my time taking business classes as one of the most valuable investments towards my career.

Not only that, but photography careers can be fickle. There are so many factors that go into being a successful working photographer beyond just the ability to take pictures. It’s a bit like poker – you can play all of the cards right and still not be a winner. You just never know, and having a solid employable degree behind you will give you the confidence to pursue your photography career knowing that if it doesn’t work out you always have something to fall back on.

Not only that, but it will make being employable right after college much easier. There’s so much flexibility with a business degree which will help while you build your career. I wouldn’t recommend going right into photography full time, but leveraging that degree to get at least a part time job to keep income flowing and to be able to properly estimate and bid on jobs. You can’t be a successful photographer if you’re desperate to get every job because you have no income.

I personally did not assist anyone, I just went for it. There are arguments for and against assisting but if someone really has the drive and a style of their own I’d say just go for it. Assisting certainly can’t hurt either and there are definitely lessons I wish I learned in an easier way (like assisting someone, for example!) but I don’t think there’s a clear answer here. Depends on personality and drive, I guess.

I personally majored in Environmental Studies / Science (it was an Environmental Studies program with a heavy focus on the science aspects including physics and energy and a study abroad program that had me measuring electricity generation from renewables, etc). I double minored in studio art and music because I figured if I was already paying for the degree I might as well pack as much in as possible and learn what I could while I had the chance. This gave me a ‘real’ degree and also some fun stuff to play around with. I worked for a bit as a graphic designer and then ran my own signmaking company for a while before discovering photography.

How did you learn photography? It’s obvious that you’re naturally gifted and have a great eye, but there must have been some formal learning somewhere along the way.

I learned everything I know from the internet and my art minor. I didn’t study any photography at school but rather painting and sculpture and I felt that my minor gave me enough to learn the basics of composition and color. Good art doesn’t have boundaries, really – a good painting has the same qualities as a good photograph, which has the same qualities as a good sculpture, etc. Good art can be evocative, can tell a story, has an interesting composition, moves the viewer emotionally, etc. Doesn’t matter what the medium is.

As far as the internet goes, I just soaked up as much knowledge as possible from internet fora and groups. I constantly put my work out there for critique and learned by showing crappy work as much as possible and taking to heart the criticisms I received (the art minor set me up well for this, because critiques can be absolutely brutal).

Photographers really are a nice and generous bunch with their knowledge, though, and I’m thankful for that every day. I learn new things online constantly.

Thanks again for your willingness to share your knowledge. My wife and I are professional photographers and I’m watching your FStoppers tutorials (all three) AGAIN! I’ve struggled building a portfolio…mainly because I’ve been so busy with wedding work that I don’t have time (weddings pay the mortgage and Wells Fargo insists on that EVERY month). But, we have decided to limit our weddings even if it means making less in the short term. We can never commit to doing something else if we don’t commit to stepping away from weddings. So, we’re excited to really start to dig deep.

Good luck and I am sure that your daughter will do just fine if she has two working photographer parents! But I would still not in any way ever do a full art major, especially at the price universities are asking these days 🙂

About Mike Kelley
Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.
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