So, you want to become a professional photographer and you’re trying to decide if going to college is the right choice.
So, for what it’s worth, here’s my two cents.
First, consider carefully whether becoming a pro photographer is the right move for you. I’ve written an article that discusses this in depth: ‘Is Becoming a Professional Photographer Right for You?‘.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Readers of my newsletter often send in questions. One of the most popular is, “Should I go to college to study photography or should I get an internship with a professional photographer?”
I did both.
So, hopefully, that’ll make my opinion useful to you.
When I was 17, during Spring Break, I knocked on the door a local photographer’s studio. The photographer answered and I explained that I was considering photography as a career. I asked if I could accompany him on a few jobs to see what being a photographer was really like.
For about a week I helped him carry his cases, set up lighting, arrange sets and take light meter readings. I also cleaned things, fetched things and made a lot of coffee.
We got on so well that he hired me. This became my part-time job while I was finishing High School. After that I worked with him for a year.
The photographer I was working with taught me about all aspects of his work—from taking photos and dealing with clients to developing film and keeping financial accounts.
But I realized that I needed to gain a much wider experience if I was to develop my own style. So, after discussing my choices with careers guidance teachers and various professional photographers I met on the way, I decided to go to college.
Going to College was Incredible
I was a boy from a small town. I got to experience things that I don’t think I’d ever have experienced if I’d stayed home.
Mixing with thousands of kids from diverse backgrounds. The parties, vacations, friendships and relationships. And I was also learning about the subject I was passionate about all day long.
Going to college was one of the most enjoyable times of my life.
Was It Worth It?
College helped me grow in to an adult. I gained a lot of life experience.
Professionally, our college invited a large number of photographers to give us lectures on their work and jobs. We were able to meet them after their talks and ‘network’ with them.
College gave us the freedom to practice our skills in a non-commercial environment. We didn’t have to make money for our boss so it was okay to make mistakes (which is essential for learning). We could practice a whole variety of skills that we’d find hard to get exposure to in any one work place. And we collaborated on joint projects with our fellow students, learning as much for each other as we did from our professors.
Being a student gave us a useful ‘excuse’. When we approached people for favors they’d often say “yes” because they understood that we had no money and were no commercial threat to them. It opened doors that could have been difficult otherwise (an example being, photographing famous people).
In England, when I went to college, the Government paid the tuition fees for students. And, unless your parents were very wealthy, they also paid a living allowance. Things have changed but back then it was ‘free’ to go to college.
If I’d had to pay for my college education, I think I would have left with a different attitude. I’m not convinced that the learning was ‘value for money’. (In truth, if I’d had to pay, I wouldn’t have been able to have gone.) But, overall, I loved the experience. For me, it was worth it.
But did I learn anything that I couldn’t have learned by being an intern?
Some things, yes. It’s hard to find an internship where you have the time to experiment with landscape photography, portraiture, dozens of commercial techniques, scientific techniques, fine art nude work, street photography, art projects and use a huge range of donated tech and gear.
But college isn’t the real world. I would suggest that I learned more about being a professional photographer in the year before going to college than I did in all the time I was there.
Now every college course is different. Every group of professors have different strengths and weaknesses. Every cohort of students bring different experiences, motivations and skills. Mine is just one experience.
I think there are positives and negatives in both choices.
I also think that a lot of people go to college because they want to go to college.
If I had my time over, I’d go to college. But not because it made me a great photographer. I believe that I could have become just as good if I’d worked as an Assistant for several other photographers before setting up my own business.
Photography is a discipline where, with certain exceptions around the world, you don’t need to have academic qualifications to set-up shop. You’re judged on your results not your certificates.
So I’m going to let you down: annoyingly, there is no ‘right’ answer to this question.
You need to balance your desires, your expectations, your finances, your current ability, your chances of getting an internship and a whole bunch of other factors. In the end, your gut will probably tell you which one is for you.
What I would say is (and this is big—don’t miss this one) if you plan to become a professional photographer: ensure you concentrate as much on learning business skills as you do on learning photography.