I don't have a photography degree. Clearly I have no idea what I'm doing. Photo by Ben Ayers

Should I Get a Photography Degree?

Posted by on August 18th, 2012

I don’t have a photography degree. Clearly I have no idea what I’m doing. Photo by Ben Ayers

Okay, you are considering a career in photography and want to know if you need a college degree. Before you are up to your eyeballs in art school debt, I hope you will at least consider this advice — go to college but major in something else. And I would give the same advice to anyone considering a degree in journalism.

Listen to the hard facts. According to the Atlantic, during the last four years of economic downturn people with Bachelor’s degrees or better gained about 2-million jobs. Compare that to people with high school diplomas or less who lost 5.6 million jobs. In fact, over the last two decades almost all job growth has come from workers with at least some higher education. Not to mention that people with college degrees earn almost twice as much on average as their high school educated counterparts.

Before you say “but Bill Gates” or “but Chase Jarvis,” let me add a caveat. If you are entrepreneurial and have an opportunity to start the next Microsoft or have so many clients that you don’t know what to do with them all, drop out. If you have something better than school, by all means pursue it. But if you don’t and are still trying to figure out what you are going to do with your life, then a college education is a great start.

But why do I think you shouldn’t get a degree in photography or journalism? There are a couple of reasons, and I’ll outline them below. 

1. Degrees are narrow but you need broad skills

There are more people who want to be professional photographers than there are photographer jobs (same goes for journalism). If you want to stand out in a stack of resumes, you need to offer your employer something different. I believe one of the main reasons I got my first job as a reporter was because, on top of writing, I could also shoot photos and had a degree in political science that gave me the background to tackle complex issues the paper covered.

Having a degree in a subject outside of photography can give you access to areas you would never get to otherwise. I’ve met a marine biologist turned photographer who earns his living making documentaries about ocean life, and I’ve talked to an aid worker who gets amazing photos from places off limits to others.

The same principle applies in journalism. Do you want to write about global business? Get a degree in economics. Want to travel to remote places reporting on complex environmental issues? Maybe an earth science degree is right for you.

2. Free education is everywhere

Let me make something clear. If you want to be a photographer but don’t go to school for it, you better be good at what you do. Fortunately, there is so much free education available online, becoming a self-taught photographer is easier than ever.

You might not have access to a school’s old dark room but every other amenity you could want is available. Want to learn about lighting? Try Strobist. Having trouble finding your artistic vision? Give David duChemin’s blog a look. Still mastering the basics? Digital Photography School isn’t a bad place to start.

Everything you could want, from professional feedback to advice on starting your own business, is available online. Free education for journalists isn’t as plentiful but there are some good sites beginning to emerge. A decent general information site is Poynter and their education site Poynter’s News University. If you’re interested in radio, I recommend visiting Transom.

In conclusion…

The way I see it, photography, writing, and videography are what I call +1 skills. They need to be paired with other talents. I think the days when someone could just be a photographer are coming to an end. In a crowded job market, technical perfection isn’t enough. To make it today you need to be a photographer and a writer — maybe even a photographer, writer, and expert on indigenous cultures of Asia.

When you go to college, get an education you can’t get free online. Allow your passion and work experience to give you hands-on teaching and combine that with your official degree. Is it the perfect recipe for success? No, but I think you’ll be one step further down the road than a lot of the competition.

2 thoughts on “Should I Get a Photography Degree?

    1. Isaiah Brookshire Post author

      Hi Jackie, I’d say it depends on what you want to do. If your goal is to be in business for yourself or do video work for a business or even work in local TV, I’d say your best bet is to get out there and start shooting on your own, developing a strong reel you can show to clients and potential employers. If you’re looking to work “in the industry” with mainstream television and motion picture production, a degree might make sense but I’d make sure it was from a school — like UCLA — with deep ties to the people currently working on the productions you want to work on. (But I’d keep asking around. I’ve never worked in the mainstream entertainment industry, I’m just basing this on things I’ve heard from others who know more than I do.)


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