12 Things Photo Students Need To Know/Study Before Graduation

12 Things Photo Students Need To Know/Study Before Graduation

The single most important function of the PhotoShelter blog is to educate photographers. We spend a lot of time creating content that will help photographers manage their business more effectively.

The Top 11 Things Photographers Wish They Learned in Photo School” is the single most popular PhotoShelter blog post of 2010 – so I thought I would take a look at the issue from the reverse perspective – what photo schools are doing today to keep up with the times.

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William Snyder, a 1980 graduate of RIT, recently returned to the school as chair of the school’s Photojournalism BFA program.

The photo world has changed dramatically within the last 20 years. When I was in college, the goal was to secure a staff photographer position with a newspaper or magazine – and my education was designed to help me achieve that goal. Business and marketing classes weren’t taught because they weren’t needed – the newspaper was going to take care of that. You just needed to get out there and make incredible pictures – and your employer would take good care of you.

But today, the newspaper industry is in crisis, and it’s unrealistic to expect that a staff photographer job is out there waiting for you — even if you’ve got the world’s best portfolio. Goals have changed – you have to take care of yourself.

You’re still expected to make incredible pictures, but you also need to market yourself and make sure the business is making money. People graduating today find themselves swimming in a vast pool of freelancers, and a good photo education is one that teaches photographers a lot more than how to shoot pictures.

William Snyder, a four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, got his education at the Rochester Institute of Technology — 30 years ago. In 2006, he accepted a buyout offer from his employer, the Dallas Morning News,  traveled with The Who as their tour photographer and concentrated on a youth sports business shooting hockey portraits and action. In the Fall of 2008 he returned to RIT to chair the school’s Photojournalism BFA program.

Snyder is actively engaged in helping the school update it’s program. As a former student who led a very successful career, who knows what it takes to be successful in today’s market, he brings a unique (and very valuable) perspective to RIT.

I caught up with him recently (over a lengthy Facebook instant message chat) and asked if he’d be willing to talk on-the-record about the changes RIT is making to its program, and the challenges schools are facing today.

He agreed, and I followed up with some questions.

His answers, including his list of “12 Things Students Need To Know/Study Before Graduation” (below) are valuable to everyone in the photo business – not just graduating students. You never stop learning, and the marketplace never stops changing.


You’ve had an incredibly successful career as a photojournalist at the Dallas Morning News, and now you’re set to blaze new trails in education at RIT. What made you make the switch?

The switch was not really planned but it was almost organic – in that I had been in some sort of “education” mode from the beginning of my professional career. I always filled in on the Photo Desk at The Miami News or at The Dallas Morning News and I’ve approached editing as having a heavy educational component to it.

I feel we should all try to teach non-photographers (writers, editors, copy editors, etc.) what makes a good assignment, what makes a good photograph, what makes a good photo story, what makes for good display, etc.

I also did a lot of lecturing and workshops as a photographer and I was asked to analyze and talk about my “process” -how and why I did things – as a photographer. I also began teaching formally as an adjunct at the Art Institute of Dallas in 1990 and then eventually became an adjunct faculty member at The University of North Texas and member of their Curriculum Advisory Board.

I had great teachers – formally and informally – from the very beginning of my interest in photography and it is just something I’ve always felt we are supposed to do in this industry. Teach. Give back. Prepare the next generation to tell stories and give a voice to the voiceless.

So, going from photographer to editor to full-time teacher wasn’t that big of a stretch.

The photo world has changed dramatically since the days when we were in school, and many school have been trying to keep up with these changes. As chair of the Photojournalism BFA program at RIT, what has changed in the curriculum since the days when you were an RIT student?

I think it’s important for folks to understand that we are not the traditional Photojournalism program that is part of a Communications school. We are a Photojournalism program in a Photography School that grew into an Art College. All of our core photography is taught by a wide variety of faculty with different backgrounds – Advertising, Fine Art, Photojournalism and Photo Science.

We have an Art Foundations program with 2D/Design and Drawing in the second year. There is the science of photography with our Materials and Processes of Photography course. There is also large component of Art and Photographic history. Photographic craft and theory are taught before the students move into the Photojournalism program on the third year.

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When I was a Photojournalism student at RIT, we had only two courses devoted to Photojournalism – PJ1 and PJ2. They were each yearlong courses. Now, we have a wide variety of courses that deal with different aspects of photojournalism – Sports, Video, Multimedia, Ethics, Narrative/Documentary/Editorial, Basic Photojournalism, Documentary Photography, Community and Social Documentary Projects, The Picture Story, and Picture Editing and Layout along with a series of one-off specialty classes.

We are now in the middle of switching from quarters to semesters. We are taking advantage of that process to review and revamp all of our programs.

The Top 4 changes in the core Photography program are:

1) Add 4D (basic video and moving media) to our Foundations program.

2) Add more digital, video and audio science as well as Digital Asset Management and Image Processing to our Materials and Processes course.

3) Integrating audio and video into basic photography classes

4) Add more Web/Print Design

The Top 5 changes to our Photojournalism Program:

1) Open up new seats in our School of Film and Animation’s Documentary Filmmaking Program for those who want to pursue video at a more intense level.

2) Increasing emphasis on visual story telling across the curriculum.

3) More integration and collaboration with the brand new Journalism program by requiring basic journalism courses and building courses/projects across both schools.

4) Requiring Business courses geared toward the independent artist/contractor that are being created by the School of Business

5) Create a Minor in Image Editing

What are some of the things that are absolutely critical for photo students to learn today? What skills will give students an advantage in today’s marketplace?

I’ve taken classes to NYC and to DC to visit various publications, wire services, NGOs, etc., and they all had tons of advice for our students about how to find – and keep getting – work. Some are obvious, while others might not seem quite so obvious – or are unique to particular jobs.

12 Things Students Need To Know/Study Before Graduation


1) Learn the craft of photography.
Too many students don’t really understand and control their craft. Quality capture, understanding light and how to use it whether it’s available or added, proper use of depth of field and shutter speeds, and good image processing are aspects of the craft that help separate the “serious amateur” from the professional.


2) IDEAS are incredibly important.
It’s not the equipment or necessarily the event that makes a good photograph – it’s the photographer and his/her IDEAS.

3) Audio.
Learn the basics of good, solid audio recording, editing and how to tell a story with it – alone and in conjunction with images.


4) Video.
You may not master it, but you need some basic skills these days. If you come out of school having never picked up a video camera, then you’ve wasted your money.

5) Digital Asset Management – DAM.
It’s not sexy but it can make your career management so much easier. Your images no longer reside in sleeves in nicely marked envelopes and boxes. They are bits of information that, if not properly key worded, captioned, backed up and archived can become a real pain to find – or even lost – after you’ve made even a few thousand images. In addition, very few of the old folks know how to do it and you will instantly increase your value if you can help the old codgers (like myself) archive and find their most important images faster and easier.

6) Learn to write!
Writing is sooo important these days – especially if you’re a freelancer. You have to write story proposals, bids, grant proposals and applications, along with dozens of other daily, professional communications including Thank You notes. If you can’t write in a concise, coherent fashion, many editors won’t want to work with you more than once. As the (bad) old joke goes, “What’s the difference between a photographer who can write and one who doesn’t? The one who can’t write works for the one who can!”

7) Learn to talk!
Along with knowing how to write, you need to know how to carry on a face-to-face conversation with another human being. Sounds simple but many young photographers haven’t spent nearly as much time with direct human contact as they have texting on their phones or chatting with the world through Facebook and Twitter. And while you’re at it, develop a pleasant personality. While photography is generally a solo profession, more and more often we’re working in small teams with other creative people and no one likes to work with a jerk. Remember, it’s a VERY competitive market and you need all the advantages you can get. Being a nice and fun person to work with can only help. Your great photography can cover your annoying personality only so long before the editor starts looking around for another great photographer.

8) Know something about the world besides just photography!
A large part of what we do is based on conversation and relationships. We were told at NPR that they rarely hire “just photographers” because they only think and talk about photography. It also contributes to the curiosity about the world we’re supposed to have and wi informs our ideas. Take a minor in something like psychology, sociology, history or a language. Take a semester abroad and study another culture.

9) Practice, practice, practice!
I don’t mean make “a picture a day.” I mean, literally, practice photography. A musician or athlete spends more hours practicing than actually “playing”. The musician practices fingerings, scales, chords, breathing exercises. The athlete dribbles, shoots, stick handles, lifts weights, runs sprints.

In his new book, “Bounce”, Matthew Syed, a two-time Olympic table tennis player, presents compelling evidence that purposeful practice – repeated often and with focus – can lead to high level performance in highly complex tasks such as photography.

So, practice and learn your equipment so you don’t think about it as you’re photographing. Practice framing scenes with your camera so you learn what the world looks like through a particular lens/focal length in order to envision a photograph before you put the camera to your eye.

Practice using a hand-held flash using a variety of light modifiers and focal length lenses. Practice using new software. Learn to enjoy this practice as much as actually “making” photographs.

Check out these articles about Sayed’s book: Sweating Your Way To Success, and The Effort Is The Prize.


10) Be a Jack-Of-All-Trades And A Master Of ONE!
Know about a lot of things, but have that one thing that sets you apart from everyone else – be it video, audio, sports, stories, spot news, portraiture, editing or DAM. Sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many young photography students only want to do their “own thing” without a consideration for the actual market place. In a market that is dominated by staffs and budgets that have been cut to the bone and contract jobs that are demanding more “one-man bands” having a little extra skill in something like audio recording and editing might mean the difference in a single day rate and an extra day or two to record, edit and produce an audio slide show for a client’s website.


11) Business. Know the basics of business.
How to price your work. How to market yourself. How to bill clients. Which insurances/permits/licenses you need. The list goes on and on. Take business courses or at the very least read John Harrington’s book, “Best Business Practices for Photographers”.

12) Storytelling!!!
It should actually be #1, but I figured I’d save the best for last. Every single place we visited in NYC and DC, the folks all said the same thing, “Storytelling is the most important skill we look for.” Be it a shooter, editor or even a modern “producer” – everyone needs to know what goes into good story telling. It’s no longer good enough to just know how to make or edit a good photograph. Those images – be they still or moving, single or multiple, on the web or the printed page – have to be able to tell a story to the readers.

Newspapers are having a hard time, and it’s no longer realistic to expect that even the best of the best graduating photo students will be snapped up as a staff photographer. What are the opportunities for graduates today, and what can they do to prepare for them?

Yes, it’s tough times for photojournalists out there, but it’s also a great time if you’re creative, flexible, innovative and know how to do more than just “take pictures.” Newspapers have cut staffs, but almost everyone I know who has lost their newspaper jobs are still managing to make a living through photography – and some are making very good livings.

Take a look at this article by James Estrin in the NYT Lens blog about the photo collective Luceo and others.

Look at society in general and you’ll notice an explosion of interest in, and use of, “documentary” style visuals. You see it in commercials, weddings, fashion, reality television, feature length documentaries, university publications, youth sports, NGOs, web publications, corporate publications, governments – everyone wants their stories told in this style. And while newspapers and magazines may be “dying”, if you go to your neighborhood newsstand, you’ll still find dozens and dozens of magazines that use a lot of documentary style imagery.

Is it the most personally rewarding and fulfilling? Perhaps not, but it can pay the bills – sometimes handsomely – and allow you to pursue that personal project you’ve always wanted to do.

And if you’re looking for a couple of real growth areas in photojournalism, consider going into Editing – still, video and audio – or maybe Image Processing and Digital Asset Management instead of shooting. Everywhere we went in NYC and DC there were always more people on staff working on and with photographs than there were staff photographers. Not everyone can be a great photographer but you might become a great editor. Great editors will raise the standards for photography and that means more work for great photographers and less purchasing of one-dollar royalty-free eye candy from the neighborhood soccer mom.

Maybe there is a silver lining after all.

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