The Top 11 Things Photographers Wish They Learned in Photo School

The Top 11 Things Photographers Wish They Learned in Photo School


We’ve all learned a lesson “the hard way.” We all wish we paid more attention in school. We all think that life would have been easier if someone just taught us that one really important lesson.

I decided to ask a few of photographers what they wished they learned earlier in their career. I asked them to think of an experience that happened in their life that would have been better if they had learned something earlier.

My trusted panel of photographers have all achieved success in the photography industry:

Joe McNally
, freelance photographer
Ami Vitale, freelance photographer
Brian Peterson, staff photographer, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Casey Templeton, freelance photographer
Shannon Fagan, freelance commercial photographer
Michael Schwarz, freelance photographer
Scott Strazzante, staff photographer, Chicago Tribune
Andy Biggs, freelance photographer
Robert Seale, freelance photographer
Tim Mantoani, freelance photographer
Corey Rich, freelance photographer

Then, I asked the same question on Twitter and got responses from, well, whoever responded. Their answers are posted here as well.

The Top 11 Things Photographers Wish They Learned in Photo School

11) How to treat others.
Treating other people with respect and compassion is not something any photo school can really teach. It has more to do with how you were raised by your parents. But one thing is for certain, it matters. Do you ever wonder how some photographers get better access or more cooperation that others? Do you ever wonder how some photographers can consistently find themselves in dangerous situations, yet always walk away unharmed? If you take a closer look, you might find that it has less to do with their photography skills, and more to do with how they treat other people.

“I feel like life’s best lessons are learned out of school. They are the ones about patience and compassion that take a person a lot farther than they may realize.” – Ami Vitale

10) How to maintain a balanced life.
It can happen to anyone, in any profession. One day you wake up and realize that you’ve been living a life that is 100% work, and little else. The pressure to succeed is so great that it’s easy to get caught in this trap. With photography, it’s important to maintain a balance, and open yourself up to as much creative stimuli as possible.

“Balance is the key to survival! One thing that school never prepared me for was to always keep your life in balance. It’s very easy to turn your life over to photography, or whatever passion you have. Always make time for family, friends and a cold beer on a hot porch. Preferably all three together!” – Brian Peterson

9) How to maintain an ethical standing in a changing photography business.
In photojournalism schools, the ethics of photography is a topic often discussed. It’s a subject that grows increasingly difficult as technology evolves. Early in their career, photographers need solid mental tools that will guide them through changes in both the industry and society.

“Another aspect that I would like to see more of in schools, is ethics of photojournalism. There are no rules here and many have crossed lines that are too blurry. More discussion and thought needs to be had early on.” – Ami Vitale

From Twitter:

@irockumentary: I would like to learn about music photography and its ethics

8) Where to find story ideas and things to photograph.
For many photographers, it’s a challenge to come up with self-generated assignments – especially those that the photographer has a deep long-term interest in. A common misconception is that you need to travel far away to find a meaningful story. Great images are all around us, and photographers need to be open enough to see them.

“What I really wished I had learned earlier was that the best stories are the ones that are right under your nose. The stories in your community. The stories that a photographer can shoot over weeks, months or even years.” – Scott Strazzante

7) You don’t have to be perfect.
Photographers fresh out of school are usually full of energy and have their eyes set on a bright future, and demand the absolute best from themselves. In a school environment, you study photo history and talk about the best of the best images ever created. It tends to set the personal expectation bar at a very high level – that everything needs to be perfect if you want to have a successful career.

“Do not be afraid of mistakes. They will be with you always,every time you put a camera to your eye. [If you] shoot safe, and don’t at least occasionally court disaster, you are not trying. Time to hang up the camera.” – Joe McNally

“Perfection is the enemy of excellence! As a student fresh out of college it’s very hard to accept anything but perfection in your work, in your publication or in your editors. It’s why many photographers are such a bitter bunch! This world is not perfect. Learn to accept good enough!” – Brian Peterson

6) How to keep your head up, navigate obstacles, and handle rejection.
Photographers have notoriously fragile egos, which makes rejection such a difficult thing to handle. How to handle rejection, and how to remain positive is something more suited to a therapist than a photo school. But it’s an important lesson to learn. Remember that you will face your share of rejection, and you will experience failure. A photographer needs to have confidence in themselves to carry-on regardless, yet still maintain an open mind so they can effectively convert failure into improvement.

“This is a long and winding road, filled with far more valleys than peaks. One of the greatest talents one can have in this business has nothing to do with visual acumen at the lens. It is about the ability to sustain, to weather the storms, to shoot poorly and still survive a job, to fight out of inevitable creative slumps, to live with all manner of risk that lots of folks would find uncomfortable, to make uncertainty your friend, and to thrive despite sudden curves and happenstance. I guess what I’m describing is tenacity. To love doing this so much that you’ll go through 1000 “no’s” just to hear the one ‘yes.'” – Joe McNally

“I wish that I had learned in photo school that commercial photography is a career choice like any other. It is fraught full of change, new decisions, entrepreneurial opportunities elsewhere, and is ultimately about reinvention both within photography and outside of it.” – Shannon Fagan

5) How to continue to evolve and grow your career.
Today, the industry changes so quickly, it’s easy to become out of date. New opportunities are born constantly, and photographers need to learn how to spot them, and have the courage to try something new. It’s easy to find success in a specific niche and get comfortable within it. But few realize that this niche won’t last forever, and that what works today won’t necessarily work tomorrow.

“I also wish I would have learned a little more about other aspects of the photo industry, in addition to being a photographer. Would have been nice to learn about different ways you could evolve your career over time.” – Michael Schwarz

“In photo school, I wish that I had learned what reinventing yourself really meant.

A recent flip through photo magazines from 1995 to 1999 (when I was in college) brought forth an entire host of names of persons who are no longer in our commercial photography business. Those who have chosen to stick with the career, have significantly changed their approaches to their photography over time. I have seen still lifer’s transformed into fashion photographers, editorial journalists turn into wedding documentarians, and ad guys/gals move into catalogs.

Some, perhaps many (as we really have little long term career tracking available to us), have departed shooting altogether to operate real estate ventures, consulting firms, legal entities, and other small businesses. I have learned that it is rare that commercial photographers stick with photography alone long term.

The skill sets are easily suited to other careers. I thought upon graduation from photo school that a career in photography meant that one’s primary skill set would be focusing a camera and understanding composition. I was so naïve! It is complete with all types of intelligent decision making from management, to strategic initiatives, to business development, and financial planning.” – Shannon Fagan

4) How to market myself, and my work.
Marketing is a mystery to most photographers. Contrary to popular belief, your images aren’t going to market themselves for you. You may be an amazing photographer, but if you don’t market yourself – nobody will ever know. Even an average photographer, with the right marketing efforts, can look better than they actually are — and end up with a successful career.

Photographers need to learn that marketing themselves is just as important as shooting the picture.

“I could have used a marketing class for photographers.” – Robert Seale

“I wish I had learned how to be a better marketer in the social networking age. It isn’t easy being active with helpful content 7 days a week, however this is how marketing in this age works if done successfully.” – Andy Biggs

“A portfolio class that specifically dealt with the methods/presentation for getting jobs and internships. We had lots of great instruction, but often didn’t know the format for applying for internships. For example, at the time, a newspaper portfolio was typically a page of 20 copy slides, with a separate caption sheet and resume… I didn’t figure this out until my senior year, and it cost me valuable Summer internship time.” – Robert Seale

From Twitter:

@fotodave: As for stuff i wished i learned? How to market my damm self.

@CarmenSisson: Marketing and financial planning.

@jasminedefoore: wish I had learned that there are many other jobs in photog besides shooting. No talk of being a rep, researcher, editor, etc

@irockumentary: …and also how to promote myself

3) It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.
Cameras and lenses, computer hardware and software, are required tools for photographers. But too often, photographers expect too much from their tools, and not enough from themselves. It’s important to remember that the equipment doesn’t make a photographer. Don’t expect the gear to do the heavy lifting.

“I really wish I had learned how to transcend technology trends and to let the creative side of photography shine through. This was something that took me a while to figure out, unfortunately. I am a geek at heart and I pay attention to the latest gadgets, gear and software, and many times those items shapes how my images look. The process should be the other way around.” – Andy Biggs

“While photography is an instant process, great images rarely happen this fast. While the act of capturing the image may take 1/60 of a second. The preparation, dedication, and determination to be there at that exact moment can take a lifetime.

Steve McCurry’s famous photo of the Afghan Girl on National Geographic took a fraction of a second to record on film, but without years of practice and without traveling 1/2 way around the globe on assignment, again and again, it would not exist. That image took hundred and hundreds of hours of Steve being behind the lens to make. Don’t let the capture device fool you. The act of owning a camera does not make you a photographer.” – Tim Mantoani

“While it’s important to experiment with new gear, it’s also important not to get caught into a trap with new gear. I once shot an entire assignment at the wrong flash sync speed simply because I used a brand new camera, and neglected to read the manual. My advice: stick with tried-and-true equipment for important assignments, and experiment on your own with new gear before you use it for something important.” – Corey Rich

From Twitter:

@satureyes: its not just about using the buttons and reading the manual – its applying & adapting the technical knowledge

@BespokePhoto: How to be a photographer instead of how to operate cameras

2) How to price their own work.
What is the value of an image? What’s the value of your time? What are you worth? How do you justify this to a client? Many photographers think that if they give their images away really cheap in the beginning, they’re making a smart business decision that will give them a competitive advantage over a more expensive photographer. After a while, the photographer realizes that they’re caught in a trap – they set the bar too low at the start, and are unable to raise prices later.

Photographers need to decide not to sell themselves short, and to be confident with that decision.

“Its never good to always be the lowest bid, if the client isn’t complaining a little about your prices, you aren’t charging enough.” – Casey Templeton

“No one will ever pay you more ‘the next time'”. As a young photographer, it is easy to get talked into shooting or selling a stock shot to someone that lures you in with the promise of what they will give you the next time. It rarely, if never, happens. Once you establish your worth, it is difficult to get more later. A photo credit in the gutter of a magazine in 6 point font won’t feed your family dinner. If it seems like a bad deal, it is a bad deal. Walk away. What we provide is of great value.” – Tim Mantoani

“I could have used a class on how to do estimates for corporate, editorial, and advertising jobs, with production expenses and usage. Also, the terminology for doing said estimates, and a negotiating techniques class.” – Robert Seale

“It is a much argued debate that creatives’ do not operate what are ultimately manufacturing operations not unlike a comparison to the automobile industry. I cite this argument however, as the pricing structures and operational controls to success are now very closely aligned with the methodologies associated with plant-like processes. Why do I wish that I had learned this in school? These types of processes have less to do with creative authority than they do with efficiency and service. The latter will be extremely important to full-time success for the next five to ten years of the commercial photographers’ profession. Democratization of creativity means that one image is as good as a next, and we now face price as the next obvious measurable metric to choice of photograph, and choice of photographer. A global recession helps fuel this, but it’s abatement won’t make this change go away.” – Shannon Fagan

“At times, the fees associated with photography may see particularly generous given the simplistic nature of a license transaction. What I have learned is, my core net profit must be maintained at a high enough level to mitigate the risks and high expenses associated with financial audits, workers compensation claims/audits, liability insurance coverages, and long term investments for career shift/retirement in an ever increasingly expensive, and inflation prone, society around me.” – Shannon Fagan

From Twitter:

@steveboylephoto: how to negotiate and image licensing

@karicollins: copyright and pricing strategies

@audreydodgen: How to bid, charge, invoice. How to have a successful business.

@richmerritt: negotiating pay. Invoicing. Client expectation management.

1) The realities of photography as a business.
This is the overwhelming item that comes in first place. Let’s face it, people who go to photo school do so to learn how to shoot pictures – not to do boring stuff like add numbers. Business practices are usually an afterthought – something that will eventually come later, on a need-to-know basis. This is a huge mistake.

The fact is, photography is a business. It’s fun and it’s creative, but it’s still a business. Luckily, you can learn much of what you need to learn by reading John Harrington‘s book, Best Business Practices for Photographers. More than 10,000 photographers have already read it.

“I wish somebody had told me that I would spend 95% of my time doing office tasks and only 5% of my time actually taking and processing photographs.” – Andy Biggs

“If I had to think of one thing, I wish school had taught more about the language of contracts, copyright law, and knowing how to navigate through the business side of things. Having talent and working hard is one side of being a photographer but you must also be a decent business person to continue the craft.” – Ami Vitale

“I never attended photo school but I’ve been running my business from the age of 17 and the most important lesson I have learned is that you have to be just as good of a business person as you are a photographer. The better business person you can be, the healthier you can keep the industry as a whole.” – Casey Templeton

“My education served me pretty well for the first 10 years of my career as a newspaper photographer, but as soon as I started freelancing I realized there was a lot more to learn. I needed to learn about pricing, running a successful business, rights, etc. Most of my early business education came from ASMP and some very kind and generous established photographers that were willing to share their knowledge with me. I try to do the same now with photographers who are just starting out.” – Michael Schwarz

“Winning against the competition isn’t about winning creative contests or choosing the perfect angle of view. From the top down, due to the internet’s global reach to every kind of content and creative endeavor imaginable, we are in the midst of a reinvention of what the competition is in our profession. It’s difficult for us to understand this as it is the first time that we’ve really ever had to encounter a time when it wasn’t the best picture that got first place. Social networking is changing who and what is important to us. Creativity is less valuable than cutting through the noise due to the democratization and sheer number of options available now. This is an exciting time for our profession. I wish that in photo school, that I had had the chance to study historical takes on industry challenges and low priced competitors entering marketplaces. Business 101 is now more important than ever, and yet, from a fundamental perspective, more irrelevant than ever.” – Shannon Fagan

“I could have used a basic small business class for photographers (accounting, tax prep, etc.) I’ve learned most of what I know about these things from Richard Weisgrau’s two books, John Harrington’s book, and from ASMP membership/white papers.” – Robert Seale

From Twitter:

@ccuttriss: business & marketing best practices. Seems like we all need an MBA to go with the camera :-/

@will_godfrey: how run a photo business

@jhenryphoto: the business side of freelance. marketing, book-keeping, etc.

@rodmarphoto: Business.

@jessstuart: wish we’d learned basic accting/mkting/business skills in j-school – would give writers & photogs base for successful freelancing

@surattb: How to be a lawyer and tax accountant.

@gawlowski: Business, business, business.

@mattmillsphoto: business of photography would have been great at sf state

@MarleneHielema: Business and marketing for photographers was missing in Ryerson when I went there in the 80’s

@bradmangin: I wish I would have learned about business and copyright in college. We were all prepped for newspapers- not for freelancing.

@josieliming: everything business related! Less time spent in the darkroom, more time with sales, marketing, the whole business side.

@TapiaPhoto: How to run my own business with real world exp

What lessons do you wish you would have learned in photo school? Please contribute to this story by adding your comments below.

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There are 16 comments for this article
  1. Konstantin Golovchinsky at 1:47 pm

    I went to Brooks Institute of Photography in 1988, and at the time, their unofficial platform was that they could teach anyone to take photos of nuts and bolts, but if you had an artistic side to you, well you could do better work. IMO a myopic view of photography. In addition, I don’t recall a single class about what it was like to BE a photographer rather than how to DO photography. In truth the latter hasn’t been a problem in a long time, but I struggle with the former to this day.

  2. Andre Friedmann at 5:31 pm

    Sales tax in New York State: how to do it right, how to be legit. To this day, I meet photographers trying to fly under the radar. I wish my professors did one comprehensive lesson plan about sales tax.

  3. Paul Go at 1:33 am

    My undergrad was in management, and I still struggle with running my business a lot of times. There’s a lot that we could’ve learned in school but until you’re in it, you won’t really grasp it. More than anything, I would’ve loved to have a mentor to just show me what I didn’t know that I didn’t know.

  4. Photogether at 11:03 am

    Self confidence and a belief in your own ability is key to success. Not arrogance as this means that you will not be willing to learn from others. If you have talent the important thing is to learn how to apply it to achieve your goals whether these are financial or not.

  5. Maddison at 2:24 pm

    Thank you for this! I’m in my junior year at my university, and between photography classes and marketing classes, I think this article may have taught me more than I’ve learned the past few years.

  6. brookland at 2:36 am

    Amen to pricing, marketing, and running a business. I’m just starting out and all those photo classes AND marketing classes are still leaving me stumbling. I’m glad I’ve got web design as a backup to pay the bills while I figure out these other things.

  7. Guy Reynolds at 11:11 pm

    3) It’s not the camera, it’s the photographer. Cameras and lenses, computer hardware and software, are required tools for photographers. But too often, photographers expect too much from their tools, and not enough from themselves. It’s important to remember that the equipment doesn’t make a photographer. Don’t expect the gear to do the heavy lifting. this may be off point but an above entry lauds someone in NYC for shooting with an iPhone. Then I found this #3 most important thing not learned in school. So Whoopdedoo! Why even bother telling anyone something was shot with an iPhone? Is it not about the image anymore? Did you say whether it was an F3 or an F2 in 1980? Or quite possibly someone was using a Minolta SRT-102 or a Pentax K1000 still. I guess we’re expected to lower the bar of expectation when told it’s an iPhone? Or what? Strip away the window dressing the the (un)Hipstamatic app slaps on there and get down to the essential content. It’s either good or it isn’t and imho it doesn’t matter one whit what it was shot with.

  8. Glenn Stokes at 2:20 pm

    I learn a lot about photography when I take a trip for a day, weekend, or even a week, and do NOT take a camera with me. I see, hear, smell, interact, learn. Being behind the lens all the time, or in front of the computer screen doing editing, can create a dividing line between me and the “outside world”. Just taking the time to live and enjoy helps me to gain a better appreciation for what images to record and how to go about recording them.

  9. Avonia Photography at 3:46 pm

    This perfectly links to a series of articles I am writing for aspiring photographers here in the Chicago area about “how to become a professional photographer”. On a weekly basis I receive dozens of inquires about “how to become a photographer”. Some from recent photography school students and some from individuals seeking a career change. Your article addresses much of the first and parallels many of my own experiences. Thank you for writing up something so detailed and in depth. In case you are interested my article series in on our studio site:

  10. serious2020 at 11:55 pm

    Mostly everyone here has said everything…I’m just starting out and trying to learn web design, pricing, marketing, more about my craft, etc by the seat of my pants. This is because a major public university has decided that its more cost effective to have only undergrads in their journalism department, so they kicked all the grad students out of the department. I’d like to know more about pricing – and what to say to people who insist that photographers should only be paid when they put their photographs up on their web sites – but not for their time / labor on a shoot…

  11. Lucky 17 Photography at 4:25 pm

    The thing that I’m learning now after years of doing this on my own is that although many of the industry’s best went to a specialized school or technical program for photography, going to a formal school is not necessarily a requirement for success. I am very much a self-taught photographer, and my ability grew from my curiosity and years and years and years of practice. I eventually sought some technical training in a part-time night school environment and continued to learn and experiment on my own. You have to have the WANT but you can definitely achieve your goals. The important thing to remember is it’s NEVER TOO LATE TO LEARN! Though I believe I’m beyond my full-time college days, I still actively seek out training sessions, seminars, books, online classes, webinars, tutorials… the works. So although we may have missed some things in “photo school,” it’s never too late to learn new skills. Ultimately we need to always continue to learn because in order to succeed in an increasingly digital age, we must adapt to a rapidly changing industry. Anyway, great post!! Really enjoying the Bootcamp!

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