Do You Need a Photo Degree to Be a Successful Photographer?

Do You Need a Photo Degree to Be a Successful Photographer?

As the recipient of a great education (thanks in no small part to my parents), I’m always fascinated by discussions of how college influence what we do and achieve later in life. As a music major, I could have never fathomed that I would one day become an entrepreneur, and when I think back to college, it had very little to do with the acquisition of technical knowledge, and more about being exposed to a wide range of subjects, people, and social situations.

And thus I read Joseph Gamble’s essay on the 50th Annual Society of Photographic Education’s National Conference piece with more than a passing interest – an essay in which he interviewed photographic educations, and then came to the conclusion that the “pros” outweighed the “cons” 8 to 3.

My position isn’t meant to be a cynical look at photographic education, but we must acknowledge that there was massive selection bias in talking to people whose livelihoods depend on a constant study body. So let me provide a constructive counterpoint.

First, I agree that being immersed in a subject and surrounded by others who are also immersed is invaluable. When you live and breathe photography on a daily basis, and your peers and instructors are pushing you to do more, it’s almost impossible to regress. Students who are particularly introspective will gain an enormous advantage from regular “crits.” But photography isn’t organic chemistry. It doesn’t require beakers and exotic chemicals (anymore). A $500 DSLR and a copy of Photoshop will generally suffice. You can do an awful lot of experimentation and self-directed study with simple motivation, despite what the pundits say about having access to expensive lighting equipment and a studio.

Photography is also somewhat unique as a profession in that most practioners are sole proprietors immediately after graduation. When you work at McDonald’s or Google, you are a cog in the machine who is responsible for a specific component of success. Flip the burgers, write the code, cash a paycheck. The extinction of the staff photographer job has made this scenario virtually impossible for the recent graduate. The freelance photographer is responsible for every aspect of their success.

When I joined an Internet start-up right out of school, we were four people, but I wasn’t responsible for incorporating the company, filing taxes, or submitting the payroll. I was just responsible for helping to create a website. As the years went on, and we became more successful, I assumed I knew everything about business. But when we started PhotoShelter, and I was suddenly the boss, I realized how little I knew.

Suddenly, I wished I had taken a business or marketing class in school, or paid more attention at my previous company. It took me several years to understand that our success was as much a function of marketing as it was of our technology. Customer service, social media, DMCA takedowns – it was a steep learning curve, and quite honestly, without a great team around me, I don’t know that the company would have survived with my spartan knowledge.

That brings us back to the photographer. I suppose that pedigree is marginally beneficial, but in truth, I’ve never hired a photographer because of the school he/she went to. I hire on reputation and portfolio. Similarly, I’ve talked to dozens of photographers who have revealed how little they know about business, and many of them have told me that their schools didn’t offer relevant business or marketing instruction (or they didn’t pay attention).

The challenge is that “business” is not only boring academically, but it’s very abstract. When you don’t have to worry about your next paycheck or paying for your camera because you have a student loan, you have very little time for such frivolity as business. But freelancing is a fact of life for millions of people in today’s economy, and thus understanding how to build business success is imperative. So I would challenge educators to build curriculums around the following.

Before graduation, make your students:

  • Create an LLC. There are dozens of online services that are relatively inexpensive.
  • Open a business bank account so that they learn the value of separate account and accounting.
  • Use the NPPA’s cost of doing business calculator to estimate a daily “cost” so they understand how to price their labor without going out of business.
  • Build a marketing plan that identifies a) their target market, 2) activities that will help them reach that market, and 3) an estimation of time per week spent with each marketing activity.
  • Talk about business use cases on a weekly basis.
  • Make sure they have a very functional understanding of web technologies and analytical packages so that they can make data-driven decisions.
  • Bring in small business owners and entrepreneurs to talk to your students, so that they begin to understand the challenges of running a business.

Photographers too often fall back on the excuse that “we’re visual people” and “we don’t get this business stuff.” That, my friends, is a perfect attitude for failure. My best advice is to never major in photography (a minor is fine). But knowing that this is an impossibility, both students and teachers alike will help the profession by making sure that it is viewed as a profession, and not a hobby. And the barometer for that success is staying in business.

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 13 comments for this article
  1. Luiz Rampelotto at 8:34 am

    NO!!! You don’t need a degree in photography to b a good photo guy! I have Work for Europa Newswire at the UN for 8 years. I’m the owner of one of the Largest Photo Library about the UN in the world. The best part ! I never spend any $$ in Classes. Every thing I know I learn working along side great International photographers at UN..

  2. Dan Carroll at 8:44 am

    One thing I learned while working in marketing….”Good marketing can sell a bad product but bad (or no) marketing cannot sell a good product”.

  3. Brad Strickland, M.Ed. at 8:52 am

    Just like there is more than one way to navigate Adobe software, there are many ways to learn photography. I have volunteered for several years and taught myself. There are some like Luiz that have a great opportunity fall in their lap. Others are not as fortunate. I also read over and over again about those in the corporate world being burnt out and leaving it all for a career as a photographer. Like Allen said, their corporate background definitely gives them an advantage, especially with their networking connections and probably enough savings to cash in to buy the higher grade cameras and lenses. Ansel Adams father worked at an observatory so he had the benefit of his father’s knowledge when it comes to light and also was taught how to hike in the mountains by his uncle. Classes are great to prepare yourself and see where the bar is but you are still going to need a break to get in a field with so much competition and not to mention so many people out of work now.

  4. Paul Chong at 9:37 am

    I believe photography is more like a tool in which we use to support a living. But to be successful as a photographer in business, that’s a whole lot different story. This is where the skills of marketing, salesmanship, financial planning all comes to play. Without them, the business is not going to sustain long.

  5. Shane Tyler Adams at 11:41 am

    While any good education is a good idea, indoctrination isn’t necessarily the same thing. Too many “photography degrees” do not delve far enough into the history of visual expression.
    Additionally there are huge gaps in business training, to be sure, and business success is different from artistic success. Neither is co-located or correlated.

    If you are setting out to be a successful commercial photographer, your business skills will do more for you – assuming you have an aesthetic vision. So a photo degree? No. Business training? Yes. But you have to have the product. The technical side of photography can be learned fairly quickly – as a craft, it is not as demanding as others. But to develop an artistic sensibility so that you have an actual product to sell will require more than what MOST photography degrees will offer. One would do better to study fine art, design, music, literature, the humanities etc…, and yes, business.

  6. A.J.Scalzitti at 12:42 pm

    I don’t think you need one, but it obviously isn’t a bad idea. There are many way to gain education or even apprenticeships, the key is to want to improve and not skip the basics. I have met many good photographers without formal education, however I have met more who don’t know how anything works. Professionals who don’t know how to setup their lights and they would be lost without their assistants.

    Never think you are good enough and act like there are 20 hungry predators right behind you – the truth is there are probably more…

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  9. Paul Metzgar at 4:10 pm

    Fantastic article! I just recently graduated college but had to make this choice a few years ago. Every full time pro I knew at the time suggested I major in anything other than photography, so with this in mind I chose Business Management with a concentration in Entrepreneurship and a minor in Marketing. This was without a doubt the BEST thing I could have done for my photography career. Why? Because first and foremost we are business owners (whether we want to be or not). Not to say a business degree is a requirement to be successful, but I would argue for most photographers it would do a lot more benefit than a photography degree would.

  10. ELENA OLMAN at 7:18 pm

    I am new to free-lance photography. Do you have any recommendations of where I can access some helpful information on starting a professional photography business and tax information.

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  12. nina at 11:09 am

    I would love to get any advice about becoming a photographer. From what type of camera that needs to be purchase to how to take good quality pictures. Iam 16 years old please help me out .

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