No. You absolutely do not need a degree to be a professional photographer! No matter what anyone tells you, or how vehemently they insist that a degree will give you a platform from which to launch your career and that you’ll be set for life etc etc. You don’t need one. It is very possible you don’t even want a degree.

How do I know this? Because I have a degree. And it hasn’t been on my CV since I was 23. I wish I had spent the time and money on other things.

There are lots of industries where a degree is important, even essential. But in the creative industries, in general, degrees mean little or nothing.

That said, there are some degree courses that are well thought of in the industry and may actually help you get your first job. But they are very much the minority. There are very few photography or video production degree courses which will make you any more likely to land a job. But if you want to hear all the reasons why a degree is a good thing, head to the bottom of this article.

The bottom line

Here’s the bottom line: if you go to school, college, university and take a degree course, you are removing yourself from working life for three years. That means you’ve lost three years of potential valuable experience. And it means you’ve lost three years of pay. Not only have you lost three years a pay, but you’ve gained three years of tuition fees and accommodation fees.

Don’t get me wrong, the student life is great fun! And if you’re looking to just hold off real life for three years then this is definitely a great option for you. 

But, if you are dead set on a career in photography, or video production, or TV or film, then I am sorry to say but, in my opinion, you are wasting your time and money.

Learning for professional photography

Saying that you don’t need a degree does NOT mean you don’t need to learn. I would estimate that I spend probably 70% of my day, every day, learning in some form or other. 

I learn from clients, I learn from other photographers, I learn from photography stores, or magazines, or colleagues or co-workers or hired help or models. Every single person in the world has their own different experience and we can all learn a little from everyone we meet.

But the fact of the matter is, I am ALWAYS learning. And I will never stop learning. Because it is impossible to know everything.

But I’m not learning from books. Or not always, I do have some books and they are useful, but I don’t read them to study. Because learning, for a professional photographer, is not about learning theory. It’s about learning everything!

The learning ratio

In my life as a photographer I would say my learning has followed roughly the following ratios:

  • 2%– learning about other photographers and their styles so that I can follow conversations with clients where famous photographers are mentioned
  • 2%– learning how to accurately dissect a photograph taken by someone else
  • 1%– the history of photography and photographers
  • 10%– learning the technical aspects of photography (camera functions, image compression, algorithms that make photoshop work etc.)
  • 85%– learning how to deal with every single situation that I may be faced with as a professional photographer so that I will NEVER fail to deliver on a client brief.

I’ve done some real soul searching and I fully believe that the above ratio of time spent learning to be accurate. 

What does it mean?

And here’s the message from that…

Those first three rows there are what a degree course will give you – history, analysis of styles, dissecting of historic images.

You may be able to find a course which teaches you the fourth line as well – the technical aspects of photography. But there’s an issue with that: any of those elements that I would have learned when I did my degree (1998-2001) would be completely obsolete by now. So those elements in a degree course have a very short shelf life.

The final line on there – 85% of my time learning in photography – is about never being caught out. You can’t read this stuff in books, no lecturer can help you with this. This is all about you, and your brain, and you style and your personal kit.

Here’s a great example. 

Maybe 6 months ago I had a shoot planned. A tricky, beautiful location had been accessed, booked and paid for, props had been gathered, assistant booked. The clients had been sent a call sheet. Everything was ready.

I spent the evening prepping my kit, making sure I had everything. I double checked the lighting plan and I checked all my lights. It was a relatively complicated lighting set up, from memory it was 7 strobes.

My main light was going to be two flash heads combined in a 7ft parabolic mirror feathered across the foreground. I then had an array of lights as edge lights, fill lights, and lighting for the background.

I got to the location and we started to set up. All was going fine until I went to set up my key light. I put the two flash heads on the stand, hooked them up to a single trigger, opened up the parabolic and lined everything up.

Then I went to put the diffuser on the 7ft parabolic… but I couldn’t find it.

I emptied every bag and box, but nothing. I had let my assistant pack up after the last shoot and I hadn’t double checked the diffuser in the bag before the shoot. Yet another mistake that I will only make once.

I had a different assistant today. I tried ringing the other assistant, no answer. F**k.

Problem Solving

I absolutely could not use the 7ft parabolic with no diffuser. The light would have been horrible. That was not the plan at all.

I had other modifiers, but the scene was wide and they would have been too small to give the balance I wanted.

Now here’s a quirky thing that I always do. I really couldn’t tell you how or when it started. For some reason I have always done this and I always will. In my general lighting kit I always carry one king size white bedsheetand one king size black bedsheet.

I also, much less weirdly, have a handful of clips in one of my kit boxes. The sheet is fairly thin, and cheap, which was perfect. I rigged it up around the edge of the 7ft parabolic, upped the flash heads by a stop each, and boom. Problem solved.

Here’s the image:

Portrait of New Bristol Brewery owners taken in the A-bond warehouse in Bristol, using a sheet as a key light modifier! - BudgetProPhoto
Portrait of New Bristol Brewery owners taken in the A-bond warehouse in Bristol, using a sheet as a key light modifier! – BudgetProPhoto

This one has picked up a couple of awards along the way. It turned out well, I like it. And the main key light is diffused with a bedsheet. 

I don’t think you’ll find a degree course that teaches that.

And here is a shot that shows the sheet!!

Using a sheet as a modifier - not ideal, but it worked! - BudgetProPhoto
Using a sheet as a modifier – not ideal, but it worked! – BudgetProPhoto

Improvising

My point here is this – when you have a big job, your adrenaline is going to be pumping. You’re going to feel the stress of everyone on set looking at you for instructions and answers. And you’re going to feel the immeasurable pressure of trying not to let anyone see that your stressed.

In situations like this, just like top sportsmen and women, you go into autopilot a bit. Your brain can get scrambled with the pressure, and you rely on muscle memory and intuition to get you through. Just like a sports person, a pro photographer has to rely on his experience to get him through.

In a situation like the one above there’s no right thing to do. By the time you get onto location without a key piece of equipment, you’ve already messed up. There’s no complete recovery available to you. But you haveto fix the problem.

Firefighting

I’ve experienced similar catastrophic problems in all areas of the industry that I work in – photography, video production, film and broadcast TV.

I once had a crew travel from the UK to the southern tip of Chile, only to find when they went to set up cameras on day one that a miscommunication between the admin staff and the camera crew meant that they had no media cards to shoot on.

Fortunately I had worked with a cameraman a Punta Arenas a few years before that shoot, so I was straight on the phone to him. We faked a camera malfunction and told the client we were bringing in a local guy with a spare part, so we didn’t have to admit to the unforgiveable mistake that had been made. 

My cameraman friend arrived the next morning with his own media cards which he was going to loan us for the shoot. We lost maybe two hours filming, and the client to this day has no idea.

Experience is everything

The fact of the matter is that being a pro photographer is about 1/8 talent, 1/8 being good at selling yourself, 1/8 being good with people and 5/8 being able and willing to do whatever it takes to deliver every time, no matter what situation you are presented with.

And of those fractions, you can’t get ANY of them in college!

Here’s my story, very briefly…

I stayed in college until I was 18, got above average grades, then got a place at a British university studying environmental science. Originally I applied to do psychology, but didn’t get the grades. 

I was offered a place on the environmental science course and I took it. My parents had drilled into me that I hadto have a degree, no matter what! So in my young, naïve head I was better off spending three years getting a degree than spending it in the real world. No matter what degree that might be.

After I got my degree I did a few part-time jobs, a few full-time temporary jobs, and made a bit of money. But after pulling a few sick days in those temp jobs, probably because I was hung over and couldn’t get myself out of bed, I had to acknowledge the fact that I needed a job that I enjoyed. I wasn’t going to be a “work the week to live at the weekends” kind of guy. I needed to enjoy the weekdays, or I was in danger of just never showing up.

Know yourself

I needed to get a job that I enjoyed. Or I would be a terrible employee. 

So I looked around, did some work experience, examine the options. Six months after that I was working as a runner in a TV studio. Two years on from that I was an assistant producer with a documentary crew travelling the world. 10 years on from that I am a freelance documentary director, commercial photographer and video producer.

Notice anything missing from that potted history? That’s right, anything to do with environmental science!

I do have a CV, although it doesn’t get used very much these days. Most clients either know me by reputation, or are already aware of the projects I completed. My degree was on my CV for maybe two years. But to include a CV a degree on a CV these days just looks naïve and childish.

So was all that money wasted? I got a bit lucky, I did my degree back in the late 90s when tuition fees were minimal, student loans were cheap and easy to come by, and I had a part-time job during my studies. So I came away with barely £10,000 worth of debt. Compared to modern students, that is nothing.

Do I regret it? Yes I do. I do regret it. What I regret is not the money. What I regret is the time. 

If I knew then what I know now I would have told my 18 year old self that the best possible thing I could have done at that stage was get a job, get a camera, and get started. Three whole years of valuable experience.

18-25 are the most valuable years of your career

Those years, from age 18 to age 21, are prime, ripe, essential learning and experience years. The older you get, the more weary your brain becomes. Your life also gets really complicated really quickly. 

Today my brain is not as agile as it once was. And I now have a wife, and mortgage and two kids. I love all of those things (I don’t love the mortgage, but I love our home) but they absolutely dictate my life. When you get older you are no longer completely free to do what you want every minute of every day. I am not complaining about that, it is my choice to commit to my wife and family. But from a learning and experience point of view it completely restricts how you gain experience.

When I was 18 if someone had said to me “here’s a plane ticket, I need you to go to Guatemala and photograph an indigenous group”, I could have taken the ticket and been on a plane within two hours. I didn’t need to discuss it with anyone, I didn’t need to consider the consequences. 

Life gets complicated!

Now, especially right now (with two kids under three), even if someone offered me an all-expenses-paid, five-star, ultra-luxury trip to the Maldives, during which I had to take two photographs and they would pay me tens of thousands of dollars for each one… I would have to say no. Because I can’t leave my kids, I can’t leave my wife alone to raise the family.

This wasn’t supposed to be a rant and rave about me, and my regrets or otherwise. But I think it’s important for an 18 year old, with his life ahead of him, to hear other people’s stories. Don’t just listen to mine and make a decision. Listen to mine, and listen to others, take in every experience you can from every other person available, and bring them all together to inform your decision.

But my advice to someone planning a career in a creative industry would be-don’t get a degree. Get out in the world and get three years of good solid experience instead.

The benefits of a degree

Ok, I feel so much better now I’ve got that off my chest! Wow.

There ARE benefits to getting a degree.

One huge benefit of my degree was that it kept me away from a bad reputation while I was a young, stupid asshole. I am happy to admit it, I was a fool when I was 18. A lot of people are. And becoming a student during your foolish years means you’re not doing yourself or your reputation any damage. 

If you are like me, and you can’t really trust yourself yet, by all means drop a few k on a bachelors.

Kudos

If you’re not an idiot and you could actually make a good go of a career at your young age, then there are a few more things to consider before you turn your back on education.

One degree that is well thought of amongst photographers is a fine artdegree. But it is well thought of because it’s NOT a photography degree.

Photography is an art form, but it’s an art form which many people don’t really take too seriously. There is a chasm between photographers and artists, and on the far side are people who are both photographers and real artists.

PDN ran their annual feature this month on the 30 up and coming photographers of the year (click here to take a look). Just over half of them have some fine-art based study that they proudly give top billing on their resume. (interesting to note that of these top 30, 4 are listed as “self-taught”, meaning they didn’t take any kind of course).

The reason is that fine art studies in the world of photography carries KUDOS.

Studying and working at the same time

If you are going to take a degree course, then you can reduce how much time you waste, and how much money you burn, by working as you go.

The jobs that you do while studying, even if it’s assisting or maybe being an apprentice at a studio, is good and valuable experience.

Sadly for everyone, student projects are NOT considered good experience. So listing those as work experience on your resume won’t go down well. The problem is that there is no way of knowing just how incredibly awful that student project was. And some of them are truly terrible.

Student projects also give you zero real-world experience of being a photographer. The pressures are completely different, and so many of the skills you need as a real pro photographer are not required to complete a student project.

But if you get out there and get a proper job while studying, that IS good experience and it counts!

To summarize…

Where does all this leave us? It leaves us with three important messages:

  1. A degree is all but meaningless.
  2. You are going to spend your entire working life learning, so you may as well start that process today and do it while earning money AND valuable experience.
  3. Degree or no degree, the difference between success and failure is how much hard work you are prepared to put in.

All that is left for you to is tear up that university application and get out there and start studying the real life of a photographer!

Not sure you can do it? Check out our article here on the mindset required to become a working pro photographer.

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