Friday 26 April 2013

A degree in photography- is it really worth it?

A harsh headline, but let me explain.

A friend from the television world who has a light smattering of photographic experience asked me a question this week.

How do I go about opening doors and getting meetings?

How indeed.

I regard this as an art more than a science, which occupies an increasing amount of my own day.

I was mulling over what answer to give when my friend then inquired if going back to university would increase their chances?

Education is a good thing, but not at any price, and not when it is seen a passport to a job in the photographic industry.

Knowledge of photography, being a good photographer, and getting a job as a photographer are three very different and distinct things.

Having lots of photographic knowledge, and being a good photographer in no way guarantee you a place in the photographic industry.

Likewise I know some very, very successful photographers whose photographic knowledge is patchy at best, and sometimes their photographic eye is not the best either.

If you are going to university to gain further knowledge, fine.

If you are going to university to put you in a better position to get a job, I believe you could spend your time and money much more effectively.

Let me try to unravel this photographic knowledge/good photographer/working photographer knot.

The photographic industry is an industry like any other, subject to the rules of supply and demand.

There is much, much more supply than demand, which in turn drives the price of photography down.

Another working photographer friend of mine told me a statistic which put all this into perspective.

In Greater London he said there are more than 60,000 people offering their services as professional photographers.

A number which is roughly equal to the number of employees of General Motors in the whole of Europe.

How has this happened?

Going to university to learn something that was very complex and where you had to be precise, exposing medium format transparency to an accuracy of 1/3 of a stop, and creating effects in camera made a great deal of sense, something I wish I had done.

But quantum leaps in technology has led to a widespread democratisation of photography.

You no longer NEED to know about F-Stop's and shutter speeds to take a beautiful photograph, reaching into your pocket for a smart phone will put your hand on a remarkable device capable of great results.

I know of more than one pro photographer who has work shot on their iPhone in their portfolio to show clients (they sure as anything don't tell them this!)

Let me be clear, I'm not actually saying this is a bad thing, nor a good thing but it is the world we live in and better start getting used to it, smart phones are going to get better all the time.

Consider this scenario, which I know for a fact has happened repeatedly.

40 something person fed up of the day job in a high paying career, is quite handy with a DSLR and sees a career in photography as the way out. Only yesterday I overheard a conversation at a cafe where someone was telling their mate they had given up their day job to become a pro photographer 'you know portraits, landscapes that sort of thing'

These were the actually words used too.

Some people who leave their day job do very well, who are they and why do they do well?

The winners are the shooters who are connected, who know people in positions of power to commission.

Some real illustrations of this.

A call to me out of the blue which paraphrased was 'I have just landed a major job for a major multinational but I don't know how to do it, what do you suggest?'

Owners of a London studio sometimes have to light massive budget shoots for photographers who have landed the job of their life and don't know to light at all.

An enquiry to shoot an annual report for a very successful company NOT to shoot an annual report but to oversee employees who are 'excellent photographers' whom the company has bought the latest and greatest camera gear for. I kid you not.

All of this in 2013 too.

I am in no way rubbishing University degrees, I just feel that the money spent on a photography degree over 3 years, (up to £9000 a year plus living costs) could in-fact be money much better spent if you do want to be a full time pro photographer.

There is the moral issue too of churning out more photographic graduates that the industry can feasibly employ.

The best one can do to break in is to shoot something you know and love, or at the very least have a strong interest in and build on that.

It will take time, possibly years but you will build a cohesive body of work and crucially it will start to put you in touch with people who may actually commission, you will be learning as you go too.

We live in an age of dazzling digital possibilities, with endless and free ways of promotion, all you need to do is to apply this to something where there is actually a market which will sustain you financially.

This may or may not be in photography.


Isaiah Brookshire said...

Great thoughts on this industry and what it takes to make it. I think the thing I would add is that getting a degree of some sort (business, marketing, etc.) could be extremely advantageous to your career as a photographer. Not only do you have something to fall back onto when times are tough, you also have skills that can help you grow your business. To me, really successful photographers know that creating a photograph is only the first step to working as a photographer. I think the thing that often separates the pros from the massis of "decent" photographers is the pros' understanding that what they do is a business, not a hobby. If you're interested, I dive a little deeper into these ideas on my blog.

Libby said...

"It will take time, possibly years but..."

Yes no one wants to hear this part. And the bail outs on jobs? Yes, I have done them. That and retouch after the fact when there was a total cockup. Sometimes my retouch bill was as much as the shooting fee, and they had to eat it.

Here in the US we have the weekend warrior and the MWC - Mom With Camera. I know of one woman who almost put the family into bankruptcy buying gear to solve her shooting deficiencies. Didn't work.

Networking for success? Absolutely. And it doesn't happen with tweets, it happens face to face and via direct contacts.

On education, all depends on where you want to go with it. For museum/curation work, yes it's needed. For fine art, documentary,studio shooting - take business courses and supplement with all of the art additions that you can. Because in studio shooting, nothing ever happens the same way twice.

The money clients are more discerning and they're getting smarter. They're after a look, and your ability to accept challenges and solve problems. In commercial work, there's no saying "I can't shoot that."

Unknown said...

Really good point from Isaiah a degree in something other than photography is more than advantage.

Libby's (aka ohnostudio) words should really be born in mind if you are thinking of turning pro

'The money clients are more discerning and they're getting smarter. They're after a look, and your ability to accept challenges and solve problems'

So true.


Doggy Dan (Loading... please wait) said...

If you are serious about making money with photography, is a great place to start. It has easy, step-by-step instructions that I used to earn money from my photography. Highly recommended to anyone who loves to take pictures while making some cash with the hobby!