Photography College: Should You or Shouldn’t You Go

When young photographers are starting out and beginning to learn the technical craft of photography, there seems to be a lot of confusion on whether or not photography college is the right choice. I get a ton of emails asking me whether or not I think it’s important to go to college and/or to get a degree in photography.

Honestly it’s one of those questions only you can answer. Everybody is different and everyone learns in their own way. For some people, college is an important, integral part of their growing process and really want to participate in that kind of schooling process. Others are more self-motivated and learn better by doing. Experience is their best teacher and they flourish without the restraints of a school environment, all aspects of it including peer pressure and social mine fields. I can tell you about my experience and you can use that insight to help determine your own destiny but I, in no means whatsoever, would ever assume I know what’s best for you. So while I’m eager and happy to share my story, I suggest asking a lot of different people their opinion and do your research. One person’s perspective is not enough when you’re really on the fence about something this important and life changing.

I was 17 when I decided to become a professional fashion photographer. While I had the inspiration and the vision and the ideas, I had a very tough time mastering the technical aspect of photography. So in other words, I had the concepts, I just didn’t know how to execute them technically to see the results. And I was probably weakest in lighting. Composition and angles, I was pretty good at as well exposure and depth of field. I got that stuff fairly easily on my own by reading books and experimenting. But lighting!! That was a killer.

I put together a portfolio in high school and got accepted into Otis/Parsons in Los Angeles for my first year of college. I was really eager to learn how to light and then I was pretty much going to go out and conquer the world, or so I thought. I had a father that was willing to pay for Art College. If you don’t have financial help and you’re going to have to take out loans or work part time to put yourself through school, that’s something to consider. Because the work load is going to be tough and holding down a job that can support you is going to be even tougher. And student loans are a bitch to pay off. So that’s one thing to really take into consideration when considering photography college.  In my family, education and college were very important. My father went to USC and he was very proud of his Alma Mater. So he was willing to pay for me to get a college education and a diploma. In saying this, let me assure you, that these things have never held importance to me. ( I told you, I was always the rebel kid). But I knew for myself, that the discipline of school and the fact that I HAD to show up and I HAD to participate was going to be the catalyst to me learning the craft. I am not a very disciplined person. I needed the pressure of keeping a GPA and I needed the stimulation and competition from my peers to improve and challenge myself to work harder and thus proving results by doing good work.  So after my first year at Otis/Parsons, I got accepted into The Art Center College of Design. Now this was back in 1984 when the school was tough to get into and even tougher to stay in. It was not only very expensive, even back then, but it had a grueling work load. I mean, the school opened at 7 AM and closed its gates at 11PM, I think, and I honestly was in school that many hours, 6 days a week, during my first year there. I had no social life, I had to break up with a boyfriend about half way through my first term, I never saw or hung out with friends outside of my classmates, I was busy!! But I’ll tell you something: I learned. And I learned a lot. Especially about lighting.

 Art Center Campus

Art Center Campus

But I can also tell you, that first year of lighting classes were not about lighting beautiful models. I was lighting toasters and wine glasses and shiny metal objects and occasionally my classmates. I carried 7 classes my first term and we had an assignment due every week from every class. If the assignment was rejected on the critique wall then we had to re-do that assignment, plus get the new assignment in by the following week. It was daunting. We worked hard at Art Center back in those days. I’m not sure how difficult it is now. I’ve heard that they aren’t as tough in the admissions process. Back then, it took me 3 tries to get in. My work was deemed too “avant-garde” and they wanted me to take some night classes in lighting to get accepted. I did what it took to get in there because I knew that I lacked the technical skills to master my concepts and I would learn those skills at Art Center. I also have to say that back in those days, there were only a handful of good photography colleges to choose from. There was Brooks InstituteRISD (Rhode Island School of Design)Pratt and Parsons. Nowadays, with the digital explosion and everyone including half of their family wanting to be a photographer, there are photography colleges everywhere! I mean, I’m blown away at how many photography colleges and schools there are out there. I mean, how do you choose? Do you want a degree? Do you just want some basic classes to hone your skills? Do you need a degree? Is it important to actually go to school?

At the end of the day, your images in your portfolio are what get you the job, not your diploma.
— Melissa Rodwell

Okay, so here’s the low down. While Art Center is a very prestigious school and I’m grateful to my father for footing that extravagant bill (he spent around $100K and that was between 1984-1987). Yeah, a truckload of money. You got that right. But no one has ever asked me to produce that diploma that made my father so proud! I’ve been asked if I went to school, but no one has asked for proof of my diploma.

Did I become a better photographer because I went to school?

Well, yes. I did.

Did Art Center prepare me for the “real world” out here?

No, it didn’t. Nothing does but cold, hard experience.

If I had it to do over again, would I go?

My first question would be, who’s paying? If I had to pay that kind of money to put myself through photography school, I couldn’t go. In my early twenties, which is when I attended, I didn’t have that kind of money and with the workload, it would’ve been impossible to work and go to school.

So my short answer to anyone asking whether or not they should go to college is:

  • Can you afford it?
  • Can you live and eat while going to school?
  • Are you going to be taking out massive loans to put yourself through college?
  • My last question would be, How important is getting a diploma?

Like I said earlier, my father wanted me to get a diploma because education was important to him. But if you’re serious about becoming a professional photographer, having a diploma doesn’t amount to much. At the end of the day, your images in your portfolio are what get you the job, not your diploma. If you need the discipline of school to learn, then school would be a good option. If you’re motivated to go out and experiment and learn on your own, you don’t need school. I would recommend to anyone who’s just starting out to assist a pro photographer and learn from them. You can pick up lighting setups and learn technical skills right there on the job AND you’re earning money instead of paying someone to teach you. At the very least, intern for someone and work part time so you can learn from a pro and then your part-time job can support you while you’re learning. Another great way to learn where you don’t have to spend the money for a degree is workshops. It’s a small investment and you can learn from the pros. It doesn’t have to necessarily be fashion oriented either. You can learn lighting and exposure through a lot of the weekend or even week-long workshops being offered worldwide these days. DVD’s and tutorials are another great way to learn. Blogs, the internet, websites, there are literally thousands of them out there giving great tips and advice on lighting and technical knowledge.

Nothing beats learning through experience.

It’s really up to you and your financial situation. My personal story is that I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have a father who paid for me to go to college. But I kept learning out of school and nothing beats learning through experience. And school ultimately did not prepare me for the real world of commercial/fashion photography. School can’t even begin to teach one how to deal with the politics and the marketing and the ins and outs of developing relationships with clients. That education is learned through the school of hard knocks. And I will say that I have met plenty of professional photographers who did not go to college. They are self-taught and have done absolutely great in their careers. So do your homework, research the schools you’re thinking of attending, figure out how much money it’s going to take to get through school and live at the same time and then make a sound decision based on all of the above to decide if college is indeed something you need or if you can learn through assisting, workshops, DVD’s and experience! And best of luck to all of you out there trying to make this important decision!

Melissa Rodwell